Debenhams’ Adverts Signs in Hausa: Worth Celebrating or Shameful?

For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of being Hausa-Fulani or rather, at our behaviour. Usually I am one who is extremely proud of my identity: I love the Hausa language, how it flows easily and I relish the slightest opportunity to speak it in the midst of friends and acquaintances of other ethnicities and nationalities; I love the beautiful and colourful cultural attire; I am excessively proud of my richly historical lineage which I can trace back several generations amongst numerous other things, and with all these, I never hesitate to take on, word for word, those whose favourite past time it is to bash “my people”. However, recently, the picture, below had the singular function of nearly reversing this proud, nationalistic, fervour to the point of making me wonder whether some of our more belligerent brothers in other parts of the country who call “Northerners” and “Hausa-Fulanis” “lazy parasites” might actually have a point somewhere.

A staff hangs the foreign language signs at Debenhams. Photo courtesy: London Evening Standard

The picture is a huge sign by popular departmental store Debenhams, here in the United Kingdom (UK), during the annual popular summer sales season, in 2011. Such big, glaring colourful signs are very common of stores in these climes during such sale seasons. On the advert sign, right below the pinkish-fuchsia coloured inscription that says “up to 25% off”, there are inscriptions in three different languages: Mandarin (Chinese), Arabic and Hausa, pretty much saying the same thing. In Hausa, “Sayarwa mai bada ma’ana” loosely means “worth while sales”. Other sales adverts in Hausa have messages such as: “Maraba” which means “welcome”; “Rangwamen 25%” meaning “25% off”; “Farashi ya da daraja” or “great value prices” and “Na gode don sayayyarka a Debenhams” which means “Thank you for shopping at Debenhams“. At face value, it is tempting to think that this is not so bad, and the fact that Hausa appears alongside Chinese and Arabic is some great achievement.

Well, I think not, for reasons which I shall explain below.

First of all, there is something preposterously ironic about any Nigerian language, and Hausa in particular, being included in such adverts in an industrialized country, meant to attract consumer goods shoppers from a developing country grappling with widespread poverty — Walter Rodney must be turning in his grave. Debenhams is one of the most popular departmental stores in the UK, renowned for its high quality, luxury and designer goods: everything from children’s wear, adults’ wear, bags, shoes and other accessories, kitchen ware, bed linen, curtains etc are pricey, top-notch quality stuff. This is in the mould of other high end stores selling luxury goods such as Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis, House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer etc. The reason why, right after English, inscriptions of sales adverts in these stores are in Arabic, Mandarin and Hausa in a European country, and not in French, German, Dutch or Spanish, is because nationales of these countries are the biggest spenders in such stores.

In recent times with the economic downturn in Europe and the rise of emerging powers such as the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and increasingly South Africa – there is an influx of foreigners with lots of new money to spend, coming to Western capitals, especially the UK to shop. In fact if you go to such stores and malls, the foreigners – the Chinese especially, the Arabs (Qataris, Kuwaitis, Saudis, UAE nationales), Indians, Brazilians, Russians – shopping (not window shopping but actually spending cold hard cash and swiping their debit/credit cards)  far outnumber their English or Europeans counterparts, such that you might begin to wonder if you are actually in Europe and in the UK and not in some part of Asia or the Middle East. A report earlier this year, stated that Chinese tourists and shoppers with their huge spending prowess rescued the British retail industry during the Christmas sales season in 2011.

As at last year, Nigerian shoppers were increasingly rivalling and outspending their Chinese, Arab and Russian counterparts. According to a February 2012 report by the London Evening Standard, “in February last year, sales to Nigerians were up 50% in London shops… while overall in 2011, Selfridges says… that Nigerians have been among its top 10 overseas shoppers for the past five years”. The report continues: “on their (Nigerians’) shopping lists (are): suits and formalwear… jewellery, cosmetics and children’s wear; labels include Paul Smith, Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Rolex while Vertu phones (exclusive luxury mobile phones retailing from £1,750 to over £5,500) are a popular purchase.” What is more disturbing is that the average transaction per Nigerian shopper pegged at £1,648 (N420,000) is higher that of the Chinese at £1,310; the United Arab Emirates nationales’ £1,267 and the Brazilians and Russians, both at £988. Only the average spending power of the Saudis (£1,974) and Kuwaitis (£1,780) surpass that of Nigerians.

