The “Fulani Empire” is now known as the Sokoto Caliphate or “Sultanate.” Previously a political polity, it is today an Islamic spiritual community in Nigeria, (some 70 million) led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’adu Abubakar III, the 20th Sultan (also styled caliph). The Sultan is the senior Nigerian emir, and the recognized spiritual leader of the Muslims of Nigeria. Founded by Usman dan Fodio in 1804, it was one of the most powerful empires in sub-Saharan Africa prior to European conquest and colonization. Stretching from “modern-day Burkina Faso to Cameroon” it took “four months to travel from east to west and two months north to south.” The caliphate, which marked the 200th anniversary of its establishment in 2004, continued through the colonial period and afterwards, though with reduced power. A grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Sir Ahmadu Bello is counted as a father of the modern nation state of Nigeria and first (and only) Premier of the province of Northern Nigeria.
Although the role of the Sultan is usually described as mainly ceremonial, he retains considerable moral authority. One Nigerian paper says that “that most of the Nigerians questioned would rather be Sultan than President of Nigeria.” Recent Sultans have called for peace and for religious harmony, as well as for social justice, which was central to the founder’s own preaching. The Sultanate has proved itself remarkably resilient to changed circumstances, retaining a role for itself despite loss of political power. Not least of all, Sultans enjoy a reputation as mediators and pre-emptors of conflict. Hugh A. S. Johnston, who worked for 20 years as a colonial officer in the Protectorate of Northern Niger, wrote "in its heyday," the Sultanate "was perhaps better governed and more highly civilized than any other that Africans had until then evolved."
The Fulani were traditionally a nomadic, pastoral community, herding cattle, goats and sheep. They populated the grasslands between the towns throughout West Africa. With increasing trade, a good number of Fulani also began to settle in towns, forming a distinct minority.
The Fulani were mostly Muslims, as were the rulers of many of the states in the region. Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Fulani began to launch scattered uprisings against rulers who were oppressing them. These established a number of small, and usually briefly lived, emirates in the west of the Sahel.
The most powerful states in the region were the city-states of Hausaland. These had large Fulani populations, who were generally considered second class citizens. Over the centuries, however, the Hausa and Fulani had become quite integrated. One of the more marginal Hausa states was Gobir. Poor and on the periphery of Hausaland, it was ruled by a remnant of the defunct Songhai Empire. This rule was noted for its despotism towards both the Fulani and the Hausa peasants.
One of the most revered religious scholars of the region, Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) an urbanized Fulani, lived in Gobir, a leading city-state. He was a teacher in the Maliki legal tradition and a member of the Qadiriyyah Sufi order, or tariqah. His family had migrated several centuries earlier from the Senegal. He appears to have traveled widely in the region, studying with different teachers. From about 1774, he started to teach himself. With the initial approval of Nafata the ruler of Gobir, he was allowed to found a religious community at Degel, where he attracted followers. In exchange, dan Fodio blessed the monarchy and educated Nafata’s nephew and heir, Yunfa. There is some evidence that dan Fodis’s followers saw him as a Mahdi-type figure, and that the community began to arm itself as it developed into an independent city-state possibly with a millenarian outlook. Missionary preachers sent out from Degel were also converting animists to Islam and extending the city-state’s influence. Nafata saw this as a threat. Consequently, in about 1798 he banned conversion and prohibited anyone except dan Fodio himself from preaching. Dan Frodio’s preaching was probably also critical of what he saw as exploitation by the Hausa leaders, since the need for social justice was a prominent theme in his teaching and writing. When Yunfa became ruler in 1802, relations between the ruler and his former teacher became increasingly strained. Some accounts refer to an assassination attempt, by agents of Yunfa, against de Fodio. Other accounts describe an incident in which by de Fodio’s followers liberated some Muslim prisoners of Yunfa, then feared armed retaliation. Perhaps modeling himself on the example of Muhammad, who, when faced with persecution in Mecca migrated to safety in Medina, from where he was also able to launch a series of military campaigns against his oppressors (initially in self-defense) de Fodio announced a hijrah (migration) to the town of Gudu, approximately 30 miles from Degel.
