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Historical Account or Discourse on Identity? A Reexamination of Fulbe Hegemony and Autochthonous Submission in Banyo1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014


Traditional accounts of the nineteenth-century Fulbe conquest in northern Cameroon tell roughly the same story: following the example of Usman Dan Fodio in Nigeria, the Fulbe of Cameroon organized in the beginning of the nineteenth century a “jihad” or a “holy war” against the local pagan populations to convert them to Islam and create an Islamic state. The divisions among the local populations and the military superiority of the Fulbe allowed them to conquer almost all northern Cameroon. They forced those who submitted to give an annual tribute of goods and servants, and they raided the other groups. In these traditional accounts the Fulbe are presented as unchallenged masters, while the local populations are depicted as slaves who were powerless over their fate; their role in the conquest of the region and in the administration of the new political order is supposed to have been insignificant.

I will show that, on the contrary, in the area of Banyo the Wawa and Bute played a crucial role in the conquest of the sultanate and in its administration. I will then re-examine the cliche that all members of the local populations were the slaves of the Fulbe by distinguishing the fate of the Wawa and Bute on one side from that of the Kwanja and Mambila on the other, and by showing the importance of the Fulbe's identity in shaping the definition of slavery. Finally I will argue that, if the historical accounts found in the scientific literature invariably insist on Fulbe hegemony and minimize the role played by the local populations, it is because those accounts are often based on Fulbe traditions, and because these traditions are remodeled by the Fulbe in order to correspond to their discourse on identity.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1998

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I collected data for this paper during 18 months' fieldwork among the Wawa and Kwanja of Cameroon between 1992 and 1996. I would like to thank the Fonds Cassel de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Fonds National pour la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) for their financial support.


2 For a general view of these accounts see Johnston, H.A.S., The Fulani Empire of Sokoto (London, 1967)Google Scholar; Lacroix, P.-F., “Matériaux pour servir à l'histoire des peuls de l'Adamawa, première partie,” Etudes Camerounaises, 37/38 (1952), 361Google Scholar; Mohammadou, E., “Introduction historique à l'étude des sociétés du Nord-Cameroun,” Abbia, 12/13 (1966), 233–71Google Scholar; Mohammadou, E., Fulbe Hooseere. Les royaumes foulbé du plateau de l'Adamawa au 19e siècle. Tibati, Tignere, Banyo, Ngaoundéré (Tokyo, 1978)Google Scholar; Mohammadou, E., “L'implantation des Peut dans l'Adamawa (approche chronologique),” in Tardifs, C. (ed.): Contribution de la recherche ethnologique à l'histoire des civilisations du Cameroun (2 vols.: Paris 1981), 1:229–47Google Scholar; Hurault, J., “Histoire du lamidat de Banyo,” Comptes rendus trimestriels de l'Académie des Sciences d'Outre–Mer, 25 (1975), 421–65Google Scholar; Smith, M.G., “The Jihad of Shehu Dan Fodio: Some Problems” in Lewis, I.M., ed., Islam in Tropical Africa (London, 1966), 408–24Google Scholar; Last, M.Reform in West Africa: The Jihad movements of the nineteenth century” in Ajayi, J.F.A. and Crowder, M., eds., History of West Africa, II (London, 1974), 129Google Scholar; R.A. Adeleye, “The Sokoto Caliphate in the nineteenth century” in ibid., 57–92; Hiskett, M., The Sword of Truth. The Life and Times of Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (New York, 1973).Google Scholar

3 Lamido (pl. Lamibe) is the Fulfulde term meaning “sultan,” Lamidate (sultanate) is the territory that he administers. Concerning the date of the foundation of the Lamidate see Kirk–Greene, A.H.M., Adamawa, Past and Present (London 1958), 133Google Scholar; Lacroix, , “Matériaux,” 28Google Scholar; Mohammadou, E., “L'histoire des lamidat Foulbé de Tchamba de Tibati,” Abbia, 6 (1964), 47.Google Scholar

4 See Gausset, Q., “Contribution à l'étude du pouvoir sacré chez les Wawa (Adamawa, Cameroun),” Journal des Africanistes 65 (1995), 179200CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem., “Les avatars de l'identité chez les Wawa et les Kwanja du Cameroun” (Ph. D, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1997); Zeitlyn, D., “L'âge, le pouvoir et la rhétorique: le cas des Mambila au Cameroun” in Boutrais, J., ed., Peuples et Cultures de l'Adamawa (Cameroun) (Paris, 1993)Google Scholar; idem., Sua in Somié. Aspects of Mambila Traditional Religion (Sankt Augustin, 1994).

