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Origin of the Fulani (also called the Fula, Fulbe, Peuls) of West Africa (4th millennium BC to Present)

Written by Oadeye

The Fulani people, numbering about 38 million, are found mostly in the western part of Africa. They are also known as the Fulbe or Peuls and in the Middle Ages (covering the 5th to the 15th century of the Common Era) were very reliant on cattle herding. The Fulani people trace their origin far back one thousand years to the Senegambia region. They are categorized among the most culturally diverse and widely dispersed peoples in the whole of Africa. Based on 2019 records, in Nigeria alone there exist about 15.3 million Fulani people, about 4 million in Senegal, 2.9 million in Mali, 2.3 million in Cameroon, 2 million in Niger, and a great number in other communities across West Africa. Today, the majority of the Fulani people live in more than 18 African countries with some remaining as Nomads.

Genetic History

Some futile and unclear theories abound when it comes to the history of the Fulani people. A search for the origin of the Fulani people is made complicated by the multiple languages they speak and diversity of countries they reside in which still poses a puzzle to many anthropologists.

A more productive approach to the history of the Fulani people is to focus on the meaning of Fulani Identity as placed in concrete historical situations and analyze the factors that shaped their ethnicity.

Historians trace the entry of the Fulani people into present-day Senegal from the north and east. They were a mixture of people from sub-Saharan and northern Africa. After the tenth Century, they mostly moved in an eastern direction spreading into a large part of West Africa.

Another historical point of view is seen in the book “The History of the Upper Guinea Coast” by Walter Rodney who argued that the Fulbe or Fulani people were originally from North Africa and they also went on a conquest against the Foota Djallon region led by the Fulani Koli Tenguella.

Another theory places the origin of the Fulani people with the Berber people of North Africa, between the 8th and 11th Century AD. According to this theory, the Berbers migrated and mixed with the Senegalese people of West Africa, and the Fulani people came into existence.

Despite the speculations surrounding the origin of the Fulani people, current genetic evidence suggests an indigenous West African origin among the Peul. Historical records, as well as archeological records, have placed the origin of Peul-speakers in western Africa from around the 5th century A.D. There are also rock paintings that are found in the Tassili-n-Ajjer which suggests the presence of proto-Fulani cultural traits around the fourth millennium B.C. which are still practiced by contemporary Fulani people.

Linguistic ties

The Fulani language has many loan words from the Arabic and Berber due interactions with North Africa. Fula is a Niger-Congo language, of the Atlantic languages branch of the Niger-Congo languages and of the Senegambian sub-branch of Atlantic Niger-Congo languages. The spoken language of the Fulani, known as Fula, is also sometimes called Fulfulde or Pulaar. In spite of the geographical distribution of the Fulani people, similarities exist between their grammar and vocabulary. Five major dialects or regions can be associated with the Fulani language which includes

  • Futa Toro (Senegal/Mauritania)
  • Futa Jallon (Guinea)
  • Maasina (Mali)
  • Sokoto (Nigeria)
  • Adamawa (Cameroon)

With most of Fulani people being Muslims, they can write and read Arabic. Many of them can speak either French or English, depending on the European country that colonized their region. The Fulani people speak a noun-class language which can be split into two dialect regions; Pular, spoken west of the Niger River, and Fulfulde, spoken east of the Niger River bend. A noun-class system is a device in language for constructing nouns based on having classifications for any referent – a person or thing to which a noun word refers. Fula has 24 to 26 classes of nouns, all with abstract categorization criteria not relating to gender.

