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The Northern Area

The best known of the northern peoples, often spoken of as coterminous with the north, are the Hausa. The term refers also to a language spoken indigenously by savanna peoples spread across the far north from Nigeria's western boundary eastward to Borno State and into much of the territory of southern Niger. The core area lies in the region in the north and northwest where about 30 percent of all Hausa could be found. It also includes a common set of cultural practices and, with some notable exceptions, Islamic emirates that originally comprised a series of centralized governments and their surrounding subject towns and villages.

These precolonial emirates were still major features of local government in 1990. Each had a central citadel town that housed its ruling group of nobles and royalty served as the administrative, judicial, and military organization of these states. Traditionally, the major towns were also trading centers; some such as Kano, Zaria, or Katsina were urban conglomerations with populations of 25,000 to 100,000 in the nineteenth century. They had central markets, special wards for foreign traders, complex organizations of craft specialists, and religious leaders and organizations. They administered a hinterland of subject settlements through a hierarchy of officials, and they interacted with other states and ethnic groups in the region by links of warfare, raiding, trade, tribute, and alliances.

The rural areas remained in 1990 fundamentally small to medium-sized settlements of farmers ranging from 2,000 to 12,000 persons. Both within and spread outward from the settlements, one-third to one-half the population lived in hamlet-sized farm settlements of patrilocal extended families, or gandu, an economic kin-based unit under the authority and direction of the household head. Farm production was used for both cash and subsistence, and as many as two-thirds of the adults also engaged in off-farm occupations.

Throughout the north, but especially in the Hausa areas, over the past several centuries Fulani cattle-raising nomads have migrated westward, sometimes settling into semisedentary villages. Their relations with local agriculturalists generally involved the symbiotic trading of cattle for agricultural products and access to pasturage. Conflicts arose, however, especially in times of drought or when population built up and interethnic relations created pressures on resources. These pressures peaked at the beginning of the nineteenth century and were contributing factors in a Fulani-led intra-Muslim holy war and the founding of the Sokoto Caliphate (see Usman dan Fodio and the Sokoto Caliphate , ch. 1). Fulani leaders took power over the Hausa states, intermarried with the ruling families and settled into the ruling households of Hausaland and many adjacent societies. By the twentieth century, the ruling elements of Hausaland were often referred to as Hausa-Fulani. Thoroughly assimilated into urban Hausa culture and language but intensely proud of their Fulani heritage, many of the leading "Hausa" families in 1990 claimed such mixed origins. In terms of local traditions, this inheritance was expressed as a link to the conquering founders of Sokoto and a zealous commitment to Islamic law and custom.

Centralized government in the urban citadels along the southern rim of the desert has encouraged long-distance trade over the centuries, both across the Sahara and into coastal West Africa after colonial rule moved forcefully to cut the trans-Saharan trade, forcing the north to use Nigerian ports. Ultimately, this action resulted in enclaves of Hausa traders in all major cities of West Africa, linked socially and economically to their home areas.

In summary, Hausa become primarily a language, linked culturally to Islam, a background of centralized emirate governments, Fulani rulers since the early nineteenth century, extended households and agricultural villages, trade and markets, and strong assimilative capacities so that Hausa cultural borders were constantly expanding. Given modern communications, transportation, and the accelerating need for a lingua franca, Hausa was rapidly becoming either the first or second language of the entire northern area of the country.

The other major ethnic grouping of the north is that of the Kanuri of Borno. They entered Nigeria from the central Sahara as Muslim conquerors in the fifteenth century, set up a capital, and subdued and assimilated the local Chadic speakers. By the sixteenth century, they had developed a great empire that at times included many of the Hausa states and large areas of the central Sahara (see The Savanna States, 1500-1800 , ch. 1). Attacked in the nineteenth century by the Fulani, they resisted successfully, although the conflict resulted in a new capital closer to Lake Chad, a new ruling dynasty, and a balance of power between the Hausa-Fulani of the more westerly areas and the Kanuri speakers of the central sub-Saharan rim.

Even though Kanuri language, culture, and history are distinctive, other elements are similar to the Hausa. They include the general ecology of the area, Islamic law and politics, the extended households, and rural-urban distinctions. There was, however, a distinctive Kanuri tradition of a U-shaped town plan open to the west, housing the political leader or founder at the head of the plaza formed by the arms of the U. The people remained intensely proud of their ancient traditions of Islamic statehood. Among many ancient traits were included their long chronicles of kings, wars, and hegemony in the region, and their specific Kanuri cultural identity seen in the hairstyles of the women, the complex cuisine, and the identification with ruling dynasties whose names and exploits were still fresh.

