The Sokoto Caliphate In The Nineteenth Century (1820 – 1880) – M. Last
In 1820 the Sokoto caliphate was composed of some seven major emirates with a further ten large emirates still in the process of formation. Borno too was re-established after the retreat from its capital and the loss of extensive areas in the west and south.
In order to understand the changes implied by the terms ‘caliphate’ and ’emirate’, let us briefly and very schematically recapitulate the old political system the reformers had replaced. The most notable feature of the old system was the role of the king, known variously as mai, sarki, etsu, alafin. Before the shifts in power in the late eighteenth century, the king had ritual functions and a role that required a certain seclusion from the public; the palace was more sacred than a mere house.
The king was more or less above politics, a symbol of great authority in whose name all acts were done; he represented the state. A number of men and women who as slaves or eunuchs were without kin or heirs were servants dedicated to the palace and the king’s person; they formed one section of the administration.
Another section was formed by large independent households with hereditary claims to titles, the holders of which thus had their own followings of men. A third section was the family of the king, particularly the king’s mother or sister, his brothers and sons. The composition of councils and bodies responsible for rituals or for military leadership varied in detail from state to state, often with the palace slaves and the free office-holders divided into orders through which individuals could move by promotion. Political competition was limited to the offices under the king. As far as we know there were in the late eighteenth century trends for kings to take a more active part in politics, to become more exclusively Muslim and to promote reforms on the lines of Islamic government.
Economically, it seems that it was a period of rising levels of consumption (particularly of cotton cloth) and demand for slaves; and there was a need to regulate the expanding market and protect it. The effects of these changes reverberated down to the trading, farming and pastoral communities in the countryside, as those involved in political competition sought to strengthen their hold on their bases of power; as a consequence of which the jihad found widespread support among the victims of these changes.
The Muslim reformers (who included at least one of the last, reforming Hausa kings) had a very different blueprint to institute. The role of the king was replaced by an amir neither whose person nor whose palace was sacred. Allah, and not the state personified by the king, was the source of authority. Consequently the amir was chosen not for any inherited quality of sacredness but for his personal piety towards Allah. The amir was the first among equals; his companions as a group were to share power under the amir’s leadership. As a result, the role of palace slave-officials was to be reduced to that of personal servants and the formal office of queen mother or sister was eliminated.
The amir was part of the political process, and his office was theoretically open to any suitably pious candidate. A minimal bureaucracy of ministers, judges, inspectors, police and imams was established as prescribed by the blueprint; and the regulations of the sharia law, following the Mäliki school of interpretation, were to order relations between persons and between groups. The changes were designed to limit and formalize the political processes, to prevent gross manipulation of previously unwritten rules as well as to curtail the growth of palace centred government. It was intended to do away with the ambiguity of a Muslim wielding ritual authority based on local, traditional religious belief, and replace it with an authority derived solely from Allah, an authority not only acceptable to the Muslim community but also accountable to it.
The blueprint’s detail is most conveniently set out by ‘Abdullah dan Fodio in his book to guide the Kano community on their new constitution, Diyd” alhukkatn. But as problems arose, Muhammad Bello and subsequent caliphs wrote letters to the various leaders of nascent communities, outlining the crucial elements of the new system and adding some practical details. From one viewpoint, the political and intellectual. history of the nineteenth century can be seen as an extended exercise in trying to implement or modify the reformers’ blueprint. From another viewpoint (also implied in the blueprint), it is a history of the development and purposeful integration of the rural economies of the region, and their closer linking with first the Mediterranean and later the Atlantic economies. To these reformers’ concerns, there was also added a distinctive sense of urgency and seriousness if the community was to be rebuilt, materially and spiritually, in time for the expected coming of the Mahdï.
The office of caliph
One of the most important innovations the reformers instituted was the office of caliph. In the eighteenth century the Hausa states and their neighbours were autonomous political units. Borno had exercised a degree of suzerainty over the states at various times in the past, and had used the term caliph; its mai even in the eighteenth century was the most senior, probably the most powerful ruler in the area. Under the new system the emirates were clearly under the suzerainty of the caliph at Sokoto, from whom authority to govern in specific areas emanated.
With its explicit basis in Islamic constitutional practice, the caliph was formally above any local or ethnic identity in a way no previous suzerain had been; and in recognition of the otherworldly source of his authority, the role of caliph was to be demonstrably different from that of previous rulers – without ceremony or ritualization, without ostentatious wealth. When Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio died in April 1817, the lands of the caliph has already been divided up and administered in two main blocs. The division into quadrants is common enough: Wadai and Borno had probably used it and the symbolic maps of Hausa towns employ a similar conception. The fourfold division resolves into two pairs, each with a senior and two junior partners.
With Bello’s succession in 1817 to the office of caliph, the pattern was changed. Before 1817 the caliph Shaykh ‘Uthmän had two officials to whom he delegated all responsibility – Tus brother ‘Abdullah as vizier, and his son Muhammad Bello as amir al-Sûdân ÇAmlr of the Blacks’). After 1817 the caliph (now Muhammad Bello) left full responsibility for the western emirates delegated as before to his uncle ‘Abdullah, now known simply as ‘the amir’; but he kept for himself full responsibility for the eastern emirates, delegating only executive duties to his friend and servant Gidado, who was now to be known as the vizier. As responsibility included retaining the taxes derived from the area, it was appropriate that the richer emirates should fall within the caliph’s sphere. For the eastern emirates, particularly Kano and Zaria in the early period, were able to underwrite the caliphal economy.
Without these payments it would have been difficult to develop the caliphal capital and its hinterland, or even maintain an appropriate level of generosity for visitors. Captives as well as clothes and other items were sent regularly, but captives in particular were crucial both for expanding the area under cultivation around Sokoto and its outlying villages (for the area had not been a centre of cultivation before), and for putting up adequate defences such as high mud walls and flat-roofed, fireproof houses and building permanent mosques for the new settlements.
The relationship between Sokoto and Gwandu is too complex to detail here, and in part depended on the personal characters of the amirs at any given time. But there was something of the dual organization so common in West Africa, by which Gwandu had the role of uncle and represented ritual authority (the amirs of Gwandu were notable for their piety) while at Sokoto the caliph had the role of the active nephew, in charge of affairs with ultimate political authority. Such a relationship seems to have held between ‘Abdullah and Bello, and between Khafil and ‘All; it forestalled any conflict and justified Gwandu’s relative lack of interest in expanding its control over its subordinate emirates.
The relationship between the other amirs and the caliph during the period 1820-45 was imbued more with the equality of former comradesin-arms and fellow students than with the formality of superior and inferior. In particular, Yakubu of Bauchi, a veteran of the early community and not a Fulbe like the others, had a special, almost avuncular, link with the caliphs after Bello’s death. There was inevitably a considerable degree of autonomy as each amir consolidated his territorial position; but it is hard to be sure if certain appointments within an emirate (such as Kano) were not being vetted or recommended by the caliph in the same way as Shaykh ‘Uthman had carefully controlled appointments during the djihäd by tïïë strict allocation of flags.
The caliphal administration
With Muhammad Bello now acting in three capacities, as caliph, as head of the eastern emirates and as head of the Sokoto hinterland, it was necessary to establish a caliphal administration. In the first of these capacities, Muhammad Bello was engaged in writing books and letters of advice, while in his role as local commander-in-chief he took charge of the military defence of Sokoto. Furthermore, the caliph did not usually travel beyond Sokoto or Zamfara. The caliphal administration was largely responsible, then, for the supervision of the eastern emirates, and in particular for maintaining the revenue on which the caliphate depended.
For his administration, the caliph could call on five groups: his household retainers, mostly slaves or eunuchs, whose duties included for example looking after the stables; his erstwhile companions-in-arms, who now acted as advisers and special messengers; the immediate family and kin of his father the Shaykh; the leaders of local Fulbe clans; and finally the families who comprised his father’s old community and formed the scholar class in the capital. These last were given judicial or religious responsibilities in the new administration or were allocated minor territorial posts, while the major territorial responsibilities within Sokoto fell to the clan leaders and the caliph’s kinsmen.
