The Zarma are widely believed to have originated in the Lake Debo area of the Niger River's "interior delta," between Mopti and Gundam, in the western margin of the former Songhay Empire, in what is now Mali. Their historical proximity accounts for the high degree of linguistic continuity between Zarma and Songhay and for similarities in religious belief and political institutions. The Zarma and the Songhay treat each other as cousins, have a joking relationship, and intermarry.
Following repeated raids on the Lake Debo area by Tuareg, Fulbe, Mossi, and Soninke as early as the fifteenth century, the Zarma left for the area around Gao, and then moved into southeastern Mali. They continued to move southward during the mid-to late sixteenth century, settling in Anzourou and Zarmaganda, north of Niamey. During the seventeenth and eigthteenth centuries, some Zarma moved from Zarmaganda into the dry river-valley areas east of Niamey and into the Fakara and Zigui plateaus of Zarmatarey to the southeast.
At each stage, the Zarma settlers encountered indigenous groups, which they displaced or assimilated: Ki, Lafar, Kalle, Goole, and Sije in the dallols and plateaus of Zarmatarey. The Zarma, in turn, suffered intrusions by Mawri and Kurfeyawa from the east, but these outsiders are now assimilated. Strife between ethnic groups subsided until the early nineteenth century, when Zarmatarey was subjected to frequent raids by Lissawan and Kel Nan Tuareg from Tagazzar and Imanan in the north, and by Fulbe, who had migrated into Dallol Bosso from Say. The situation became so difficult by the late nineteenth century that the Zarma chief of Dosso, Zarmakoy Attikou, requested assistance in 1898 from French military troops stationed in Karimama (Benin). The French quickly responded, but, to the great dismay of Zarmakoy and his followers, they occupied Dosso and refused to leave, intitiating a period of nearly sixty years of French colonialism in Niger.