A PSEUDO-ethno-religious hegemony that exercises traditional rulership suzerainty over most of northern Nigeria, the Sokoto caliphate is perhaps the last surviving pre-colonial Islamist reformist states of 19th century Western Sudan. The Tukulor Empire, which emerged from the upper Niger River highlands of Futa Toro, in a series of conquests, beginning in 1856 by jihadi forces under the command of Al Hajj Umar Tall that incorporated the ancient city states of Masina, Timbuktu, Bambara, Segu and Hamdalahi, had long given way to French colonial balkanisation into three separate states, Guinea, Senegal and Mali. Unlike the Tukulor Empire, the Sokoto caliphate, whose foundation was firmly laid in 1804 at the start of the Uthman Dan-led jihad, would survive British colonialism, independence with democracy, military rule for the most part of post-Independence Nigeria into the current constitutional democratic order.
Sokoto caliphate survived the colonial rule primarily because of the British policy of association as against the French colonial policy of assimilation. British colonial authorities, while introducing modern education and innovation in public administration, did very little to alter the tradition, culture and norms of the native peoples of Nigeria, apart from the abolition of slave trade and human sacrifice of all kinds. In the southern half of Nigeria, traditional religious practices thrived alongside Christianity. In the case of the predominantly Muslim north, Christian missionaries were kept away from most parts by the British colonial authorities, who found the existing traditional rulership legacy of the 1804 jihad adequate enough and requiring only marginal innovations to bring it up to modernity. In place of missionary schools, government schools were established by the British colonial authorities to educate the Muslim north without adulterating their core religious beliefs and traditional way of life. The policy of association was taken as far as matters of law and order. The governing jurisprudential authority for the British colony of Nigeria incorporated aspects of customary laws, Islamic law (Sharia) and English law to fill emerging gaps in the legal inadequacies of the native peoples.
If the Sokoto caliphate survived primarily because of the British policy of association, its continued relevance in the scheme of things in Nigeria can be attributed to the real and symbolic spiritual authority it exercises over the Muslim population of a country like Nigeria that has fast degenerated from a country of very religious people to an arena of fierce competition for supremacy between leading Abrahamic religious groupings. The 1804 Muslim Fulani uprisings, which began from the Hausa Muslim state of Gobir and spread across other Muslim Hausa city states of Kano, Rano, Katsina, Zaria, Daura as far east as Borno, the oldest Muslim state in Nigeria, succeeded in supplanting Habe rulers with Fulani rulers. The 1804 Fulani uprisings had at their core, socio-economic and political motivations, wrapped up with the garb of a struggle (jihad) for Islamic revivalism. As history is usually narrated by the victor and not the vanquished, the 1804 Fulani uprisings have been presented as a Holy war (jihad) and the Fulani empire it established has been represented as a caliphate, to reflect religious and spiritual authority.
The spiritual and religious eminence of the Sokoto caliphate has seen its legitimacy entrenched over the years among the Muslim community in Nigeria across the ethno-geographic divides in the practice of prophetic tradition and exhortation of a united Muslim ummah. Through its headship of two of Nigeria’s most important Muslim bodies, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and Jamatul Nasril Islam, the head of the Sokoto caliphate, the Sultan, exercises considerable influence over the collective religious affairs of Nigerian Muslims. The caliphate, working in concert with other Muslim leaders from all sections of Nigeria, has continuously pressed for as much implementation of Sharia law as possible and in the process getting considerable concessions for the incorporation of limited aspects of Islamic law into Nigeria’s secular Constitution that guarantees absolute freedom of religious practice for Nigerian Muslims. The Sultan of Sokoto is the chief promoter of Islamic values and opposes anything that is considered un-Islamic. The Sultan of Sokoto is also the chief advocate of Islamic rule in Nigeria, an aspiration that is shared by a majority of Nigerian Muslims. The pan-Muslim nature of the Sokoto caliphate has over the years greatly obscured the ethno-geographic colouration of the early legacy the Fulani empire of the Uthman Dan Fodio 1804 jihad. For these reasons, the temporal authority of the Sultan of Sokoto is acknowledged by majority of Nigerian Muslims and he is designated as the Amirul Mumineen (commander of the faithful) or Sarkin Muslumi.