There, in early 1804, his followers proclaimed him sarkin musulmi or Leader of the Faithful – a position he appears to have accepted with some reluctance. However, this marks the beginning of what became known as the Sultanate or Caliphate of Sokoto. Sokoto, a fortified city and previously capital of a Hausa kingdom, became the polity’s capital in 1809. Next, dan Fodio called for a jihad against oppressors throughout the region. He denounced Yunfa as an apostate because he had attacked, or had threatened to attack, the Muslims. Large numbers of Fulani, bringing their cavalry with them, gathered under dan Fodio’s banner. Hausa also joined in considerable numbers. Soon a general uprising was underway in Hausaland, where most of the region's governments quickly fell. Dan Fodio’s condemnation of oppression, and his call for social justice, attracted support because the people were being heavily taxed by their existing rulers. He did not fight himself but appointed commanders to act as his military deputies.
From this base in Hausaland the Fulani rapidly spread throughout the region. The open plains to the west were annexed and to the south the Fulani captured the northern section of Yorubaland. They suffered an early set-back in late 1804, when they were defeated and this was followed a period of hardship caused by lack of supplies. It is said that 200 men who could recite the Qur'an by heart died in the defeat at Battle of Tsuntua out of a total of 2000 dead. Then the tide turned in their favor, and victories followed. In October, 1808 they defeated Yunfu at his capital, Alkalawa. He was killed in the fighting. They were blocked in the east by the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu in 1810. Since Fulani strength was centered on powerful cavalry they could not expand very far southwards either, as horses were ineffective in the forests of the region and could not withstand the diseases of those latitudes. Before de Fodio died, the Sultanate was the largest state in Africa, stretching from what is today Burkina Faso to Cameroon. Others were also inspired by dan Fodio's message. A series of Fulani jihadist states spread out across West Africa.
Dan Fodio organized the new empire into a series of emirates under his moral authority. One division was governed by his younger brother, Abdullahi dan Fodio, the other by his son, Muhammed Bello (1781-1837), whom he named Emir of Sokoto in 1809. It was Bello who made Sokoto the capital, although de Fodio did not move there until 1815. From 1809 until 1815 he lived in the village of Sifawa, where, although technically still caliph, he more or less retired from governance (especially after 1811) but continued to write and to teach. He was profoundly concerned with good governance and wanted his polity to be as non-exploitative as possible. As early as 1806, he had written a treatise, the Bayan wujub al-hijra (1806) in which he set out his ideas on governance. All officials, such as tax collectors, judges, military and civil leaders must be pious and honest and the latter would be chosen from the ranks of the religious scholars. Nor was he uncritical of how some of the officials in his own empire were failing to live up to his ideals, and were using their positions to grow rich at others’ expense. Dan Fodio is widely considered to have been a mujaddid, a reformer for his age. His writing and scholarship are still respected. The polity he created was the first unified political system in that region of Africa. He may well have consciously mirrored aspects of Muhammad’s career, which had given Arabia its first unified political state.
Muhammad Bello developed the new capital at Sokoto, turning it into a major centre. The empire in the nineteenth century is often referred to as the Sokoto Caliphate. Dan Fodio's brother Abdullahi dan Fodio continued to rule in the west, and this position, known as the emirate of Gwandu, was passed to his heirs but remained subordinated to Sokoto. In addition to its military prowess, the empire became known for its scholarship. Bello, Abdullahi, and dan Fodio were all considered great scholars and despite ruling such a vast state, all three continued to produce a sizable output of poetry, and texts on religion, politics, and history. Sokoto remains the main center of Islamic learning in Nigeria. While scholarship continued in the empire after Bello's death it became separate from political life. Over time, the empire also became far more Hausa in character, with the Hausa language becoming the official language.
The empire continued to be an economic success. Hausaland, now unified, reached a level of unprecedented prosperity and the region remained safe from raids by Saharan nomads.
While the Sultan of Sokoto was paramount, the Emirs controlling the other cities, especially Kano, steadily increased in power during the nineteenth century. The Sultan is chosen by designated members of the royal family known as kingmakers (all being descendants of dan Fodio), and does not automatically pass from father to eldest son. Currently, the final decision on the succession is made by the Governor of the State of Sokoto.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the empire began to collapse under pressure from European colonialism that destroyed traditional trading patterns and armed neighboring states. The Niger River area became contested territory between Britain and France both because the river itself was seen as important for communication and transport of goods and because the area was famous for its gold. A trade treaty was signed with the British in 1853, followed by a second treaty in 1885. However, as the British - in what became Nigeria - began to shift from commerce and trade under the Royal Niger Company (formed in 1886) to creating a colony, the Sultan opposed this change in policy. Diplomacy was used to persuade many of the emirs to accept British protection, or suzerainty but military force was used against those who resisted. Both the Emir of Kana and the Sultan of Sokoto resisted the British, refusing to sign a treaty which would have recognized British suzerainty. Replying to Sir Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner, 11th Sultan (who died shortly afterwards} wrote:
Lugard sent troops to attack both capitals in 1903 and both fell, Kano on February 3rd, Sokoto on March 15th, adding 500,000 square miles to the British Empire. An article in the New York Times remarked that Sokoto was "larger and richer than some sovereign states of Europe." From then until Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the Sultanate was part of the British Protectorate of Northern Nigeria which took over the administration from the Royal Niger Company. Some emirs and chiefs were deposed but those who agreed to abolish slavery and to cooperate with the British authorities were left in place, since the British High Commissioner’s policy was to govern, where possible, through local rulers on the basis that they already enjoyed the loyalty of their subjects. Lugard replaced the defeated Muhammad Attahiru I ibn Ahmadu Atiku, the 12th Sultan with Muhammad Attahiru II ibn Aliyu Babba, the 13th.
Sokoto is now a state in the province of Northern Nigeria, with its own elected Governor. The Sultan, alongside other Emirs in Nigeria, continues to be recognized by the State. They have no official political role but most of them, including the Sultan of Sokoto, retain a role in the administration of Islamic law. With political power residing elsewhere, the Sultan emerged as a spiritual leader (although the Sultans have not all had a religious education). They rank first in the Nigerian House of Chiefs. They can be described as leaders of a religious community, rather than as religious leaders. The period from colonial rule into the independent state of Nigeria was bridged by the long reign of the 17th Sultan, Sultan Abubbakar Sadiq III (became Sultan in 1933, died in 1988), who was knighted by Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. After his death, the then President of Nigeria, Ibrahim Babangida, overrode the kingmakers’ choice of Sultan, appointing as 18th Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki, causing riots and alienating supporters of the preferred candidate, Muhammadu Maccido. Dasuki was deposed in 1996 after a change in the Presidency. He was succeeded by Maccido, the eldest son of Sir Abubakkar Sadiq III. He was also chair of the council of Northern Nigerian emirs and was president-general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. Before becoming Sultan he had worked a District commissioner in the state government of Sokoto. He died in a plane crash.
The State Governor invested the 20th Sultan (younger brother of the 19th) with his staff of office at a ceremony (known as the turbaning) attended by both the President of Nigeria and the Leader of the Opposition on November 2 2006. Members of the nobility, on horseback and wearing traditional dress, rode up to pledge their loyalty following ancient protocol. The 20th Sultan has been a professional army officer with the rank of Brigadier General. He has taken part in several Organization of African Unity peace-keeping missions and, when appointed Sultan, was Nigeria's defense attaché to Pakistan, with concurrent accreditation to Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. He has set himself a mediating role, vowing to unite all Nigerians and to bridge religious and tribal divides.
In his 2004 article, John N. Paden identifies conflict mediation as a traditional role of the Sultan, or caliph, of Sokoto and as the most important aspect of its 200-year-old legacy:
The Sokoto Caliphate was set up on the principles of justice and rule of law. It evolved into a :quasi-:federal system of emirates and local jurisdictions, with balanced responsibilities. One of :the central functions of the Caliphate leadership, including emirs (or their equivalents) has been: to try to mediate conflict, and ideally, preempt conflict before it undermines the integrity of the state. The future of the Nigerian state may well depend on how well it can build on such indigenous legacies in trying to achieve unity with diversity, and justice for all. The challenges of evaluating 200 years of experience since founding the Sokoto Caliphate will require the cooperation of :many minds and talents. This conference is an important milestone in that process.
The 20th Sultan’s appointment was warmly welcomed by members of the Nigerian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In Washington, DC, on November 13, 2007 the 20th Sultan spoke about “Muslim-Christian Relations in Nigeria” at the U.S. Peace Institute affirming his commitment to peace and to reconciliation between Nigeria’s religious communities. Pointing out that many Muslims and Christians in Nigeria live in harmony, he attributed conflict and violence including the destruction of Churches and Mosques and other atrocities to economic disenfranchisement. The 19th Sultan, who has been described as a “bridge-builder” had also attempted to foster “unity among Nigerians.” In March, 2008 the Sultan visited the Archbishop of Canterbury in England to “discuss issues in international development, peace and justice and interfaith dialogue.” Lambeth Palace described the Sultan and his father as “highly respected internationally for their insistence that peace and mutual respect must prevail—not merely tolerance—as a fruit of the faiths of Christianity and Islam.”
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