Andrew Walker: Shehu Othman dan Fodiyo & The Great Muslim Empires Of West Africa #HistoryClass

In 1808 forces loyal to the Fulani scholar Shehu Othman dan Fodiyo advanced on Bornu, one of the great Muslim empires of West Africa, rolling it right back to the swampy fringes of Lake Chad. The Mai of Bornu, the leader of the Muslims, fled into exile and the empire’s capital, Ngazargamu, fell to the Jihad.

The Mai went to Kanem, Bornu’s cousins to the northeast of Lake Chad, for help. Despite enmity between the two states, help was dispatched. The man they sent was remarkable, one of the toughest warriors and most accomplished theological minds on the continent. His name was Sheikh Aminu el-Kanemi and instead of marshalling a counter offensive, he sat down and wrote a letter.

“Greetings and friendship” it began. “The cause of my writing to you is that when God brought me to Bornu I found that the fire of discord had broken out between your followers and the people of this country. When I inquired why, some said the reason was in religion, others that it was to be found in tyranny.”

Fulani herdsmen living in Bornu told him the war was to correct “heathen practices”, but that explanation did not satisfy him. “Will you therefore tell me your reasons for going to war and enslaving our people?” he asked the Shehu. El-Kanemi summarized the accusation:  “Because you are told our chiefs go up to places and there slaughter animals for the purpose of giving meat as alms, because you are told our women go unveiled, and because you are told our judges are said to be corrupt and oppressive. This practice of the chiefs that you have heard of is a sin… But it is not right to say that they are heathen. It were better to command them to mend their ways than to make war on them.”

Moreover, the Fulanis themselves were guilty of crimes, el-Kanemi said, “You are destroying books; you scatter them in the roads, you are throwing them in the dirt.” Oaths were broken and “they slaughter men and capture women and children.”

El-Kanemi saved his most withering attack for last. Far from being a religious reformist, the Shehu must be desirous of something else entirely; worldly power.

The letter ended: “I wish to inform you we are on the Shehu’s side, if the Shehu is for truth. If he is departing from the truth, then we will leave him and follow the truth”.

Between Bornu in the east and Gwandu in the west, where the Shehu lived, could take two months to travel. When the jihadists received the letter they were furious. They replied severally and at length. The surviving correspondence was written on the Shehu’s behalf by his son Muhammad Bello.

Bello bristled, el-Kanemi should not listen to illiterate people, he said.

“Our only reason for fighting” Bello wrote “was to ward off their attacks upon our lives and our faith and our families. When they commenced to trouble us they drove us from our homes… Verily the Shehu revealed to us the truth. We saw this truth and followed it.” Later he states; “their heathenism is proved to us in that they make sacrifices to stones and large trees, and make trouble to the Muslim faith and prevent men from becoming Muslims”.

When the sultan of the city-state of Gobir saw how their community was drawing new members, Bello writes, he reneged on a deal given to their community by his predecessor. This deal had effectively granted the Shehu’s community autonomy from the rule of Gobir, especially from its taxes. The harassment continued until the Fulani fought back. “They prevented us from practising our faith… they oppressed us,” Bello said.

(The incident with the books was easily explainable, Bello wrote, it had been a minor squabble over “the spoils of war” and he had personally picked up all the pages. If anyone had been guilty, he said, he most surely would have been a low type, and would certainly have been punished.)

The Shehu defeated Gobir, but Gobir’s allies continued to fight until the whole land was at war with them. And now they had come to Bornu. Bello warned; If Bornu helped the Hausas against them “Your prayers, your giving of tithes, your fasting and your building of mosques shall not prevent us fighting you.”

Bello might well be angry, for El-Kanemi had questioned the key assertion of the Fulani revolt, that backsliding was tantamount to apostasy; that disobedience was unbelief.

Over the next few years the war drew to a stalemate. The correspondence between Bello and el-Kanemi continued –some were conciliatory, full of poetry, many were lost in transit. Impolitely, El-Kanemi’s men killed one of Bello’s messengers. He consolidated Bornu’s strength and the Mais returned to rule under his stern stewardship. The Jihadists just didn’t have the ability to take over Bornu. Most of the Shehu’s captains had their flags and their conquests, only one –who had been designated Bornu, missed out.  The Shehu died and Bello became Sultan of Sokoto, leader of the Muslims.

But a debate had been opened; what was the nature of the Jihad of Othman dan Fodiyo?

In H A S Johnston’s book The Fulani Empire of Sokoto, Johnston lays out the three theories;

There is the orthodox view; that it was primarily a movement of religious purification. A revisionist view; that it was a movement of Fulani  ethnic chauvinism, and another approach; that it had social and economic roots, that the Jihad was essentially a peasant’s revolt.

Johnston makes valuable points; that the religious nature of the Jihad could alienate as much as it drew people to it. Oppression before the Jihad was probably not as bad as it had ever been. Corrupt practices continued under the bureaucracy that followed the death of the Shehu.

Johnston plays down the social and economic factors. He writes that it was uncharacteristic of the “tolerant and easy going Hausa” but not for the “passionate and intense” Fulani, as if the whole question of identity and character could be settled by blood. He comes down in a nebulous judgement, concluding that the truth of the nature of the Jihad is probably somewhere in between the three theories.

In The Sokoto Caliphate, Murray Last sharpens this nebulous conclusion. While there were many motives and interests at play, he says, the ripening came when someone of the “quality and the calibre” of the Shehu appeared. “The Muslim protest against the Hausa states found the leadership necessary.”  I find this idea very interesting, and it is where this lecture ends. Character, glimpsed in the correspondence of Bello and el-Kanemi, can be very influential in sparking revolt.

And I say that with one glance at the past… and another hard look at the present.


Andrew Walker is a writer and British naijaphile, he is currently writing a book on northern Nigeria, its history, culture and politics to be published next year by Hurst&Co.


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