The Caliphate and Nigeria's Future


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The Caliphate and Nigeria's Future




Wale Adebanwi


culled from THISDAY of June 22, 2004


There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality -- Emile Durkheim

Two different events - one violent, the other peaceful - that were enacted a few weeks ago could be differently emblazoned on the on-going bicentenary anniversary of the 19th century Fulani Jihad that swept through the better part of what was to become Northern Nigeria. These events can be taken to over-represent, both in real and symbolic terms, the nature of the struggle that has defined the Jihad which occurred two hundred years ago and the multifaceted, continuous contestations that have been inscribed into the Caliphal order - even within that fabricated politico-religious formation called the 'north'.

The first is a violent, yet symbolic, challenge to the ascendancy of Fulani (dominantly Islamic) power with its attendant (Bororo Fulani) mobile territoriality - as witnessed in Yelwa - by one of the many ethnic groups who were initially violently, and subsequently, discursively, folded into the "one north, one people" ideology. It was a mini, even if seriously limited, replay of the Jihad which two hundred years ago triumphed over the Tarok as well as many other minority ethnic groups in the north, and subjugated them under the banner of an ethno-religious order. The jury is still out on the outcome of this two century-old attempt to throw off the yoke of ethno-religious hegemony. If blood-shed was an acceptable way of building a 'State' on the bedrock of religion around 1804, it is legally indefensible to challenge the emergent modern State in 2004 by the same methods. So the Tarok and the other anti-Caliphal groups in Plateau have learnt.

In the bloody encounters and mutual recrimination between the Muslim Fulani and the Christian Tarok, for instance, emerges one arm of the contemporary struggle to find out whether the logic of ethno-religious power, which triumphed in the last two hundred years, is sufficient and strong enough to define or authorize contemporary politics, inter-ethnic relations and Nigeria's future. In this, a section of the 'north' that is politically peripheral has become symbolically central to the fate and fortune of caliphal power in the bicentenary of that formation.

In the middle of that challenge and the usually visionless, a-historical and unintelligent State response to this emergent ethno-religious conflagration also arises the ideological struggle to re-validate the Jihad and re-affirm the utility of its key logics and the interests it represents in contemporary Nigeria - as the Caliphate moves into its third centenary. The flip side of the Plateau "uprising" by one of the "subjugated" groups, is the anniversary and commemoration of the Jihad symbolized by the book in memory of Usmanu dan Fodiyo, the spiritual leader of the epochal Jihad. Against the backdrop of the Yelwa incident, former President Shehu Shagari declared that dan Fodiyo was a man of peace - ostensibly, a discursive attempt to efface the massive violence against the Habe rulers and 'pagans' which the Jihad necessitated. This is geared towards preaching contemporary inter-ethnic harmony, and the regeneration of a pan-north identity on which the post-colonial "political jihad" has survived in the last half-century - leveraged by an unwritten Anglo-Fulani pact which Lord Lugard voluntarily entered into with the politically sophisticated emirs and heirs of the Jihad. Shagari affirmed that the main objective of the bicentenary celebration is to mobilise the people "to celebrate a truly epochal event as we as use the ideal of the caliphate ourselves in Nigeria, in particular, and West Africa in general."

The Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, added at the ceremony that it is limiting to focus of dan Fodiyo's life as the leader of a bloody revolution, and not on his more legitimate role as an accomplished preacher and a knowledgeable author responsible for the revival of 19th century African Islam. It could be said that dan Fodiyo, in important respects, followed the logic of St. Augustine on the relationship between power and "truth". Augustine had insisted that coercion was necessary for the realization of religious truth. Dan Fodiyo wrote and preached religious truths that were taken up by his lieutenants in engineering a major religious revolution.

Between the bloody clashes - which some have argued that the Caliphal order temporarily won with the imposition of a state of emergency - and the re-interpretation of the Jihad lie the fate of the socio-political and religious order that the Jihad brought into place in Nigeria, now and in the future, and its significance, relevance, meaning and utility in renegotiating contemporary political, economic and social order in Nigeria.

At the bi-centenary of the revolution that changed the north - and the landscape that was to become Nigeria - forever, we are witnessing something akin to the challenge raised close to the centenary of the emergence and consolidation of the American idea of human liberty - which led to the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was to capture the war between the north and the south of the United States as a contest to see if a country so founded can long endure - as the south chose to keep its slaves while the north preached the gospel of human freedom (not of course, minding the seriously limited racial implications of this). Said Lincoln in the historically significant Gettysburg speech: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." No such conception of liberty or dedication to the equality of men of all creed and faith authorized the creation of the Nigerian state. And contrary to Lincoln's logic, the country has endured for almost one century (since 1914), with half of the people free and another half bound. As designed by the British, particularly Lord Fredrick Lugard, Nigeria was not meant to be an egalitarian polity in which equality was proclaimed and observed. The role of Lugard in the long-running Nigerian impasse is mirrored in the parody in Ogaga Ifowodo's poem in which the conductor says, "God punish you, Lord Lugard!" as the poet hurls the metaphor of Lugard's shadow in the "black smoke" that is Nigeria. Rather than curse Lugard, Gideon Orkah and company announced, in the failed 1990 coup, an ill-advised excision of the "Lugard part" of Nigeria.