Now the absurd and utterly ridiculous contradiction here is that with the exception of Nigerians, all these big spenders come from emerging market countries which have some of the world’s fastest economic growth rates, which have lifted record numbers of their citizens out of poverty and which rank high in human development indices. Nigeria comparatively sticks out like a sore and sickly thumb in this elite league of shoppers, ranking low in almost all development indices while our shopping prowess surpasses even that of China – the world’s second largest economy,  a manufacturing and exporting colossus billed to surpass the US,  by as early as 2016, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. In terms of poverty reduction, according to the World Bank, China lifted about 400 million of people out of absolute poverty in the past few decades, its GDP per capita increased five times since 1981 and the number of extremely poor people fell from 64% to 17%. Brazil has similarly lifted over 40 million people out of poverty in a little over a decade with average household income since 2003 rising by 1.8% per annum and an estimated 33 million people since 2003 have risen to the ranks of the “new middle classes” or above, according to the Financial Times. Did I mention that according to Forbes, Brazil creates 19 new millionaires every day!? It is the same story with the other countries listed here with booming economies, growing middle classes, declining poverty rates and therefore, the huge spending of their citizens is probably justified and well-deserved.

Can we honestly say the same about Nigeria where poverty has on the contrary, according to a Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report, been on the increase from 54.4% (68.7 million people) in 2004 to 69% (112.47 million people) in 2010? According to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) based on indicators such as income, education/literacy and life expectancy, parts of China (Hong Kong no. 13) and the UAE (no. 30) rank in the Very High Human Development category; Saudi Arabia (56), Kuwait (63), Russia (66) and Brazil (84) are in the High Human Development category while Nigeria comparatively ranks a distant 156 in the Low Human Development category, below countries like Kenya and Cameroon, yet our spending prowess surpasses most of the emerging powers listed above.

Secondly and most importantly, my main source of indignation here is that of all the over 250 Nigerian languages that could have been used by Debenhams, it is Hausa language that the store preferred, why? A report by Tom Harper in another issue of the London Evening Standard provides that answer thus: “foreign language signs mainly target rich, short-stay tourists from overseas.” The report quoting Marcus Appleton, a senior Store Manager at Oxford Street, one of the most popular shopping districts in the world says: “We’ve selected the most used signage terms in our stores and translated them accordingly”. Thus, it means the biggest Nigerian spenders are none other than the Hausas! Its gets more interesting and disturbing when you consider that there is a higher proportion of Yorubas (from southern Nigeria) in the UK than there are Hausas. I do not have statistics to work with here, but almost every other Nigerian you come across in the UK is Yoruba: either as a naturalized British citizen, an overseas resident, an asylum seeker, migrant worker, student etc. Of course there are Hausas, Igbos and many other ethnic groups of Nigerian origin in all of these categories, but Hausas are certainly NOT in the majority. In fact there’s a common perception (admittedly more fiction than fact) that in almost every Yoruba household in Nigeria, at least one person is obliged to leave for the UK in pursuit of better education, work or other opportunities, and of course the positive results in the Yoruba society are there for all to see.

Apparently, even with the large numbers of Yorubas in the UK, these high end stores did not use Yoruba instructions but instead opted for Hausa because according to the report cited above: “when deciding which language would appear (on the signs)… stores like Debenhams looked at the highest number of foreign shoppers who claimed their tax back with the store.” So while we have fewer Hausas who come here to study, live, work and engage in productive ventures relative to other Nigerians from other parts of the country, we however surpass everyone including the BRIC countries in extravagant spending on luxury consumer goods. This ordinarily shouldn’t be cause for alarm if we were in the same league with these BRIC countries or at the very least if the development indices in the northern part of Nigeria were the same with that of our southern brethren, but most of us are not showing-off hard-earned wealth.

Now this is precisely the source of my infuriation and grave concern. The northern parts of the country especially the North-West and North-East, where Hausa is predominantly spoken have the highest incidence of poverty compared to other parts of the country as this table shows:

Source: Nigeria Poverty Profile (PDF) National Bureau of Statistitics Page. 17

The state with the highest percentage of people living in absolute poverty is Sokoto at 81.2% and the top ranking states (all above 70%) in terms of absolute poverty are in the North East: Adamawa (74.2%), Bauchi (73%), Gombe (74.2%), Yobe (73.8%) and in the North West: Jigawa (74.1%), Katsina (74.5%), Kebbi (72.0%), and Zamfara (70.8%). Only one state in the North-Central Plateau (74.1%) and in the South-South Ebonyi (73.6%) fall within this unenviable exclusive league of poverty. This map below shows the regional distribution more graphically:

Source: Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010 (PDF) National Bureau of Statistics page 24.