5 Hurault, , “Histoire,” 427Google Scholar; Mohammadou, , Fulbe Hooseere, 172Google Scholar; idem., Traditions historiques des peuples du Cameroun Central I (Tokyo, 1991), 195, 216, 224.

6 Ibid., 206–07, 229.

7 Alhadji Ndotoua Mboutsam Boutong, one of the minor dignitaries of the palace (of Wawa origin, Banyo). All my Wawa informants confirmed this story, as did the Lamido himself.

8 The narratives usually present the men who usurp power as generous hunters who share the products of their hunts to the entire population and who, through these acts of generosity, gain the followers of the mean chiefs (see, e.g., Gausset, , “Avatars,” 86Google Scholar). It is possible that the story telling “the peaceful arrival of the Fulbe sharing meat” has been transformed a posteriori to fit this local narrative of usurpation, but it is also possible that the Fulbe benefited unconsciously from these traditional representations of power which in turn facilitated their local integration.

9 The Fulbe girls did not marry local men. The primary rationale for this was that local people were not Muslims.

10 Siran, J.–L., “Eléments d'ethnographie Vouté pour servir l'histoire du Cameroun Central” in Tardits, , Contribution, 265–72Google Scholar; Fardon, R., “Alliance et ethnicité. Un système régional de l'Adamawa” in Héritier, F. and Copet–Rougier, E., eds., Les compexités de l'alliance, 3: économie, politique et fondements symboliques (Afrique) (Paris, 1993), 205.Google Scholar

11 Kirk–Greene, , Adamawa, 133Google Scholar; Lacroix, , “Matériaux,” 28Google Scholar; Mohammadou, , “Histoire,” 47.Google Scholar Note that Mohammadou contradicts himself in other articles when he reports the oral history telling the peaceful arrival of the Fulbe in Banyo.

12 On Fulbe feeling of superiority see, for example, Schilder, K., Quest for Self–Esteem: State, Islam and Mundang Identity in Northern Cameroon (Aldershot, 1994)Google Scholar, and Schultz, E., “From Pagan to Pullo: Ethnic Identity Change in Northern Cameroon,” Africa 54 (1984), 4663.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 As in Nigeria, the Cameroonian Fulbe manipulated history and their traditions in order to present themselves to the colonial administration as “natural rulers” of the area; see Salamone, F.A., “Colonialism and the Emergence of Fulani Identity,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, 20 (1985), 193202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 “Histoire des Boutes de Banyo” (typed document, no date).

15 They are today fully integrated, and if a person is known to have a slave extraction, this is not publicly stated because it would be taken as a insult.

16 Hurault, , “Histoire,” 434–35Google Scholar, my translation.

17 Haman Tamba (Wawa, Oumiari village).

18 This assumption is widespread in Cameroon, both among the Fulbe and their neighbours. For statistics see Hurault, Jean, “Fécondité et mortalité dans l'agglomération urbaine de Banyo (Cameroun): l'incidence des maladies vénériennes,” Cahiers ORSTOM, série sciences humaines, 19 (1983), 247–67.Google Scholar

19 The region had a very high population density of population; see Hurault, J., “Les anciens peuplements de cultivateurs de l'Adamaoua occidental (Cameroun–Nigeria). Méthodologie d'une approche spaciale,” Cahiers ORSTOM, série sciences humaines, 22 (1986), 115–45Google Scholar; idem., “An archeological Survey in Adamawa,” Africa, 58 (1988), 470–76.

