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Ethnic Groups In Nigeria: The Zarma People

The Zarma people are an ethnic group predominantly found in westernmost Niger. They are also found in significant numbers in the adjacent areas of Nigeria in Borno State, Northern Borno precisely, and Benin, along with smaller numbers in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Cameroon.

The Zarma people are alternatively referred to as Zerma, Djerma, Dyerma, Zaberma, Zabarma or Zabermawa people.

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The Zarma people migrated south-eastward from Niger Bend region of Mali where Songhai people are found in high concentration, into their current geographic concentration around the Niger river valley during the Songhai Empire period, settling in many towns, and particularly what is now Southwest Niger near the capital Niamey. Forming a number of small communities, each led by a chief or ruler called Zarmakoy, these polities were in conflict for economically and agriculturally attractive lands with the Tuareg people, the Fula people and other ethnic groups in the area. This medieval era migration is attested by the legends and mythologies within the Zarma community, with some mentioning their historic origins to be Malinke and Sarakholle, one driven by persecution by local Muslim rulers or inter-ethnic rivalries.

The ethnic groups including the Songhay-Zarma people, stretching over the Sahelo-Sudanese have shared a political and economic system based on slavery from a pre-colonial period. The slaves were an economic asset, and they were used for farming, herding and for domestic work. The slavery system has been well developed and complex, according to Rossi, where a system of social stratification developed within the slaves and a master-slave status system survived even after slavery was officially abolished during the French colonial rule. The slave communities remain a part of memories of the Zarma people.

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Society and culture

The language, society and culture of the Zarma people is barely distinguishable from the Songhai people. Some scholars consider the Zarma people to be a part of and the largest ethnic sub-group of the Songhai – a group that includes nomads of Mali speaking the same language as the Zarma. Some study the group together as Zarma-Songhai people. However, both groups see themselves as two different people.


The Zarma villages traditionally consist of walled off compounds where a family group called windi lives. Each compound has a head male and a compound may have several separate huts, each hut with the different wives of the head male. The huts are traditionally roundhouses, or circular shaped structures made of mud walls with a thatched straw conical roof.

The Zarma people grow corn, millet, sorghum, rice, tobacco, cotton and peanuts during the rainy season (June to November). They have traditionally owned herds of animals, which they rent out to others till they are ready to be sold for meat. Some own horses, a legacy of those Zerma people who historically belonged to the warrior class and were skilled cavalrymen in Islamic armies. Living along the River Niger, some Zarma people rely on fishing. The property inheritance and occupational descent is patrilineal. Many Zarma people, like Songhai, have migrated into coastal and prospering cities of West Africa, especially Ghana.


The Zarma people, like their neighboring ethnic groups in West Africa, have a rich tradition of music, group dance and singing. The common musical instruments that accompany these arts include gumbe (big drum), dondon (talking drums), molo or kuntigui (string instruments), goge (violin-like instrument). Some of this music also accompanies with folley, or spirit possession-related rituals.


Zarma people, Encyclopædia Britannica

Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates (2010). “Zerma”. Encyclopedia of Africa: Kimbangu, Simon – Zulu. Oxford University Press.

Toyin Falola; Daniel Jean-Jacques (2015). Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society. p. 916.


Featured Image Source: Indigenous Zarma of Nigeria – Facebook

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Jeremiah Aluwong

Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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