We have low literacy rates, high infant and maternal mortality, collapsing healthcare facilities, an army of almajirai roaming the streets, decaying infrastructure in most parts of the north, yet our appetites for luxury goods only seem to expand in correlation with the swelling poverty, underdevelopment, and inequality. Like I stated earlier this year, such consumerist attitude is not backed by any economic prowess on our own part and gradually a needlessly competitive, consumerism culture is replacing the drive for creativity, productivity and entrepreneurship. We have a huge number of Hausa tourists with fat wallets and expensive tastes for the good life, which we buy in record numbers clutching Louis Vuitton bags, wearing Gucci shoes, strapping Rolex, DKNY or the ever popular Guess wristwatches, attired in the colourful Vlisco Hollandaise from Liverpool street, Babanrigas made of the shiniest and starchiest shaddas or suited up in Armani suits and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, with expensive accessories to match, heading back to our impoverished society where we skip the gutters, and the huge mounds of dirt that litter our pot-hole ridden roads into high walled compounds. We see nothing wrong in turning our noses at the beggars that are only but a “nuisance”, the hungry destitute children who roam the streets in their thousands, who go to bed hungry, and if they are lucky to survive the clutches of malaria, tuberculosis, the ritualists’ and traffickers’ den to reach their teens and twenties, the most they can get out of life is to become recharge card sellers, hawkers or maniacal ‘yan achabas (motorcycle drivers) drugged, disillusioned and filled with road rage.

We seem to be blind, oblivious or just nauseatingly nonchalant to how unsustainable this absurd contradiction really is and how the likelihood of it imploding and collapsing on us is ever so imminent. Being mainly adherents of the Islamic faith, we claim to be pious Muslims but there is nothing inherently pious, Islamic or noble in this extravagant, consumerist and unproductive behaviour of wasting wealth while poverty lingers and literally grows in our backyards. By so doing, we are tainting the noble image of Islam which is perhaps compounding our problems because this is not what Allah (SWT) nor the Prophet Muhammad SAW ordained.

We have forgotten that in the first place, wealth bestowed upon the rich is a trust from Allah as this Qur’anic verse indicates:

Believe in Allah and His Messenger (SAW), and spend of that whereof He has made you (temporary) trustess” Qur’an 57: Al-Hadid verse 7

…and that Allah has enjoined us empower the poor, the needy and the vulnerable:

“They (the wealthy) ask you (O Muhammad (SAW)} what they should spend. Say: “Whatever you spend of good MUST be for parents and kindred and orphans and Al-Masakin (the needy) and the wayfarer, and whatever you do of good deeds, truly, Allah knows it well.” Qur’an 2: Al-Baqarah verse 215

...and Islam admonishes against unnecessary extravagance and wasteful spending:

And give to the kinsman his due, the miskin (needy) and to the wayfarer. But spend not wastefully (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift.” Qur’an 17: Al-Isra’ verse 2

Verily, He (Allah) likes not Al-Musrifun (those who waste by extravagance)” Qur’an 6: Al-An’am verse 141

On the strength of Al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah(RA): the Prophet(saw) said: “Allah has hated for you: … waste the wealth (by extravagance with lack of wisdom and thinking)…”’ Sahih Al-Bukhari, 3/2408.

On a final note, I hope that upon reading this, if you are a Northerner, and you are Hausa-Fulani that you are sufficiently embarrassed, rightfully ashamed, absolutely disgusted and hopefully angry at what we are doing to ourselves. This is not a case of simply blaming bad leadership or blaming our politicians alone, it is our collective burden and responsibility. We are in dire need of massive attitudinal change from a society which has evolved, nay mutated, into a monstrous one, perverting a rich historical, cultural and religious heritage into one which has little regard for the most vulnerable in the society: the poor, the needy, the youth and women. We need to revive our noble values and ideals, the concept of being our brothers keepers, we need to set our priorities right, imbibe same in the youth and younger generation and ultimately salvage a society on the brink of moral, spiritual and socio-economic collapse. The first step is for you, for us all, to feel angry and ashamed, and then we can start discussing the way forward!


I noticed some people seem to have misunderstood the whole idea or reason behind the “shame/embarrassment”. I feel ashamed of being Hausa Fulani as I stated, only because of this situation, where we have glaring and increasing poverty vis-a-vis spending prowess  that tops global charts. I have no “regrets” whatsoever of my identity, lineage, culture etc. Let me give an example, imagine you are somewhere with a bunch of foreigners and another Nigerian gets arrested for something despicable, what would you feel at that moment? Well that’s the feeling (if only briefly) I am referring to.

