Special Story: THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE FULANI EMPIRE (1804-1830)

 

Europeans were arriving in multitude on the coast, seizing many towns, kingdoms and their kings. They had got to Lgos and many of the Delta towns, forcing their ways to recognition. This was being done in the name of trade, but the result in many cases proved to be sheer exploitation. But one thing was certain: the Whiteman had come to stay. This arrival, however, had little effect on Hausaland and Borno.

Rulers of Haualand did not concern themselves with what was happening on the coast, not only because they did not have enough knowledge of the happenings there, but because they thought such “barbarism” could never be their lots. Their trade continued north across the Sahara and their main concern was always the struggle to gain control of the caravan routes along which this trade flowed, for whoever had the control of the route was the master of all, a struggle won by Katsina at the beginning of the 18th century.

But troubles were lurking around. The states of Hausaland were threatened not only by external enemies, such as the Tuareg in the north and the non-Muslim tribes of the south, but by internal weaknesses: their constant wars against each other. For any trivial disagreement, they attacked one another, destroying fortified cities with good armies.

Another reason for their weakness was their neglect of Islam and the corruption which prevailed in the management of state affairs by the Hausa kings during this period. Of course, they did not see Islam as the only way to God, rather they held and practised it as a sign of affluence. It was a status-symbol, just for the rich who could not even uphold the simplest of the traits of the religion.

This general weakness was to be fatal to them at the turn of the century, when state after state crumbled before the Fulani armies.

 

The rise of Gobir and the extension of Fulani influence

Zamfara had never been of great influence or consequence. Though one of the oldest Hausa states, it did not command much respect or pose any serious challenge to the powers of the day. In 1900, however, it conquered Kano and by the middle of the century, it was challenging Katsina for supremacy in Hausaland.

It was at this time too that Gobir, another relatively unimportant state in Hausaland, began to assert itself; it fought a series of hard battles with Kano between 1731 and 1743. Threatened by desert tribes on its northern frontiers, Gobir was seeking room for southward expansion in the fertile lands of Zamfara. At first, it expanded by peaceful settlement in Zamfara, whose king, Marroki, took in marriage the sister of Barbari, King of Gobir. By a treaty, the Gobirawa were also allowed to settle in Zamfara near modern Sabon Birni, for Marroki calculated that he would need allies in his struggle for supremacy in Hausaland.

In 1746, however, Gobir attacked Zamfara, sacking the capital Birni Zamfara and compelling Marroki to flee to Kiawa, in the state of Katsina. Helped by the king of Katsina, Marroki reorganised his forces and eventually defeated Barbari’s successor, Bawa, at the battle of Dutsin Wake.

But the Zamfarawa were subsequently driven from Kiawa and established a new capital to the south of their territory at Anka, from which, with their powerful ally Katsina, they continued their attacks on Gobir without much success. By the end of the 18th century, Gobir had begun to appear as the most powerful state in Hausaland. But it had at the same time contributed to the general weakness of the Hausa states and prepared the way for the Fulani revolution. It was in Gobir that the clash between the Fulani and the Habe first broke out.

The Fulani, whose origin is still disputed today, had been settling peacefully throughout the Western Sudan from Senegal to the Cameroons. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, a number of them had not only inter-married with the local population, but had gained a strong influence over political as well as economic affairs, particularly in the states of the Northern Sudan. Some had settled in towns and were known as ‘Fulani Gida,’ while others remained with their herds in centres of rich pasture land.  These were the cattle Fulani called Bororoje.

Soon, the town Fulani (Fulani Gida), who were ardent Moslems, became the leading intellectuals in Hausaland and gained high position at the royal courts. In the beginning, the royalty was using the Fulani Moslems to prepare for them what they thought were more effective charms to fight wars and wade off enemies. Later, the recitation of the Quran attracted some of the kings and they implored these Fulanis to interpret their readings. Here, they began to learn things that could help them in governance.

But they were more concerned about verses that told history and those that emphasised reasons why the subjects must obey their leaders. Many of the princes ran away from those verses of exhortations, where the religion rebuked corruption and was unequivocal about accountability. And it was because of this that many of them wanted their children trained in Arabic and Quranic knowledge. The town-Fulanis were now fully engaged: teaching not only the royalty, but all men who were eager to know much about Islam.

Since the Quran was not meant only for the rich and that it contained more messages of hope for the poor, the masses seemed more receptive to all the teachings therein and the learners grew in bound, following faithfully the teachings and words of the Fulanis now called Alfas or Mu’alim. It was this Mu’alim that was corrupted to become “Malam.”

