Amina: The Greatest Amazon of Zazzau

In most cases, when mentioned, it applies to Africa, the image of the African woman who is mostly used to reflect in the mainstream media, is related to poverty, migration, war and disease. Even though they are not talked about as they are supposed to, however, we have other images of the African woman these days ranging from a president to a best runway model, a successful athlete to a Nobel Laureate.

Strong African women figures, however, are not new phenomena for Africa. In history, we find strong queens and warriors influencing their time in a big way. It would be enough to mention Cleopatra of Egypt, Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia, Ya Asantewa of the Ashanti, and Queen Amina of Nigeria.

We have heard tales, traditions about their greatness and their contribution to their lands, the strong, fearless and manlike woman, who stood up to defend and protect their lands. Amina of Zazzau was one of the exceptional strong women we in the history of Nigeria. The Arabic female name, Amina means truthful, trustworthy and honest,

She was a woman who had hoped against hope that her situation, more to the point of her wealth, would not come to the attention of the money-starved royal exchequer.

Amina was a Hausa Muslim Warrior Queen of Zazzau (now Zaria), in what is now north central Nigeria. She was the subject of many legends, but is widely believed by historians to have been a real ruler, though contemporary evidence about her is limited.

There is controversy among scholars as to the date of her reign, one school placing her in the mid-15th century, and a second placing her reign in the mid to late 16th century. Then in her time, it was a common knowledge that lands, warships, knighthoods, the profits of justice, enriched the queen’s coffers.

Amina was a strong and wealth woman, with power to throw around, she was a ripe peach for the plucking, and any little slip and all the bachelors around the town were ready to pluck.

But according to legend, Amina was not ready to be anyone’s peaches or to be plucked by any man, she wanted to be a warrior and she did.

Amina was first mentioned by a source, Muhammed Bello’s history, Ifaq al-Maysur. The book was dated back to1836. According to this book, He claimed that Amina was “the first to establish government among them,” and also she forced Katsina, Kano and other regions to pay tribute to her.

Bello, unfortunately could not provide chronological details about her. She was also mentioned in the Kano Chronicle, a well-regarded and detailed history of the city of Kano, composed in the late 19th century, but incorporating earlier documentary materials. According to this chronicle, she was a contemporary of Muhammad Dauda, who ruled from 1421–38, and Amina conquered as far as Nupe and Kwarafa, collected tributes from far and wide and ruled for 34 years. A number of scholars accept this information and date her reign to the early to mid-15th century.

There was also a local chronicle of Zaria itself, written in the 19th century (it goes up to 1902) and published in 1910 that gave a list of the rulers and the duration of their reigns.

Amina was not mentioned in this chronicle, but oral tradition in the early 20th century held her to be the daughter of Bakwa Turunku, whose reign was dated by the chronicle from 1492–1522, and on this basis some scholars dated her reign to the early 16th century.

Abdullahi Smith, using similar discrepancies places her reign after 1576.

More recent oral tradition had a series of lively stories about the queen, and these had found their way into popular culture. Among them were: Amina was a fierce warrior and loved fighting. As a child, her grandmother, Marka, the favourite wife of her grandfather, Sarkin Nohir, once caught her holding a dagger. Amina holding the dagger did not shock Martha; rather it was that Amina held it exactly as a warrior would. As an adult, she refused to marry like Elizabeth the First of England for the fear of losing power.

She became so prominent that one among her images was printed on Nigerian official post card stamp. Now the question is, who was she? What made her exceptional? Was it a fact that she was born into a royal family? Or she just wanted to be different?

Her tales were told by so many, yet people still talked and talked about her fearlessness her taste for power, her inquisitive approach and her attraction to a place of authority.

Such a woman; how she grew up, the inspiration, and the vision? This is how Amina was born into royalty.

Without preamble, according to Sultan Abdullahi Smith, politically, the early communities on the plain were organised on the basis of Kauyuka (hamlets) each basically independent under a maigida  (family head). But, some of the hamlets gradually developed into garuruwa (towns) following very favourable conditions, such as soil fertility, trade and lucrative industrial activity. Similarly, the political set up was transformed.

The Masugida (family heads) gave way to sarakuma  (chiefs) whose authority superseded that of the family heads as the control of the towns extended over neighbouring smaller settlements and the tracts of land surrounding them.

Thus, through this process of expanding political authority, two birni(city) types of settlements, Turunku and Kufena, developed and controlled the whole plain of Zazzau. These two cities developed around the major inselbergs on the Zazzau plain and were said to have been inhabited by Iskoki (spirits). Since the two birane (cities) possessed religious attractions and provided security to the countryside, they virtually overshadowed all the other towns politically. The existence of these two cities raises the question as to whether the plain of Zazzau was under one or two rulers based at Turunku and Kufena.

According to one tradition, the plain of Zazzau had all along existed under a single ruler derived from Gunguma, the son of Bawo. But the capital was never static. It shifted from one part of the plain to the other. The first was Kawasri then to Rikoci both in the northeast. From Rikoci, the centre was transferred to Wuciciri, then to Turunku and finally to Kufena, before state of Zazzau was renamed Zaria and Zaria was founded.

According to tradition,it was at this period Amina was born during the reign of the Sarkin Zazzau Nohir, around 1533, she was the daughter of Bakwa, no information as to who Amina’s father was. According to tradition, it was indicated that Bakwa was probably a fief holder of the Kufena kings based at Turunku. Thus, it was considered that Amina was a grand-daughter of Sarkin Nohir, according to some legendary stories it would appear that Bakwa was either his daughter or daughter-in-law but none could dwell on that or be certain of that family lineage.

Like all children in Hausaland at the time, Amina was weaned at the age of two by Marka, the favourite wife of her grandfather. But unlike other Hausa girls of her age, who were eager to go wild and learn about being a wife and mother ,Amina spent her childhood in a different way.

According to legendary tales, we learned that as soon as she began crawling, she started to frequent the court of her grandfather, whenever the court was in full session, Amina would crawl from inside the palace straight to the dais of the king, passing the bodyguards, slaves and other courtiers. On seeing her, the king would stand up to carry her. He would then sit down placing the young lady on his lap and then proceed with the daily business. Thus, from the age of two Amina became a girl of the court.

This habit of frequenting the court continued and the various rulers never checked her. While all girls were attached to their mothers or grandmothers, thereby acquiring the skills usually associated with that sex, Amina, by attaching herself to her grandfather and by identifying herself with the court, began to acquire different skills not normally expected of girls.

There was no doubt that young Amina grew up in a special and different environment. The court was a political environment and by growing up there, Amina came to understand the operation of government, the art of dealing with different groups, slaves, courtiers and warriors present in the court. Equally important, Amina also began to learn military tactics, logistics and organisation from the leading warriors who frequented the sovereign’s court. Thus, young Amina’s close contacts with the government and its affairs, especially with the war machinery, considerably helped to shape her career in later years.

As the first born of the sovereign, she was entitled to a political office in the government  and it was said that Amina was  appointed the Magajiya (heir apparent) by her mother. Hitherto, she lived in the palace, but following her appointment she moved out to Unguwar Magajiya; the ward where the heir to the throne resided. As an officer in the government, the Magajiya was expected to attend the daily sessions of the sarki’s court alongside the other leading officials, such as the Celedime, Madawaki, Wambai, Barde and Kuyambana.

Amina was a young girl when she was appointed the Magajiya. She was sixteen, an age which was most appropriate for marriage among the Hausa people. Quite naturally therefore, she had many suitors, each one eager to have not only a beautiful young girl, but also the sovereign’s daughter as wife. Almost all the leading officers in the government of Zazzau offered themselves to the Magajiya for marriage.

There were offers even from beyond the state of Zazzau. It was said that the king of Kano, Kama Masu, sent over one hundred slaves proposing marriage to Amina, but she was not keen on marriage and all the various suitors were turned down. Her most serious suitor, according to tradition, was the Makaman Zazzau who spent a lot of his wealth in order to win her over. But all was to no avail; Amina was decidedly against marriage. There was no doubt that she preferred to lead a life of independence as an officer of the government. Certainly marriage would have affected her position in the administration and her role in the affairs of the land.

The appointment of Amina as the Magajiya brought her into closer touch with politics and she gained tremendous practical experience over the years.However, warfare remained her main interest. Here too, more frequent interaction with the leading warriors in Zazzau broadened her general knowledge about tactics and logistics. But she had never been able to put her experience into practice in the battlefield. The ruler Bakwa was not militaristic; essentially, she was a peace loving woman whose main interest was merriment. Bakwa was succeeded by her younger brother Kararna. The new ruler, unlike his predecessor, was very keen on wars and conquests.

When King Karama of Zazzau died in 1576, there was no doubt as to who the successor was likely to’ be. Not that there were no strong contenders, but the Magajiya Amina had already emerged as the most suitable successor to the office. She had proved herself a capable leader both in the home front and the battlefield.Thus when the Sarakunan Karaga (king makers) comprising the Makaina, Celedime, Fagaci and Sarki Yaki assembled, the appointment of Amina was a foregone ‘conclusion, the merriment and jubilation that accompanied her coronation testified to the general public’s approval of her accession to office.

Following her appointment, Amina outlined the policies of her administration’ during the traditional accession message to the leading civil and military officials of Zazzau. It was not a secret that the new ruler was military-oriented and she made this clear to all the citizens and her officials. She appealed to the people to wake up and face the task ahead. The queen implored the leading warriors to re-sharpen their weapon

Three months in office, the new queen set out on her premier campaign as the sovereign of Zazzau and thereafter, she fought without rest till her death. It has already been indicated that the sixteenth century was a period of general commotion not only in Zazzau, but throughout the length and breadth of the central Sudan.

This defeat marked the formal end of Songhay’s hegemony over the Hausa states. Peace and harmony reigned over Hausaland and this probably explains the state of warlessness in Zazzau during the reigns of Nohir and Bakwa. But the period of respite soon came to an end. The activities of Borno and Kano, both neighbours of Zazzau, had been very threatening to it and Amina may have been compelled to act in order to protect her territorial integrity. Alternatively, it may have been that she seized the opportunity afforded by the collapse of Songhay to embark upon a policy of territorial expansion at the expense of other contemporary powers.

Although there is no firm indication of the direction of Zazzau’s military activities since the sixteenth century, it was clear that room for expansion northwards and eastwards was very limited. The activities of Kano and Katsina, both being very active during the same period, created difficulty in the way of Zazzau to the north. The latter, probably as a measure of security, was to  establish a fortress at Gozaki, near its frontier with Zazzau. Kano on the other hand attacked Zazzau during the reign of Abdulahi Muhammed Rumfa.

Nevertheless, during the time of Queen Amina, there was no indication of war between Zazzau and its two northern neighbours. To the south and west, on the other hand, there was neither physical nor political barrier for the territorial expansion of the kingdom of Zazzau. Quite naturally therefore, the attention of Amina turned to those regions and she campaigned beyond the frontier of Zazzau as far as Nupeland in the southwest and Kwararafa in the southeast.

In regard to the former, it was said that the ruler of Nupe sent forty eunuchs and ten thousand kolanuts to her and that Amina became the first ruler in Hausaland to have had eunuchs and kola. The exploits of Amina were still widely recounted throughout Hausaland. Zazzau became the largest of the Hausa states, with Queen Amina being the mistress of all the countries conquered.

Clearly, the activities of Amina extended beyond the frontier of Hausaland to the “encircling water, on the south and west”, probably the middle Benue and Niger Regions, respectively. Consequently, the state of Zazzau expanded substantially and comprised many areas that were known as “slave regions such as the seven countries of Gwari … Gwan, dara, Doma, Yeskwa, Kwato, Adama, another Kwato… Kwararafa and Atagagara”. Even if one disputes the fact that distant territories were conquered and incorporated into Zazzau by Amina, there was no doubt that Hausa influence spread westwards and southwards through the activities of the ruler of Zazzau and through the migration and settlement of the Zazzagawa (people of Zazzau) as from the sixteenth century.

It is quite apparent that she was an outstanding military leader not only in the history of Zazzau but of the Western Sudan and she was fully committed to a policy of war and expansion. But she alone may not have been responsible for the entire ‘great expansion’. Nevertheless, there is no reason why we should not regard her reign as having marked the beginning of the processes which culminated in it. The objective for initiating so many battles was to make neighbouring rulers her vassal and permit her traders safe passage.

In this way, she boosted her kingdom’s wealth and power with gold, slaves, and new crops. Because her people were talented metal workers, Amina introduced metal armour, including iron helmets and chain mail to her army. To her credit, she fortified each of her military camps with an earthen wall. Later, towns and villages sprung up within these protective barriers. The walls became known as Amina’s Walls and many of them remained in existence to this day.

According to legend, Amina refused to marry and never bore children. Instead, she took a temporary husband from the legions of vanquished foes after every battle. After spending one night together, she would condemn him to death in the morning in order to prevent him from ever speaking about his sexual encounter with the queen.

Today, Amina is remembered ‘not just as a conqueror who devastated vast regions but also “as a builder of towns”. It was said that wherever she encamped during her various campaigns, a wall had to be built around the camp. The various camps eventually developed into towns. It is therefore not surprising that many walled settlements in Zazzau trace their origin to the period of Amina. She helped Zazzau (Zaria) become the center of trade and to gain more land.

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