Lugard had said on the declaration of the constitution of the colony and protectorate of Nigeria on January 1, 1914 that His Majesty's Government had come to the conclusion that "it would be to the great advantage of the countries known as Southern and Northern Nigeria that they should be amalgamated into one Government, conforming to one policy and mutually co-operating for the moral and material advancement of Nigeria as a whole". Contrary to this wish, the country that was fashioned out of this amalgamation has remained one of the sorriest states in the world. How come that the result has fallen short of the expected?

Undoubtedly, there are a myriad of reasons that can be adduced. But, one main reason for this is the very nature and structure of the processes of constituting Nigeria. This is where the Caliphate, as the core formation that was determinedly privileged by the colonial order in the resulting national formation, remains, for all, a matter of utmost interest. That the caliphal formation has shaped Nigeria in conjunction with the metropolitan powers (Britain, and eventually the United States and other European powers) is not in doubt. Therefore, that formation - along side its external and local allies - carries the greatest credit or blame for what has become of Nigeria and what the future holds in stock. That the caliphal order represented the bedrock of the emergent Nigerian formation was mirrored even in the official telegram of the British Crown December 30, 1913, on the amalgamation of the "two Nigerias". The "emirs" were the first class of people mentioned by the British Crown in his message of goodwill; followed by chiefs, and then "all inhabitants of the new Protectorate and Colony". The amalgamation could then be seen as geared towards the greater good of the emirs (as the representation of the caliphal order), and then the chiefs (as the representation of the affiliates of that caliphal order in other parts of the country) and lastly, those who were to become the citizens of the emergent Nigerian State.

The structural imbalance and fatal errors that Lugard inscribed in the bastard algebra that was to be called the Nigerian state was so grave as to make the Lagos Weekly Record in February 1919 to describe his administration as an "inglorious administration which constitutes not only a standing disgrace to the cherished traditions of British colonial policy in West Africa but also a positive libel upon the accepted principles of British culture". Lugard himself was described as "a hopeless anachronism".

If Lugard was a "hopeless anachronism", the geo-political canvass on which he fashioned the Anglo-Fulani pact was a hopeful one, and it was not an anachronism. At least, it was not seen as one. Indeed, Lugard himself praised the tradition of quality leadership offered by the Fulani aristocrats - even though the Caliphate had degenerated by the time of British invasion. In one of his annual colonial reports (1901), Lugard had written that, 'The Fulani rule has been maintained as an experiment, for I am anxious to prove to these people that we have no hostility to them, and only insist on good government and justice, and I am anxious to utilize, if possible, their wonderful intelligence, for they are born rulers, and incomparably above the negroid tribes in ability'.

From far and wide, the Sokoto Caliphate, at inception, was regarded as an example the triumph of statecraft in the 19th century. As scholars have noted, under dan Fodiyo and Sultan Bello, the first caliph, the government remained in the hands of enlightened rulers. Bello, who is regarded as the greatest of all Sokoto Sultans, historians tell us, encouraged science and learning. Distinguished men from all over the world were well received at his court. He is said to have encouraged the members of his own family to acquire learning, while protesting against Hausa "superstition" which credited the royals with inherited wisdom. After the triumph of the Jihad, the warring tribes were united under the spiritual leadership of Sokoto and trade flourished under a central administrative unit, even while the Caliphate consolidated and pushed southwards to the "pagan" areas where the rulers raided for slaves. It was not that there were no insurgencies and resistance to Fulani ascendancy in what was to become the north of Nigeria - the Hausa revolt, for one, continued even till 1950 under Aliu Baba as Sultan - but the caliphal order remained ascendant and prosperous.

However, by the close of the 19th century, the Caliphate had fallen into confusion and anarchy, as the Fulani emirs, had become a law unto themselves, as chronicled by J.R. Wilson-Haffenden in The Red Men of Nigeria. Like the modern Aso Rock constructed by their heirs to secure themselves against the expected wrath of the people, the emirs secured themselves in walled fortresses, which they defended against all who might attempt to subdue them. The almost absolute lack of moral rectitude by the Habe rulers - which formed part of the necessary conditions for the Jihad - sadly, was to be recreated by the descendants of dan Fodiyo in the late 19th century and early twentieth century. They oppressed the wretched of the earth, confiscated the property of merchants and traders, and also the belongings of rich men on their death, while bribery flourished in their courts. As Haffenden writes, "They were continually levying exactions on the villages and when the miserable inhabitants had no more to give, they plundered and burned their dwellings, and seized both men and women and slaves". It was like a test case of what their successors were to do with the Niger Delta and other parts of their realm in late 20th century. It was a comprehensive compromise of the ideals that informed the Jihad. Dan Fodiyo, it is said, didn't owe his ascendancy to military strategy or to his statesmanship - even where he could be said to have both. It was his force of character that made him tower above his peers and to come through two centuries of history shinning still among his people as a saintly figure.

