“Wherever a Fulani army had been, it left a depopulated desert. Greed was one of the- chief characteristics of the new dynasty, and tax after tax was enforced upon the people, so that at the present day there is no conceivable trade and no profession which has not its own special tax. Every form of handicraft, the dyers, weavers, blacksmiths, etc was taxed. Even the collectors of honey in the woods paid their dole to the chiefs, and there exists, I believe, a complete system of death duties.”
This is an excerpt from a report about Northern Nigeria submitted to the British colonial government in 1902. At the time, the occupying Brits were not quite sure what to do with the Northern Protectorate due to its unique situation. Heavy on rulership and state pageantry, light on trade and productivity. Heavy on conquest and violence, light on effective governance of conquered territories. Heavy on an ever-expanding class of rentier aristocrats, light on a merchant class to support said rent seeking elites – Northern Nigeria was a mess that was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.
In typical colonial fashion, the main concern of the British administration was not to effect any kind of root-and-branch reform of a clearly unsustainable empire-state, but merely to make sure that it should become productive enough to stop requiring substantial administrative subsidies. Their solution eventually turned out to be the ill-fated amalgamation of 1914 that saw the merger of conceptual opposites into one nation-state without their consent or input. While the economic and political fallout of that decision on Southern Nigeria are well documented, much less so is the effect it had on the vast expanse from Kaduna to Benue, now known as the Middle Belt.
Dan Fodio’s Fulani Empire – 200 years of gratuitous murder
Modern Nigeria is a country where the perpetrator of one of the most diabolical massacres of the 20th century is immortalised on the national currency, and has the country’s busiest airport named after him. It is also the country where his contemporary, who took part in many of his crimes was somehow “forgiven”, and elected president by the ahistorical populace. Five years later, he ordered soldiers to shoot them dead for the heinous crime of peaceful protest at Lekki Toll Gate. In this country, merely documenting the murders carried out by individuals is not enough to significantly shift the needle of their stubbornly positive public perception.
Few examples illustrate this as starkly as that of Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio, the Fulani ethnic conquistador whose violent Jihad swept through Northern Nigeria in the early 1800s, leaving tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of rape victims and dead bodies in its wake. While history tells a very clear story about the sort of thuggery and wanton destruction that Shehu Dan Fodio visited on the dozens of cities and villages in his path, he is remembered – no, revered – in Northern Nigeria today, as a “reformer.” As against the bloodthirsty, incredibly violent and ruthless empire builder that he was, contemporary Nigerian orthodoxy insists on presenting him as a religious scholar and some sort of righteous crusader.
The descendants of those who once lived in what is now Nigeria’s Middle Belt, especially those in Benue, Plateau, Kogi and Southern Kaduna, remember the Shehu and his dynasty rather differently. Below is an excerpt taken from the book “The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-Religious Dialogue” by Alembillah Azumah:
The excerpt below is taken from the colonial report referenced at the outset, and it points a rare flashlight at the extensive practise of slave raiding to feed the Trans-Saharan slave trade, which Dan Fodio’s dynasty practised well into the 20th century. While reading it, it is important to bear in mind that the areas described in this report are almost entirely now classified as part of the Middle Belt:
Dan Fodio’s Jihad continues – In the exact same form
It is this key context that is often missed when people who are not familiar with the uniquely blood-soaked history of Northern Nigeria attempt to explain the bloodshed it is witnessing today. For the avoidance of doubt, let me state categorically and without fear of contradiction – these deaths are neither a series of economic, farmer-herder “clashes,” nor are they random, unconnected events. What we are witnessing in Northern Nigeria is in fact, an unfolding ethno religious genocide – the same one that started in 1804 under the leadership of Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio.
The presence of the British colonial administration, and the subsequent nominal existence of an independent Nigerian state have served to quell some of the more visible manifestations of this barbarous bloodshed. But, let us be very clear about this – the targeted killings, displacements, mass rapes, destruction of economic resources such as farmland, and forced renaming of towns and villages in the Middle Belt, is the same strategy employed by Shehu Dan Fodio against the very same ethnic groups in those exact areas – whom he was generally unable to subdue. This violence is not a recent phenomenon at all.
What has changed over the past decade and made it more pronounced is manifold. There was the toppling of Ghadaffi and the subsequent flooding of the Sahel region with cheap automatic firearms from Libya’s vast weapons stockpiles. There was the proliferation of cheap Android smartphones, cheap 3G and 4G internet connectivity and social media, which have made people better able to tell their stories instantaneously and without censorship. Finally and most importantly, there was the entry of Muhammadu Buhari into Aso Rock, which signalled to the Dan Fodian marauders that a kindred spirit was in power and it was their time.
And how he has proved them right!