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Trends of Migrant Political Organization in Nigeria

Eghosa E. Osaghae

II. Historical and Sociological Background of Migrant Ethnicity in Kano

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1The city of Kano was one of the most advanced cities in pre-colonial northern Nigeria, being probably the largest urban centre in Sudanic West Africa in the 19th century (Paden, 1970:250). Accounts of its origins suggest that it was founded between A.D. 1000 and 1200 during which period, according to the Bayajidda legend, centralized political authority evolved (cf. Hodgkin, 1975). By the 15th century, Kano had developed into a major Islamic, trading and industrial centre. Islam was introduced into Hausaland in the 14th and 15th centuries through the trans-Saharan trade and into Kano by the Wangara traders from Mali. Mohammed Rumfa established an Islamic theocracy in the second half of the 15th century. In the immediate pre-colonial period, Kano’s pre-eminent status as an Islamic centre was submerged after the Fulani-led jihad of Uthman dan Fodio established Sokoto as the headquarters of Islam in Nigeria. Its Emir became subject to the Sarkin Musulumi (commander of the faithful) in Sokoto, but Kano remained a centre of Islamic civilization, which it has been till today. Islam may in fact be regarded as the greatest influence in the socio-political organization of Kano, and this influence has, in several ways trickled down to the non-indigenous migrants who settled in Kano. The development of Kano was greatly enhanced by its being a major trading post in the trans-Saharan trade which connected it with the North African, Western and Central Sudanese groups. This trade not only brought Islam, but also ‘foreigners’ to the city. Kano was attractive to foreigners because, in addition to its being a major trading post, it was a famous industrial centre. The main productive activities carried out there included dyeing, weaving, embroidery, iron mining, skin tanning and ornamental leather work.

2One remarkable aspect about the growth of Kano city, which is of great interest to our present study is that right from its formative stages, Kano developed a cosmopolitan outlook, unlike many other cities. Kano, therefore, did not become cosmopolitan as a result of colonialism; colonialism only expanded its cosmopolitan frontiers because it opened the city to migrants from southern Nigeria, principally the Igbo and Yoruba. Prior to colonialism, Kano was a large urban settlement. By the 16th century, its population was estimated at 75,000 (Mauny, 1961) and, by 1851, it was organized into about 74 quarters (Mabogunje, 1968). Crowder (1978:30) informs us that each quarter or ward was headed by the Mai Unguwa, who was responsible to the Emir. This quarter chieftainship constitutes one of the distant roots of the emergence of migrant ethnic empires as we shall discuss below.

3The quarters were divided into two areas which made up Kano city. On the one hand was the birni, the walled, traditional, sometimes called ‘holy’ city which has, over the years, been almost exclusively reserved for Kano indigenes and other Hausa, and on the other was the waje, the outside city where non-indigenes lived in their quarters and groups. Under colonial rule, Nassarawa and Sabon Gari became important parts of Waje, the former being European quarters and, the latter, the quarters of southern Nigerian and other non-Islamic migrants. These territorial divisions provide an insight into the structure of relations between Kano peoples, and ‘foreigners’, a structure which was accentuated in the colonial period. As pointed out earlier on, Kano, being a major commercial and Islamic centre, attracted a lot of foreigners, and the practice from the very beginning was to quarter these foreigners or migrants outside the walled city. This policy was bolstered by the fact that the Emir (Sarki) was the only one who had authority to allocate land and quarters. It mattered little whether the migrant settlers were from neighbouring areas like Baidawa and Wangarawa or from distant places like Nupeland or, even whether they were Muslim or not. For example, the Nupe were settled in Tudun Nafawa, the Wangara in Sharifai, the Tuaregs in Agadasawa and the Arabs in Durimin Turawa (Skinner, 1963; Paden, 1970; Barkindo, 1989; Albert, 1993).

  • 1 This thesis, which hinges on assimilation, assumes that, over time, ethnic, cultural and other pri (...)

4The major reason for settling migrants outside the walled city was to prevent, as much as possible, the pollution of Islam by kafirs (unbelievers or infidels). This reason also informed the decision by the colonial authorities to continue the policy of quarterization which led to the establishment of Sabon Gari. Kano’s considerable experience with migrants, according to Paden (1970:242) explains the complex of categories which have arisen to accommodate the different types of communal identity. This long history has also made Kano a popular area of study for students of urban ethnicity. Paden (1970, 1973) is one such student who has looked at inter-ethnic relations in Kano from the point of view of incorporation of identities a la ‘melting pot thesis’.1 In his analysis, he identifies Islamic brotherhoods as the major tools of incorporation. Paden’s concern is, however, with Hausa and Fulani migrants, and not with the unassimilated or unassimilable migrants. Our concern is with the latter who cherish the perpetuation of their identities.

5Under colonial rule, these antecedents of Kano city were further emphasized as the city continued to thrive as the commercial nerve centre of what became northern Nigeria, while continuing as an Islamic centre. What colonization did was to transform the commercial and political orientation of northern Nigeria as a whole, away from the trans-Saharan trade and its influences to a new Nigerian formation which linked it to the southern and coastal ports:

The outstanding economic development in northern Nigeria since the British occupation has been the virtual cessation of the historic trans-Saharan trade, and the diversion of export products to the Guinea Coast as a result of the imposition of an artificial frontier above Kano and the development of a modern transportation system within Nigeria (Coleman, 1958:39).

6The cosmopolitan outlook of present-day Kano, therefore, took root within the context of the evolution and consolidation of the Nigerian state and its concomitant national, albeit colonial, economy. Mass movements of Nigerians from other parts, especially the south, into Kano began soon after the colonization of the country was completed. As Crowder (1968:340) puts it:

Under colonial rule, not only did the scale of movement of peoples increase enormously, but the status of the migrant was altered. No longer was he at the mercy of his hosts, but his position was regulated by the new colonial law (author’s emphasis).

7Crowder’s latter point is very important, although in the case of Kano, the colonial laws were meant to protect the status quo ante-colonialism. In other words, even with the influx of migrants into Kano in the colonial period, and the new laws introduced by the colonial authorities, there were no significant changes in the attitude towards ‘foreigners’, who continued to be quartered away from the Hausa in the walled city. The understanding Lord Lugard reached with the Emirs was that the colonizers would not intervene in matters of Islam and, as much as possible, everything was done to uphold this ‘pact’. The successful operation of the indirect rule system further enhanced the non-changing rules regarding outsiders.

8As elsewhere in Africa, the reasons for these mass movements were mainly, but not only, economic. People left their villages and towns for ‘lucrative’ cities like Kano where the opportunities were enormous. It only took the first stream of migrants to report back home about these opportunities for the mass movements to begin. Crowder (1968:336) summarizes the reasons for these movements thus:

Opportunities for trade or employment provoked great movements of peoples into areas inhabited by other ethnic groups ... In some cases this movement was a purely economic response to opportunities for profit; in others it was stimulated by social considerations, such as the desire to escape from the restricting nature of traditional African society; in yet others, it was induced by the policies of the central powers.

9These mass movements were made possible by the opening up of upland towns like Kano through the development and expansion of transportation systems, specifically road and rail transport, both affordable means of mass transit. The Lagos-Kano railway line (704 miles) was completed in 1911, while the Port Harcourt-Kano line (600 miles) was completed in 1926. With the development of the ports in Lagos and Port Harcourt, these lines linked Kano to the commercial and administrative nerve centres of the country, including Kaduna, Jos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Enugu and Lokoja which, like it, were also linked to the port cities. These linkages facilitated rural-urban as well as urban-urban migration as people left their villages and southern towns like Lagos, Enugu, and Ibadan to settle in places like Kano and Jos.