While the masses of the Hausa states were drinking from the fountain of knowledge provided by these Fulanis and following to the letter the rulings and directions, the kings, princes and their chiefs continued to build up on corruption, deceit and outright cheating of their citizens and the excesses could not be contained by any.

The preachers at this stage could not pretend not to know what was going on, most especially now that they had enough followers that looked up to them for guidance. So they began to speak out, things that were not pleasant to the royalty. They criticised the rule of the Hausa kings and took the lead in movements for religious and intellectual reform. This did not go down well with the leaders of the kingdoms.

By 1800, the Fulani had become a definite threat to the political authority of the indigenous Habe rulers, especially in centres where they were numerous. Problem was that most of the town-Fulanis were slaves or labourers working in farms, houses of the rich and rulers of the Hausa states, but they would abandon whatever they were doing when it was time for prayers or teachings and they seemed to obey their teachers than their masters. This was not happening in one state, but in all the states of the Hausaland.

In Gobir, Fulani discontent found a focus in an elderly Moslem preacher and scholar, Usman dan Fodio. He was born at Marata in Gobir, in 1744 and came from a Fulani clan which had migrated from the old Empire of Mali. Educated at Agades under the famous scholar Mallam Jibril, in the best Islamic tradition, he came under the influence of Moslems anxious for a reform of the Islamic religion as it was practised in many Sudanese states. After his sojourn abroad for more education, he returned home.

On his return to his native Gobir, he was appointed court tutor to the royal children by the king, Nafata. In this privileged position, he gradually gained much personal influence both with his royal pupils and members of the nobility. He was respected for his vast knowledge of the scriptures and fluency of the language. For this,many milled around him, coming for his teachings.

Many people in the royal court, however, resented this. Usman was too frank, he could make jest of the king or some of his chiefs while bringing home some of his points i.e. was so fearless and it was like the rules in Gobir did not affect him or that he was a law on to himself.  It was already well known that Usman dan Fodio disliked the laxity with which Islam was preached and the way it was practised by the ruling classes of Hausaland. Furthermore, many people among them were aware that the Fulani were dangerous to the rule of the Hausa.

The origins of the Jihad

In 1802, Yunfa, who had been one of Shehu Usman’s pupils, succeeded to the throne of Gobir. He was now the king. This succession changed Shehu Usman’s privileged position, for Yunfa resented his influence over his court and particularly disliked his reformist ideas of which he was as well aware. It looked so surprising for a man who was taught to be part of the vanguard for reform and who had actively participated in the implementation of goals set by his teacher to now stand opposed to his master.

Now he was king and he tried to check the conversion of his people to Islam. He forbade men wearing the turban and women the veil – both customs which marked the Moslems in his state. This action was essentially an attempt to prevent the division of his state against himself. He wanted to reduce the number of people going in to the religion, thereby depleting the followership of Shehu Usman.

The Fulani, however, could not accept this. They replied by accusing Yunfa and other Habe rulers of reverting to paganism. This was not altogether true, for in spite of certain concessions to indigenous customs, Islam had long been established in Hausaland and was flourishing at the royal courts, where Moslem scholars formed a small, but powerful group. Gobir was no exception. But the king had to remember his large body of ‘pagan’ subjects and placate them and by this, the Fulani argued that the king was according to Islamic law a ‘pagan’.

The opposition between Yunfa and Shehu Usman arose from the fact that the king was willing to compromise on his religion and keep his throne, while the preacher rejected such compromise. Certainly, for Usman dan Fodio, the coming struggle with the Habe rulers of Hausaland was primarily a matter of religion. He could not be in a place where Islam would be practised by half. Whereas, Yunfa would not allow Usman, through Islam, to divide his state and set his people against him.

To Usman, however, his effort was to be an attempt to establish a Caliphate on the model laid down by Islam at the time of the Prophet—a state in which God-fearing princes ruled with justice, instead of pagan despots whose aim was tyranny. In this sense, the Fulani Jihad which followed was the same as other Moslem attempts to restore this model in the Sudan and Saudi Arabia during the 18th and 19th centuries. Among the early Fulani group of preachers and teachers who led this movement at the beginning, this was the paramount motive.

Apart from this religious urge, political and economic reasons also rallied the many small groups of Fulani in Hausaland as well as non-Fulani, against their Habe rulers. Politically, the feeling of tribal loyalty among the Fulani was important. They were essentially a foreign minority among the Hausa and although they were accepted, they felt a common threat to their existence. They were thus drawn together in self-defence, so terrible were the prospects of possibly being defeated later by the Hausa majority. This was especially true of the cattle Fulani, though many of them were certainly not Moslems.

