The Hausa dominate most of what we refer to as Northern Nigeria, as well as parts of Niger, Cameroun, Benin Republic and Ghana. They are Nigeria’s largest ethnic group, with recent estimates putting their population at almost 30 million (1). The fact that the Hausa language has been the preferred language for trade across northern Nigeria for centuries has led to its adoption by smaller ethnic groups in the region as a second language. Some of these groups have actually been swallowed up by the slow but steady advance of the Hausa influence.
The origin of the Hausa is very closely connected to the fraternization that has taken place between indigenous groups and waves of settlers over a period that probably spans thousands of years. As is the case with other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria and across the world, the Hausa possess myths handed down through generations which purport to account for their existence as a people. By far the most popular is the Bayajidda story. It recounts the coming into northern Nigeria of a prince from the East (some identify him with the royal house of Baghdad in what is now Iraq). He came to the aid of the people of Daura by killing a snake which had prevented them from fetching water from the town well. The queen of Daura married him because of his heroics, and they bore a child called Bawo. This child, according to legend, was the ancestor of seven core Hausa states, as well as seven peripheral states (not necessarily Hausa, but heavily influenced by contact with the core-Hausa) (2).
It is not the custom of Historians trained in the art of analyzing accounts like the Bayijidda legend to take it as it is. The story has been dissected by the experts, who seek clues for a possible reconstruction of early Hausa history. One scholar says that the story is probably a simplified myth, and connects the coming of an “eastern prince” to northern Nigeria to waves of Berber migrations from farther north (North Africa), which he says occurred between AD650 and AD1100. These immigrants mixed with the indigenous population, while bringing their more advanced civilization to bear in such aspects as architecture, monarchic systems, and possibly matriarchy (3). But like the Bayijidda myth, this doesn’t give a conclusive answer to the question of origin. Where did these “indigenes” come from?
Researchers have turned to linguistics, archaeology and regional geography for answers. The Hausa language is known to be closely related to the Fulani, Kanuri and Shuwa Arab in Nigeria, the Mandinka and Soninke in Mali and the Senegambia (4). The ethnic groups which speak these languages are believed to have a common origin. A second interesting hint is related to the change in the climate of the Sahara, which was a lush savannah about 7,000 years ago. A combination of climate science and archaeological research has revealed that settlements demonstrating a surprisingly advanced civilization existed in that area at that time. When the region grew increasingly arid, the population in the area moved further south into the present savannah belt of West Africa (5). It seems likely that the forerunners of the Hausa arose from this original population, as did many other ethnic groups in countries such as Ghana, Cameroun, Benin, Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal.
The difficulty faced by historians in determining the origin of the Hausa may be seen as a testament to their ability to assimilate other groups by influencing them culturally. It is this strength that has enabled them to grow into a formidable entity whose language is the second most widely spoken indigenous African language.
- Johnston, H.A.S. (1967), The Fulani Empire of Sokoto. Oxford University Press, 312p. http://www.webpulaaku.net/defte/hasJohnston/ch01.html
- Miracle in the Sahara: Oasis Sediments Archive Dramatic History. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/new-sahara-research-the-lakes-of-ounianga-a-900518.html