London. Ibadan. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1967. 312 p.
After the battle of Sokoto the defeated Fulani galloped away in small groups heading north and east. Before they dispersed, the Sultan Attahiru absolved his Councillors and closest followers from their allegiance and left to each of them the decision whether to accompany him into exile or return and seek the indulgence of the British 1. The majority, when they found that the conquerors were behaving magnanimously, went back and made their peace. Among them were the Waziri Buhari, the Marafa Maiturare, and most of the Fulani aristocracy.
The Sultan, however, evidently felt that it was impossible for him to submit. Accompanied by his personal followers he therefore turned towards the east and, having shaken off the pursuit, which in any case was only halfhearted, made his way to Gandi. After sleeping there he traversed the Gundumi Bush and on the third day reached the Upper Rima Valley at Shinkafe 2.
Finding that the British were preoccupied with their own affairs in Sokoto, Katsina, and Zaria, Attahiru was able to spend about three weeks in Zamfara without being molested. At this time his force was reported to number several hundred horse and foot and about two thousand camp followers 3. But the demonstrations of loyalty which his presence evoked in Zamfara came to the ears of the British and alarmed them sufficiently to send out flying columns from Sokoto and Zaria. By this time, however, he was on the move again and he managed to out-distance one column and elude the other.
From Zamfara he and his followers headed east again, passing north of Zaria and keeping well to the south of Kano. A third column under Captain Sword, which had been sent out from Kano, failed to capture them but pressed them very hard and engaged them in a number of minor actions 4.
During this period, which lasted from mid-March to mid-May, Attahiru seems to have had no clear objective. It is probable that he was receiving conflicting advice from his adherents and that he himself was still undecided about submitting, emigrating, or continuing to defy the British. With the Europeans firmly established round Lake Chad, the door to the east was no longer open. As for the north, the fugitive Emir of Kano's recent humiliating experience must have discouraged any attempt to escape in that direction. Consequently, when he reached the north-eastern boundary of the Empire at Misau and found the gates of the town shut against him 5, he made no attempt to break out but instead turned southward.
Still harried by Sword he crossed the Gongola River near the top of its bend and found himself near Mallam Jibrilla's town of Burmi. Although Jibrilla himself had already been defeated by the British and carried off into exile, the place was still full of his fanatical followers, who were now led by a new Imam called Musa. They accorded the former Sultan a respectful greeting 6 and if at that time he had been determined to fight on at all costs he would doubtless have joined them without further ado. As it was, however, he seems still to have been in two minds for he passed on to Bima Hill.
Bima, a long saddleback, lies east of and parallel to the Gongola River in the reach where it turns south towards the Benue Valley. Over the years apocalyptic legends had gathered about it and one of these foretold that one day the Fulani would rally there before migrating en masse to the holy cities of the Hejaz. It seems to have been these legends that attracted Attahiru and his followers, for in the middle of May they encamped at the foot of the hill 7.
In the meantime the British, who at first had underrated Attahiru and made little effort to capture him, had now become thoroughly alarmed by the reports that were reaching them. These spoke of the peasantry deserting their villages in thousands in order to follow the fugitive Sultan. Up to a point these reports were true and there is no doubt that large numbers of country people, particularly Fulani, did set out with this intention. But the majority, finding that the pace of his retreat before Sword's pursuit was too hot for them, were forced to give up and go home. In addition there were doubtless many others who abandoned their villages not with the object of following him but simply in order to hide themselves and their families in the bush until the trouble had passed. In fact, as Attahiru moved eastward, he seems to have lost as many adherents as he gained so that the number of his supporters remained fairly constant at a few hundred and showed no real tendency to increase. Not knowing this, however, and believing that he might undo their conquests by raising a new jihad against them, the British decided that he must be captured or crushed.
The implementation of this policy became the more urgent when, on 13 May, Captain Sword tried to force an entry into Burmi, believing incorrectly that the Sultan was in the town, and was repulsed. This was the first reverse that British arms had suffered in Northern Nigeria and the moral effect was very great. Wallace, who was acting as High Commissioner during Lugard's absence on leave, now realized rather tardily that he was facing a major crisis and set about concentrating a large force to deal with it.
Two days after Sword's repulse at Burmi, another British column under Captain Hamilton-Browne located Attahiru's camp on Bima
Hill and delivered a surprise attack, which forced the Sultan and his followers to cross the Gongola again. Having no other haven to make for, they fell back once more on Burmi, which they re-entered on 16 May.
