Sons of the Soil and Conquerors Who Came on Foot: The Historical Construction of a West African Border Region

by Olivier Walther

Abstract

This article discusses the historical evolution of Dendi, a border region now located across Niger, Benin, and Nigeria. Drawing on colonial literature and mythological accounts collected in the city of Gaya, the article shows that the two subgroups at the origin of the historical identity of Dendi were affected very differently by colonization and the independence of West African states. While Songhay chiefdoms managed to build alliances with colonial powers and have adapted to post-colonial political changes, Kyanga religious authorities have been progressively marginalized under the pressure of Islam, urban development, and the state administration. The article also shows that the historical distinction between first settlers and conquerors has been challenged since the 1980s by the arrival of businessmen from Niger and neighboring countries, which turned the Dendi into a regional economic crossroad. Some of these new immigrants have become important actors in the local urban market, challenging the distinction between the “sons of the soil” and the conquerors of aristocratic origin “who came on foot,” which had long served to define the Dendi identity.

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Olivier Walther is a geographer with the Center for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg and a research associate at the University of Bordeaux-CNRS in France. He holds a Ph.D.from the University of Lausanne and Rouen. His major research interests lie in cross-border economic networks and regional integration in West Africa.

Acknowledgements: This paper was written in part while the author was a visiting researcher at the University of Basel in 2010. Support received from the European Science Foundation (ESF) for the activity entitled “African Borderlands Research Network (ABORNE)” and from the National Research Fund of Luxembourg (FNR) is gratefully acknowledged. The author would also like to thank Elisabeth Boesen, Ross Jones, Jen Nelles, Paul Nugent, Michel Tenikue and Bernard Zuppinger for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the paper. Moustapha Konè provided valuable research assistance.