The Sokoto Caliphate

The Sokoto Caliphate is, by all accounts, one of the premier political entities on the African continent, rivalled by only few contemporaries, (and was the largest and most extensive in size and population) In the West-Africa sub-region, the Caliphate straddled what is currently referred to as Northern Nigeria, Northern Cameroon, parts of Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and others. These vast areas where closely knit into a federal political system, with substantially devolved powers, looking up to Sokoto to provide religious leadership and political direction.

From 1804, when Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye began his physical confrontation with the Hausa rulers, up to the present, the Caliphate had also provided the intellectual leadership for the benefit of the entire Bilad al Sudan and beyond. The Sultans of Sokoto were not only political leaders but also leading Islamic intellectuals who left indelible legacies on the usually intractable fields of statecraft and diplomacy as well as on the academic planes of jurisprudence, poetry, astronomy and medicine.

Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye, an Islamic scholar, had been actively educating and preaching in the city of Gobir with the approval and support of the Hausa leadership of the city. However, when Yunfa son of the King of Gobir, and a former student of Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye, became the King of Gobir, he restricted Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye’s activities, eventually forcing the latter into exile to Gudu, where a large number of people left Gobir to join Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye, who also began to gather new supporters from other regions. Feeling threatened by his former student, Yunfa declared war on Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye on February 21, 1804.

Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye was elected “Commander of the Faithful” (Amir al-Mu’minin) by his brother, son, friend and their followers, marking the beginning of the Sokoto Caliphate. Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye preached to people (Huthubar), and then appointed a number of flag bearers amongst his followers, creating an early Islamic political structure. Declaring a Jihad against unbelievers, Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye rallied his primarily “warrior-scholars” against Gobir. Despite early losses at the Battle of Tsun tsuwa and elsewhere, the forces of Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye began taking over some key cities starting in 1804 until 1808, and were able to capture Katsina, Daura, Kano and finally conquered Gobir in 1809. In the same year, Muhammed Bello, the son of Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye, founded the city of Sokoto, which became the capital of the Sokoto Caliphate.

The political structure of the Caliphate was organized by the Council of the Sultan ruling from the capital city Sokoto (and for a brief period under Muhammad Bello, from Wurno or a place where the Sultan is). The leader of each emirate was appointed by the Sultan as the flag bearer for that city with wide independence and autonomy to his emirate.

In 1815, Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye retired, from the administrative business of the Caliphate, to the teaching and writing of many Islamic books.He also divided the Caliphate into major parts, with his brother Shaykh Abdullahi Ibn Foduye ruling the west, as Gwandu Emirate, his friend Shaykh Umar-Alkammu oversees Zamfara where he found his rest at Zoma and his son Muhammed Bello taking over administration of the eastern wing of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Emir at Gwandu retained allegiance to the Sokoto Caliphate and took spiritual guidance from the Sultan, but the emir managed the separate emirates under his supervision independently of the Sultan.The major administrative division remained between Sokoto and the Gwandu Emirate.

Much of the growth of the Caliphate occurred through these establishment of an extensive system of ribats as part of the consolidation policy wascontinued by Muhammed Bello, the second Sultan. Ribats were established, and a number of new cities were founded, which with walled fortresses, schools, markets, and other buildings. These proved crucial in expansion and development of new cities, settling the pastoral Fulani people, and supporting the growth of plantations which were vital to the economy. By 1837, the Sokoto Caliphate had a population of about 10 million people. The Caliphate was largely organized around a number of largely independent emirates. The administration was initially built to follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). The Sufi community throughout the region proved crucial in the administration of the Caliphate. 

The Tariqa brotherhoods, most notably the Qadiriyya, to which every successive Sultan of Sokoto was an adherent, provided a group linking the distinct emirates to the authority of the Sultan. Scholars Burnham and Murray Last claim that this Islamic scholarship community provided an “embryonic bureaucracy” which linked the cities throughout the Sokoto Caliphate. When a Sultan died or retired from the office, an appointment come up through the Sultan’s Council members who made selection and election of new Sultan for replacement from the descent of Shaykh Uthman Ibn Foduye.