This week is special for the West African countries that are waging the much talked about war against terrorism. The insurgency and violent attacks obviously make life unbearable in almost all countries in Sahelian West Africa. What was initially called a Jihadist war against national armies has been correctly re-baptized as a cascade of terrorist attacks. That clarification is of crucial importance and in Burkina Faso for instance (one of the hard hit countries by the terrorists), religious authorities and other opinion leaders found out that it was necessary to make that difference and see to it that the population clearly understood the difference.
The Burkinabè put much effort into educating the population about the appellation that fits the attacks that started sometime in 2015. Television programmes which had religious scholars as the hosts, especially Islamist scholars, made it a point to explain the difference between the Jihad and terrorism. The key point made was that the attacks that the West African countries are suffering from are terrorist attacks, not the war of Muslims on innocent civilians. The Jihad was a practice in the history of Islam that aimed to convert populations to Islam through “holy wars”. That practice ended centuries ago and what is going on these days is simply a terrorist act. In the media now, and in everyday conversation, attacks in Burkina Faso are linked to terrorists, not Jihadists.
This education campaign did immense good to the Burkinabè society but, unfortunately, in many West African countries and several nations in the world the misconception and miseducation that equate terrorist acts to Jihadism and Islam resulted in innumerable innocent people being seen as public enemies. The miseducation led to the victimization and stereotyping of one large ethnic group in West and Central Africa – the Fulani ethnic group. They are called the Peul, Fulani, Fulbe or Fula, depending on the country in which they live and whether they speak Fulani or Fulfulde. The Peul ethnic group constitute 7.8 per cent of the Burkinabè population and live mainly in the northern part of the country.
The same ethnic group is called ‘Fulani’ in Ghana and their population is more disparate and apparently smaller. Statistics from a recent survey put the population of Fulani in Ghana at 7,300 but based on the reclusive transitory behaviour of most Fulani herders, their number in the country, including the pastoralists, could be higher.
In Senegal they represent 22 per cent of the population and as in almost all Francophone countries and Nigeria there is perfect national harmony, cohabitation and intermarriages between the Peul and all the other groups of the population. In the case of Senegal one often reads the harmonious cohabitation between the Fulani or Peul and the Wolof, the Lébou, Toucouleurs, Sérères (Serers), Mandingues and other ethnic groups in the country. The Peul or Fulani are, therefore, not discriminated against, are respected and their lives are regulated by the same laws that everybody has to abide by. They live in many other West African countries like Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Gambia, Nigeria, Niger, and so on, and Cameroon in Central Africa. They are often lumped together in the same group with the Puular but there is the slight difference between the Puular and Peul. The Puular are thought to have descended from miscegenation between the Fulani and other tribes.
The Fulani are nomads who live mostly in the Sahel or low rainfall areas. They live by rearing cattle and feed on milk and grains in general. They are experts in preparing many dishes based on milk: sour milk, fresh milk, warm milk, half fermented milk, and all these varieties of milk are eaten with millet or corn-based food. Research shows that they have lowest child mortality rate because their milk-based diet is ideal for children. Some of the main occupations and practices of this group led many people in West Africa (as it happens in every area where there is instability and violence) to hurriedly pinpoint the Peul or Fulani as the agents behind the terrorist attacks. They are a nomadic group, isolated from the rest of the population, they sometimes tend to form an enclave because of their sophisticated beauty (due to the fact that they come from the high Nile). They are integrated into society in most cases except some few ones and the majority are Muslims. They represent about half of the Muslim community in Africa.
The unfortunate disparity lies in the fact that the Fulani or Peul are well integrated into society in countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, and Niger, but in countries like Ghana, the ostracization of the Fulani has led to acts like robbery, sexual assault and much more. All these crimes are committed against the majority of the national population that does not accept the Fulani. The bellicose relationship is captured succinctly in these lines by some observers. “Over the past 20 years, recurrent and violent conflicts between farmers and Fulani pastoralists have persisted in Northern Ghana. These conflicts mainly revolve around access to and utilization of natural resources such as land and water”. Some analysts posit that the whole phenomenon can be reduced to the fact that since the Fulani are already branded as criminals, they go ahead and act accordingly. Humans act out the names, stereotypes and appellations assigned to them in most cases. In countries where they are integrated into the society, such disparity-based violence does not exist. Intermarriage exists between them and other ethnic groups and the Peul or Fulani live happily.
Since the beginning of the terrorist attacks, the general opinion wrongly branded that ethnic group as the terrorists. Some of them might really be behind the terrorist acts, like many other ordinary citizens who are jobless, penniless and needy, but no research shows that this specific ethnic group is behind the attacks. As a result, these men, women and children are shunned in most West African countries now because they are perceived as the terrorists. Since most of them are Muslims, that coupled with the general preconceived idea that most of religious violence is the prescription of Islam, then the poor Fulani are seen as the epitome of violence. Butreports contend that there is little that connects the Fulani herders to Boko Haram, (or any form of terrorism) besides the fact that the two groups (Boko Haram and Fulani) come from northern Nigeria, are Muslim, and are likely to speak the lingua franca of the north (Hausa). Therefore, the bloody terrorism bedeviling West Africa is not jihadism and the Fulani are not terrorists. Knowing that contrast, incongruity and prejudgment can help identify and combat the real enemy and restore peace in West Africa.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English, University of Cape Coast, Ghana.