The caliph’s advisers, given titles like waziri, magajin gari, magajin rafi, galadima, were the caliph’s links with the emirates, the majority of which came under the waziri’s office. These officials themselves had private household officials of their own and occupied distinct quarters in the town, but initially they had a relatively minor role in the territorial administration of the Sokoto hinterland or in Sokoto local politics.
They were overshadowed by the sarkin yaki or the scholarly relatives and descendants of the Shaykh. But in the course of the century, as they became large and wealthy lineages in their own right, they played an increasingly central role in Sokoto politics and particularly in the election of the caliph. A major task of the caliphal administration was to appoint or sanction the appointment of the amirs, and to resolve any disputes over succession.
The caliph’s delegate (such as the waziri) installed the new amir, having the appropriate letter with the caliphal seal ready and the space for the amir’s name left blank. The following year, the new amir would come in person to Sokoto to salute the caliph. As interregna were apt to be periods of licensed lawlessness, it was important that there be less than a week’s delay in appointing a legitimate ruler. The caliph’s delegates therefore in some instances had considerable responsibility.
Extending out of this capacity to appoint (or dismiss), the caliph and his delegates acted as mediators in the event of a major dispute involving an amir: they were the last court of appeal. Inevitably, as the office of the vizierate grew, the range of problems that came into the wazirfs orbit increased particularly as the waziri, with his own personal delegates permanently resident in the two major emirates of Kano and Zaria, was the sole travelling delegate of the caliph.
A further function of the caliphal administration was to receive or collect the gifts, tax or tribute that was destined for the treasury at Sokoto. Payments were made at least twice a year, coinciding with the two festivals of the Muslim year, though collection undoubtedly occurred in the emirates after the harvest irrespective of the date on which the festivals fell. What percentage of the total revenue collected in an emirate went to Sokoto is not known.
In addition, the caliph was an heir to part of an amir’s wealth on his death; and received a present on an amir’s accession. The caliph also received a share of the booty from a campaign in any of the emirates, though the amount seems to have depended on the local ruler and on how strongly the caliph’s delegate pressed for it. Given the informal nature of much of these payments, it is not surprising that the caliphal administration was often seen as grasping. As the political connections and importance of the vizierate itself increased, so did the waziri require more presents to redistribute in order to maintain his place in the system.
In the course of the century, when the waziri took on a greater role in Sokoto’s internal politics, the vizierate had to build up its own economic base comparable to the resources of the other notables who, unlike the waziri, had territories to administer directly. Equally, the caliph’s requirements increased as the century wore on and the international standing of the caliphate developed. The relative poverty of the Sokoto hinterland, its higher than average population of scholars and students, few farmers, many pastoralists – all of whom escaped any taxation other than zakat (alms) – made Sokoto a burden on the other emirates.
Originally, it had seemed beneficial that the new community grew up in a virtual no-man’s-land, where the temptations of materialism were largely absent. But it made the caliph dependent on the continued good will of the emirates, and on the ability of the caliphal administration to ensure that goodwill. One problem was the very size of the caliphate and the time taken in traveling the great distances involved. One contemporary calculated the caliphate as four months’ journey from west to east and two months’ journey from north to south.
Although it was possible for a runner to take a message the six hundred and fifty kilometers from Sokoto to Bauchi in eight days, the normal traveling speed of officials like the vizier was some twenty-five kilometers a day. Another factor was the relative lack of military coercion involved.
Military and diplomatic activities
The caliphate did not maintain a standing army. Indeed compared with states of similar size the Sokoto caliphate was in no sense a military machine. Its annual mobilization was often little more than an exercise to demonstrate loyalty, to threaten opposition and police the frontier. After the initial campaigns to set up a frontier, the caliphate never acted in concert to conquer more territory; nor indeed were there any plans or ambitions for doing so. The area under caliphal rule did indeed expand piecemeal through the initiative of individual amirs and freelance commanders, particularly in the south and east, but this expansion was as much a product of local emirate politics as caliphal policy.