The British were to break this despotic power of the emirs, as they did the similarly troubling historic disasters in other parts of the country. Lugard, in spite of this degeneracy, however stated in another annual report (1902) that, "I believe myself that the future of the virile races of this Protectorate, lies largely in the regeneration of the Fulani (rulers)". After a century, it was believed that the end had to come to the ascendancy of caliphal power - as predicted by dan Fodiyo himself. Even though a controversy still surrounds this, dan Fodiyo was said to have prophesied that the Caliphate he established would last for 100 years. This prophesy, which was said to have been contained in one of Sultan Bello's documents confiscated by the British, was a major subject of discussion at the time of the British occupation. From the election of Usmanu dan Fodiyo as Sarkin Musulumi at Gudu in February 1804 to the death of Attahiru I in July 1903 is one hundred years, less seven months. With the pressures of the invading British troops, Attahiru I (1902-1903) fled Sokoto on March 15 1903 after a five months reign and was killed in Burmi in July 1903. On March 15 of the same year, Sokoto was occupied by the British expeditionary force.

Lugard, it is also said, promised to give the Caliphate another one hundred years lease of life, which ends this year. Even if this could be regarded as myth, the reality has matched it. One hundred years after Lugard's promise, caliphal power is beginning to wane and unravel. After Muhammadu Buhari's failure to capture power and reverse the trend, ostensibly Sunday Awoniyi was summoned to help give this power bastion another one hundred years of life. Will there be another century?

It was exactly two hundred years yesterday, June 19, when the battle of Tarkin Kwato - which marked the military phase of the establishment of the caliphate - started. The aims of the bicentenary celebrations of the Jihad include reminding and demonstrating to the people - not just the Fulani, but ostensibly all 'northerners' - that they have a rich cultural heritage to be proud of, thereby rekindling hope and confidence in them; re-emphasizing the integrative essence of the caliphate by forging stronger bond of unity, community and solidarity in a multi-cultural setting as opposed to the chimerical pursuit of ethnic supremacy; serving as a calling to the people to rise up to the challenges of the moment and project them (the people) in a positive light as a nation of history, heroes and common destiny; and establishing the nucleus of continuous activity after the anniversary, dedicated specially to the overall documentation, translation and publication of the variegated writings of the caliphate's leaders and their successors.

Weighty aims. Even though couched within the context of "one north, one people", the task of transcending the "chimerical pursuit of ethnic supremacy" - which the Fulani aristocrats have been accused of - is perhaps the most important part of the aims of the bicentenary celebrations for all the ethnic groups that have been forced into the Nigerian formation and for the country at large. Coming at a time when there are renewed calls - from even within the vortex of the caliphate - for a renegotiation of the parameters of the Nigerian Union, the bicentenary of the Jihad is indeed a crucial one for projecting into the future of Nigeria.

This is more so given that since the amalgamation - which consolidated and renewed the triumph of caliphal order - dan Fodiyo's ideas and ideals have been turned into the scaffolding for a parasitic and unaccountable power elite. The sterile and illimitable conceit that authorizes the emergent order is now being contested as one that is contrary to the legacies of the paramount religious teacher and revolutionary. Usmanu Dan Fodiyo said a society can survive with unbelief, but it cannot with injustice. It is on this solid basis then that the caliphal order must re-examine the continued relevance of the teachings and ideas that necessitated the Jihad and re-inscribe them into the present struggle for national validation. The Jihad was in large part a revolution against the grasping rapacity of the Habe rulers. That the heirs of the caliphal formation and the colluding elite from other parts of the country continue to recreate this rapacity puts the onus on those who claim to uphold the higher ideals of the heritage of the Jihad to rededicate themselves to redesigning and recreating this odious and contemptible structure that presently describes itself as a federal republic.

In many ways the ascendant caliphal order can be said to indeed represent and reflect the totality that is Nigeria. If it were out of tune with the objectives conditions of the Nigerian state and society, it would never have acquired its suzerainty and lasted for so long. Therefore, the request for closure of caliphal power and hegemony, is a request for closure of the very structures and political sensibilities that have authorized Nigeria from inception. Why the Caliphate has remained central is that its scions ran and ruined Nigeria.

Caliphal power began to unravel with the collapse of the Second Republic. If there were doubts that the ethno-religious core of the Nigerian power elite was inherently incapable of pushing the country towards her destiny because of its internal contradictions, the Second Republic brought this into bold relief and the attempt by the martial heirs of this order to salvage it through terror metaphorically collapsed on the laps of Indian prostitutes! As signified by the phonic cruelty of Sani Abacha and the devastating violation of every public institution by Ibrahim Babangida, those who have represented the caliphal formation, "the north", particularly in federal power, did much to damage the image of that north. And why it further rankles is that that "north", for so long, seemed unapologetic for the gross disaster that those who claim to represent it have - more than the other sections of the ruling elite - brought on the country. The power that authorized the killing of J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi so as to violently reverse the attempt at "false unity", signaled by the ill-advised unitarist logics of the Unification Decree and the attendant fear of "Igbo domination", is the same power which, from Yakubu Gowon on, foisted on Nigeria, a unitarist government disguised with the name "federal government". The challenge is how the same power bastion can use its political sophistication to help reinvent, not just itself, but the national formation without which it can hardly survive; and how it can appropriate democratic federalism in the service of national re-validation, in a way that will speak, again, to the fascinating vision of, arguably, Africa's most sophisticated power bastion?

As it enters its bicentenary, the sheer magnitude of the crises and formidability of the challenges that confront this power elite and their extensions in other parts of Nigeria, to use Gabriel Almond's words, "staggers the imagination and lames the will". Even with President Olusegun Obasanjo's exercise in self-parody and his failing attempts to diminish our sensibility to the obvious grand failure of his government, the Caliphate cannot reclaim Nigeria and force it back to the path of "chimerical pursuit of ethnic supremacy". The struggle to transcend what the caliphal order has represented is going on even within that north. It is not a new struggle; only that it is being given a new impetus. When the Kaduna Discussion Group announced recently that its members have decided to "put an end to the regime of injustice and deceit", which has, among other things, narrowed "the contest and issues of contemporary politics in Northern Nigeria" to Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Atiku Abubakar, they signal a return to the radical politics of Aminu Kano; one which in its egalitarian visions matched and perhaps surpassed even that of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo who preached this gospel of egalitarianism in the south of Nigeria. It was Aminu Kano, who in a deliberate and penetrating way, first contested the debilitating versions of caliphal logic. He pitched his tent with the wretched of the earth and used Islam as a liberating ideology, against the preachments of those who used Islam as an ideology of subjection of the masses and women. In his every social and political action, Aminu Kano gave vent to the egalitarian ideals of Islam as captured by Ali Shariati, the Iranian dissident, who argues that, "Islam is the first school of social thought that recognizes the masses as the basis, the fundamental and conscious factor in determining history and society - not the elect as Nietzsche thought, not the aristocracy and nobility as Plato claimed, not great personalities as Carlyle and Emerson believed, not those of pure blood as Alexis Carrel imagined, nor priests or intellectuals, but the masses." Kano and his followers too share(d) the heritage of the Caliphate - even though the venal characters have sought to represent the caliphal order more than the rest.

The Caliphate must now face its moment of truth - if ever. The ascendancy of Ahmadu Bello, the late premier of the Northern Region, and his continued political life as a late hero, was/is not due to competitive thievery, in which those who claim to share that legacy now participate. The positive values of his leadership of the north and the legacies thereof must be re-claimed and used in the service of re-building Nigeria. The drawbacks of his vision of the north as a "senior-partner" in the Nigerian equation must be transcended, like the drawbacks of his other contemporaries.

In this bid, we must recall how the social egalitarianism of Zik and Awo clashed with the feudal egalitarianism of Bello. While Bello believed that the masses deserved "hand-outs", a social, modern reconstruction of alms, Zik and Awo believed that they deserved to be "handed out" to the State, which will take care of them. Both versions have serious limitations in these times when the market logic has overtaken all social forces. In Zik's superb lexicon emerged the crystallization of the crucial basis for republican egalitarianism in building the putative Nigerian nation-state; in Awo's administrative genius emerged a concrete validation of the possibilities of such vision; but, in Bello's strategic political manouvres emerged a consolidated power bastion with a veto power that could be used to federalize such egalitarian visions. The challenge as the Caliphate enters its tri-centenary is to join other contending forces to reclaim the best in the traditions that produce the Caliphate and to help in reproducing Nigeria in a way that it will not yield to the title of one of the most engaging narratives on the Nigerian condition: "This House Has Fallen"!

In this bid, the words of Abraham Lincoln, uttered on June 16 1856, more than fifty years after the Jihad started, ring through the ages: "I do not expect the union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect that it will cease to be divided."

  • Dr. Adebanwi teaches political science at the University of Ibadan

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