Fulani Empire

by 03/11/2012 09:35:00 0 comments 2763 Views

The Sokoto Caliphate or Fulani Empire is an Islamic spiritual community in Northern Nigeria, led by the Sultan of Sokoto (currently Sa'adu Abubakar). It was founded during the Fulani War in 1809 by Usman dan Fodio. In the 1800s, it was one of the largest and most powerful empires in sub-Saharan Africa until British conquest in 1903. When the British took over the territory the political authority of the Caliphate was abolished and put under the Northern Nigeria Protectorate; however, the title of Sultan was retained and remains an important religious position for Muslims in the region to the current day.

Sokoto Caliphate History (1804-1903)


The independent Sokoto Caliphate arose in 1804 and grew into one of the most significant empires in Africa in the 1800s. They developed in the context of multiple, independent Hausa Kingdoms and created an empire which linked over 30 different emirates and over 10 million people.


The major power in the region in the 17th and 18th Century had been the Bornu Empire. However, revolutions and the rise of new powers decreased the power of the Bornu empire and caused them to lose control over the oasis town of Bilma and access to the Trans-Saharan trade in 1759. Vassal cities of the empire gradually became autonomous and the result was a political array of different, independent states in the region by 1780.

The result was the rise of a number of independent Hausa Kingdoms, distinct city states each led by a different Hausa aristocracy, in the region. Three of the most significant to develop were the kingdoms of Gobir, Kebbi (both in the Rima River valley), and Zamfara, all in present day Nigeria. These kingdoms engaged in regular warfare against each other, slave raids against each other, and in order to pay for the constant warfare high taxation on their citizens.

The Sokoto-Rima river system

The region between the Niger River and Lake Chad was largely populated with the Hausa, the Fulani, and other ethnic groups that had immigrated to the area. Much of the Hausa population had settled in the cities throughout the region. The Fulani, in contrast, had largely remained a pastoral community, herding cattle, goats and sheep, and populating grasslands between the towns throughout the region. With increasing trade, a good number of Fulani also have settled in towns, forming a distinct minority.

Much of the population had converted to Islam in the centuries before; however, nationalist and pagan beliefs persisted in many areas. In the end of the 1700s, an increase in Islamic preaching occurred throughout the Hausa Kingdoms. A number of the preachers were linked in a shared Tariqa of Islamic study.

Fulani War

One of the popular Islamic scholars of the region Usman dan Fodio, an urbanized Fulani, had been active educating and preaching in Gobir. Initially, he had the approval of the Hausa leadership. However, when Yunfa, a former student of dan Fodio, became the leader of Gobir he restricted dan Fodio's activities causing him to go into exile in Gudu. A large number of peoples left Gobir to join dan Fodio and as a response on Feb. 21, 1804, Yunfa declared war on dan Fodio and threatened punishment to anyone joining him.

Despite some early losses at the Battle of Tsuntua and elsewhere, the forces of dan Fodio began taking over some of the key cities starting in 1805. The war lasted from 1804 until 1808 and the forces of dan Fodio were able to capture the states of Katsina, Daura, and the important kingdom of Kano (in 1807) and Gobir in 1808.

The Caliphate was founded during the Fulani War. Initially, when Yunfa declared war on the followers of dan Fodio, the community decided to sever allegiance to Gobir and declared dan Fodio as Amir al-Mu'minin, defender of the faithful. Usman dan Fodio then declared a number of flag bearers amongst those following him, creating an early political structure of the empire. In 1809, Muhammad Bello, the son of dan Fodio, founded the city of Sokoto, which became the capital of the Sokoto Caliphate.

Growth of the Caliphate


From 1808 until the mid 1830s, the Sokoto Caliphate expanded gradually annexing the plains to the west and key parts of Yorubaland. It became one of the largest states in Africa stretching from modern day Burkina Faso to Cameroon and including most of Northern Nigeria. At its height, the Sokoto Caliphate included over 30 different emirates under its political structure.

The political structure of the Caliphate was organized with the Sultan of Sokoto ruling from the city of Sokoto (and for a brief period under Muhammad Bello from Wurno). The leader of each emirate was appointed by the Sultan as the flag bearer for that city but was given wide independence and autonomy.

Much of the growth of the Caliphate occurred through the establishment of an extensive system of ribats as part of the consolidation policy of Muhammed Bello, the second Sultan. Ribats were established founding a number of new cities with walled fortresses, schools, markets, and other buildings. These proved crucial in expanding the Caliphate by establishing new cities, settling the pastoral Fulani people, and allowing the growth of plantations which were crucial to the economy.

By 1837, the Sokoto Caliphate had a population around 10 million people.

Administrative Structure

The Sokoto Caliphate was largely organized around a number of largely independent emirates pledging allegiance to the Sultan of Sokoto. The administration was initially built to largely follow those of Muhammad during his time in Medina but also the theories of Al-Mawardi in "The Ordinances of Government". The Hausa kingdoms prior to the caliphate had been run largely through hereditary succession for leadership. The early rulers of the Sokoto Caliphate, dan Fodio and Bello, abolished systems of hereditary succession and preferred if leaders were appointed through Islamic scholarship and moral standing. Emir's were appointed by the Sultan and traveled yearly to deliver allegiance and taxes, in the form of crops, cowries, and slaves.] When a Sultan died or retired from the office, an appointment council made up of the Emirs would select a replacement. Direct lines of succession were largely not followed for Sultan, although each Sultan claims direct descent from dan Fodio.

