A few days ago, an exchange online with a cast of some of Northern Nigeria’s cerebral minds left me even more curious about the ancestral scam called ethnic identity. So many civilizations and empires rode on the politics and sentimentality of identity to power and, for the unlucky, ruins. In Nigeria, the formation of the Hausa-Fulani supergroup as an identity is a controversy that makes less sense the more its proponents explain it. But it’s also a possible solution to the crisis of identity for the offspring of two or more clashing cultures.
The Hausa and the Fulani are linguistically unalike and so are their cultural obsessions. The marriage that produced the “Hausa-Fulani” as an ethnic identity was the invasion of Hausa city-states along with others towards the end of the 19th century by the Fulani led by Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. With Hausa, which was already a widely spoken language of the Hausa ethnic group adopted for social contract and trade in West Africa, becoming the lingua franca of Sokoto Caliphate, this history paved the way for the pan-ethnic misrepresentation of the North today.
The arguments for the viability of the Hausa-Fulani identity also applies to the non-Hausa states overrun by the Fulani. The monarchies of the major Nupe Emirates, which were vassal Emirates in the Caliphate system, were led by the Fulani and their descendants today identify with the host ethnic group, and it’s safe to claim that their Fulani identity had been subsumed through intermarriages with the conquered ethnic group. What makes their case different from the Fulani in Hausaland, however, is the resort to adhere to the conventional ethnic grouping system.
What set the Fulani descendants or children of Hausa and Fulani intermarriages in Nupeland, Yorubaland and other parts of modern-day Northern Nigeria apart from those in Hausaland is the latter’s utter subsumption by the Hausa, and this linguistic disadvantage seems to have triggered the desperation to identify as bilateral descendants today. We function in a patrilineal society and the identity-forming system and sentiment that produced the Hausa-Fulani supergroup are both deviant and opportunistic, but it also calls for the rethink of our ethnic grouping politics.
Even though the father owns the child in our society, and his ethnicity inherited by the child from birth, at what point does this rule cease to be applicable? For the self-proclaimed Hausa-Fulani, their immersion in Hausa culture despite patrilineal link to the Fulani even if of vague or unknown lineage is the justification for bilateral identity. So, how’s this different from the reality of children from other interethnic groups? The reason, of course, is the understated opportunism attracted by the demographically advantaged identity.
The marriage that produced the Hausa-Fulani identity thrived on what Antonio Gramsci described as cultural hegemony—exploitation and deployment of a dominant identity by a self-preserving elite to acquire and retain power in a diverse society. In the waves of polarization that undercut Nigerian power politics, the Hausa-Fulani drew from both the products of the intermarriages and the non-aligned Hausa and Fulani ethnicities to present a threatening front at the power-sharing table.
In recent years, however, this bond has waned as the Fulani keep on getting pathologized by the media and the public attempting to make sense of the existence of criminal herders of Fulani descent. The everyday Fulani have acknowledged the fashion in which they were thrown under the bus by the Hausa or so-called Hausa-Fulani elite without efforts to protect them from misguided reprisals and attacks or clarify that the criminals aren’t representatives of the larger Fulani. Even on social media, the thaw of this union is evident in the frequent spats—or the jibes by the Hausa who charge that the Fulani have always rejected cultural or genetic association with them.
No matter the genius or toxicity of our identity politics, the Fulani and the Hausa exist as separate and distinct ethnic groups, both defined by their cultural idiosyncrasies. It’s unfair to accuse the Fulani of rejecting being lumped in the same ethnic bracket as the Hausa. They are not the same people. Despite the subsuming influence of the Hausa culture and language, the Fulani still stand out in their habitats and speak Hausa with imperfect accents like various other ethnic groups in the North, and even their language, Fulfulde, and Hausa belong in different language families.
The mischievous categorization of the Hausa-speaking northerners as Hausa is the genius of cultural hegemony, and it’s played out through the pan-Arewa political front by northern elites since the colonial investiture of this regional bloc to neutralize southern rebellion to European presence. Whether in pointing to the subsumed ethnic groups of the region or the self-identified Hausa-Fulani, the claim that Hausa isn’t a distinct ethnic group by a subsuming culture and identity of the North will always suffer definitional crises.
If mastery of an alien language or adoption of their culture is what makes an ethnic identity, then half of the world and almost all of Nigeria are ethnically English. If adhering to Islamic cosmology is the basis for such identity, then that disqualifies even the non-Muslim Hausa from the culture. These dilemmas are mere proof of the fluidity of identity and why it’s easy for the political elite to define and propagandize, and identify with, an identity that guarantees their stay at the top of the political hierarchy.
But what’s worthy of reflection in this chaos of identity is our cultural assassination of matrilineal lineage, even for children raised by single mothers. Unlike race, culture isn’t genetic. It’s acquired, practised and transferred. So, between the children of an Igbo man raised by their Hausa single mother in Funtua and those of a Hausa man raised by their Igbo mother alone in Mbaise, which is ethnically Hausa? Your answer to this question may tell where you belong in this fraudulent spectrum of identity formation.