Apart from an ideological commitment to djihad, the only permanent caliphal requirement which might prompt military action in the emirates was the need to meet the continual deficit in the Sokoto budget. Thus, though the caliph was often involved in campaigns within the Sokoto-Zamfara region, he did not campaign outside it. For the occasional major campaigns in the eastern emirates the vizier (or on two occasions the amir of Bauchi) led the Sokoto forces.
The army was not a professional force, nor was it based on squads of slave soldiers. Levies were drawn by each official from his household and from villages under his jurisdiction. Weapons and mounts were not usually provided by the state, nor were soldiers recompense except by a share of the booty. It was a duty to serve, but not usually compulsory, though doubtless there were as many perils in staying behind to defend the village against marauders and wild animals. Campaigns were fought in the dry season, usually about harvest time at the earliest (though volunteers would be short then), with the aim of destroying the enemies’ crops.
In practice rainy season warfare was impracticable, not only because of pressure from other work or the nature of the terrain, but also because rain on leather shields or bow strings was disastrous. Late dry-season campaigning was restricted by shortages of water for horses and men, but surprise attacks by small bands were feasible any time. Regiments were variously armed, with a few men mounted on horses or camels; the majority were armed with spears, bows and swords. Certain peoples specialized in archery, particularly with arrows poisoned to make up for the lack of penetrating power; others specialized in barbed spears. Swords were less common and, unless made of particularly good local iron or of imported steel, were seen as a potential liability. Guns did not become available in any significant quantity until towards the end of the period; then they tended to be the weapon of privately maintained, semi-professional (and therefore slave) forces, but their comparative lack of practice prevented them from being formidable.
As in the eighteenth-century states, the most effective weapon of the caliphate was its cavalry. Initially the reformers in the djihad had lacked horses or camels and were thus at a disadvantage against the Tuareg or the forces of the Gobir states. But cavalry had little success, not merely against the determined soldiery of the djihad, but also against walled towns or mountainous strongholds.
The history of the caliphate’s major campaigns records many defeats as well as victories, and smaller, wholly mounted contingents were probably much more effective. There was, therefore, a tactic quite distinct from the setpieces battles known as daga and which resulted in high casualties — the common raid, hari, on the civilian population. Given the heterogeneous, highly mobile character of Hausa society, with its traders, slaves and refugees, it was easy to plant spies and infiltrators in an unwary community and take the place by surprise.
In short, the caliphate did not introduce any new strategy or military technology, nor did it possess any overwhelming advantage beyond the size of its potential resources; and these were never mobilized all at once. Guerrilla warfare, brought about by the displacement of peoples after the djihäd, by food shortages due to the dislocation of agriculture, or simply by the profits to be made from the sale of captives, plagued the caliphate for much of the century. Too much can be made of the insecurity, but at least in some areas the expectation of becoming a slave at some period in one’s life was high. Ransoms could be arranged, prisoners freed, a captive might even escape, but if, as often happened, the whole family or village was broken up in a raid, there was little to return to. Trade was seemingly not much affected by warfare, though certain areas might get cut off. Trading expeditions were armed, while for some traders their staple was to supply armies with horses and weapons in return for prisoners to take away and resell at some distance from their home. Given the military limitations, diplomacy was an important aspect of caliphal policy.
The caliphs appear to have handled most of the diplomatic correspondence themselves. No state visits by the caliph took place, nor was any senior member of the caliph’s staff sent on embassies overseas. Instead passing scholars, pilgrims and traders acted as bearers of messages, and brought news of political developments abroad. Correspondence was exchanged with Morocco, Tripoli and Britain, and was preserved: but no doubt much more important exchanges were conveyed orally or have been lost.
But Muhammad Bello’s interest in external relations was as much intellectual as commercial or political. Keen and able to keep up with developments, ideas and inventions in North Africa and the world beyond, he was concerned to bring the caliphate more fully into the metropolitan Muslim world. At the same time, with his concern for the world’s approaching end and the possibility of having to migrate east to Mecca, he tried to ensure that the road be kept open, and appointed a distant kinsman of the Shaykh to oversee the Baghirmi section of the route.
