Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria

Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria

by Moses E. Ochonu


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Moses E. Ochonu explores a rare system of colonialism in Middle Belt Nigeria, where the British outsourced the business of the empire to Hausa-Fulani subcolonials because they considered the area too uncivilized for Indirect Rule. Ochonu reveals that the outsiders ruled with an iron fist and imagined themselves as bearers of Muslim civilization rather than carriers of the white man's burden. Stressing that this type of Indirect Rule violated its primary rationale, Colonialism by Proxy traces contemporary violent struggles to the legacy of the dynamics of power and the charged atmosphere of religious difference.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011619
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2014
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Moses E. Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University and author of Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression.

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Colonialism by Proxy

Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria

By Moses E. Ochonu

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Moses Ochonu
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01165-7


The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and Ideological Foundations of Proxy Colonialism

British-supervised Hausa-Fulani colonization in the Middle Belt has a long, scattered, but recoverable ideological history. The reconstruction of this history entails two interrelated quests. One is a search for the origin and development of a Hausa-caliphate colonial administrative imaginary in the osmotic interplay between caliphate and British narratives. The other is the sometimes subtle, sometimes declared entry of the set of ideas that rationalized proxy caliphate rule into official British colonial policy in Northern Nigeria.

The search for colonial administrative coherence and uniformity prompted British officials to craft an administrative policy envisioned to normalize and spread a Hausa-caliphate sociocultural and political model to the non-Muslim areas of the Middle Belt. The process by which this policy emerged in the realm of ideas and debate, evolved, and became a manual of colonial rule in the Middle Belt was long and complex and requires a systematic analysis to unpack. Scrutinizing subcolonialism to reveal its properties is necessary to provide a discursive backdrop for narrative case studies that flesh out the operational vagaries of an unusual infrastructure of colonization.

Hausa-Fulani subcolonialism was a colonial template of Anglo-caliphate rule. It took shape against the backdrop of a canon of colonial and caliphate knowledge that viewed the cultures, religions, and political traditions of the Middle Belt as obstacles to be overcome in the interest of cheap, uniform colonial rule in Northern Nigeria. The idea of supplanting Middle Belt cultures and institutions as a way of preparing the non-Muslim peoples of the region for indirect rule through the instrumentality of Hausa-caliphate ideas, institutions, cultures, and personnel was a logical outgrowth of this prior ideological ferment. A key enabler of this project was the auspicious meshing of British and caliphate ideas.

British rule in the Middle Belt, although encased in a belief that "backward" Middle Belt peoples should embrace the political and cultural attributes associated with the caliphate zone, was not aimed at achieving sociopolitical uniformity for its own sake. Rather, this was a pragmatic administrative project informed by the practical and fiscal impossibility of implementing multiple colonial administrative systems in Northern Nigeria. But if pragmatism dictated Hausa-Fulani subcolonial rule, the system needed quasi-intellectual justification. It also needed an invented narrative of Hausa-Fulani supremacy and Middle Belt inferiority, for only such a narrative could indemnify British colonial supervisors for violating indirect rule by empowering "foreign" mediators over indigenous ones. In this ideological enterprise, preexisting British and caliphate theories about the precolonial sociology and politics of Northern Nigeria and about prior indicators of Middle Belt submission and resistance to caliphate "civilization" proved particularly useful. These theories contributed to the formulation of subcolonialism as an ideology of colonial rule and provided cultural alibis to justify its implementation.

The two fundamental prerequisites of indirect rule—ethnic difference and a preexisting, centralized system of rule—necessitated the creation of both difference and politico-cultural sameness across Northern Nigeria, using the colonially favored Hausa-caliphate model as a reference. This exercise was carried out through the coalescing, over a long period, of caliphate narratives and claims about itself and its "others" on the one hand and British imperial sociological and historical writings on the other. British colonial articulations of sociological assumptions about subject peoples often preceded and guided their administrative ideas. It is what Sean Hawkins, following David Olson, calls "the world on paper," a colonial representational world "divorced from reality" but possessing the capacity to determine colonial administrative and economic policy.