Things have been changing, however. Maiduguri, the central city of Kanuri influence in the twentieth century, was chosen as the capital of an enlarged Northeast State during the civil war. Because this state encompassed large sections of Hausa-Fulani areas, many of these ethnic groups came to the capital. This sudden incorporation, together with mass communications, interstate commerce, and intensification of travel and regional contacts brought increased contacts with Hausa culture. By the 1970s, and increasingly during the 1980s and into the 1990s, Kanuri speakers found it best to get along in Hausa, certainly outside their home region and even inside Borno State. By 1990 women were adopting Hausa dress and hairstyles, and all schoolchildren learned to speak Hausa. Almost all Bornoans in the larger towns could speak Hausa, and many Hausa administrators and businesspeople were settling in Borno. Just as Hausa had incorporated its Fulani conquerors 175 years earlier, in 1990 it was spreading into Borno, assimilating as it went. Its probable eventual triumph as the universal northern language was reinforced by its utility, although the ethnically proud Kanuri would retain much of their language and culture for many years.

Along the border, dividing northern from southern Nigeria lies an east-west belt of peoples and languages, generally known as the middle belt. The area runs from the Cameroon Highlands on the east to the Niger River valley on the west and contains 50 to 100 separate language and ethnic groups (see fig. 9). These groups varied from the Nupe and Tiv, comprising more than half a million each, to a few hundred speakers of a distinct language in small highland valleys in the Jos Plateau. On the east, languages were of the Chadic group, out of which Hausa differentiated, and the Niger-Congo family, indicating links to eastern and central African languages. In the west, the language groupings indicated historical relations to Mende-speaking peoples farther west. Cultural and historical evidence supports the conclusion that these western groups were marginal remnants of an earlier substratum of cultures that occupied the entire north before the emergence of large centralized Islamic emirates.


Figure 9. Distribution of Principal Ethnic Groups, 1990

In time three distinct kinds of organized groups emerged. The largest and most centralized groups, such as the Nupe, under colonial administration became smaller versions of the emirates. A few of these peoples, such as the Tiv, were of the classic "segmentary" variety, in which strongly organized patrilineages link large portions of the ethnic group into named nonlocal segments based on real and putative concepts of descent. Local organization, land tenure, inheritance, religious beliefs, law, and allegiances are all related to this sense of segmentary lineage relationship. During the 1960s, some Tiv segments allied with the southern political parties, and others linked with the northern parties. Like the larger groups, they demanded, and by 1960 had been granted, a central "chief" and local administration of their own.

The most common groupings in the middle belt were small localized villages and their outlying hamlets and households; they were autonomous in precolonial times but were absorbed into wider administrative units under British rule. Most often they were patrilineal, with in-marrying wives, sons, unmarried daughters, and possibly parents or parents' siblings living together. Crops separated this residence grouping from similar ones spread out over a small area. They cultivated local fields and prayed to local spirits and the ghosts of departed lineage elders. Descendants of founders were often village heads or priests of the village shrine, whereas leading members of the other lineages formed an eldership that governed the place and a few outlying areas, consisting of those who were moving toward open lands as the population increased.

The missionaries and party politics influenced, but did not obliterate, these older units. Missionaries arrived in the 1910s and 1920s and were allowed into non-Muslim areas. They set up schools using United States or British staff to teach English and helped to create a sense of separateness and educational disparity between the Christianized groups and Muslim ones. From the 1920s to current times both religions competed for adherents. Political parties representing both southern and the northern interests have always found supporters in this border area, making its participation in national life more unpredictable. Attempts in the 1960s and 1970s to create a separate region, or develop a political party representing middle belt peoples, were quickly cauterized by northern Muslim-based political parties whose dominance at the national level could have been weakened by losing administrative control over the middle belt.

At the same time, possibly the greatest influence on the area was that of Hausaization. The emergent dominance of the Hausa language, dress patterns, residential arrangements, and other cultural features was clear as one traveled from the far north into the middle belt area. Local councils that only a few years previously dressed differently and spoke in local vernaculars looked and acted as if they were parts of more northerly areas in 1990. Although this diffusion was weaker in the more remote areas and in Jos, the largest middle belt city, it was progressing rapidly everywhere else, constituting a unifying factor throughout the region.

Data as of June 1991


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