The major administrative division was between the Sokoto Caliphate and the Gwandu Emirate. In 1815, Usman dan Fodio retired from the administrative business of the Caliphate and divided the area taken over during the Fulani War with his brother Abdullahi dan Fodio ruling in the west with the Gwandu Emirate and his son Muhammed Bello taking over administration of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Emir at Gwandu retained allegiance to the Sokoto Caliphate and spiritual guidance from the Sultan, but the Emir managed the separate emirates under his supervision independently from the Sultan.

The administrative structure of loose allegiances of the emirates to the Sultan did not always function smoothly. There was a series of revolutions by Hausa aristocracy in 1816-1817 during the reign of Muhammed Bello, but these were able to be ended by granting those members title to land.There were multiple crises that arose during the century between the Sokoto Caliphate and many of the emirates: notably, the Adamawa Emirate and the Kano Emirate.

The Sufi community throughout the region proved crucial in the administration of the caliphate. The Tariqa brotherhoods, notably the Tijaniyyah which spread when El Hadj Umar Tall was an adviser to Bello, provided a group linking the distinct emirates to the authority of the Sultan. Scholars Burnham and Last claim that this Islamic scholarship community provided an "embryonic bureaucracy" which linked the cities throughout the Caliphate.


The era after the establishment of the Caliphate saw multiple decades of economic growth throughout the region, particularly after a wave of revolts in 1816-1817. They had significant trade over the transsaharan routes.

After the Fulani War, all land in the empire was declared waqf or owned by the entire community. However, land was allocated to individuals by the Sultan or the relevant emir to families and the land could be inherited by family members but could not be sold. Exchange was based largely on monetized currency involving cowries or gold and silver coins. Major crops produced included cotton, indigo, kola and shea nuts, grain, rice, tobacco, and onion.

Slavery remained a large part of the economy even though its operation had changed fundamentally with the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were achieved only through raiding and not through a market like had operated earlier in West Africa. The founder of the Caliphate allowed slavery as long as it included non-Muslims, and was often claimed as a process to eventually include them within the Muslim community. Slavery was a crucial part of the expansion of agricultural plantations under the Caliphate. These plantations were established around the ribats and created large areas of agricultural production around the cities of the empire. However, the slavery was mediated by a lack of clear racial barrier and the ability for slaves to become members of the Islamic community. There are historical records of slaves reaching high levels of government and administration in the Sokoto Caliphate.

Islamic scholarship was a crucial aspect of the Caliphate from its founding. Sultan Usman dan Fodio, Sultan Muhammed Bello, Emir Abdullahi dan Fodio, Sultan Abu Bakr Atiku, and Nana Asma’u devoted significant time to chronicling histories, writing poetry, and Islamic studies. A number of manuscripts are available and they provide crucial historical information and important spiritual texts. This role did diminish after the reign of Bello and Atiku.

European attention had been focusing on the region for colonial expansion for much of the last part of the 19th century. The French and British both sent multiple exploratory missions to the area to assess colonial opportunities.

French explorer Parfait-Louis Monteil visited Sokoto in 1891 and noted that the Caliph was at war with the Emir of Argungu, defeating Argungu the next year. Monteil claimed that Fulani power was tottering because of the war and the ascension of the unpopular Caliph Abderrahman dan Abi Bakar.

However, the British had expanded into Southern Nigeria and by 1902 had begun plans to move into the Sokoto Caliphate. British General Frederick Lugard used rivalries between many of the emirs in the south and the central Sokoto administration to prevent any defense as he worked toward the capital. As the British approached the city of Sokoto, the new Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru I organized a quick defense of the city and fought the advancing British-led forces. The British led force quickly won sending Attahiru I and thousands of followers on a Mahdist hijra.

The British moved in to the largely depopulated Sokoto and appointed Muhammadu Attahiru II the new Caliph. Lugard abolished the Caliphate, but retained the title Sultan as a symbolic position in the newly organized Northern Nigeria Protectorate.] In 1903, the British defeated the remaining forces of Attahiru I and killed him ending the resistance to their rule. The area of the Sokoto Caliphate was divided between the British, French, and Germans under the terms of the Berlin Conference.

The British established the Northern Nigeria Protectorate to govern the region which included most of the Sokoto empire and its most important emirates. Under Luggard, the various Emirs were provided significant local autonomy thus retaining much of the political organization of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Sokoto area was treated as just another emirate within the Nigerian Protectorate and because it never was connected with the railway network it became economically and politically marginal.

However, the Sultan of Sokoto remained an important spiritual and religious position for the Muslims of the region and lineage connection to dan Fodio remains. One of the most significant Sultans was Siddiq Abubakar III who held the position for 50 years from 1938-1988. He was known as a stabilizing force in Nigerian politics, particularly in 1966 after the assassination of Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of Northern Nigeria.

A controversy developed with the death of Siddiq Abubakar in 1988 when the Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida interfered in the succession decision and named Ibrahim Dasuki, a business associate of Babangida, the Sultan of Sokoto. Large parts of Northern Nigeria erupted in violent protests targeting Dasuki's businesses. He was deposed in 1996 by Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and replaced with Mohammadu Maccido who ruled until he died in a plane crash in 2006.

The current Sultan of Sokoto, since 2006, is Sa'adu Abubakar.