H.A.S. Johnston.
The Fulani Empire of Sokoto

London. Ibadan. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1967. 312 p.

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Chapter Nineteen
Gathering Clouds

When the first Fulani Empire came into existence it was largely insulated from the world by the desert to the north and the rainforests to the south. True, religious and cultural currents flowed through the corridor of the Sudan and a certain amount of trade crossed the Sahara, but these contacts were limited and with the western world there was no direct communication at all. Indeed, the only Europeans who had even penetrated to Hausaland were Mungo Park and his companions and they had only reached its south-west corner when they had perished in the rapids near Bussa. In the early days, therefore, the Fulani had known no external threat beyond that of their neighbours. Among them only the Kanuri had been strong enough to challenge their hegemony and they, as we have already seen, had twice been decisively defeated.
After the second defeat in 1827, the power of Bornu had entered a slow decline. El-Kanemi's authority, it is true, had survived the failure of his projected invasion of the Empire so that, on his death in 1835, his power had passed to his son Umar. And for another decade after that the government had been conducted in the same way as before, with the Mai, or Sultan, acting as the titular ruler and the Sheikh wielding all the real power, but then there had come a sudden crisis. In 1846, while Sheikh Umar had been away in Zinder, the Mai of the day, Ibrahim, had tried to seize power. Despite the backing of the Emir of Wadai, however, he had soon been captured and executed. His son, Ali Dalatumi, had then been proclaimed Mai in his place, but within six weeks, after being deserted by his Wadai allies, he too had been defeated by Umar and killed. With him had been extinguished a dynasty that had ruled Bornu for centuries past 1.
After the death of lbrahim and Ali, Sheikh Umar had made himself the titular as well as the real ruler of Bornu. Apart from a short period in 1854, when his younger brother had succeeded in usurping the throne, he had ruled Bornu until his death in 1880, He had then been succeeded, in fairly quick succession, by his three sons 2.
But, though peace had been restored there was no doubt that in the second half of the century Bornu's power was on the wane.

The rise of Damagaram and Ningi

The Fulani did not gain much respite from the decline of Bornu because it was matched by the rise of Damagaram. The Emirate of Damagaram, which was a vassal State of Bornu's, was of comparatively recent origin. Its founder was a pious Moslem of the Daguerra tribe called Mallam. Originally, he seems to have come from the Chad region, but as a boy he went to study in one of the oases of the southern Sahara. There he made a name for himself as a scholar and divine and built up a large personal following. Later, the pressure of the Tuaregs compelled him and his people to move south and in 1736 he was proclaimed Emir of Damagaram 3.
This new Emirate occupied the indeterminate area between Agades in the north and Kano and Katsina in the south. It was not quite desert and yet its rainfall was for the most part too light to support an ordinary agricultural economy. Its population was very mixed and included Tuaregs, Kanuri, Hausas, Fulani, and displaced tribes or tribal fragments like the Daguerra from whom the ruling family traced their descent 4.
The new Emirate seems to have been tributary to Bornu from the outset, but at the time of the jihad it was still too weak to assist the Kanuri or arouse the animosity of the Fulani. The war more or less passed it by, therefore, and left it subordinate as before to Bornu. Its capital, Zinder, was not founded until a decade later and even then was built as an unfortified town 5. At this stage its main importance was that it provided a refuge in the north in which the Hausa diehards of Gobir and Katsina were able to seek sanctuary after their defeat by the Fulani.