It is clear from his subsequent actions that, in returning to Burmi, Attahiru had not finally resolved to throw in his lot with the fanatics. On the contrary, he seems to have decided on emigration, for a few days later he wrote to Temple, the Resident of Bauchi Province, saying that he did not want to fight and asking only for a safe conduct to enable him to leave the country 8. Temple replied saying that if he wished to avoid violent measures being taken against him he must give himself up. Without making any promises he implied that if Attahiru did so his life would be spared 9. Given the fact that the British were trying to subdue an immense country with exiguous forces and were fearful of a jihad, this demand was not an unreasonable one.
In early June Attahiru wrote another letter to Temple in the same vein as before 10. By this time, however, the military preparations of the British were well advanced and no reply seems to have been returned to him. Even so, he must have known that he would have come to no great harm if he had accepted the earlier terms and given himself up. Why then did he not do so ? We shall probably never know the answer to this question, but there are two possible explanations. The first is that, when he returned to Burmi, Attahiru became the virtual prisoner of the fanatics who were determined to fight to the last. These included not only the survivors of Mallam Jibrilla's forces and the xenophobic Tijjanis from the Upper Niger but also diehards from many other parts of the Empire. Prominent among them were the twice deposed Emir of Nupe Abubakr, the recently dispossessed Emir of Misau, Ahmadu, and the notorious Magajin Keffi Dan Yamusa. According to a report which reached the British in June, Ahmadu of Misau had by this time become the real ring-leader and was preventing Attahiru from giving himself up 11.
The second possible explanation of Attahiru's reluctance to accept the terms offered to him lies in his own character. Though no fanatic, he was a man of integrity and pride who took his responsibilities seriously. Surrounded as he was by men who revered him as Commander of the Faithful, he may well have felt that to ask for a safe conduct was as far as he could honourably go and that to surrender to a Christian power would amount to a breach of faith. It is conceivable that both factors were at work and that Attahiru's own reluctance to give himself up was fortified by the knowledge that his diehard followers would never allow him to do so 12. Whatever the reason, his unwillingness or inability to compromise meant that the tragedy had to be played out to the bitter end.
Since the beginning of June the British had had a force watching and partly containing Burmi while they brought up their reinforcements together with a piece of artillery. The movement of their columns was hampered by the rains which had now set in, but by the last week of July they had succeeded in concentrating a formidable striking force. This consisted of twenty-one British officers and N.C.O.s and over 500 African rank and file, including 60 mounted infantry, supported by four machine-guns and one 75-mm. field-gun.
On 27 July 1903, a little before noon, the British force appeared under the walls of Burmi and the final battle began. It was to prove easily the toughest and bloodiest of the whole campaign. The diehards of Burmi fought with fanatical courage and devotion against the infinitely superior weapons of their enemies. Some deliberately courted death. Others lashed themselves together so that they should not be tempted to try to escape but would die together 13.
When the fighting began Attahiru went to the mosque. He remained there praying until he heard that the gates had been breached and then he emerged and went down to the walls. He was on foot, unarmed, and his intention was not to fight but to go out to meet his fate 14. It was a gesture not less noble than Gordon's at Khartoum. Death came to him with merciful swiftness, for when he was within a stone's throw of the southern wall he was shot through the head 15. Two of his sons died by his side and ninety of his followers, showing the same devotion as the bodyguards of Hayatu and the Emir Zubeiru, chose to perish with him rather than save themselves in flight.
When the sun set that day on the smoking ruins of Burmi, with the dead lying thick in the trenches, on the ramparts, and among the houses, the Fulani Empire came to an end. An old prophecy 16 had foretold that it would endure for exactly a century and so it came to pass: Attahiru's death took place in the hundredth year after Shehu had first been proclaimed Sarkin Musulmi.
In reviewing the history of the Sokoto Empire, one must make due allowance for the governing facts of geography and climate. The State came into being at a time when the Sudan was still completely insulated by the desert to the north and the forests to the south from all the main currents of the western world. The only global influence that penetrated to it, therefore, was Islam. From the other forces that were then changing the course of history the discoveries of science, the advance of technology, and in the humanitarian field such movements as that directed towards the suppression of slavery and the slave trade it remained almost wholly isolated. Consequently, although it flourished in modern times, its setting was more akin to that of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the age of armies and walled cities, and it is by the standards of those earlier days that it should be judged.
When every allowance had been made for these factors, the historian must still admit that the Empire had fundamental weaknesses. It depended too much for its prosperity on slave-raiding. Its peace was too often disturbed by rebellions. Its later rulers fell too far short of the high ideals of its founding fathers. Its people were too divided against themselves. At every level there was still too much oppression and corruption. These failings have already been described and they must be taken into account when the final reckoning is made. And yet they are dramatically outweighed by the Empire's achievements. The Fulani gave Hausaland a greater measure of peace than it had ever previously enjoyed. To this can be added the fact that their government was based on principle and not on mere power. No man, however mighty, was above the law. No man, however lowly, was beneath it. Every man had rights that the law defined and protected. In a continent still largely dominated by war and anarchy, the gift of peace and justice was no small thing.
Secondly, it can be said that the structure of society was well integrated and not inhumane. At the base of the pyramid, it is true, there were the slaves, but even they had their rights. In fact, they were generally better treated than slaves in other parts of the world including the United States, and for the most part they led tolerable lives. Next came the peasants. As they were free men, enjoying rights in the soil of which no one could deprive them, their standing was higher than that of the serfs who were still to be found in many parts of Europe. Then there were the craftsmen and traders of the towns: they were sufficiently numerous and affluent to constitute the beginnings of that most important component in any society a middle class. Finally, there was the ruling caste. Its members, though authoritarian, were generally just and beneficent. In short, though tyranny and injustice were not unknown, they were probably less prevalent than in many countries of Europe and the Americas which had greater pretensions to being considered as civilized.
Thirdly, it can be said that the society of the Empire was a reasonably cultivated one. Trade and agriculture flourished so that the majority of the people were able to enjoy some simple luxuries over and above the bare necessities of life. Similarly, education was not the monopoly of the ruling caste but was common among the middle class and not unknown among the peasantry and slaves. Among all classes, moreover, scholars and divines were held in the very highest esteem. Finally, there was the all-pervading influence of religion. Its disciplines were the cement of society, its teachings gave purpose and dignity to life, and its consolations reconciled men to the injustices of an imperfect world.
The civilization of the Sokoto Empire was the product of the union between two very different strains, the Fulani and the Hausa. The contribution of the Fulani lay mainly in the arts of government, scholarship, and religion, that of the Hausas in the fields of agriculture, industry, and trade. The two peoples were complementary to one another and between them they evolved a society which was probably more advanced than any other hitherto produced in black Africa. At the turn of the century that society was engulfed by world forces that were too strong for it. Now, fittingly enough, it has been reborn as the nucleus of a new and powerful nation.
1. Source: Mallam Nagwamatse, confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
2. Muffert, op. cit. p. 150.
3. Ibid. p. 150.
4. Ibid. pp. 163-70.
5. Misau at this time was torn by a dynastic dispute. In January 1903 the sixth Emir, Ahmadu, had accompanied the Emir of Kano to Sokoto in order to pay his respects to the new Sultan. During his absence his brother Alhaji Tafida had seized power and been proclaimed seventh Emir. Ahmadu had thereupon returned and laid siege to the town. When Attahiru appeared on the scene Ahmadu
abandoned the siege and followed him to Burmi. See Muffett, op. cit. p. 168.
6. Muffett, op. cit. p. 294.
7. Oral traditions confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
8. Muffett, op cit. p. 181. Attahiru had probably made two earlier requests of the same kind.
9. Ibid. pp. 181-2.
10. Ibid. p. 185.
12. Alhaji Junaidu endorses this view.
13. Muffett, op. cit. p. 201
14. Oral tradition endorsed by Alhaji Junaidu.
15. Muffett, op. cit. p. 200. It was the irony of fate that the Sultan, who had wished to avoid the final conflict, was killed whereas the real irreconcilables Ahmadu of Misau, Abubakr of Nupe, and Dan Yamusa of Keffi all made good their escape. The British Commanding Officer, Major Marsh, also fell in the battle. He and Attahiru now lie buried a short distance from one another.
16. W. F. Gowers, the compiler of the Gazetteer of Kano Province, recorded that in 1903 he met an old Fulani who told him of this prophecy and attributed its origin to a MS. of Sultan Bello.