Sokoto Caliphate

Map of old Sokoto Caliphate
Map showing the reach of the Sokoto Caliphate at the heights of its power. Source: Arewa House (Kaduna)

Sokoto Caliphate; the history of which, in the 19th Century commenced in 1804, is essentially centered on the legendary Dan Fodio and his socio-religious revolution, otherwise referred to as the Islamic Jihad or holy war of 1804. Dan Fodio formed a ruling dynasty that was established by the legendary Othman Dan Fodio who launched a jihad against the Hausa rulers of what is now northern Nigeria and Niger, creating an empire which stretched from modern-day Burkina Faso to Cameroon[i]. The Sultan fought to entrench Islam in its purest form in the then decadent Islamic societies of the western Sudan, while also preaching justice and fostering unity among his subjects. As the first Sultan of Sokoto, his influence spread across neighbouring lands, giving birth to several emirates[ii].

On the onset of British rule after the Caliph Mohammadu Attahiru was killed in battle in 1903, the British overlords forbade the ruler of Sokoto to use the title of Caliph. It ordered him to use henceforth the title of Sultan. The successive rulers of the city have embraced that title since then and given it a new meaning[iii]. The Sultan of Sokoto occupies the prestigeous position as the Spiritual Head of all Muslims in Nigeria. Most times, Islamic leaders all over the world seek for his advice and guidance on religious issues. Within the Government circles, both at the Federal and State levels, the Sultan’s position on any issue is very relevant. Ahmadu Bello, the great-grandson of Dan Fodiyo, wanted to be Sultan, but he lost the contest to his cousin, Abubakar Sodiq III, who was installed with the help of British troops in 1933. Few years later, Bello was sent to jail on trump-up charges of stealing. In an unprecedented move, he appealed his sentence and got a Lagos lawyer, Bode Thomas, to represent him. He won and rode to Sokoto in triumph. The Sultan called for a truce and installed Bello the Sardauna. He was later to give Bello his full support during the latter’s spectacular foray into politics. Dasuki mounted the throne despite stiff opposition from supporters of his cousin, Muhamadu Maccido. Like it happened in 1933, an outside power eventually decided the outcome of the contest. General Sani Abacha who was hostile to Ibrahim Dasuki, came to power. He eventually deposed him, drove the Sultan into exile and installed Maccido in his place.

Sokoto Caliphate calvary
Calvary of the Caliphate charged unsuccesfully against British power in 1904. Photo: historyin172

Sokoto maintains its own tempo and its own ethos. Unlike Kaduna which is often convulsed in sectarian violence and Kano which seethes with self-destruction, Sokoto responds to contemporary issues with temporising placidity. It takes life as it comes and its citizens are tolerant and philosophical. They take the central place of their city in national affairs with self-indulgent pride[iv]. The ethos of Sokoto is unique not particularly because of its adherence to parochial principles, but because it allows even competition among the children of the empire, especially the direct descendants of the caliphate founding leaders. It has also shown great resilience in the face of serious attack. The career of two great sons of Sokoto, Ibrahim Dasuki and Ahmadu Bello, the first premier of the defunct Northern Region (later 19 states and the federal capital territory), would illustrate the dynamic nature of Sokoto politics and its relevance to Nigeria and the march of history.

Historian, Nkem Onyekpe sees the July ’66 coup as one primarily motivated by the need to ensure that there was no shift in the power base, to make the Sokoto Caliphate to remain a dominant force in the power equation in the country. He believes this is obvious from the system of patronage, the distribution of offices, portfolio, appointments, with particular reference to very strategic and sensitive positions and sectors[v].


[i] The News 13 October, 2008

[ii] Tell July 5, 2004

[iii] City People 15 December, 2004

[iv] Tell July 26, 2004

[v] ThisDay 28 July, 1996

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer