The Sokoto Caliphate and its Legacies (1804-2004) – Prof. John N. Paden

The original emirates of the Sokoto Caliphate have been reorganized into various states with the federation of Nigeria. Of the 36 states in the current Nigerian system, 14 have had direct experience in the Caliphal/Emirate system stemming from the reform movement of Usman Dan Fodio. Nineteen of the 36 states were part of the Northern Region of Nigeria, and have political links with the "northern" system, based on the religions of the three major geo-cultural components:

This discussion paper will focus on the following: 1) the Sokoto legacy; 2) post-independence caliphate influences; 3) rule of law; 4) federalism; 5) conflict resolution; 6) conclusion.

The Sokoto Legacy

For purpose of this paper, the historical phases of the caliphate can be identified: (1) the establishment of the caliphate (1804-37); (2) its pre-colonial transformation (1837-1903); (3) the colonial era (1903-1960); (4) the post-independence experiments with national government (1960-99); (5) the challenges of the Fourth Republic (1999-present).

The savannah states of Hausaland in West Africa had been nominally Muslim since the 15th or 16th centuries. Hausa city-state rulers administered a form of Muslim law, especially in urban areas, but Usman Dan-Fodio united the peoples of Hausaland and surrounding areas into a single polity which is still a major reference point in northern Nigeria and many parts of West Africa. Between 1804 and 1808, Usman Dan Fodio defeated most of the rulers of the Hausa states and established a new capital in Sokoto in (1809). From there, the caliphate evolved over time. With Usman’s death (1817), he was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Bello (d.1837) his brother, Abdullahi Dan Fodio, was given authority over the western territories, based in Gwandu.

The Sokoto Caliphate was a loose federation of emirates that recognized the leadership of Usman Dan Fodio as “Commander of the Faithful.” By mid-19th century there were about 30 emirates linked to Sokoto, including the large market state of Kano. The caliphate stretched from present-day Burkina Faso in the west, to Cameroun in the east. Emirates tended to their own political affairs, although succession disputes were often referred to Sokoto.

British influence became more pronounced in this area after the Berlin Conference (1884/85). In 1900, Frederick Lugard became high commissioner of the protectorate of Northern Nigeria, and in 1903, his troops occupied the two major cities of the caliphate, Sokoto and Kano. The “indirect rule” policy in this area during the colonial era (1903-60) kept many of the pre-colonial structures in place, and the “Sultan of Sokoto” was accorded centrality within Northern Nigeria. During this period, Maliki law in all domains remained in place, although modified in a few key respects, in terms of punishments.

With Nigerian independence in 1960, many descendants of the founders of the Sokoto Caliphate were among the first generation of national leaders, including Ahmadu Bello, the premier of the Northern Region. The sultan of Sokoto (Siddiq Abubakar III) continued to be regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim community of Nigeria. Legislative and executive functions of government passed to local, state and federal bodies.

Sultan Abubakar III, who had come to power in 1937, passed away in 1988, and the Sultan-ship passed to a different branch of the families who trace direct lineage to Usman Dan Fodio, Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki (b. 1923) was installed in March 1990, although he was removed from his position by General Sani Abacha in 1996. Dasuki was succeeded by Muhammad Maccido (Sarkin Kudu, b. 1928) the eldest son of the late Sultan Abubakar III, Sultan Maccido bridged the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, and serves as Grand Patron of this bicentenary celebration.

The original emirates of the Sokoto Caliphate have been reorganized into various states with the federation of Nigeria. Of the 36 states in the current Nigerian system, 14 have had direct experience in the Caliphal/Emirate system stemming from the reform movement of Usman Dan Fodio. Nineteen of the 36 states were part of the Northern Region of Nigeria, and have political links with the “northern” system, based on the religions of the three major geo-cultural components:

1) The emirate states;

2) Borno;

3) The middle belt minority areas.

Post-independence caliphate influences

The influence of Ahmadu Bello, (a direct descendent of Usman Dan Fodio), as the first (and only) premier of the Northern Region cannot be over-emphasized. The first Republic (1960-66), set the basic pattern of region-based federalism in Nigeria. The assassination of Ahmadu Bello in January, 1966, presaged a long period of political turmoil, civil war, and military coups in Nigeria.

The second Republic (1979-83), under the leadership of President Shehu Shagari – a school teacher, and later federal minister from Sokoto – collided with the oil boom and the corruption of many in government with access to oil revenues. A palace coup led by General Muhammadu Buhari, of Daura emirate, tried to re-establish some discipline in the body politic, and hold accountable senior office holders who had abused their trust.

The subsequent coup led by General Ibrahim Babangida, who had grown up in the emirate area of Minna, was intended to facilitate elections and return to civilian rule. The aborting of the June 1993 elections, however, brought an end to a Third Republic before it had begun.

The establishment of a Fourth Republic in 1999, based on a presidential/federal model similar to 1979, raised questions as to how a real transition to three tier federalism could be achieved, under a constitutional system of laws. How could indigenous civic cultures be engaged after 15 years of military rule? How could a multi-jurisprudential mix of law (magistrate, Shari’a and customary) serve the needs of ordinary people? How could conflict pressures which had built up under military periods be resolved or mediated in ways which strengthened institutions and rule of law, rather than undermine such principles?

Each of these contemporary issue areas- rule of law, federalism, and conflict resolution-had antecedents in the Sokoto caliphal experience. A deeper understanding of such experiences and legacies may help to strengthen an emerging national system based on principles of equity, tolerance, and justice.

Rule of law

In Nigeria, when civilian rule was emerging in 1998, the issue of “law and order” was uppermost in many quarters, especially in the north. In a larger sense, this was a “rule of law” issue, i.e. a reaction against the sometimes arbitrary “decrees” of military dictatorship, the obvious impunity of high ranking officials, the frequent abuses of lower ranked soldiers against civilian populations, and the high levels of corruption in the public and private sectors. Ordinary parents were outraged at the way their sons and daughters were being seduced by siren calls of easy money and lax morals.

A gubernatorial candidate from Zamfara state (Ahmed Sani) capitalized on this sentiment, and ran on a platform of promising to re-establish a Shari’a based penal code, including criminal matters. His success at the polls prompted 11 other northern governors to introduce legislation into their state assemblies, setting up Shari’a codes which were broad and extensive, but with application of Muslims only. These governors argued that they were working within the framework of the Fourth Republic Constitution (1999), which recognized the principle of Shari’a law in civil domains, and allowed for state assemblies to pass needed legislation, unless explicitly prohibited by the constitution. Hence, there was a clear return to a multiple jurisprudential framework, much in the British colonial tradition.

The tensions and conflicts which emerged as a result of the reintroduction of Shari’a law in the criminal domain have occurred both within the Muslim community, and between the Muslim and Christian communities. The experimentation with Shari’a law in the criminal domain in the 12 northern states continued throughout the first four-year term for office holders (1999-2003), and thereafter.

The rule of law issues in Nigeria-ranging from election tribunals, to the idea of multiple jurisprudential systems (including Shari’a), are critical to the evolution of a political system in which inclusive, transparency, and accountability are the natural bulwarks to the despair and poverty which breeds violence and extremism. The larger issue is whether a rule of law approach, which is the mainstay of civilian rule, can be nurtured within the country as a whole.

In this regard, the role of the Supreme Court, and the national judicial system, is of special interest. The Chief Justice of Nigeria-Justice Mohammed Uwais- has called attention recently to the weaknesses of the judicial system. According to Uwais-(who is the son of the late Chief Alkali, and later Waziri of Zaria emirate)-“there must be a quick overhauling of the judicial system to improve justice delivery. What we have now was handed down to us by the British. The procedure of justice delivery in Nigeria is over 100 years and needs a review.

The emphasis on rule of law issue, in which there is even-handed justice regardless of rank or privilege, is central to the legacy of Usman Dan Fodio. While there are variations in the interpretation of law between the Usman Dan Fodio and his brother, the centrality of law is not in dispute. Usman Dan Fodio is famous for interpreting the law to take account of local circumstances, rather than a “one size fits all” hard line approach. The British continued this approach in criminal and civil matters, until the Penal Reforms of 1959, as mediated by Ahmadu Bello, removed criminal law from the emirate legal structures, and paved the way for a national approach to criminal law, as a precondition to national independence in 1960.

The challenge of the Fourth Republic will be to accommodate the various approaches to jurisprudence, in ways which provide recognizable principles of justice while at the same time strengthening the institutions of three tier federalism. Hence, a central question is the nature of federalism which is emerging, and how this relates to the indigenous legacies of political community.


The key to a workable three tier federalism is an appropriate balance of functions and responsibilities between the larger political unit, the component states, and the grassroots local areas, with adequate appeal processes between the different levels. Few large scale political systems can survive if they are run exclusively from the centre.

There needs to be common purpose to hold the larger system together, and common symbols of appropriate leadership. But only with the active engagement of “state and local” authorities and communities, can the flexibility and dynamism of the overall system be maintained.

In Nigeria, the voluntary handover by the military to civilians in 1979, and the institution of the Second Republic, with its presidential/federal system, came at a time when the oil boom was reaching its peak. The pressures for centralization in an oil economy were extreme, and the state-centre relations were so ill-defined that states felt they could mortgage their future on what seemed to be an endless source of oil revenues.

A new federal capital was established in Abuja, at the geographic centre of Nigeria, in an attempt to symbolize the idea of equal access to power and revenues – There is an obvious parallel to the establishment of the new capital in Sokoto, in 1809, which was intended to symbolize the new beginning represented by the Caliphate – Yet, there were few constraints on individual corruption during the oil boom. Then as oil markets fell, and the entire country was over extended, the military again stepped in, in a senior-level, bloodless coup, on December 31, 1983. This coup was less about “religion”, since the key actors were all Muslims, than about putting a halt to the tidal wave of corruption. However, in the perspective of General Muhammadu Buhari (who led the coup), corruption and injustice were clearly moral issues.