Number Class Name Meaning Example
1. o Person Singular laam-ɗo ‘chief’; also loan words
2. ɓe Person Plural laam-ɓe ‘chiefs’
3. ngel Diminutive Singular loo-ngel ‘little pot’
4. kal Diminutive Quantities con-al ‘small quantity of flour’
5. ngum/kum Diminutive Pejorative laam-ngum/laam-kum ‘worthless little chief’
6. kon/koy Diminutive Plural ullu-kon/ullu-koy ‘small cats/kittens’
7. nde Various, including globular objects, places, times loo-nde ‘storage pot’
8. ndi Various, including uncountable nouns com-ri ‘tiredness’
9. ndu Various ullu-ndu ‘cat’
10. nga Various, including some large animals nood-a ‘crocodile’
11. nge mainly for ‘Cow,’ ‘fire,’ ‘sun’ ‘hunger,’ nagg-e ‘cow’
12. ngo Various juu-ngo ‘hand’
13. ngu Various ɓow-ngu ‘mosquito’
14. ngal Various including Augmentative Singular ɗem-ngal ‘tongue’
15. ngol Various, often long things ɓog-gol ‘rope’
16. ngii/ngil Various including Augmentative Singular ɓog-gii/ɓog-gii ‘big rope’
17. ka Various laan-a ‘boat’
18. ki Various lek-ki ‘tree’
19. ko Various haak-o ‘soup’
20. kol ‘Calf’ ‘foal’ ñal-ol ‘calf’, mol-ol ‘foal’
21. ɗam mainly for Liquids lam-ɗam ‘salt’, ndiy-am ‘water’
22. ɗum Neutral maw-ɗum ‘big thing’
23. ɗe Non-human Plural juu-ɗe ‘hands’
24. ɗi Non-human Plural na’i ‘cows’

Source: The table above illustrates the class name, the semantic property associated with class membership, and an example of a noun with its class marker. Classes 1 and 2 can be described as personal classes, classes 3-6 as diminutive classes, classes 7-8 as augmentative classes, and classes 9-25 as neutral classes. It is formed on the basis of McIntosh’s 1984 description of Kaceccereere Fulfulde, which the author describes as “essentially the same” as Arnott’s 1970 description of the noun classes of the Gombe dialect of Fula. Thus, certain examples from Arnott also informed this table (Arnott 1975: 5), (McIntosh 1984:44).

Pre-Colonial Nation

The Fulani people originated from the area near the Senegal River and the Upper Niger River majorly as cattle farmers who shared their lands with other groups like the Soninke. They contributed to the rise of the Empire of Ghana.

Around the 16th century, the Fulani stretched through the Sahel grassland from today’s Senegal to Sudan. These expansions were led by nomadic groups of cattle breeders eastward and westward. Though these nomadic groups were small in number, they soon expanded and increased in size solely because of the availability of grazing lands in the Sahel grasslands. Despite the expansion, two distinct groups emerged amongst them; the settled Fulani and the nomadic Fulani. These groups eventually became separate political entities with their different leaders.

The first nomadic Fulani leader to rise in the homelands of Ancient Ghana was Tenguella Koli who opposed an edict by Askia Muhammad of the Songhai Empire. The edict limited the grazing space available for them thus a revolt was sparked against the Empire in 1512. Though Koli was killed in battle, the rebellion against the Songhai rule continued.

Koli’s son went on to lead his father’s warriors across the upper Senegal River into Badiar, a region that was North-west of the Djallon Mountains. He was joined by allies from the emperor of Mali: bringing Mandinka soldiers. With the combined forces of the Fulani and the Mandinka, they went on to subdue the Soninke chiefs in power and established a new line of Kingship in 1559.

The 18th century saw a rise of the Fulani powers as they expanded southward and eastward entering into conflict with outer parts of the Oyo Empire. This expansion was led by Usman dan Fodio who established a centralized Fulani Empire. Most of the Fulani expansion in this time was tied to religion as it was Usman dan Fodio’s intent and the intent of most Fulani leaders to reform Muslim practices in the region.

Within this period, there was the rise of Jihad states invoked by political and religious Muslim leaders through what was called Jihad or Holy War. The rulers of such jihad states were called Emirs derived from Arabic title meaning general or prince or governor.

Religion

The Fulani adopted Islam as their core religion and particularly the Maliki school of Islam. They also hold on to general obligations other Sunni Muslims follow, for example praying five times a day, recital of the Holy Scriptures (the Quran) by heart, fasting, pilgrimage to the holy land Mecca (hajj), and also alms-giving to the needy.

The most important part of their belief or religion is the duty of holding on to their faith in Islam and professing that Mohammed was a true prophet sent by Allah (God).

Finally, most Fulani people are taken as Sunni Muslims but are also influenced by the larger Muslim Brotherhood. For most of the Fulani people, the settled Fulani are more devout in religious activities compared to the nomadic Fulani.

Politics

The rise to the political dominance of the Fulani people started as early as the 17th and 18th centuries with greater dominance in the 19th century. The Fulas took control of various states in West Africa and created Empires. Notable of these were the Fulani Empire founded by Usman dan Fodio which comprised of smaller states, The Fouta Djallon, and the Massina. Later on, these regions became known as the Takrur to the Arabs.

Migration

With the migration of the Berbers from North Africa to Senegal region of West Africa, the existence of the Fulani came into limelight, and they spread over most part of West Africa in a period of over a thousand years, between 900 AD to about 1900 AD. Some Fulani groups have been seen as far as the western borders of Ethiopia.

These migrations have caused encounters between the Fulani people and many tribes in Africa, with the Fulani people conquering the less powerful of these tribes.

Formation of their Identity

The Fulani civilization is anchored on four main groups identified by their family names: Baa, Bari, Jallo, and Soo. These identities are linked to the four natural elements; earth, water, fire, and wind. They also link it to the earth’s four cardinal points; north, south, east, and west.

The Fulani population retains a physical trait characterized by skin tone, hair, and facial features which depicts characteristics of phenotype. A typical Fulani may have either dark complexion, a copper-like shaped skin with lower melanin complexion, or an intermediate complexion depending on location. Due the permeation of racist ideology during colonial times and the privileges gained by providing askari troops to the French and the British, the rulers of the Fulani people consider themselves as non-blacks and refer to their neighbors as baleebe which means black. Despite this stand, their phenotype peculiarities place the Fulani as indigenous to Africa and “black Africans” to the rest of the world. Their civilization through time can be broken into four major periods:

  • Pre-historic period (around 12,000 BCE)
  • Antiquity period (from 0 to about 1450 CE)
  • The Middle Ages (from the 5th to 15th century CE)
  • Modern Times (from the 16th century to 21st century)

Famous Fulani People

Amongst the Fulani people, some of them have risen to great heights in African History both from the past and present.

Some notable ones are:

Muhammadu Buhari GCFR: a politician and presently the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He was born 17 December 1942. He is also a retired major general in the Nigerian Army and was once the head of state from 1983 to 1985 through a military coup d’etat. He emerged as president of Nigeria in March 2015 after various attempts in 2003, 2007, and 2011.

Shaihu Usman dan Fodio: born 15 December 1754 in Gobir and died 20 April 1817 in Sokoto. He was a religious teacher, a writer, and an Islamic religious promoter. He was the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate. He was a teacher in the Maliki School of law in Gobril until 1802 when he went into exile with his followers based on his reformist ideas. He eventually started a political and social revolution which reached from Gobir to Nigeria and Cameroon.

Macky Sall: Born 11 December 1961, Macky Sall is a politician in Senegal who was president since April 2012. He was re-elected in 2019. He has held many political positions in Senegal including Prime Minister from 21 April 2004 to 19 June 2007, President of National Assembly from 20 June 2007 to 9 November 2008, and also Mayor of Fatick from 1 April 2009 to 2 April 2012.

Amadou Toumani Toure: Born 4 November 1948, Amadou Toure is a Malian Politician and the 3rd President of Mali. He was president from 8 June 2002 to 22 March 2012. He was notable for the military-civilian transition which saw the birthing of a new constitution for the country. This was achieved after Toure, then Colonel Toure overthrew the regime in 1991 and arrested the President. He handed power over to the first elected democratic president in 1992, President Alpha Oumar Konare. He later entered politics after retiring from the military about ten years later. He won the presidential elections in 2002 as a civilian and was re-elected in 2007. He was forced into exile by a military coup d’etat by disgruntled soldiers.

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Oadeye

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