Sultanate of Sokoto (Sokoto Caliphate)

Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th century
Map by Panonian, 2011, Public domain

The Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria was one of the largest empires in Africa during the 19th century.  The empire developed as a result of the Fulani jihads (holy wars) which took place in the first decade of the 19th century across what is now Northern Nigeria. The Sokoto Caliphate was the center of  politics and economics in the region until it fell to French and British colonial armies in the early 20th Century.

The Sokoto Caliphate was founded in 1804 by Uthman dan Fodio who became the first Sultan of Sokoto or in the terminology of the time, the first sarkin musulmi (commander of the faithful).  Although dan Fodio refused to embrace the term Sultan, each of his successors called himself the Sultan of Sokoto.

Dan Fodio, a Fulani religious leader and teacher who lived in the Hausa city state of Gobir, initiated the jihad in 1804 after he and his followers were expelled from the city.  From exile he called for holy war against the leaders of Gobir and other Hausa city states.  Gathering a large army of Fulani and Hausa supporters he conquered Gobir and eventually Sokoto, Kano, Katsina, and the other major city states.  By 1815 when his armies ended their conquests, Uthman dan Fodio’s religious empire included most of what is now northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon as well as parts of Niger.  Dan Fodio’s jihad also influenced the holy wars in nearby regions and resulted in the creation of Islamic states in Senegal, Mali, and Chad.

When dan Fodio died in 1817, his son Muhammed Bello took charge of the eastern part of the empire while his brother Abdullahi became titular ruler of the western section.  Bello, however, was recognized as the second Sultan of Sokoto and eventually controlled all of the Caliphate.  By the end of Bello’s rule in 1837, the Sokoto Caliphate had grown to be the most populous empire in West Africa.  At its height, the empire extended over 1,000 miles from current day Burkina Faso to Northern Cameroon.

Dan Fodio, Bello, and Abdullahi while known primarily for their military skills, also promoted scholarship.  Each contributed books of poetry and texts on religion, politics, and history.   They encouraged scholarship among the Muslim elite.  In fact because of its unchallenged military power the Sultanate created a period of peace and prosperity across the eastern savanna that was rare for that period in African history.

The empire built by dan Fodio began to disintegrate by the 1890s.  Internal rivalry brought civil war while European colonial armies began encroaching on the periphery of the empire.  By 1903 the Sokoto Caliphate fell to the French and British colonial armies. Under indirect colonial administration, Great Britain, which assumed control over 80% of the Empire, allowed the Sultan to remain as a ceremonial ruler.  His successors, including Muhammad Sa’adu Abubakar, who became Sultan on November 2, 2006, continued to wield considerable influence over the populace.