British ideas about racial and civilizational hierarchies and caliphate images of itself and of the non-Muslim peoples on its vast frontier bled into each other in complex ways and solidified into a colonial governing imaginary dependent on the conscription of caliphate ideas and personnel. The most contested site of this colonial administrative policy was the Middle Belt. Colonial and caliphate discourses highlighted the absence of the key raw material for indirect rule, political centralization, in most Middle Belt communities and contrasted this with the centralized political traditions of the caliphate zone. This was a problem that had to be solved. The caliphate, influential colonial ideologues like Frederick Lugard and Charles Temple believed, modeled the institutions and forms of social organization considered the foundations of indirect rule. The mobilization of caliphate ideas, administrative traditions, and personnel to uplift and prepare the peoples of the Middle Belt for indirect rule should thus be viewed as a pragmatic project, although British colonial writers and amateur anthropologists in Northern Nigeria also referenced a set of self-reflexive racial ideologies in formulating their administrative policies for the Middle Belt.

The analysis that follows maps the historical processes through which Hausa-Fulani identity and its associative connotations emerged. The emergence of the Sokoto Islamic Caliphate inaugurated an ideational revolution that transformed Hausa identity and conflated it with a notion of Islamic piety, imperial citizenship, and privilege. After the colonial conquest, a new set of ideas about what Hausa-caliphate identity meant fused with new subcolonial administrative doctrines that affirmed the same claims and created a homogenized Middle Belt Other, fossilizing into concrete colonial administrative policy. This policy then acquired a separate, elaborate life of its own, feeding on both conformity and resistance to it among Middle Belt peoples.

Hausa: More Than a Language

Hausa is not just a language; it is a category synonymous with certain ways of acting, making a living, and worshipping God. As a descriptor and signifier, Hausa correlates with a vast system of meanings and connotations. Hausa now carries with it a variety of clear cultural, economic, and political associations. As a language of trade and social contact in West Africa, and as the language of an ethnic group known as Hausa, it approaches what Ali Mazrui calls a cosmopolitan language. The presence throughout much of West Africa of people who speak Hausa as a second language, and the role of the Hausa language as a lingua franca in much of Northern Nigeria, speaks to the utilitarian importance of a language whose intertwinement with trade and itinerant Islamic practices dates back to a remote Nigerian antiquity.

The Hausa people inhabited the savannah grasslands of West Africa, hemmed between the Songhai and Bornu empires. A receptacle of influences from both empires since perhaps the fifteenth century, Hausaland, then politically constituted into several Hausa city-states, remained largely defined by the linguistic primacy of various dialects of the Hausa language. After the Fulani jihad of 1804–1808, the variegated existence of the Hausa people was subsumed by the Sokoto Caliphate, which was largely constituted by the territories of the old Hausa city-states.

The terms "Hausa," "Hausawa," and "Kasar Hausa," denoting the language, people, and land of the Hausa respectively are actually fairly recent coinages. These terms in their modern usage probably originated from the writings of Othman bin Fodio, leader of the Fulani jihad who, before and during the jihad, homogenized the Hausa-speaking but autonomous peoples of the different Hausa states in what he defined as a collective of bad Muslim rulers and syncretistic Muslim masses. The peoples of these states, and ordinary Fulani migrants who lived among them, were more likely to refer to the Hausa states' citizens by their state of origin: "Katsinawa" for those from Katsina, "Kanawa" for those from Kano, "Gobirawa" for those from Gobir, and others. Following bin Fodio, his brother, Mohammed Bello, discursively formalized "Hausa" as a term of reference for the inhabitants of the former Hausa states.

The Fulani Islamic reform movement, or Fulani jihad, superimposed a central political and religious authority on the fragmented Hausa states of present-day Northwestern Nigeria and, through conquest and discourse, disciplined them into one politico-linguistic unit. More importantly, the jihad inscribed Islamic piety as one of the most important markers of Hausa identity. Thus, as John Philips argues, to be Hausa gradually came to mean that one was a Muslim, even though not all Muslims in the caliphate were Hausa and not all Hausa were Muslims. The jihad initiated the process of homogenization and the construction of a politically useful concept of Hausa identity, a narrative that was underwritten by religious and cultural associations.

