Africa. The Living Memory of the Usman Dan Fodio’s Caliphate

In the 19th century, Africa’s largest State was a jihadi empire which lasted one hundred years. The Sokoto Caliphate and the name of its founder, the Fulani warlord and religious reformer Usman Dan Fodio, are still remembered in West Africa. Historian Vincent Hiribarren, lecturer at King’s College London, takes it for the subject of his contribution to the Atlas historique de l’Afrique (Autrement, 2019) edited by François-Xavier Fauvelle, holder of the research chair in history and archaeology of the African world at the Collège de France and Isabelle Surun, professor at Lille University, specialising in the comparative history of African colonisation. Interview.

Riders during the Durbar Festival, Kano, Nigeria, 2008
D’après une photo de Gareth Davies

Usman Dan Fodio, born in 1754 in Marata, modern day Niger, was a scholar who belonged to an ethnic group of semi-nomadic stock breeders scattered across the Sahel but also located in cities. His great concern was Islamic purity. In 1804, he fled the royal court and launched a jihad which was to conquer various kingdoms—especially Hausa ones—in the North of modern-day Niger, meeting opposition only from the very ancient Borno empire to the East.

His undertaking may be compared in many respects with that of the recent jihadi movements. Usman Dan Fodio conquered regions which were already Muslim, Islam having reached the Hausa peoples as early as the 14th century. His aim was to reform society and to a certain extent he was successful. By the time of his death in 1817, he had established an Empire based on some thirty emirates administered from Sokoto, the seat of his Caliphate. After his death he was succeeded by his son, Mohamed Bello. The Caliphate fell to the British army in 1903 and was incorporated into its “protectorate” in northern Nigeria. It is far from forgotten today, as Vincent Hiribarren explains.

Pierre Prier. — Is the name of Usman Dan Fodio still familiar today?

Vincent Hiribarren. — He is often referred to in Nigeria but also in Niger. He is an historical benchmark, both because he conducted a jihad but also as an intellectual reference. He is thought of as someone who founded an empire, even though the word is somewhat inappropriate because of the decentralisation of the power structure he established. He is also thought of as the originator of a sweeping intellectual tradition; he saw himself as a reformer of the territories he invaded. That is the image one encounters today in both Niger and Nigeria. It is, of course, more widespread in Nigeria: Sokoto is in that country and the largest share of the territory invaded by him is part of it today.

There is still a sultan in Sokoto, a descendant of Dan Fodio. Families there are very large and polygamous, so there are lots of people who can claim to be the heirs of Usman Dan Fodio. Whether they are or not is another matter… But it is interesting to see how many people lay claim to this legacy in Nigeria today. It is a lineage regarded as very prestigious. There are also people who descend from one of the imams appointed by Dan Fodio, they like to tell how their ancestor received the jihad banner from the hands of the great Usman Dan Fodio himself, and thus they still retain a share of his authority.

P. P.Did he see himself as a prophet?

V. H. — He never referred to himself as a prophet.

On the other hand, he did behave like the Prophet, he surrounded himself with a group of companions, followed in his footsteps to show that he was a pure product of Islam, as a Salafist might do today.

P. P.What is the resonance of Usman Dan Fodio’s jihad in the world of today?

V. H. — It is considerable. For example, Boko Haram lay claim to his legacy, which is, of course, historically absurd since they originate in the Borno empire which had already existed for a thousand years at the time, and which fought against the jihad. And not only with weapons. The struggle was also theological. The kingdom’s religious counsellor, Mohammed al Kanemi had a voluminous correspondence with Dan Fodio, in which each claimed to represent the true Islam. Usman Dan Fodio would write in substance: “You are not true Muslims, I’m going to invade you.” Al Kanemi would write back: “We were Muslims before you were and we have trained generations of scholars all over the region.”

That controversy is still alive in people’s minds today: in north-eastern Nigeria, on the territory of the former Borno empire, people will still tell you about the war against Usman Dan Fodio. For them, the Fulanis are opportunists who seize upon Islam as a pretext for invading neighbouring territories. They will echo the words of Mohamed Al-Kanemi, who saw Dan Fodio as a Muslim concerned with the purity of the faith but who also said that in Borno people adhered to Islamic practices since at least the 11th century, made the pilgrimage to Mecca, had nearly permanent contact with the northern and Eastern Sahara; hence they had a much longer history and their Sunni Islamic faith had no need of being reformed. In short “We’ve no need of Jihad, thank you very much.”