20 Lacroix, P.–F., “Matériaux pour servir à l'histoire des peuls de l'Adamawa, deuxième partie,” Etudes Camerounaises, 39/40 (1953), 3738Google Scholar, my translation.

21 Cited in Hurault, J., Le lamidat de Banyo sous l'administration française, 1916–1959, (Booklet privately circulated, 1994), 62Google Scholar, my translation.

22 Ibid., 61–62.

23 Adamou Nyagnoum (Kwanja, Nyamboya village).

24 Sambi Pascal (Kwanja, Nyagbe village).

25 Barth, Heinrich, Voyages el découvertes dans l'Afrique Septentrionale et Centrale pendant les années 1849 à 1855 (Paris, 1860), 2:248Google Scholar; Lacroix, , “Matériaux/1,” 34.Google Scholar

26 Although this tax is supposed to be redistributed to the poor, the Lamibe often keep the largest share of it; see Dognin, R., “L'installation des Djafoun dans l'Adamaoua Camerounais. La Djakka chez les Peul de l'Adamaoua” in Tardits, , Conrtibution, 139–57.Google Scholar

27 See for example Adeleye, , “Sokoto,” 71Google Scholar; Smith, , “Jihad,” 423Google Scholar; Mohammadou, E., Les lamidat du Diamare et du Mayo Louti au 19e siècle (Nord–Cameroun) (Tokyo, 1988), 21.Google Scholar It can also be argued that the term jihad is inappropriate since, in the beginning of this war at least, many Fulbe were not Muslims and since they fought against Hausa kings who were officially Muslims. Moreover, the Fulbe used some “pagan” cultural institutions that were proscribed by Usman Dan Fodio. See Smith, , “Jihad,” 412, 417–18Google Scholar; Last, , “Reform,” 9.Google Scholar

28 Mohammadou, , “Introduction,” 270Google Scholar; and Bah, T.M., “Le facteur peul et les relations inter–ethniques dans l'Adamaoua au XIXe siècle,” In Boutrais, , Peuples, 82.Google Scholar

29 See Hurault, , “Histoire,” 428Google Scholar; idem., “Les noms attribués aux non–libres dans le lamidat de Banyo,” Journal des Africanistes, 64 (1994), 93; Büttner, T., “On the Social–Economic Structure of Adamawa in the 19th Century: Slavery or Serfdom?” in Markov, W., ed., African Studies (Leipzig, 1967), 4361Google Scholar; Froelich, J.–C., “Essai sur les causes de l'islamisation de l'Afrique de l'Ouest du Xie au Xxe siècle” in Lewis, , Islam, 165Google Scholar; Levtzion, N., “Slavery and Islamization in Africa” in Willis, J.R., ed., Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, Vol. 1: Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement (London, 1985), 192.Google Scholar

30 Lacroix, P.–F., “L'Islam peul de l'Adamawa,” in Lewis, , Islam, 401–07.Google Scholar

31 Tchoukou Dame (Wawa, Oumiari village).

32 See Dupire, M., “Réflexions sur l'identité peule” in Itinérances en pays peul et ailleurs. Mélanges à la mémoire de Pierre–Francis Lacroix (2 vols.: Paris, 1981), 2:170Google Scholar; Vereecke, C., “The Slave Experience in Adamawa: Past and Present Perspectives from Yola (Nigeria),” Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, 34 (1994), 30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kirk–Greene, A.H.M., “Maudo Laawol Pulaaku: Survival and Symbiosis” in Adamu, M. and Kirk-Greene, A.H.M., eds., Pastoralists of the West African Savanna (Manchester, 1986), 4142.Google Scholar

33 Willis, J.R., “The Ideology of Enslavement in Islam,” in Willis, , Slaves, 1626.Google Scholar

34 Riesman, Paul, Société et liberté chez les Peuls Djelgôbé de Haute-Volta. Essai d'anthropologie introspective (Paris, 1974), 128, 138.Google Scholar

35 Sharpe, B., “Ethnography and a Regional System: Mental Maps and the Myth of States and Tribes in North-Central Nigeria,” Critique of Anthropology, 6 (1986), 3365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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