The religious content of the "Hausaization" process was coterminous with the new fortune of Islam as the defining ideal of citizenship within the Sokoto Caliphate, whose core was Hausaland. The new Fulani rulers and their agents adopted the language and culture of their Hausa subjects as well as the administrative infrastructure of the conquered Hausa (Habe) kings. By this process, most of the urbanized Fulani became Hausa in linguistic and cultural terms, although a quiet commingling of the two peoples had been taking place before the jihad. Thus, despite the protest of many Hausa people today about the use of the term "Hausa-Fulani" to describe the Hausa-speaking peoples of today's Northern Nigeria, it is a historically valid terminology, and it seems that their protest rejects the recent appropriations of the term by Southern Nigerian intellectuals more than it does the term's historicity. In this and subsequent chapters, however, I will use the terms "Hausa" and "Hausa-Fulani" interchangeably to denote this compound ethnic category.

The Islamization of Hausa identity is perhaps best underscored by the fact that post-jihad Hausa identity became synonymous with assimilation into an Islamic consciousness that was packaged, consecrated, and policed by the jihad leaders and the inheritors of their authority. Thus, the maguzawa, Hausa traditionalists who either managed to escape the Islamizing influence of the jihad or became dhimis who traded jizya tribute for caliphal protection under Islamic law, were excluded from the post-jihad model of Hausa identity. The term maguzawa has an etymology rooted in the Islamic distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims, and in a Hausaized rendering of this distinction. Although its use to distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim Hausa, and between urban and rural Hausa, likely originated in pre-jihad times, it acquired additional valence in the post-jihad period as Islam and its shifting interpretive consensuses became more central to the definition of Hausa identity. The cosmopolitan nature of Islam in West Africa meant that being Hausa became more and more about Islamic piety and the ability to speak the language rather than about any original connection with Kasar Hausa or Hausa ethnic ancestry.

By expanding the frontiers of a cosmopolitan Islamic tradition, the Sokoto Caliphate enhanced the cosmopolitan and incorporative character of Hausa, enabling non-Hausa members of the caliphal Islamic community to become Hausa in geographical contexts that lacked Hausa ethnic heritage. Indeed, because Hausa identity was vested with sociopolitical importance by the jihad, it became, at least within the Sokoto Caliphate, a political identity denoting belonging and privilege. Islamic piety, an acceptance of the religious orthodoxy of the caliphate founders, and an ability to speak Hausa even as a second language granted one entry into Hausahood. It thus became an appealing identity from a purely pragmatic perspective. Affiliation with the paradigmatic ethnic category of a regional hegemony like Sokoto conferred a social currency with polyvalent profitability. The title of "Hausa" had purchase in multiple contexts. Geographic proximity to the Hausa heartland in today's northwestern Nigeria as well as Islamic piety facilitated social and political access to an increasingly coveted Hausa identity.

A plethora of cultural, attitudinal, and performative indicators sprang up to reinforce the linguistic and religious indicators of Hausa identity. It is this constellation of cultural, religious, economic, and political significations that I call Hausa-caliphate imaginary. Steven Pierce argues that this amplification of Hausa identity as a total worldview and way of life is underwritten by the belief among the inheritors of the Sokoto Caliphate Islamic tradition that "Hausa identity ... also encompassed particular ways of making a living ... notably Hausa people's fame as traders ... and a particular approach to agriculture: certain technologies, certain modes of labor mobilization." As a result of these associative reification of Hausa, being Hausa or becoming Hausa gradually came to denote possessing certain qualities. Islamic conversion or reaffirmation was only the beginning point, as well as the fundamental action, on the path to becoming Hausa.

The cumulative outcome of the transformation and elaboration of Hausa as a category of identification was that Hausa became even more fluid and context-determined than it had been prior to the jihad. This fluidity that came to characterize Hausa identity was crucial because proficiency in the Hausa language and in the vocabulary of Islam displaced autochthony as a criterion for belonging. The spread of Hausa linguistic and religious influence made Hausa a category of power, since anyone whose claim to Hausa identity was consecrated by the invocation of these attributes could potentially enjoy the privileges and status that came with being regarded as Hausa in non-Hausa contexts like the Middle Belt. Because Islam was the seminal social marker of the caliphate, and Hausa was its functional lingua franca, anyone possessing these traits was immediately associated with the might and privileges of the caliphate. In the Middle Belt, these attributes functioned as a metaphor for the Sokoto Caliphate and its emirate system, or as Alvin Magid calls it, the Fulani system of political administration.

Jihad, Social Change, Relational Flux in the Middle Belt

As ambitious agents seeking to extend the sway of the caliphate to the non-Muslim areas of Northern Nigeria attacked the sovereignty of states in the Middle Belt, the category of Hausa came to simultaneously assume the status of a feared and awe-inspiring political presence. The various peoples of the Middle Belt devised numerous strategies to either keep Hausa-Fulani caliphate slave raiders and state-builders at bay or selectively bend to their sway in the interest of peace. For instance, the Chamber-speaking peoples of the Upper Benue lowlands and highlands alternated between several strategies to both accommodate and contain Fulani influence. These inhabitants of the Middle Benue hills and plains managed to coexist, albeit uneasily, with pockets of militant Fulani settlers and protostates through the careful deployment of strategies ranging from half-hearted submission to quiet self-assertion to outright resistance.

The Tiv people kept Hausa-Fulani caliphate agents in check by carefully monitoring their activities on the frontiers of Tivland, attacking their isolated outposts and trade caravans, strategically interacting with them, and building a feared warring infrastructure founded on the infamous Tiv poisoned arrow. The Doma, a branch of the Agatu Idoma, adopted an ambivalent survival strategy against the raids of Hausa-Fulani caliphate agents from Keffi. They, like the Chamba, willfully succumbed to some measure of Hausa-Fulani influence as a gesture of political self-preservation.

What occurred in the precolonial period in terms of the Middle Belt's engagement with caliphal expansion was thus a series of complex stalemates, fluid accommodations, and tense, frequently violated treaties of coexistence that John Nengel calls the amana system. These stalemates and negotiated tribute arrangements were desirable not only to the Middle Belt polities but also to raiding emirates, as both groups sought to minimize the possibility of costly long-term conflict. Wars were difficult and expensive to execute because armies were difficult to recruit and maintain; repeated raids resulted in diminished booty, and endless war detracted from other matters of statecraft. As such, the emirates, especially those on the caliphate's frontiers, had a vested interest in some form of negotiated coexistence that ensured the supply of slaves and economic goods to them as tribute. Nonetheless, outright military rebellion on the part of tribute-paying semiautonomous communities often attracted fierce military retribution.


Excerpted from Colonialism by Proxy by Moses E. Ochonu. Copyright © 2014 Moses Ochonu. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Understanding "Native Alien" Sub-colonialism and its Legacies
1. The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and Ideological Foundations of Proxy Colonialism
2. Zazzau and Southern Kaduna in Precolonial and Colonial Times
3. Emirate Maneuvers and "Pagan" Resistance in the Plateau-Nasarawa Basin
4. Hausa Colonial Agency in the Benue Valley
5. Fulani Expansion and Sub-colonial Rule in Early Colonial Adamawa Province
6. Non-Muslim Revolt Against Fulani Rule in Adamawa
7. Middle Belt Self-Determination and Caliphate Political Resurgence in the Transition to National Independence
Conclusion: Sub-colonialism, Ethnicity, and Memory

What People are Saying About This

Franklin and Marshall College - Douglas Anthony

Without exaggeration, this book has transformed the way I think about Northern Nigeria and the Middle Belt. It will reshape how I teach British indirect rule.

University of Manchester - Steven Pierce

Changes the ways in which we understand the practice of indirect rule and balances the formal structures of colonial power against less formal correlates such as trade. A fundamentally new reading of colonialism in the region.

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