The rise of Damagaram dates from the accession of the Emir Tanimu in 1841. Although deposed two years later, he recovered his throne in 1851 and then ruled the country until his death in 1884. He Was a man of vision as well as ambition. He grasped the importance of fire-arms much earlier than any other Chief in the central Sudan and by building up an armoury of 6,000 rifles or muskets and 40 cannon he created a force that came to be feared even by his more powerful neighbours 6.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Damagaram's fealty to Bornu became increasingly perfunctory but was never thrown off, During this period the Emirs concentrated mainly on harrying their Fulani neighbours to the south and in this they were always able to count on the support of the Hausa diehards of Maradi and Tsibiri. The diehards, for their part, were stiffened in their intransigence by the knowledge that they now had a powerful ally standing behind them.
In 1857 Tanimu felt strong enough to mount an expedition against Kano. He failed in his main objective, which was to take the city, and he lost a large part of his cavalry in the attempt 7. It was a sign of the times, however, that he could embark on such an ambitious enterprise at all and the fact that he was able to defeat the Kazaure forces, kill the Emir, and sack the town showed that Damagaram had now become a force to be reckoned with 8.
In the succeeding decades Kano and to a less extent Zaria found themselves under pressure from a different quarter, namely from Ningi. In the first half of the century the Ningi people were no more than a tribe inhabiting an area between Kano, Zaria, and Bauchi Emirates that was sufficiently hilly and inaccessible for them to have preserved a precarious independence from Fulani rule. In about 1850, however, some renegade Hausa Mallams, who had fallen foul of the Fulani authorities in Kano, took refuge there 9. It is said that one of them was an accomplished conjurer and that it was through his tricks, which the simple pagans accepted as evidence of magical powers, that the Hausas first established their ascendancy 10. Be that as it may, they gradually extended their authority over the Ningawa until they had become the rulers of the tribe. Once established they began leading raiding expeditions against the towns in the plains which they found ripe for plundering.
At first the Ningawa conducted their forays at short range and attacked only the adjacent districts of Kano 11 and Bauchi Emirates. But, with the confidence born of success, they gradually grew bolder and in the latter part of the century they were going as far afield as south-western Kano and the home districts of Zaria 12.
In 1868 the Emir Abdullahi of Kano made a determined attempt to crush Ningi by sending a powerful force against it. At Fajewa, however, they suffered a severe defeat in which some of their leading commanders, including the Madaki Ismailu and Sarkin Dutse Sulimanu, were killed 13. After this reverse, Kano fell back on purely defensive strategy. The Ningi raids were fleeting, it is true, and inflicted no permanent damage. Nevertheless, they distracted the attention of the Fulani from the more serious dangers in the north and provided further evidence of the decline of their fighting power.
Towards the close of the century, as will be related later, Damagaram was again to declare war and invade the Empire. But what in the interim was equally important was the fact that its backing made the Hausa diehards very bold and active. In particular, Sarkin Katsina Dan Baskore, who ruled the unreconciled Katsinawa from 1857 to 1879 and who afterwards came to be regarded as the greatest of their Chiefs, was a most audacious and successful leader 14. From Maradi he and his successors were constantly swooping down on places in Katsina and Daura Emirates and they even raided as far south as western Kano 15 and northern Zaria 16.

The advent of Rabeh

While these events were taking place in Hausaland, a new figure, Rabeh, was rising to power and prominence in the eastern Sudan.
Rabeh was a native of Darfur, but, having been captured and enslaved in his youth, his early life had been bound up with the Egyptian rulers of the Sudan. To understand the background of his career, therefore, we must go back to Zubeir Pasha, the Egyptian adventurer and slave-trader, who earlier in the century had made himself master of the Bahr al-Ghazal region of the Upper Nile and then gone on to conquer for the Khedive the ancient Sultanate of Darfur. Rabeh had first made a name for himself as a captain in Zubeir's private army and had continued to serve his son Suliman when the latter had succeeded his father as Governor of Bahr al-Ghazal. But before long Suliman had defied the Government in Khartoum and declared his independence. At this Gordon, who by this time had become Governor-General, had dispatched an expedition against him and in 1878-9, after several battles, this force had broken his strength. Suliman and Zubeir's other surviving captains had thereupon surrendered in the hope of obtaining clemency.
But not so Rabeh. He had always set his face against capitulation and so, when the others had given themselves up, he had rallied the survivors of his company, who are said then to have numbered about four hundred, and led them away to the south and west beyond Gordon's long reach. There, in the very heart of the continent, they had continued to maintain their independence and to support themselves by slave-raiding and preying upon the neighbouring tribes 17.
Five years after Rabeh's flight the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmed emerged and proceeded to raise the Sudan against the Egyptians, storm Khartoum, kill Gordon, and establish his own régime. He is said to have invited Rabeh to enlist under him, but Rabeh declined the offer 18. His refusal is hardly surprising, for Rabeh was a man of strong will and by this time he had grown used to being his own master. Nevertheless, he identified himself to some extent with the Mahdi by joining the Mahdiyya sect of Islam and accepting its ritual. Moreover, he also adopted for his own troops the patched tunics that had become the uniform of the Mahdists.
Over the years Rabeh gradually built up his strength. It was his practice when he was on the move, as he often was, to spare the towns and villages that opened their gates to him and to content himself with the exaction of tribute. If the inhabitants fled, he permitted looting, and of course if they resisted they were put to fire and the sword.
Rabeh allowed his troops to keep any chattels that they took, but if they captured slaves, horses, or cattle they had to yield up a half share. From this revenue he was able to give them regular pay amounting to seven dollars a month. With the balance he bought the firearms on which he relied to maintain his superiority over the feudal forces which from time to time challenged him 19.
Rabeh's army was organized into Standards or Companies. These were not of uniform size but depended upon the authority and ability of the Captains who commanded them. Of these two-thirds were Furians, like himself, and the rest Arabs 20. He kept them under strict control and they in turn maintained a stern discipline. Latterly, the average number in each Company seems to have been about 200. Rabeh maintained his strength by offering the prisoners whom he took their lives and freedom if they entered his service. In this way he gradually built up his power until, at the climax of his career, he had 5,000 men, 3,000 fire-arms, 44 small pieces of artillery, 1,000 horses, and a baggage and ammunition train comprising hundreds of camels, mules, and pack-asses 21. By the standards of contemporary Africa this was a formidable force.
In the early 'nineties Rabeh at length felt strong enough to emerge from the remote fastness in which he had until then been content to lurk. Moving north he came into collision with the warlike people of Wadai, who gave as good as they got. At any rate, he was unable to conquer the Emirate and therefore turned westward 22. His eyes already seem to have been fixed on the Chad region, for although he defeated the Baghirmi forces, he did not stop there or attempt to occupy the country. On the contrary, he pressed on westward and in 1893 entered Bornu.
The Sheikh of Bornu at this time was Hashim, who had never been of a warlike disposition and who was now growing old. When Rabeh invaded his territory, Hashim underestimated the danger and merely sent one of his generals with a force of about 3,000 men to bar the way. Rabeh brushed him aside without difficulty and continued his advance. Two more battles were fought, one at Ngala and the other in front of Kuka, but each time the Kanuri were overwhelmed. Hashim was therefore compelled to abandon his capital and fall back to the north-west on the River Yobe 23.
Among the Bornu ruling family there was one who thought that Hashim had disgraced his house and lost his patrimony through his want of courage and resolution. This was Muhammad el-Amin, usually known as Kiari, who was a nephew of Hashim 24. Feeling that a desperate situation called for a desperate remedy, he had his uncle assassinated and himself proclaimed Sheikh in his stead. He then started collecting an army and announced that he would drive Rabeh from Bornu or perish in the attempt 25.
When Kiari advanced on Kuka to recapture it he found Rabeh barring his way at Dumurwa. In the battle that ensued the Kanuri seemed at first to have won a sweeping victory. They relaxed their vigilance, however, and this gave Rabeh the chance to rally his forces, counter-attack, and rout them. Kiari was captured alive. Though wounded, he refused to plead for his life but defied Rabeh to do his worst and went bravely to his death 26.
When Rabeh had first occupied Kuka he had spared the place. Now, to teach the Kanuri a lesson, he resolved to destroy it. He therefore let his troops loose and for two days they indulged in an orgy of murder, rapine, and pillage. Over three thousand people are said to have been slaughtered and the city was so thoroughly devastated that it was never rebuilt. In the districts Rabeh's troops were given the same license and these acts of calculated brutality had the effect that Rabeh desired. Bornu was not only defeated, but, for the time being, completely cowed 27.
Having made himself master of Bornu, Rabeh retired to Dikwa, south of the Lake, where he built himself a new capital and concerned himself with reorganizing the government of the kingdom that he had won. This he did simply by installing his own followers alongside the main Kanuri feudatories and delegating to them the responsibility for maintaining the new régime and collecting tribute and tax. But, because of the rigid discipline which he maintained, Rabeh's system was more highly centralized than the loose feudal organization that it replaced 28.
Among Rabeh's Captains there was by now a recent recruit called Hayatu, who was not only a Fulani but also a member of the ruling family of Sokoto. In 1867, when the Sultan Aliyu Karami had died and there had been a movement in favour of electing his younger brother Abubakr na Rabah, Hayatu had intervened with the suggestion that Ahmadu Rufa'i, as a surviving son of Shehu, had the better claim. As a result, Ahmadu Rufa'i had in fact been appointed. When he in turn had died, however, Abubakr na Rabah had succeeded. There is no evidence that he had shown Hayatu any ill-will for having previously wrecked his hopes. Nevertheless, Hayatu's own people had turned against him and driven him out of his fief 29
In about 1874 Hayatu had therefore shaken the dust of Sokoto from his feet and turned his face to the east. Ten years later, when the Mahdi had emerged in the Sudan, Hayatu had joined the Mahdiyya sect. Certain letters that he wrote at this time suggested that he was in direct correspondence with the Mahdi, for he hinted that when the Mahdi had reduced Khartoum he would subdue the Fulani Empire as well and that he would then install Hayatu as Sultan 30.
Hayatu's expectations of help from this quarter were disappointed by the Mahdi's early death. We next hear of him in the late 'eighties when he installed himself in the town of Balda in eastern Adamawa, where he seems to have built up a large following. Certainly, by the early 'nineties he was strong enough to defy the Emir and then, when the Emir tried to bring him to book, to rout him in battle 31.
As soon as Rabeh appeared on the horizon in the Chad region, Hayatu made overtures to him. No doubt he felt that Rabeh might fulfil the hopes that the Mahdi had disappointed. Rabeh for his part saw in Hayatu not only a valuable ally but a man whose birth might one day make him useful if he should ever mount an enterprise against the Fulani Empire 32. Moreover, the fact that both men professed devotion to the Mahdiyya sect made an alliance between them seem a natural move.
When Hayatu joined Rabeh in 1893 he brought with him a force of at least 400 horsemen 33. For Rabeh, about to undertake the conquest of Bornu, this must have been a useful accession of strength, but it hardly explains the warmth of the welcome that Rabeh gave him. Not only was he immediately elevated to the position of one of Rabeh's principal lieutenants but the alliance between them was cemented by Rabeh giving Hayatu his daughter, Hauwa, in marriage. As Rabeh was not a man who ever made sentimental gestures, it is safe to deduce from this move that he had assigned an important part to Hayatu in whatever plans he was making for the future.
When Rabeh had consolidated his hold on Bornu itself he turned his attention to Bornu's neighbours. First he moved against Mandara, where some of the Kanuri ruling family had taken refuge 34. Next, in about 1896, he sent an expedition under his son, Fadr Allah, against Bedde. The objective this time was to subdue or overawe a Chief who had previously been subject to Bornu but who, since the conquest, had failed to send in tribute or acknowledge Rabeh as the rightful overlord. Such was the terror that his name now inspired that the people of Bedde, after attempting to resist, preferred flight to submission and either dispersed into the surrounding bush or crossed the boundary into Hadeija Emirate 35. Fadr Allah refrained from pursuing the refugees and from this we may infer that Rabeh did not yet feel ready to challenge the Fulani Empire.
Nevertheless, this sudden lunge of Rabeh's to the north-west, which was accompanied by a similar expedition to the southwest, caused consternation in tile Fulani camp. Letters poured into Sokoto and Kano with news of what had happened and rumours about what was said to be afoot. The Emir of Hadeija sent a message to inform the Emir of Kano that Rabeh intended to move west. According to some, he wrote, Rabeh intended to advance on Kano through Hadeija, according to others through Katagum. Others again said that his intention was to subdue Zinder first and then descend on Kano 36.
The Emir of Hadeija wrote in a similar vein to the Waziri of Sokoto, now Buhari, for the information of the Sultan.

« Rabeh's intention is to come west. This news our spies have brought us. It is true and I have sent it to you in order that you may pass it urgently to the Sultan and pray that the evil of Rabeh may, not enter among us in the dominions of Usuman dan Fodiyo 37

The alliance between Rabeh and Hayatu, which of course was well known to the Fulani, added point and weight to these warnings.
What Rabeh's plans actually were will never be known because he did not confide them to anyone and the appearance soon afterwards of the spearheads of the approaching French forces distracted his attention and prevented him from pursuing them. It was popularly believed, however, that his ambition was to create an Empire stretching from Kano in the west to Wadai in the east 38. Such was the awe with which he was now regarded that none thought that this plan was beyond his compass.

Mallam Jibrilla

One other development of this period must be recorded. Compared to the advent of Rabeh it was of only minor importance, but it was to have some influence in shaping the future. Apart from this, it was a significant portent showing how the grip of the Sultans on the Empire was weakening.
In the 'eighties a certain Mallam Jibrilla settled in Gombe Emirate and founded the town of Burmi near the top of the loop of the Gongola River. He was reputed to possess supernatural powers and he soon collected a large following. It is not known exactly when he first became a member of the Mahdist sect, but it seems probable that it was before 1888. What is certain is that in that year he suddenly threw off his allegiance to the Emir of Gombe 39 and it seems unlikely that he would have taken so extreme a step unless he had what he regarded as a good religious reason for his action.
Whatever the motive, the Emir Zailani was not willing to tolerate insurrection and mounted an expedition against Burmi. He failed to capture the place, however, and was himself mortally wounded in the assault 40. This success added greatly to Jibrilla's prestige and made him much more dangerous than before.
The new Emir of Gombe, Hassan, was determined to avenge his predecessor and persuaded the neighbouring Emirs of Bauchi, Katagum, Misau, and even Hadeija to send contingents to reinforce him. Their efforts were in vain, however, and by defying them all Jibrilla further enhanced his reputation 41.
During the next few years Jibrilla made himself master of all the northern part of Gombe Emirate. He did not claim to be the Mahdi himself 42 but merely styled himself Barden Mahadi or the Mahdi's trooper 43. Whether he ever acknowledged any allegiance to the Mahdi's successor in Khartoum, the Khalifa, we do not know, but he certainly did not recognize the Sultan of Sokoto or Rabeh or any other local ruler as his overlord 44. On the other hand, he does not seem to have been a bigoted Mahdist, because when the Tijanis from the Upper Niger appeared around the turn of the century, having moved on under their new leader Basheru after a few years sojourn in Sokoto, he allowed them to settle in Burmi. Their extreme views on religious questions apparently commended them to him and sufficed to procure an entry for them.
Jibrilla and the people of Burmi seem first and foremost to have been fanatical Moslems. This was the characteristic which led them to create a society of their own. As JibrilIa's reputation grew, it doubtless acted as a magnet and drew to him like-minded men not only from all over the Empire but also, as in the case of the Tijjani fugitives, from further afield. This fanaticism, allied to their growing strength, enabled them first to repulse the Emirs and next to subdue their neighbours.
Burmi, though not of prime importance, was significant in a number of ways. The Emir of Gombe showed that he was unable to suppress a rebel and an upstart. His overlord, the Sultan, made no attempt to help him. As a result this upstart rebel was able to defy the military power of the one, spurn the religious leadership of the other, and carve a Province out of the body of the Empire. That such things were possible showed how far the religious and political authority of the Sultans had now declined.

1. Gazetteer of Bornu Province, p. 19.
2. For the family tree, see Table 5 in Appendix II.
3. Abadie, op. cit. p. 125.
4. Ibid. pp. 125-8.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Abadie, op. cit.
8. Kazaure Emirate Notebook, Historical Note.
9. Gazetteer of Bauchi Province, pp. 15-16.
10. Alhaji Abubakar, op. cit. p. 57.
11. Kano DNBs, Histories of Birnin Kudu and Rano.
12. M. G. Smith, op. cit. p. 183.
13. Kano DNBs, History of Dutse.
14. Abadie, op. cit. p. 380.
15. Kano DNBs, History of Gwarzo.
16. Mary Smith, Baba of Karo, London, 1954, pp. 46-47.
17. E. Gentil, La Chute de l'Empire de Rabeh, Paris, 1902.
18. Ibid.
19. Herbert Alexander, Boyd Alexander's Last journey, London, 1912, pp. 185-90.
20. Gazetteer of Bornu Province, pp. 108-10.
21. Ibid.
22. Alexander, op. cit. p. 186.
23. Gazetteer of Bornu Province, pp. 23-4.
24. For the family tree, see Table 5 in Appendix II.
25. Gazetteer of Bornu Province, pp. 24-25.
26. Ibid. pp. 25-26.
27. Gazetteer of Bornu Province, pp. 26-27.
28. Gentil, op. cit.
29. Information given to the author by Hayatu's son, Mallam Sa'id. Confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
30. Information from Alhaji Junaidu.
31. Hogben and Kirk-Greene, op. cit. p. 441.
32. H. F. Backwell, The Occupation of Hausaland, 1900-04, Lagos, 1927, p. 9.
33. Gazetteer of Bornu Province, p. 109.
34. Backwell, op. cit. p. 9.
35. Ibid. Letter, no. 97.
36. Backwell, op. cit. Letters, nos. 93-99.
37. Ibid. Cf. Letter, no. 94
38. Alexander, op. cit. op. 189-90. Gentil mentions his desire to revenge himself on Wadai and the Gazetteer of Bornu Province, p. 110, his designs on Kano.
39. Gazetteer of Bauchi Province, pp. 13-14. Confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
40. Ibid. p. 14. Confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
41. Gazetteer of Bauchi Province.
42. The Annual Report on Northern -Nigeria for 1902 is wrong in asserting that he did.
43. Information given to the author by one of Jibrilla's former followers.
44 Confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.

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