Secondly, this is not some self-righteous write-up by someone claiming to be on a higher moral pedestal. Notice the use of “we”, “us” as opposed to “they” and “them”, meaning that I do not at all exonerate myself here. Most people love spending money, shopping and the good things in life, this writer inclusive (and in my spare time, I love going to the mall), what is not normal is our record shopping tendencies vis-a-vis the overwhelming poverty, its just wrong.

Thirdly, so long as you’re not poor (struggling to find food to eat), then I hope you feel guilty (even if its a little pinch) because of the facts presented here. As I stated, it is OUR collective problem, burden and responsibility, unlike situations where we’d normally heap all the blame on “bad leadership” and “politicians” . And more than anything, we are in dire need of attitudinal change.


A People in Terminal Decline

For a while now, I’ve had reason to believe that the people of Northern Nigeria, especially the (in)famous “dominant” group, the Hausa-Fulanis seem to be in terminal decline. Could this conviction have stemmed out of the aftermath of the 2011 Nigerian general elections and the rampage of the Northern youths against the so-called Northern leaders or the recent spate of Boko Haram attacks in the northern cities of Kano and Kaduna? Perhaps it is the intensification of the unfair media bias and the recent vitriolic, virulent and hateful diatribes against the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani Northerners in the mainstream and social media or the serial decline and retardation of the economy in the north and/or the region’s growing political irrelevance in the scheme of things in Nigeria. This conviction is coupled with a growing realization that little or nothing is being done by us, the victims, of our mostly self inflicted problems to salvage our future which is in dire jeopardy.

The most obvious problem is the serious leadership deficit in the North which became magnified before and after the 2011 general elections. There is almost a general consensus that Northerners who were at the helms of affairs in the country for several decades did little to better the life of ordinary people in the region in terms of provision of healthcare, education and other infrastructure, direction of useful investments and creation of economic opportunities for the population. The leaders are seen to have enriched themselves and their cronies while using an adept mixture of religion and ethnicity to keep people subjugated in the shackles of illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, and misery. Few leaders have utilized accumulated wealth towards establishing profitable enterprises that employ people, philanthropic organizations that empower others or other productive ends. Rather accumulated wealth is squandered in consumerist behaviour, in opulence in the midst of absolute and abject poverty. Interesting exposés on the leadership deficit have been written by analysts such as Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed and the columnist Adamu Adamu amongst several others.

While the deficit of transformational leadership is not exclusively a Northern phenomenon, it is more magnified in the North. It is these leaders who are perceived by many to have “sold out” the north during the 2011 elections hence the rampage of the youths against various emirs, a former speaker of the House of Representatives amongst others. Consequently traditional, religious and political leaders who used to command tremendous respect from people have lost their credibility, and to an extent legitimacy to speak on behalf of the people. Certain enigmatic “geniuses” have been de-robed of their toga of mystique. The people in turn are plagued by frustration, helplessness and hopelessness in the wake of un-inspiring leadership. The newbreeds like Nuhu Ribadu and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who are viewed with suspicion or seem more interested in embroiling themselves in political controversy provide virtually little solace.

Closely following the heels of the leadership deficit is the economic decline and retardation of the region. This economic decline has been accelerated by the Boko Haram insurgency, thanks to which the holy grail of foreign investments will now become ever so elusive. Once the basket of the nation on account of its agricultural productivity – the legendary, towering groundnut pyramids of Kano come to mind –   and its budding industrial activity, the north is now plagued by rapid de-industrialization. 

Buildings housing hitherto bustling factories lay derelict and abandoned in ominous gloom in Kano, Kaduna and Zaria. Poor incentives to farmers, lack of storage facilities and access to credit has led to a decline in agricultural productivity as state governments are embroiled in one fertilizer corruption scandal or the other. With the exception of Kano and to a lesser extent Kaduna, few businesses, and enterprises especially SMEs are owned and managed by Northerners. In many state capitals, the bulk of the labour force engaged in the formal sector are civil servants. The neglect of agriculture, manufacturing and other economic activity for easy oil money coming from the federal government by the state governments has aggravated this situation as the allocation is hardly directed towards reviving infrastructure, capital projects, empowering the populace or investment in non-oil sectors of the economy. The CBN governor recently stated that many states, especially in the North are economically unviable without such allocations. Instead, monthly allocations which run into billions of naira each month are expended towards recurrent expenditure and unproductive ventures such as subsidies on annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage trips mainly to reward cronyism. This dependence on oil revenues which has done little to benefit the ordinary Northerner has created an impression of the North as an unproductive region, a “liability” which contributes virtually nothing to the nation’s kitty but consumes so much because of its population and its size. Though a cursory look at history deflates this impression since the proceeds from agricultural produce of the North virtually sustained the nation before the discovery of oil.

A socio-cultural aspect of our numerous problems and which lies at the heart of it is our mind set as a people, especially amongst the Hausa-Fulanis . We have developed a mind-set that paradoxically makes us feel culturally superior when infact we are progressively retrogressing in many aspects. We look down on fellow Northerners of a different religion and ethnicity, we feel our own brand of Islam is better than the Islam practiced by a Yoruba man, an Igala or a Tiv such that you’d forgive anyone for thinking the Holy Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Hausa language somewhere in Kano. We feel many career choices especially those which involve working our way to the top are demeaning; our educated youths have been brought up with the mind set to only aim for the ultimate “secure government job” or bust, and as a result many an enterprising and creative youth’s dreams have died at stillbirth by the patriarch’s final fiat.

This paradoxical superiority complex has pitched us against other “minority” groups in the north who used to be our brothers but now regard us with contempt and derision and has been played upon by mischievous people to ferment ethno-religious tensions.  Many are quick to blame Islam or the mixture of religion and politics, but a comparison of predominantly Muslim societies who are doing relatively well-off such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Malaysia and Indonesia for instance shows Islam is not the problem, rather a crude cocktail of ignorance, and the perversion of religious teachings and cultural prescriptions. While in Iran, women outnumber men in Universities as many are highly educated and articulate, female literacy in Northern Nigeria by contrast remains abysmally low, one of the lowest in the world and ditto women empowerment though attitudes are positively changing at snail pace. The problem appears as a friend once stated that we haven’t found the right interface between culture and religion in the North.

Lastly is the all-out media war and propaganda against the North. From the mainstream media to social networks, online forums to blogs, it is hunting season for anything Northern (in this context, synonymous with the Northerner of Hausa-Fulani extraction but also any of the predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the north: Kanuri, Nupe etc). At most you need an advertorial on the pages of the numerous dailies, at the very least, you need an internet connected mobile phone and you are set to begin unleashing your full arsenal against “Northerners”. The activities of Boko Haram which have claimed more Muslim lives, wreaked more havoc to Northern cities than anywhere else are attributed to desperate Northern politicians who lost out in the political chess game, a view peddled around even by erstwhile respected intellectuals; sectarian crises and conflict which abound in every part of the country, but more frequently in the North are mostly attributed to the Hausa-Fulani Muslims who are seen to be the culprits even in situations where they are victims; even the lacklustre performance of the Jonathan administration is attributed to the “evil Northerners”. The problems highlighted above: leadership, economic decline and socio-cultural challenges have rendered us a voiceless people in this media war and propaganda, we are unable to tell our stories strongly from our own perspective while others do it for us, and they paint their version of the truth in whatever colour hue they deem fit.

Alleged Boko Haram Members Arrested in 2009

We are a people bedevilled by so many challenges which of course, this writer has barely scratched the surface of. The leadership deficit has aggravated our economic decline and retardation, and threatens not only our social cohesion but our very identity as a people. In times like these, a strong and transformational leadership is what is required to mobilize our abundant human and natural resources for us to realize our full potentials, but this deficit forms the bane of our problems. Paradoxically, while we acknowledge the failure of leadership, and the incapacity or inability of the present crop of leaders to do much to salvage our pathetic situation, we are still waiting on them.  Obviously our leaders cannot do much because they are constrained, because they are not interested or because it is a Frankestein’s monster has turned on Dr. Frankestein situation. While we “wait”, Boko Haram seems to be the only force filling this leadership vacuum in a very destructive and warped sense by co-opting the vast number of idle, unemployed and frustrated youths as willing recruits to its campaign of death and terror. Gradually, Boko Haram could become the only thing that defines us as a people, if this leadership vacuum persists and by then we WOULD BE DOOMED!

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

To further buttress my point, when I googled “Northern Nigeria” and “Arewa Nigeria”, at least 50% of the images that came up in the search results were of Boko Haram, scenes of its attacks or images of its victims. That speaks volumes.

Whatever the case, it is our generation which will suffer most because the present crop of leaders have little to lose; we will live with the consequences of their actions while our children’s future becomes increasingly uncertain. Perhaps the tone here is a tad too pessimistic when this writer concludes that the numerous problems we face in the North crowned no less by Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency gives a gloomy premonition of a bleak future . We are in a terminal decline, the question is are we doing enough to address this? What can we or should we do to reverse this certain reality?