Misapprehension OF Fulani Leadership In Northern Nigeria

Misapprehension OF Fulani Leadership In Northern Nigeria

By Dr Nasir Aminu


In my recent visit to The National Archives in London, I came across a declassified Colonial Office file that recorded several discussions on the Status of Fulani Emirs in Northern Nigeria. These exchanges happened between 1937 and 1938. The file included communications between the new High Commissioner of Northern Nigeria, Sir Theodore Samuel Adams, and the Governor of Nigeria (1935-1943), Sir Bernard Henry Bourdillon. The information is relevant to the present-day discussions which can debunk a lot of conspiracy theories on Fulanisation and Islamisation of Nigeria.

The establishment of the Nigerian Colonial Government happened over 100 years after the Sokoto caliphate was established. The British met a diverse Northern region with Fulani-led Muslim Emirate and non-Muslim communities living together, without any agenda of religious dominance. For the sake of convenience, Lord Lugard developed the ‘Principles of Indirect Rule’ on how the administration of the Northern region would be conducted.

T. S. Adams arrived as the High Commissioner of Northern Nigeria from Malaya in 1936 with little experience of the Northern region. Based on his previous experience in South-East Asia, he raised a few questions to the Governor, B. H. Bourdillon. In his letter to the colonial office in Downing Street London, Bourdillon assured to address all the questions of the High Commissioner. He also suggested that Nigeria’s political culture is different from that of Malaya. As promised, Governor responded to all his questions in his inaugural speech at the opening of the Northern Provinces Residents Conference 1937.

For conciseness and context, I will be discussing one question regarding the administration of non-Muslim communities in Northern Nigeria. Although Bourdillon’s initial thoughts on the questions raised by the High Commissioner appear to be nonsense. However, in addressing his question, Bourdillon accepted that a certain amount of misapprehension exists in the administration of non-Muslim communities in the North that he referred to as pagans. Of course, one can also connect this misapprehension to the present day. He noted that Lord Lugard was perfectly clear on this point. He said:- we should aim to develop among them (non-Muslim communities) the same measure of self-government as is accorded to the Muslim States.

Bourdillon went on to make a further reference to some of the Emirs that realised the position of Lord Lugard. He referred to the letter written in 1913 by the then Emir (Lamido) of Yola, Muhammad Abba bi Baba Ahmadu (1910-1924), to which his Waziri, Abdulkadir Pate (1891-1924), added the following postscript:- As the British govern us through ourselves, so we must govern the non-Muslim communities through their own chiefs. The Governor was clear that what the Emir of Yola and his Waziri saw in 1913 were correct. In his commendation to the Fulani Emirs, he pointed that he had no reason to think that the standard of intelligence of the Emirs had gone down over the years.

The Governor was also assertive in defence of his predecessor, Sir Donald Charles Cameron (1931-1935), because it was alleged that he opposed the inclusion of non-Muslim communities within the Fulani Emirate. He confirmed that Cameroon was not against the inclusion of non-Muslim communities within an Emirate – because he included specific communities from the Plateau province in the Zaria Emirate. As of then, the communities were demonstrating a sense of self-governance which was part of the objectives of the Colonial government.

He also linked paragraph 62 of the “Principle of Indirect Rule” in his point of reference to justify the willingness of the non-Muslim communities to live within the Fulani Emirates. Although the paragraph does not explicitly mention non-Muslims and the Fulani Emirates, it clearly envisages the possibility of amalgamating non-Muslims in Emirates if they “show a disposition favourable to amalgamation”. The Governor agreed with his predecessor in principle but was cautious.  He rightly predicted that occasions might arise where a historical association and the wishes of the people themselves render the removal of non-Muslim communities from an Emirate undesirable.

The Governor justified that the Fulani Emirates and non-Muslim communities could understand each other better than how the colonial government understands them. In an example of Gwoza and Asigashiya in the Dikwa Emirate, he imagined that a Fulani herder could understand, get closer, and be more sympathetic than the colonial government.

Finally, the Governor emphasised that wherever a tribal authority exists, recognisable and acceptable to the people themselves, the colonial government must make use of it. He also highlighted that following the establishment of indirect rule in the Northern region, the question of whether small detached non-Muslim communities are included in a Fulani Emirate or not is a question of comparatively minor importance, which can be decided on three grounds. Firstly, the wishes of the pagans concerned; secondly, financial reasons (which may be very important); and thirdly, administrative convenience.

Of course, there are many other points raised in the speech to address additional questions of the High Commissioner, which will be contextualised in my next column.

In the present day’s situation, we have prominent individuals going on record to allege some sinister goal of Islamising Nigeria which they link to the ideology of Sokoto Caliphate. The conspiracy theorists always link their argument to Usman Danfodio – a Fulani man. As it is the Sokoto Caliphate that gave legitimacy to the current tradition of Emirs in Northern Nigeria, they have become suspect of leading this baseless agenda.

The conspiracy theory of Islamisation and Fulanisation of Nigeria is not a pleasant topic to discuss, especially in this political climate. It is a Boolean topic that politicians and other public figures use to distract the public, hide their failures and ensure they stay in control. Nonetheless, the public opinion will remain divided, despite the fact.


Dr Aminu is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Cardiff Metropolitan University.