Diplomacy was also important in the caliphate’s relations in the north and west. On the northern front, relations with the Tuareg were as ambiguous as the political situation was fluid. The sultan of Agades was an early ally, with his claims over the settled if not the nomad population of the area. There were allies, too, among the various shaykhs and traders; one shaykh in particular, Muhammad Djailani, attempted to raise a dßhäd, an attempt that seems to have been temporarily more successful than Djibrïl b. ‘Umar’s in the late eighteenth century. But the noble segments of Tuareg clans (particularly the Ulemiden), with their vassals, proved strong enough to prevent the formation of a powerful Muslim specialist class. In consequence the caliphate had no organized network of shaykhs similar to that of the Kunta at Timbuktu on which to draw for help.
The attempt by the caliph at Sokoto to organize such a network among the Tuareg and to take on the role of mediator in Tuareg affairs met with only limited success. Instead Tuareg scholars and their supporters could take refuge at Sokoto. Relations with the Kunta shaykhs at Timbuktu, however, were cordial. As the leading Muslim centre in~the west, the Sokoto scholars tended to look more in that direction than to Borno. Poems and visits were exchanged; the Sokoto scholars took their Kâdirï wird and some salasil from the Kunta, and in the controversy over the Tijâniyya, the Kunta at Timbuktu were the bastion of Kâdirï orthodoxy. The new caliphate at Massina, however, posed problems both for the Kunta shaykhs and for Sokoto. The exact details and sequence of Sokoto Massina relations is not yet clear, but it is difficult not to see it as inextricably bound up with the more local problems of Kunta-Massina hostilities.
Although the Sokoto caliphate could claim the allegiance of areas up to the borders of Massina beyond Liptako, Gwandu had no effective presence with which to claim Massina itself. The major obstacle to an effective western policy was the evident uncontrollability of the Argungu-Mauri-Zaberma axis; but an equal obstacle was perhaps Gwandu’s unwillingness to organize itself militarily. Unlike Sokoto, it had little regular support from Yauri, Nupe or Ilorin, all of which suffered a degree of civil disturbance lacking in the eastern emirates. The amir at Gwandu might mediate and advise; indeed the amir even went in person to Nupe, but neither the base for an effective force nor the means of sustaining it were available to Gwandu, at least not until late in the nineteenth century.
Finally, on the frontier with Borno, whose western territories had become the embryo emirates of Hadejia, Katagum, Missau and Gombe, the initial failure to reach a compromise (in the celebrated correspondence between Muhammad Bello and Shaykh al-Kanëmi during the djihäd) set the tone for the rest of the century. Mediation was rejected during the three years of Borno invasions into eastern Kano between 1824 and 1826, and no formal, public peace was made between the two states. Organized hostilities simply lapsed, without diplomacy or a decisive victory.
In consequence no ‘gifts’, the crucial symbol of international relations, passed in either direction. More successful was the mixture of diplomacy and force that resulted in truces (for example with Kebbi: the Lafiyar Togo 1866-74) or treaties with smaller neighbouring communities to which the caliphate offered protection (amana) in return for a tax. In some areas the tax, assessed collectively, stipulated captives as well as goods such as mats, and so was similar to the contributions of some emirates. But we do not know how the rate per head differed from the rate of tax on Muslims within the caliphate. But diplomacy and warfare aside, the commonest instrument of policy in inter-state relations was economic.
Military destruction of crops or grain stores was only one aspect. Particular groups, such as the Tuareg, might be refused access to markets, to certain commodities (like grain) or to wells. Given the local annual variations in rainfall, such bans could be very effective. Less effective were embargoes on the export or import of items such as horses, weapons, salt or types of cloth, while an indiscriminate blockade of towns or areas was difficult to sustain, not least because smuggling offered high profits. But the disruption in the normal flow of caliphal trade caused for example by Ningi and Mbutawa raids was serious enough to require a remedy. Indeed their own experience of severe food shortages and the interruption of the grain trade during the djifiàd had made men like Muhammad Bello acutely aware of the importance of encouraging traders by keeping roads open, establishing markets and enforcing the laws regulating fair trading. In consequence, as the caliphal economy became relatively more efficient and neighbouring peoples depended more heavily on caliphal trade and traders, economic policy was increasingly a more effective instrument of power than warfare.


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