P. P. Does the memory of Usman Dan Fodio’s jihad play a role in the conflict between the Fulanis and other ethnic groups in the Sahel today?

V. H. — Definitely. They’re called religious nuts, their jihad is blamed for all the evils of the Sahel. In northern Nigeria, where there are many Fulanis that have mingled so closely with the Hausas that Nigerians often speak of “Hausa-Fulani”, the community has a long history which has always been recognized as part of the political scene both during and after the period of British colonial rule.

The accusations aimed at the Fulani go back to Dan Fodio’s jihad, when they were alleged to have invaded their neighbours to the South. Many Pentecostal Christian communities believe there exists a Fulani plot aimed at “dipping the Koran in the sea,” meaning that there is pressure from the Muslims in the north to either convert the Christians in the south or drive them to the sea. These groups forget that the advance of Christianity has marked the whole 20th century in Africa and Nigerian history in general.

One could spend hours explaining the evolution of the relationships between all those communities, but there are Christian groups which are happy just to fan the flames of the Muslim-Christian conflict and set up lobbies in other countries, especially in Europe, to keep that image alive.

P. P.The Atlas Historique de l’Afrique contains a map showing the cities that were conscripted forcibly into the jihad at the time while others rejected it. How do you explain that?

V. H. — You mustn’t imagine a vast uniform jihad. True, ideas did circulate but each time the conflict had a primarily local character, which is also true today as a matter of fact. That map merely conveys a sense of how widespread the conflicts were, but it is impossible to determine to what extent all the areas and especially the rural ones were affected by these jihads. And actually one could compare the situation depicted on these maps with those of the present century: a spot of colour on a map doesn’t mean that a whole territory is under the thrall of the jihadi.

P. P.You explain that the Caliphate did not completely disappear, since the British colonisers took it as a model for the application of their notion of “indirect rule.”

V. H. — The British colonial empire was far bigger than the French and they soon developed, especially in northern India, a technique for governing colonised populations via the local kings and princes. When they arrived in Africa, they applied the same model, and they even theorised its application precisely on the basis of the Sokoto sultanate. In a handbook on how to colonise Africa, Frederick Lugard, Governor General of Nigeria, cites the example of Sokoto, explaining how he decided to leave the Sultan’s government in place. It was very simple: keep the existing pyramidal hierarchy and place ourselves above it. The sultan is no longer sultan by the will of God, but because he has received his sceptre from the British. It was a practical choice: without the Sultan, how do you administer justice or raise taxes? And if the Sultan refuses to obey the colonisers’ orders, the British can always remove him and appoint his successor, wrote Lugard.

We may also say that the Caliphate did not completely disappear since the British left in place the Emirs originally appointed by Usman Dan Fodio. The present Emir of Kano is both a descendant of the Emir associated with the original jihad and the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. He studied in Khartoum and at Oxford. And at the same time, his power is religious, since he is the head of a Sufi brotherhood.

P. P.How do we analyse that Sokoto Caliphate episode today? As a religious movement, an ethnic or a social one? What remains of it in the 21st century?

V. H. — That jihad was aimed at transforming society as a whole. Of course, the religious dimension was omnipresent, but it made its weight felt in every area of society, political, financial, juridical… This was why it was referred to as revolutionary, so radical were the changes it sought. However, it is easy to overestimate the impact of the jihad.

It actually had great difficulty reforming all the huge regions it conquered. Once the military stage was over, the jihad remained an urban phenomenon and many rural areas were not as deeply affected as cities like Sokoto or Kano. In addition, the jihad’s role may have been exaggerated by Nigerian politicians hoping to appropriate for themselves Usman Dan Fodio’s intellectual prestige. Scholars in West Africa and elsewhere have sought to understand that jihad and have analysed it in accordance with the reading grids of their various periods. Some have emphasised its ethnic dimension, others the social ones or its religious aspects. The Sokoto jihad still inspires authors today!

Paradoxically enough, we need to find out more about the role of British colonisation. That period is often dealt with as a mere parenthesis between the Sokoto Caliphate and Nigerian independence. Yet it was the British who contributed to a certain harmonisation of judicial practices initiated by the jihad which made it possible for the emirs to administer both urban and rural territories. Thus, while certain practices such as the death penalty were banned by the colonisers, the latter also ensured an even larger dissemination of the emirs’ justice across the countryside. Although radically transformed, institutions which originated with the jihad survived throughout the 20th century.