However, recent engagements and pronouncements of the current Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence, Sa’ad Abubakar III, appear to be pulling the Sokoto caliphate away from its pan-Muslim identification to its original pan-Fulani status. Sultan Abubakar III betrayed his ethno-centric emotion while reacting to the recent attacks on Fulani herdsmen’s communities by Bachama militiamen operating in the Numan area of Adamawa State. The occasion to demonstrate this pan-Fulani solidarity could not be better than the launch of the Fulani news medium, Pulaaku FM, in Yola, the Adamawa State capital. The Sultan’s message that was delivered by his representative, the Emir of Kano, goes thus: “May I use this opportunity to sympathise with people of Adamawa State, on the recent incident in Numan; and to appeal to security services to thoroughly investigate the incident and bring the perpetrators to book,” he said. “We have not forgotten what happened to Fulanis in Mambilla, Taraba State, and we are still waiting for action from the security services’.’
The Sultan went further to issue a stern warning and hinted at a possible reprisal by his Fulani kinsmen: “It is important to remember that at many points in our history, we make mistakes of confusing patience for weakness. I hope we would not make that mistake this time; what happened in Numan would not go unpunished.”
True to the Sultan’s words, the Numan killings of Fulani herdsmen have not gone unpunished. Few days after these strong words were issued by the Sultan, Fulani militiamen attacked and sacked farming communities of Dong and Lawura villages of Demsa Local Government Area of Adamawa State, leaving several, including a village head, dead.
Attacks and reprisals are condemnable under all circumstances. Sultan Abubakar III failed in his duty is the leader of Muslims, adherents of the peaceful religion of Islam, to speak for all of humanity in the carnage that has largely defined farmers’/herdsmen’s relationship. While condemning the attack on the Fulani community, the Sultan should have used the occasion to call for restraint, forgiveness and peace between the farmers’/herdsmen’s communities. Unfortunately, as the expected reprisals happened, the word was of condemnation from the seat of the caliphate. In this case, the Sultan was not even speaking for all Muslims because some of the victims of these reprisal attacks are non-Fulani Muslims and are not members of the Bachama militia that attacked the Fulani community earlier.
The Sultan appears to be protecting the interest of his own ethnic Fulani above the interests of Muslims and humanity at large.
For failing to condemn the rampaging activities of killer herdsmen, who have pillaged cultivated farmlands across central and southern Nigeria, including those cultivated by non-Fulani Muslim farmers, portrays the Sokoto caliphate as no more than a Fulani empire with the Sultan as the Sarkin Fulani. The Sultan failed to speak up for the Muslim farmers of Agatu in Benue state and Nimbo community in Enugu state, who lost their lives alongside their properties and crops to killer Fulani herdsmen, some of whom are not even Muslims. Similarly, the murderous activities of killer herdsmen on the plateau didn’t attract the sympathy of the sultan. It appears only Fulani lives matter whether Muslim or non-Muslim. A Sarkin Muslumi is supposed to be an embodiment of Islamic tenets of mercy, grace, love, tolerance, forgiveness and should abhor the spilling of human blood under whatever guise. The current pan-Fulani posture of the Sokoto caliphate, which is buoyed by the prevailing atmosphere of far right politics of ethnic superiority, with the rise to power of President Muhammadu Buhari [an ethnic Fulani]will only serve the purposes of eroding its relevance among Nigeria’s multi ethnic Muslim community. This may just be the beginning of the end of the over two centuries old Fulani hegemony as the Sultan becomes more of Sarkin Fulani than Sarkin Muslumi.
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Author: Uche Atuma