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The Sokoto Caliphate

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The Sokoto Caliphate was established in 1805. It was the largest state in West Africa during the 19th Century that stayed for about one hundred years and bequeathed a number of important legacies to contemporary societies and economies in the region.

Although the caliphate collapsed one century ago, nevertheless, its values and relevance are still influencing the course of developments not only in Nigeria but also in several states in west Africa.

The Sokoto Caliphate was a sovereign Sunni Muslim caliphate in West Africa that was founded during the jihad of the Fulani War in 1804 by Usman dan Fodio. The boundaries of the caliphate make up present-day Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria.

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usman dan Fodio

It was dissolved when the British and Germans conquered the area in 1903 and annexed it into the newly established Northern Nigeria Protectorate and Kameron respectively.

Developed in the context of multiple independent Hausa Kingdoms, at its height, the caliphate linked over 30 different emirates and over 10 million people in the most powerful state in the region and one of the most significant empires in Africa in the nineteenth century.

The caliphate was a loose confederation of emirates that recognized the suzerainty of the Amir al-Mu’minin, the Sultan of Sokoto. The caliphate brought decades of economic growth throughout the region.

Although European colonists abolished the political authority of the caliphate, the title of sultan was retained and remains an important religious position for Sunni Muslims in the region to the current day.

 Usman dan Fodio’s jihad provided the inspiration for a series of related jihads in other parts of the Sudanian Savanna and the Sahel far beyond the borders of what is now Nigeria that led to the foundation of Islamic states in the regions that would become Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Sudan

Expansion of the Sokoto Caliphate

From 1808 until the mid-1830s, the Sokoto state 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 and southern Niger. At its height, the Sokoto state included over 30 different emirates under its political structure.

The political structure of the state 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 state 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 expansion through developing new cities, settling the pastoral Fulani people, and supporting the growth of plantations which were vital to the economy. By 1837, the Sokoto state had a population of around 10 million people.

The Administrative Structure

The Sokoto state was largely organized around a number of largely independent emirates pledging allegiance to the Sultan of Sokoto. The administration was initially built to 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 Usman dan Fodio had been run largely through hereditary succession.

The early rulers of Sokoto, dan Fodio and Bello, abolished systems of hereditary succession, preferring leaders to be appointed by virtue of their Islamic scholarship and moral standing.

Emirs were appointed by the sultan; they travelled yearly to pledge allegiance and deliver taxes in the form of crops, cowry shells, 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, although each sultan claimed direct descent from dan Fodio.

The major administrative division was between Sokoto and the Gwandu Emirate. In 1815, Usman dan Fodio retired from the administrative business of the state 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 Sultanate.

The Emir at Gwandu retained allegiance to the Sokoto Sultanate 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 the Hausa aristocracy in 1816–1817 during the reign of Muhammed Bello, but the sultan ended these by granting the leaders titles to land.

There were multiple crises that arose during the 19th century between the Sokoto Sultanate and many of the subservient emirates: notably, the Adamawa Emirate and the Kano Emirate. 

A serious revolt occurred in 1836 in the city-state of Gobir, which was crushed by Muhammed Bello at the Battle of Gawakuke.

Economic Growth of the Caliphate

After the establishment of the Caliphate, there were decades of economic growth throughout the region, particularly after a wave of revolts in 1816–1817. They had significant trade over the trans-Saharan routes.

After the Fulani Jihad, all land in the empire was declared waqf or owned by the entire community.

However, the Sultan allocated land to individuals or families, as could an emir. Such land could be inherited by family members but could not be sold. The exchange was based largely on slaves, cowries or gold.

Major crops produced included cotton, indigo, kola and shea nuts, grain, rice, tobacco, and onion.

Slavery remained a large part of the economy, although its operation had changed with the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were gained through raiding and via markets as had operated earlier in West Africa.

The founder of the Caliphate allowed slavery only for non-Muslims; slavery was viewed as a process to bring such peoples into the Muslim community. Around half of the Caliphate’s population was enslaved in the 19th century.

The expansion of agricultural plantations under the Caliphate was dependent on slave labour, however. These plantations were established around the ribats, and large areas of agricultural production took place around the cities of the empire.

 The institution of slavery was mediated by the lack of a racial barrier among the peoples, and by a complex and varying set of relations between owners and slaves, which included the right to accumulate property by working on their own plots, manumission, and the potential for slaves to convert and become members of the Islamic community.

There are historical records of slaves reaching high levels of government and administration in the Sokoto Caliphate. Its commercial prosperity was also based on Islamic traditions, market integration, internal peace and an extensive export-trade network.

The transformation of the Sokoto Caliphate provided opportunities for greater economic relations among people in the region. On the socio-economic field the Sokoto Caliphate leaders contributed a lot to economic growth so, no doubt, the most profound and easily visible impact of jihad in the Caliphate was economic development, especially in Agriculture.

According to Abdulkadir Adamu sustainable development formed the bedrock of the economy by which the leaders provided food for the population and raw materials for the industries.

Reading the Tanbih al-lkhwan, Calipha Muhammad cited verses from the Qur’an and Ahadith (prophetic tradition) to demonstrate that the most honourable and dignified member of the society was he who satisfied his personal livelihood requirements from gainful employment.

The Sokoto Caliphate leaders encouraged the establishment of new towns and villages both for defence and for the enhancement of agricultural activities and related industries.

In the Usul al siyasa written to the Emir of katsina, Umarnu Dallaji, he advised that; “One of the duties of the Muslim leader was to see to the colonization of rural areas through the foundation of villages and walled towns. This was part of a general policy of fostering the material welfare or the people. It should involve the encouragement of farmers and artisans the provision for the storage of food, and the regulation of market and road.”

Another factor that contributed to economic growth in Sokoto Caliphate was the size of the Caliphate itself which had enormous economic advantages for long-distance traders as well as for the producer’s way supplied them with some of their trading goods.

Large size guaranteed not only good supplies of a variety of raw materials at competitive prices, but it also guaranteed a very large internal market – but in the open market and in the procurement of supplies for the state.

According to Philip (2006), external markets were also easily secured when supported by a powerful and respected state. The quality of labour – in the sense of different skills, different technologies, and different tastes- also was an advantage of the mega-state.

The textile industry was one of the most important industries in the Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th century, arguably, second only to agriculture.

It has generally been assumed that the new Caliphate government, with its ideological stress on Islamic norms and practices, led to rising demand for the greatest and greater amounts of textiles and particularly of high-quality ones.

This certainly seems to have been the case and reports throughout the 19th century and the time of the British conquest all stressed the growth and strength of the textile industry.

The most populous and probably the most textile-oriented economy within the Caliphate economy was certainly Kano which had in that time wide-ranging markets throughout West Africa and even beyond North Africa.  

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.

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