An equally strong political reason was the oppressive and corrupt rule of the Habe kings. Throughout all the kingdoms, ‘gaisuwa’ or the giving of ‘presents’ to superiors was common and judges were known to be open to bribery. In addition, Moslems were pressed into military service. In fact, discontent with Habe rule had long smouldered beneath what seemed to be its general acceptance, even among the indigenous Hausa. To the Moslem Fulani, the difference between Habe rule and the ideal Islamic state was sharp and distasteful.

This distaste was further worsened by economic grievances. The town Fulani found ready allies in their discontent among their cattle-owning cousins, who resented the frequent and often excessive taxes on their herds. Without any notice, the Hausa rulers would just increase or come up with a new tax, which must be compulsorily paid by the cattle owners.

In addition, there was resentment among the Hausa Talakawa or common people, who were oppressed by heavy market taxes. The Hausa masses hated their rulers. Even the town Fulani, many of who were extremely wealthy, resented these market taxes; this was because their religious feeling, combined with their sense of justice, made it impossible to accept taxes imposed by godless rulers. This kind of grievance explained why the indigenous Hausa themselves joined forces with the Fulani ‘foreigners’.

It is clear that varying reasons—religious, political and economic —inspired the supporters of the Jihad against the rule of the Habe kings. As the Jihad progressed, it became more political and less religious; it was deserted by some of its most enthusiastic early supporters and joined by private adventurers, who were attracted merely by the promise of booty or private political gain.  In this very variety of motives laid the strength of the Jihad. From far and wide, it found supporters whose aims were readily acceptable under the aegis of ‘war on the infidel’; its armies, though hastily assembled, waxed vigorously as Habe thrones fell before them.

Seen against this background, the quarrel between Yunfa, King of Gobir and Shehu Usman dan Fodio merely provided the opportunity for simmering discontent to erupt. It challenged all Habe princes in Hausaland, because it threatened the very existence of every one of them.

 

The beginning of the Jihad (1804)

The first clash came in Gobir. Usman dan Fodio’s criticisms of Yunfa had become so strong and since two kings couldn’t have ruled a kingdom, he was forced to retreat from the royal court to his own town of Degel. There, also, he became so openly critical of the Habe regime that Yunfa planned to have him killed. Open revolt was sparked off by a small incident in Gimbana in the state of Gobir!

There, Abdussalami, one of Shehu Usman’s disciples, had refused to bless some royal troops passing through the town, no doubt because he considered their mission ‘ungodly’. It was the practice then that when the king sent his troops to war, they must be blessed by religion leaders or clerics around. This not only showed the support of the religious class for such action, but it ascertained the victory for the king’s army.

Now, Abdulsalami had refused to bless the troops, because the army belonged to a pagan king, one who had run his leader, Usman, out of town. For sure, such army would not receive his blessing. And that he did. Yunfa became angry and decided that Abdulsalami must be punished.

Gimbana was attacked and destroyed, and many of Abdulsalami’s followers were taken prisoners. Usman, however, rescued the prisoners, whereupon Yunfa threatened to destroy Degel, home of Shehu Usman, and centre of growing revolt. Thus began the general persecution of Usman and his followers.

When the heat was much, Usman himself fled from Degel to Gudu in February 1804. This period of his life is known as the ‘Hajira’ – after the example of the Prophet’s flight from Mecca. Usman’s followers saw the unmistakable signs of the times. They believed the signal was the same as that of the Prophet of Islam. And they were poised for war.

“Truly”, said his warlike brother Abdullahi, “this matter has become intolerable; recourse must be had to arms. There can be no doubt that the situation demands a prince to manage our affairs, for Moslems must not be without government”. In their moment of danger, the Fulani Moslems fell back on their common tie of loyalty – their religion.

From villages, from towns and in all the kingdoms of the Hausa states, the Fulani rose with one voice and intention, all hearkened to the call of their leaders. It was very easy to fight anywhere since most of them were itinerants, with very light luggage and the readiness to defend themselves. All they needed was a committed leader. They found one in Shehu Usman.

Thus Usman dan Fodio, Moslem scholar and preacher, at the age of 50, found himself leader of a general Fulani uprising. He was given the title ‘Amir-al-Mu’miin’ or Commander of the Faithful and early in 1804, he declared the Fulani Jihad – or Holy War – that toppled nearly all Hausa thrones and within 30 years, established a Fulani Empire in the greater part of modern Northern Nigeria.

The fight started in Gobir, which remains today in Niger Republic just north of Sabon Birni in Sokoto Province. And it was from there it spread to cover the whole of the North.

 

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: