SPECIAL STORY: The Usman Dan fodio Jihad


The fighting had begun and it was getting clearer that the Usman Dan Fodio’s army would carry the day. The progress of the Jihad may be divided into three overlapping phases: the defeat of the Habe kings in Hausaland and establishment of Fulani control (1804-8), the Fulani attack on Bornu (1805-14) and the subsequent southward expansion of the Fulani Empire (1808-30).

The war started when Yunfa, the King of Gobir, dispatched forces to subdue the areas of revolt. The Fulani retaliated by raiding outlying Gobirawa villages. The first serious engagement took place on 21 June 1804 at Tabkin Kwatto. Here the Gobirawa army, though greatly superior in numbers, was defeated by the combined forces of the Fulani and the Zamfarawa; the latter had eagerly sought revenge on their former conquerors.

This Fulani victory had two important effects on other Fulani groups in Hausaland. First, it showed them clearly that the standing armies of the Habe kings could be defeated in battle. They had earlier thought the Hausa armies could not be defeated. Secondly, and even more important, it seemed to show divine support for the Fulani cause. Thus, although the second encounter at Tsuntsuwa led in fact to a reverse for Usman’s forces, his followers did not lose courage, indeed, their ranks swelled.

In July 1804, Usman sent messages to all Habe kings of Hausaland, demanding that they should purify their religion. No longer was it a limited struggle between Yunfa of Gobir and Usman dan Fodio; Usman had, in effect, declared war on all Hausa rulers.  Before, the thinking was that Usman and Yunfa were sworn enemies, and that was the reason for the war. But now that Usman had conquered Gobir, he wanted other Hausa kingdoms in his kitty.

In 1805, he pitched his permanent base camp at Sabongari—twenty miles from Anka, capital of Zamfara. Here, delegations of Fulani from all over Hausaland came to discuss the organization of the general revolt. He gave to the leader of each delegation a flag, blessed him and his followers and called on them to rid the country of unbelievers and establish the true Islam.

He was not a soldier. And being no soldier himself, Shehu Usman entrusted his army to his brother, Abdullahi and his son Bello. Among the new supporters who came to enlist were both the ‘faithful’ and the pure adventurers; this fact largely explains the mass slaughter and plunder which accompanied most of the Fulani victories, though they were quickly condemned by the Shehu himself.

Fortune did not always smile on the Jihad forces. An alliance between the Zamfarawa (who had now become angered by Fulani attacks on their villages) and the Gobirawa, their former enemies, was joined by Kebbi and the Tuareg; it defeated the Fulani at the battle of Alwassa and nearly captured Gwandu, which Shehu Usman had made his headquarters.

But in spite of these initial successes, the Habe kings seemed quite unable to deal with the spreading Fulani revolts, and the Fulani armies swept relentlessly through Hausaland, with the notable exception of Gobir, in the early stages of the uprising.

In the state of Zazzau (Zaria) the Fulani had one of their earliest and easiest successes. When Usman issued his call to the Habe Hausa kings to purify their religion, the only one to respond was the King of Zazzau, Isiaka Jatau, who was appointed first Emir of Zaria. He died shortly afterwards and his successor, Makau, was according to the Fulani, a ‘pagan,’ which probably meant that he made concessions to traditional religion, for Islam was not very deeply rooted in Zaria at that time.

However, according to the Abuja Chronicle, he was a Muslim; so it would seem merely that unlike his predecessor, he was not prepared to accept Usman’s authority. Usman now sanctioned the Jihad against Zazzau and late in 1804, Mallam Musa, who had received the flag from the Shehu, joined forces with a Fulani from Bornu called Yamusa.

Together, they marched on Zaria, capital of Zazzau. Almost as they arrived the Habe king and his subjects fled southwards to what has since become Abuja. Today the kings of Abuja are still referred to as ‘Sarkin Zazzau’—the original name of Zaria, which soon became an important Fulani stronghold.

Kebbi likewise fell to the Fulani in 1805 when Muhammadu Fodi, king of Kebbi (1803-26), was driven out of his capital, Birnin Kebbi, by Abdullahi. But Muhammadu set up his new headquarters at Argungu, from which for twenty-two years he offered stubborn resistance, until he was finally killed by the Fulani in 1826.

However, the resistance was carried on in spite of his death; the Kebbi dynasty continued to rule through Muhammadu’s brother, Karrari, who became the first Kebbi king of Argungu, the name by which Kebbi later came to be known. It lost its capital and part of its territory, but its kings continued to be called ‘Sarkin Kebbi.’

Hadeija, on the borders of Bornu, submitted to Umaru, leader of the local Fulani, without resistance. The neighbouring towns of Kazaure, Garin Gabas, Gatarwa and Auyo, learning quickly from the fate of others, followed suit.

Kano and Katsina both fell in 1807. The leader f the Kano Fulani, having sent to Shehu Usman for a flag, led his forces against the King of Kano. His western territories were conquered with ease, although he retained control of the east. The final encounter took place at Dan Yahaya, and once again the Fulani triumphed and the Habe king fled.

But there were many factions among the Fulani, and they were unable to agree on the choice of a ruler. They therefore sent to the Shehu to choose their ruler. The Shehu asked them who was the wisest in their midst, and when they replied, Sulumanu, servant of their general, the Shehu declared that he should be their Emir.

In Katsina also, faction and rivalry bedeviled the beginning of the Fulani campaign. Of three rival leaders— Umaru, Dumyawa Na Alhaji and Umaru Dallaji, who had all been given flags— Umaru Dallaji subsequently took over leadership of the revolt in Katsina. The king of Katsina with his followers fled from his capital fifty miles northwards to Maradi. From there, he and his successors continued to harass the Fulani for many years. Meanwhile, Umaru Dallaji managed to install himself as first Emir of Katsina.

Umaru Dallaji’s reign (1807-35) was continually threatened by the Habe kings of Maradi, who found allies in Agades and Zamfara. Not till the Franco-British boundary settlement at the end of the century — when Maradi was separated from Katsina — was peace restored between the two inveterate enemies.

In 1808, Yunfa, King of Gobir, died at the battle of Alkalawa, outside his capital, thus removing from the scene one of the staunchest opponents of Fulani domination. He had been largely successful in resisting their incursions into his territory. This resistance was maintained by his successors throughout the period of the Jihad, with the result that a considerable part of Gobir remained outside Fulani control even up to 1830.

Yet, by 1808, the real foundations of the Fulani Empire had been laid. The Shehu had taken little part in the actual campaingns, but while Abdullahi and Bello – like his more distant flagbearers –rode before his armies, he had guided and directed the revolution and supplied its inspiration.

The new Empire was divided into two: the Western Sector, with its headquarters at Gwandu, being administered by Abdullahi, while the Eastern Sector was ruled by Bello from Sokoto, which the Shehu had finally made his home. While the actual work of government fell on these two – his brother and his son – the Shehu returned to his studies. The later task of expanding and strengthening the new empire was left in the hands of his lieutenants, who achieved it by methods which were not always pleasing to him.


Mohammed El Kanemi and the Resistance in Bornu (1805-14)

Of the areas in the north still under non-Fulani rule in 1808, Bornu was the most important. It was here that the Fulani met the first serious check to their eastward expansion. In 1805 Ardo Lerlima led the Fulani rebellion against Mai Ahmed in Western Bornu. At first, Mai Ahmed was successful in driving back Lerlima’s forces. But when other Fulani groups joined the attack, they defeated Mai Ahmed at Nguru, the Galadima of Bornu’s capital, and sacked it.

Encouraged by this success, the Fulani rose in a general rebellion and their leaders succeeded in carving out a number of small emirates. Katagum was founded by Ibrahim Zarki on the eastern frontier, while Gombe was shorn from Southern Bornu by Buba Yero, another flagbearer.

A more serious challenge to Bornu’s existence, however, was led by Gwoni Muktar, who drove the Mai out of his capital, Ngazargamu, and sacked it. It seemed certain that Bornu would fall to the Fulani. But now the Kanembu arrived on the scene to the rescue of harassed Bornu. The Kanembu – like the Fulani – were a nomadic cattle-owning people, who were clearly worried at the prospect of coming under the domination of their rivals.

They had already formed a small army under a strong leader – Mohammed El Kanemi – with which they attacked the Fulani wherever they seemed most successful. El Kanemi, a saintly Moslem like the Shehu, absorbed the remnants of the Mai’s defeated army into his own and marched on Ngazargamu, which he recaptured. Gwoni Muktar was killed and Mai Ahmed restored.

In 1810, the Mai died and was succeeded by Mai Dunama and for a brief period, peace was restored in Bornu, while the Fulani strengthened their position. In 1811, Ibrahim counter-attacked and brilliantly re-took Ngazargamu. But the combined forces of Mai Dunama and El-Kanemi drove him back to Katagum.

In spite of subsequent wars, no further inroads were made into Bornu by the Fulani. El-Kanemi, having saved Bornu, established himself near its capital, where he became the real power behind Dunama’s throne, since he was considered by the people as their saviour.

In 1814, however, Dunama became tired of the cramping effect of this situation and tried to throw off El-Kanemi’s shadow. He fled from Ngazargamu with the intention of establishing himself in a new capital.

He was caught and deposed. Although he was replaced by a successor of his own line, the deposition of Dunama marked the end of the effective power of the Seif dynasty in Bornu, though they maintained their puppet role until 1846.

El Kanemi never took the royal title itself – possibly because the traditional influence of the established rulers was too strong to allow even a much respected leader like himself to capture the throne successfully. Courtly ceremonial still surrounded the Mai, but, as Clapperton recognized in 1821, the sultanship of Bornu’ was ‘but a name’.

El Kanemi’s first task, after repelling the Fulani, was to strengthen the greatly weakened Empire of Bornu by a series of campaigns against subject states which were still disloyal. Between 1815 and 1824, he reestablished control over Kanem, his precious home, and neighbouring Bagarimi. By 1824, the old power of Bornu was once more restored and the empire consolidated, although it never regained the former territories of Gombe, Hadeija, Misau and Katagum, which retained their newly won status as Fulani emirates.

Some insight into the character of El Kanemi’s rule may be gained from this description by Denham and Clapperton in 1821:

“No one could have used greater endeavour to substitute laws of reason for practices of barbarity, and though feared, he is loved and respected … compared to all around him, he is an angel, and has subdued more by his generosity, mildness and benevolent disposition, than by the force of his arms…”

El Kanemi’s rule in Bornu produced an Islamic revival similar to that of Dan Fodio. He was himself an ardent Moslem; and Islam flourished in the years of peace which followed, as it had never done before. He later criticized the course of the Jihad as it became more political and less religious, and accused Bello and the Fulani of seizing political power under the guise of religious reform.

When he died in 1835, still without the crown, El Kanemi had restored the position of Bornu in the north and successfully avoided Fulani domination. He had combined justice with power and given peace to Bornu. At the same time, he had ensured the continuation of the status quo by leaving the Mai utterly dependent on his successor, his son, Omar.

Like his father, Omar took the title of Shehu, and was content to rule through the puppet Mai Ibrahim. However, in 1846, on the occasion of the revolt of Zinder in Bornu, Mai Ibrahim tried to throw off the yoke of Omar. He enlisted the help of the sympathetic Sherif of Wadai. But Omar was able to defeat both the Zinder rebels and the combined troops of the Sherif and the Mai.

Mai Ibrahim was executed, his sons having perished in battle. Omar now became ruler of Bornu in name as well as in fact. Thus came to an end the Sef dynasty in Bornu, one of the longest and most distinguished in African history.

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