10The railway network was complemented by the development of road networks which expanded rapidly from about 1917, mainly as feeders to the railway lines. The road network fed the north-south axis very well and it is remarkable that since the termination of colonial rule in 1960, the north-south road linkages have remained basically unchanged. The development of telegraphic, telephonic and other postal and communication systems in the 1920s completed the integration of the national economy which engendered the mass migrations to the north. To be sure, these infrastructural developments were meant to further the exploitation and exportation of the country’s goods as well as the importation of foreign goods by the colonial authorities. The mass migrations which they fostered were therefore, of secondary rather than of primary consequence. The primacy of the economic factor is, indeed, underscored by the point that the introduction of groundnut as a cash crop during the 1920s and the emergence of Kano as the ‘groundnut capital’ of Nigeria were responsible for the mass movements of people into the town (cf. Paden, 1970:242). In addition to the groundnut economy, Kano remained the main trading centre in northern Nigeria and, from 1967, it also became an administrative centre, being the capital of Kano State.


11Sabon Gari, or strangers’ quarters in Kano, owed its origins to the mass migrations, especially the south-north migrations under colonial rule. As we saw earlier, migrant settlers in Kano were traditionally quartered separate from the indigenes in the walled city (birni). To the extent that the principal aim of doing this was to minimize contact between Muslims and non-Muslims, except for commercial purposes, the emergence of Sabon Gari can be seen as a continuation of this policy of quarterization. The main difference between Sabon Gari and other strangers’ quarters was that ‘Under colonial rule ... the status of the migrant was altered. No longer was he at the mercy of his hosts, but his position was regulated by the new colonial law’ (Crowder, 1968:340). On the other hand, there was contiguity between Sabon Gari and other strangers’ quarters to the extent that the overriding consideration became the need to preserve the Islamic outlook of Kano, and other northern cities, which was understood to be part of the pact which the colonial authorities, represented by Lord Lugard, had with the Emirs.

12The need for preservation became even more urgent because of the threat posed by Christian missionaries who, having established strongholds in the south, sought to evangelize the north. One reason Sabon Gari was created, therefore, was to prevent, as much as possible, any missionary influence in the ‘holy city’ (Ayandele, 1966; Olusanya, 1967; Crampton, 1975). In pursuance of this, it was necessary to keep southern Nigerians, who had been exposed to Christian influences apart from the indigenes. In 1912, a new law was enacted which formally prohibited non-Muslims from dwelling in the holy city, while another law which forbade marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims was enforced. The latter law forced most southerners to bring their spouses from home, and this greatly encouraged the settlement orientation of these migrants in Kano. These laws and their enforcement were not only aimed at keeping Kano safe for Islam but also sought to prevent southerners who had already begun nationalist activities aimed at overthrowing the colonial regime from spreading such ideas to northerners. This explains why, in 1914, northerners who were not even from Kano were taken away from Sabon Gari and resettled in Tudun Wada. These intentions are clearly implied in the view expressed by C.L. Temple, the colonial administrator who established Sabon Gari:

The Sabon Gari in Kano should be occupied by non-native Africans and such natives as might cause trouble if they lived in Kano city. On the whole, natives should not be encouraged to live in the Sabon Gari (quoted in Albeit, 1993:107).

13Within the framework of existing attitudes towards non-Muslim strangers in Kano and the favour these received at the hands of the British colonialists, Sabon Gari emerged in Kano in 1911 as the first of the strangers’ quarters to be established in Nigeria under colonial rule (this was formalized by law in 1917). It was planned that Sabon Gari would house agents of European merchants’ organizations, Sierra Leonians and southern Nigerians who were mostly traders and government officials and, of course, a few Christian missions. As was to be expected, the activities of the missions were monitored and seriously curtailed. One problem Sabon Gari faced from the beginning, but especially after the influx of migrants increased after the Second World War, was great pressure on land. Because there were by far more migrants than Sabon Gari could accommodate, the quarter developed as an overcrowded and haphazard urban ‘slum’. This has, to a large extent, remained the situation till today.

  • 2 This disagreement and the subsequent crisis crystallized the regional differences as between the n (...)

14As Sabon Gari developed, it became the focus of major national crises, especially those which involved north-south and Muslim-Christian divisions. By the late 1940s, following the intense regionalization of nationalistic politics in the country, and the gulf this created between northern and southern leaders, southerners in Sabon Gari became objects of hostility from Kano indigenes and other northerners. The first major instance when this hostility was unleashed was in 1953 following the motion for ‘self-government in 1956’ moved by Anthony Enahoro in the House of Representatives in Lagos. The northern political leaders sought to rephrase the motion to read ‘self government as soon as practicable’ but were dismissed as ‘backward’ by southern leaders. They felt humiliated and undermined, and subsequently returned to the north in anger.2 Chief S. L. Akintola, Deputy Action Group leader, decided to visit Kano to explain the circumstances of the motion to the people. This visit precipitated the first major riot in Kano in which southerners in Sabon Gari were subjected to a reign of terror involving the destruction of property and the loss of several lives. The hostility towards southerners in Sabon Gari both then and now can in part be explained by the impression held by Kano indigenes and other northerners that southern immigrants are infidels and exploiters who seek to extend the frontiers of ‘southern’ domination. Patterns of conflict continue to have these underlying religious and regional undertones up till the present time. It was this hostility towards southerners and the failure of both colonial and post-colonial authorities to introduce appropriate conflict management measures, that encouraged the early development of well organized associational ethnicity amongst the southern groups. It also helps to explain why associational ethnicity has remained more pronounced in Kano and other northern cities than in southern cities.

  • 3 Many Igbo leaders in Kano, however, believe there are as many as five million Igbo in Kano. This i (...)

15From inception, Sabon Gari has been largely inhabited by southern Nigerians, principally the Yoruba and Igbo. Initially, the Yoruba were the dominant group; by 1921, of 2,000 inhabitants, 1,478 were Yoruba. But, following the mass movements occasioned by the Second World War, the Igbo moved in in large numbers, and soon overtook the Yoruba as the dominant group. In the mid-1950s, 59 per cent of the Sabon Gari population was Igbo, while the Yoruba were only 24 per cent (Paden, 1970:258; Albert, 1993:218). The Igbo population fell drastically in 1966 when, following the pogrom against the Igbo in most northern cities, they fled to the Eastern Region. Then, between 1967 and 1970 when the civil war was fought, the Igbo population in Sabon Gari was reduced to insignificance (the few who managed to remain in Kano during the war had to remain in disguise or hiding). However, since the war ended, the Igbo have returned to Kano in even greater numbers and have once again become the dominant group in Sabon Gari. Rough estimates by Igbo leaders put the number of the Igbo in Kano today at 2.5 million, almost all of them residing in Sabon Gari.3

16One major difference between Yoruba settlers and Igbo settlers in Kano, which could account for the lower number of the Yoruba is the greater receptivity of the Yoruba to Hausa culture and traditions, and their significant assimilation into the Hausa community through marriage, Islam and ultimately residence relocation. Yoruba settlers, being preponderantly Muslim, with many of them coming from Kwara/Kogi states, which are historically regarded as part of the political north of Nigeria, have mixed and integrated more with the host Hausa community than the Igbo. Many of their women have Hausa husbands, while some of the older settlers have relocated from Sabon Gari to areas like Tudun Wada, Brigade and Gyedi Gyedi, with a few even living in the holy city. The number of the Yoruba in Kano is currently estimated at 1 million, of which between 20 and 30 per cent live outside Sabon Gari.

  • 4 These are Warn Street, Benin, Abeokuta, Yoruba, Aba, and Nnewi Roads, etc.

17Apart from the Igbo and Yoruba, there are other settlers in Sabon Gari, including several southern ethnic groups, notably the Edo, Urhobo, Efik, Ijaw, and Itsekiri. The diversity of settlers is reflected, to some extent, in the naming of streets in Sabon Gari after towns and ethnic groups from which the majority of the inhabitants of the street originally came from.4 Today, largely as a consequence of the increasing division between the Hausa and the middle-belt/southern Zaria groups within the contexts of religious conflicts and contestation for state power, the same hostility originally reserved for southerners has been extended to them, forcing many of them to seek ‘protection’ in Sabon Gari. In religious terms, although there is an extension of Islamic worship, Sabon Gari remains a predominantly Christian community. In fact, there is more Christian presence and activity today than there was in the past, and it is little wonder then, that most of the more recent conflicts in Sabon Gari have had a religious character. The predominant Christian groups are Anglican, Catholic, Baptist and Methodist. There are also a host of other Pentecostal and ‘native’ African churches like the Cherubim and Seraphim and Celestial sects. The denominations and churches tend to have ethnic affiliations, some are regarded as Yoruba, others Igbo, and still others Efik. Such ethnic affiliations accentuate ethnic identities by reinforcing or complementing the cultural affinities.

18This configuration of settlers describes what may be called the new Sabon Gari (as it has been since the 1980s). Old Sabon Gari had a significant proportion of non-Nigerians, with Sierra Leonians and Ghanaians being the preponderant foreigners. Indeed, Sierra Leonians controlled Sabon Gari politics in the 1930s. Politics at the time involved relations among settler groups on the one hand, and between them and the host community/colonial authorities. At both levels, the bases of involvement were the various ethnic unions and other pan-ethnic and trans-ethnic associations. The main ethnic unions included the Yoruba Welfare Central Association, Igbo Central Union, Benin Union, Ijaw Tribal Union, Urhobo Progressive Union, Itsekiri National Society, and the countrywide Gold Coast League. In addition to these more particularistic unions, there were other common interest, Sabon Gari-wide associations. These included the Plot Owners’ Association, the Landlords’ Association, and the Pito Brewers’ Union. Then, of course, there were the manifestly political nationalist groups and parties like the Nigerian Youth Movement, and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens; though most of these were southern-based.

19Following these early patterns of affiliation and interest aggregation, it is clear that the political participation of Sabon Gari residents has not always followed ethnic lines and that concerted actions were taken on a number of issues. For example, in 1944, 10 ethnic and other interest groups in Sabon Gari wrote a joint petition to the Senior Resident in Kano, protesting the planned demolition of illegal structures in Sabon Gari. In addition to the activities of the various interest groups, the quarterization policy in Kano which traditionally required each quarter to be headed by the Mai Unguwa saw Sabon Gari having a Seriki, the traditional head of the quarter. The Seriki was answerable to the Emir and to the Resident on matters that had to do with Sabon Gari, and he took part in traditional observances of loyalty, like paying homage to the Emir during Sallah celebrations. The first Seriki was Mr E. G. France, a Sierra Leonian (1931-38). He was succeeded in 1939 by Mr Baillet-Hughes, another Sierra Leonian. An attempt by the Yoruba in 1938, to have a parallel traditional organization with the Olori of the Yoruba as head was opposed by the Seriki, who accused the Yoruba community of trying to polarize the political organization of Sabon Gari. Although the Emir supported the Seriki’s position, the matter was put on hold by the colonial authority which ruled that, in order for the Olori to have official recognition, he required the approval of the Kano Native Authority in consultation with the Resident. Nothing was heard of the ‘retribalized’ organization of the Yoruba until 1974 when the first Oba of the Yoruba was eventually crowned. By the 1940s, the Seriki arrangement in Sabon Gari had become eclipsed by the ascendancy of ethnic and regional politics which greatly polarized inter-group relations in Sabon Gari. The activities of the political parties, which were ethno-regional in character, facilitated the decline of pan-Sabon Gari political organization. In the aftermath of this decline, ethnic and regional unions became the major bases for political participation.

20The origins of the Igbo migrant ethnic empire, which is the subject of this study, can be located within the early forms of traditional political organization in Sabon Gari, which produced the Seriki and Olori, as well as the ascendancy of ethno-regional associations, some of which were given traditional flavouring, from the late 1940s. Thus, today, there is no Seriki of Sabon Gari, but the Igbo and Yoruba, the dominant groups, have their own separate Seriki. This situation has not, however, meant the disappearance or irrelevance of inter-ethnic and all Sabon Gari associations devoted to dealing with problems common to all dwellers in Sabon Gari. The most important and active of such associations today is the Non-indigenes Consultative Committee, which was formed in the late 1980s to protect the lives and property of Sabon Gari dwellers in the wake of violent demonstrations and riots against them by Muslim fundamentalists all through the 1980s. Every central ethnic union is represented in the committee, which is headed by the President of the Igbo Central Association. The committee has played crucial roles in protecting the interests of Sabon Gari dwellers during periods of crisis. It has been particularly active in demanding compensation for property lost during riots and in organizing vigilante activities in Sabon Gari during riots.

21To the extent that ethnic associations are not the only channels or bases of political participation, as was argued in chapter 1, their importance cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, because there is nothing natural or traditional about their existence, the purpose of studying them is to explain why they are preferred to other associational strategies. Amin (1974:115) provides a useful framework for situating the importance of associational ethnicity and the form it takes:

The relations between the groups always depend essentially on their respective strategies, spontaneous or manipulated. These strategies are defined with reference to the economic and political problems of the modern society in which these groups are integrated. Elements of tradition and culture are invoked in one sense or another, according to the circumstances and the needs of the strategies in question, which goes to prove that they are not causes but means. Finally, ... the strategy of the host society counts as much as and even more than the aspirations of the migrants.

22The task of the remaining part of this study is to account for the emergence of the Igbo migrant empire, taking into consideration the fact that this development, as a strategy, is a matter of means rather than cause, as explained by Amin (1974).

23In concluding this chapter we shall briefly consider certain general statements about associational ethnicity amongst migrants in Kano. This will help to summarize the reaches of this chapter, and provide a backdrop against which Igbo migrant ethnicity is to be analyzed in subsequent chapters.


24Associational ethnicity emerged quite early amongst southern Nigerian migrants in Kano for a variety of reasons. The most important of these was that neither the colonial authority nor the emirate council was in a position to, or even willing to meet the welfare needs of these migrants. Even in ‘normal’ matters like education and employment, they found themselves having to organize to provide essential services. Thus, to take one example, before 1966, the Igbo in Kano had built one secondary school and a primary school to take care of the education of their children. The Christian missions, especially the Roman Catholic mission, established most of the schools in Sabon Gari, and it is instructive that both in the past and now, no government school has ever existed in the area. Added to this was the hostility towards southerners -in the North and Kano in particular, which was rooted in the regionalization of nationalism following the failure of the nationalist elite to agree on concerted or united action. The relative ‘backwardness’ of the north following several years of being closed to westernizing influences foisted a fear of possible southern domination, especially as the southerners were most assertive in demanding independence. Nationalist activity was vibrant in Sabon Gari where local branches of southern political and nationalist associations were organized, and this naturally made Sabon Gari dwellers the objects of hostility and, at the early stages, counteractive nationalism.

25The unfavourable milieu within which they had to operate made Sabon Gari migrants organize various forms of associational ethnicity quite early. This was their response and adaptive mechanism. Sometimes, in matters which affected all the dwellers, pan-Sabon Gari associations were formed, while at other times and, more usually, ethnic unions articulated the demands of the people and attended to their welfare and security needs.


1 This thesis, which hinges on assimilation, assumes that, over time, ethnic, cultural and other pristine identities will melt, as it were, and give way to a new ‘pot pourri’ culture. For a long time, the USA was cited as one place where this melting process has taken place, but it has since been found that this is a myth.

2 This disagreement and the subsequent crisis crystallized the regional differences as between the north and the south. These differences which then became difficult to reconcile, necessitated the institution of a federal structure for Nigeria.

3 Many Igbo leaders in Kano, however, believe there are as many as five million Igbo in Kano. This is clearly an over-estimation.

4 These are Warn Street, Benin, Abeokuta, Yoruba, Aba, and Nnewi Roads, etc.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1994

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