In 1998-99, following the death of the military head of state (Abacha), an attempt was made to set up a Fourth Republic. A constitution similar to 1979 was announced in May 1999, after national elections had been held, based on a presidential/federal model.

However, the real test would be in its operationalization. In particular, could the legacy of over-centralisation, stemming from the oil economy and military rule, be balanced with more active participation by the 36 states and 774 local government areas? Could indigenous civic cultures re-engage in ways which promoted unity with diversity? Was the alternative to over-centralisation a matter of partition, or rather a more balanced decentralisation?

The Sokoto Caliphate provides a mirror to some of those concerns. After the passing of the original founding fathers – and mothers, since educated women were active in the early caliphate – the “unity and diversity” issue became more salient. A large state, such as Kano, which provided major human and material resources to the caliphate, felt it was entitled to more autonomy both with regard to its internal affairs, and succession to leadership processes. The Kano emir was responsible for emirate police and defence, as well as market system, and law and order. Local village and ward heads, selected by their communities (although submitted for final approval by the emir) were very much part of their grassroots communities. As mentioned above, a succession dispute in the 1890s resulted in a “civil war”, which devolved even more autonomy for Kano within the caliphate system. Were it not for the British conquest in 1903, the Sokoto caliphate may well have evolved into a mixture of con-federal and federal principles.

Kano scholars, jurists, and religious leaders, drawing their inspiration from the Sokoto Founders but using their own sense of consensus and interpretation, were not inclined to follow blindly the dictates of any central authority.

More importantly, Kano authorities had to remain sensitive to the economic and political realities which characterised their role as the major commercial center in West Africa. Often, this meant serving as “conflict mediators” (or conflict resolvers) as different ethnic and commercial interests settled in the metropolitan areas. While such processes often rested on a “rule of law” approach, the informal mediation went much further. A key function for any emir and council was to ensure “peace” in their domain.

Some emirs and traditional leaders became famous for their ability to pre-empt conflict and to mediate dispute before they became serious or violent.

Conflict resolution

The traditional northern way of mediating conflict is to establish formal or informal “gateways,” of liaison persons between various authorities and their opposite or opposition counterparts. Thus, even at the height of political tensions, leadership of competing parties would maintain back door contact, to ensure that situations did not spiral out of control.

This implies a certain amount of trust and sense of common overall purpose. Since a “gateway” (kofa) was meant to be a back channel, it is not always apparent at the time whether the process is working or not. In a place like Kano, the emir would have “gateways” to each of the ethnic and religious factions in the emirate. In general, northern emirate cultures prefer to work through recognisable authority structures, which make it difficult at times to determine how to work with some of the segmental or a cephalous groups.

Historically, the emirs (or their equivalents) in the north have regarded one of their major functions to be conflict mediation. With the increased secularisation of state governments since the 1970s, the governors have created an alternative centre for power and leadership. They, governors in a civilian system are always aware of the need to position selves for re-election. In a military system, governors are at the whim of central government, and hence have less incentive to use mediation, rather than force, in preventing or resolving conflict Traditional leaders tend to be life-time appointments, much like Supreme Court justices, and can take a longer term view of the need for security and stability. For example, the Lamido of Adamawa celebrated his 50th year on the throne in August 2003. The Emir of Kano, who is well-known for his efforts at conflict resolution, came to the throne in 1963. The Emir of Zaria, who lives in the shadow of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), has been effective within Zaria Emirate, including in ABU campus disturbances, especially of an inter-faith nature. The late Etsu Nupe (Niger state) was asked to chair a commission evaluating the role of local governments, and the role of “royal fathers” seems to be important in addressing the whole issue of grassroots stability. In November 2003, the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Sulu Gambari, “appealed that people should imbibe the spirit of forgiveness and forgiveness to promote peace and unity in the emirate. He said no meaningful development could be achieved in an atmosphere devoid of peace. The emir also prayed for unity and stability to reign in the state.” The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Maccido, has been active in promoting peace and conflict resolution, including with counterparts in the southwest zone of the country.

A special aspect of northern emirates and Sokoto legacy leadership has been to try to mediate conflict between different factions or approaches within the ummah. Originally, this involved mediation between the major sufi brotherhoods. Later, it involved mediation between sufi brotherhoods and more legalist or reformist approaches. Ahmadu Bello set the precedent for this in his northern council of Muslim scholars. This has evolved into the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), under the leadership of Sokoto, but with full representation from all parts of the Nigerian Muslim community. The NSCIA has also been active in trying to build bridges with the Nigerian Christian community.


The Sokoto Caliphate was set up on the principles of justice and rule of law. It evolved into a quasi-federal system of emirates and local jurisdictions, with balanced responsibilities. One of the central functions of the Caliphate leadership, including emirs (or their equivalents) has been to try to mediate conflict, and ideally, pre-empt conflict before it undermines the integrity of the state.

The future of the Nigerian state may well depend on how well it can build on such indigenous legacies in trying to achieve unity with diversity, and justice for all. The challenges of evaluating 200 years of experience since founding the Sokoto Caliphate will require the cooperation of many minds and talents. This conference is an important milestone in that process.


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