Colonialism within Colonialism: The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and the British Colonial Administration of the Nigerian Middle Belt

by Moses Ochonu


This paper explores three interrelated issues; the origins and development of a Hausa-Caliphate imaginary in the intertwinements of caliphate and British discourses and its subtle entry into official British colonial policy in northern Nigeria; how the search for administrative coherence prompted British colonialists to craft an administrative policy envisioned to normalize and spread this Hausa-Caliphate socio-cultural and political model to the Middle Belt; and the on-ground unfolding and implementation of this policy in the non-Hausa speaking part of the Middle Belt.

This colonial administrative project of politico-cultural uniformity sought to make the Middle Belt more like the Caliphate sector, which was deemed more suitable for the British administrative policy of Indirect Rule. It was not aimed at achieving cultural sameness for its own sake but as a vehicle for ultimately strengthening Indirect Rule in all of northern Nigeria. This was largely a pragmatic administrative project, although pre-existing British and Caliphate narratives about the sociology and politics of northern Nigeria contributed to its formulation as an ideology of colonial rule. But the accentuation of ethno-cultural difference was indispensable to Indirect Rule. How then did difference and homogeneity co-exist in British colonial administrative practice? To tease out the paradox in the British creation of both ethnic difference and functional cultural homogeneity is not to suggest that the British consciously thought about or crafted these ideas in those terms; that would concede more coherent intent and intellectual deliberateness to British colonialists than they actually exhibited in their encounter with Africans. The argument here is that the two fundamental prerequisites of Indirect Rule—ethnic difference and a pre-existing, centralized system of rule—necessitated the creation, witting or unwitting, of both difference and politico-cultural sameness across northern Nigeria, using the colonially-approved Hausa-caliphate model as a reference. The most notable site of this colonial policy was the Middle Belt, which, while possessing the desired ethnic difference, lacked the centralized political and cultural institutions and symbols of the emirate system, deemed crucial to Indirect Rule.

To illustrate this British colonial phenomenon of using a Sokoto caliphate idiom to “civilize” those considered not civilized enough for Indirect Rule, I will focus the empirical discussion and examples of this paper on the Tiv-Idoma (Benue) axis of the Middle Belt. The choice is informed by the fact that this was a part of the Middle Belt where Hausa was not spoken or understood to any significant degree and where Caliphate culture had not penetrated as much as was the case in other parts of the Middle Belt. As a result of these interpellations, this colonial policy of engineering administrative sameness was more contested here, and its outcome a lot messier than was the case in the Hausa-speaking parts of the Middle Belt.

The literature on colonial political constructions of ethnicity in Africa has focused largely on the emergence of politically charged ethnic categories as a function of colonial practices and ideologies of ethnic differentiation for the purpose of Indirect Rule. Ethnic and cultural difference was central to Indirect Rule because of the centrality of tradition and customs to its working. The standard argument identifies a key site of struggles over ethnicity and culture: the bureaucratization of “created” or reified ethnic difference, the witting and unwitting imputation of privilege and marginality into these categories of ethnic difference, and the colonial and postcolonial appropriation of difference as a claim-making device by Africans. It is argued that European colonialisms, for a variety of reasons, were obsessed with ethnic and cultural difference among their African subject populations; that they proceeded to make cultural difference the centerpiece of colonial administrative policy; and that the legacies of colonial ethnic differentiation have been tragic for postcolonial Africa, inspiring ethnic hatred, civil war, fierce political competition, and even genocide.

For Nigeria, James Coleman argued as early as 1958 that the divide-and-rule ethos of Indirect Rule compartmentalized the “diverse elements” of the Nigerian area and subsequently made national unity difficult. Emmy Irobi asserts that Indirect Rule “reinforced ethnic divisions.” Echoing the same thesis, Davis and Kalu-Nwiwu remind us that “the structure of British colonial administration” and the drawing of arbitrary boundaries delineating “[ethnic] territor[ies] restricted development of a national consciousness within the broad expanse of Nigeria’s borders.” Indirect Rule is analyzed as a catalyst for ethnic differentiation and the postcolonial problems of national unity that are rooted in it.

This argument correctly identifies colonial administrative and anthropological practices of ethnic and cultural differentiation as sites from which much of contemporary African ethnic politics and conflicts emanate. However, the creation and bureaucratization of ethnic and cultural difference was not the only preoccupation of colonial powers in Africa—or, for our purpose here, northern Nigeria. Integral to the British colonial project of cheap, convenient, indirect administration was a utilitarian and ideological preoccupation with the simultaneous creation of ethnic difference and cultural homogeneity. Ethnic and cultural difference was not always a colonial administrative asset. It was not in post-conquest northern Nigeria. Although Indirect Rule was founded on amplified ethnic and cultural difference, its implementation, as this paper will demonstrate, ran into problems in the Middle Belt area precisely because of an actually existing ethno-cultural difference, a difference that the British deemed unsuited, if not injurious, to the goal of convenient, cheap, and coherent administration. Subsequently, both cultural difference—which was indispensable to Indirect Rule—and the engineering of homogeneity, considered necessary for a uniform implementation of Indirect Rule in the region, came to simultaneously and contradictorily sit at the heart of British colonial administrative policy in northern Nigeria.

This contradictory British commitment to a functional cultural homogeneity was a catalyst for administrative crises, ethnic suspicion and conflict in the Middle Belt. This paper argues that the pursuit of an instrumental, albeit illusive, politico-cultural homogeneity through the ironical enlistment of an Indirect Rule system underwritten by a supposed hierarchy of ethnic and cultural difference was fraught with serious problems and that it had serious consequences for both colonial power relations and inter-ethnic group relations.

Unlike historians of Africa and northern Nigeria, scholars of British colonialism in South Asia have long recognized the existence of British-supervised indigenous colonialisms or sub-colonialisms. The princely states of British India were political contraptions that exemplified this arrangement. In several of these states, the British recruited or recognized pre-existing martial and princely races, Muslims in many cases, and gave them significant administrative sway over Hindu peasants. Although this divide-and-rule administrative mechanism was founded on pre-existing configurations of power, it recognized, for the purpose of British rule, a British-approved power structure rather than the indigenous socio-political norms of the Hindu peasantry. Official adoption of Hindu political institutions and traditions would have conformed better to Indirect Rule in its pure form. But its implementation as an administrative policy would have been expensive, inconvenient, and messy. Hausa-Caliphate sub-colonialism in the Nigerian Middle Belt was thus not unique or without precedent in British colonialism. In fact, the expedient policy of instrumental homogenization in northern Nigeria appeared to have been transferred from British India. In 1931, when Donald Cameron, who had recently assumed the governorship of Nigeria, embarked on an extensive administrative reform to dismantle the emirate-modeled administrative policy and restore autonomy to the Middle Belt ethnicities, he accused his predecessors of having formulated a flawed “policy..of thinking of the [northern Nigerian] Muslim emirates in terms of the Indian States.” What made the fallouts of sub-colonialism more dramatic in northern Nigeria than in India was the newness of the arrangement in the former—the previous absence of an established, uncontested Hausa-Caliphate suzerainty and influence over the Middle Belt.

I begin with a mapping of the convoluted historical processes through which Hausa-Fulani identity and its associative connotations emerged. This discussion will pay prominent attention to the emergence of the Sokoto Islamic Caliphate and the ways in which it transformed Hausa identity and conflated it with a notion of imperial citizenship and privilege. I will then discuss the ways in which Sokoto Caliphate Imperial imaginations of itself and the Middle Belt—articulated in Caliphate writings—and the narratives of European travelers and explorers meshed to produce a British colonial knowledge system that privileged the notion of a paradigmatic Hausa-Caliphate politico-cultural sophistication and its supposed Other—the backward Middle Belt. Finally, I analyze the implementation of a colonial policy founded on the Caliphate-Hausa imaginary and on the necessity for Middle Belt conformity to it; the on-ground manifestation of this administrative policy in Tiv and Idoma Divisions; and the crisis and contests that it triggered.

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Moses Ochonu is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in the modern history of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on the colonial and postcolonial periods. Although he teaches survey and topical classes on all regions of Africa (and on all periods), his research interest lies in Nigeria. He has published several articles on subjects ranging from the impact of colonial medicine on northern Nigerians, to the impact of the Great Depression on Nigeria, as well as a theoretical and empirical examination of the personalization and performance of political power in contemporary Nigeria.