Murray Last says Nigeria could do with those same principles – justice, peacefulness, honest trade – that the Sokoto caliphate stood for.
As a scholar, Murray Last, has always being upfront about his commitment to Nigeria. After defending his doctorate thesis at University of Ibadan (UI) in 1964, he was told that he could have his PhD awarded by either the University of London or UI. He chose UI despite knowing that Oxford, Cambridge and other ivy-league universities are disdainful of PhD from third world universities and are not likely to employ him.
That thesis was first published in 1967 as The Sokoto Caliphate and, fifty-four years on, it remains the most authentic account of the structure and administration of the state known by that name, also known as the ‘Fulani Empire’.
Since his student days in Ibadan, Professor Last has traveled widely across Nigeria, living modestly as a ‘traditional’ Muslim student in Zaria, a farmhand in a commercial non-Muslim farmstead and teacher at Bayero University, Kano.
Now Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, Professor Last visits Nigeria every year for a month at least. He was already working with Premium Times Books to publish the Nigerian edition of The Sokoto Caliphate when the Covid-19 shutdown halted travel and activities around the world.
In the interview below he talks about the book and his life in Nigeria during the First Republic.
PT: You first heard about the Sokoto Caliphate while working on your Master’s degree at Yale almost sixty years after the demise of the Caliphate. What excited you about it? Why did you decide to conduct research work on it?
Murray Last: At Yale, I took a course on African History taught by the elderly historian of Cameroon, Harry Rudin. It was on that course, which I was doing alongside courses on Chinese history, that I first heard of the ‘Fulani Empire’ and the role of the Qadiriyya in northern Nigeria. But my 1961 MA thesis at Yale was a translation from the Mandinka of a biography of the great state-builder Samori Toure. So, I was only drawn to a study of the ‘Fulani Empire’ when I was at UCI [University College, Ibadan], where my supervisor was Prof. H F C Smith. At Ibadan I started learning classical Arabic and was encouraged to research the collection of 19th century Arabic correspondence that HFC Smith learnt was in the Waziri’s house in Sokoto.
So, in December 1961, as a postgraduate student in the History Dept. of University College Ibadan (staying in Sultan Bello Hall), I was taken to Kano in the Arabist, John Hunwick’s VW, via Abuja (now Suleja) and Zaria. In Kano, John Hunwick and I catalogued the Arabic manuscripts in the Shahuci Judicial School library where the Kano Emirs’ old collection of manuscripts was then housed. The collection was later burnt in a fire at the Shahuci school. From Kano, I went to spend Christmas with a schoolteacher friend in Maiduguri. From there, in January, I returned to UCI and Sultan Bello Hall, till the rainy season came.
I was then despatched to Sokoto with the Sudanese scholar Muhammad al-Hajj, who introduced me to Waziri Junaidu. The Waziri gave me lodgings next to his house in Gidadawa, Sokoto, and each day was then spent in the small study room, where the Arabic correspondence was kept in his house. I was fed tuwo and miyan kuka each evening by the Waziri’s servant, Mallam Shehu.
So, my initial interest in Sokoto specifically was sparked by my teachers in Ibadan, not in Yale. But to Harry Rudin I owe my introduction to African History, which I preferred to Chinese history (as I could only go, in those days, to Hong Kong to learn Chinese). The scholars in Ibadan who taught me all had Sudanese connections – H.F.C. Smith had taught in the Sudan as had John Hunwick; Fathi El-Masri and Muhammad Ahmed al-Hajj were both Sudanese historians. In Kano were several Sudanese scholars and merchants whom they all knew well; many had taught at the long-established School for Arabic Studies in Kano or supplied the advanced Arabic texts/books.
PT: As a jurisdiction, what’s the exact equivalent of the Sokoto Caliphate in modern, i.e., 21st century, understanding? Was it a country, a republic, federation, confederation? What are the defining qualities?
Murray Last: The state which we re-labelled as ‘the Sokoto caliphate’ (rejecting the colonial term, ‘Fulani empire’) would now be labelled a confederation of emirates under a single Amir al-mu’minin or sarkin Musulmi / lamido Julbe – that is, the commander-in-chief of the whole Muslim community within the total area responsive to his leadership. The state was based on shari’a law, so that the Sarkin Musulmi was both the community’s most senior Imam and its most senior judicial officer (assisted by a specialist Qadi / Alkali). It was that formal judicial authority rather than some military role that made an Amir al-mu’minin.
PT: When you say Caliph or Caliphate these days, the immediate reference for hundred million twitter users – I use the term twitterati – is ISIS and its now deceased leader, the terror associated with him and his followers across the world, including Boko Haram and ISWAP. What would you say to the twitterati about the Sokoto Caliphate?
Murray Last: Given that formal role, the Sarkin Musulmi was also ‘Caliph’ as there was no other senior Muslim leader in the area. The Ottoman caliphs were too far way; the Borno Mai had left his capital and was no longer a ‘caliph’. But the Sakkwatawa rarely if ever actually referred to the Sarkin Musulmi as ‘Caliph’ – it was never their preferred term (which was Lamido Julbe or, in Arabic documents and books, Amir al-mu’minin). Waziri Junaidu rarely used ‘caliph’ himself but was aware of the usage when speaking of Sarkin Musulmi Muhammad Bello. ‘Uthman dan Fodio was never called ‘caliph’ – only ‘Shehu’ or al-Shaikh. He was elected the ‘Imam’ of the jama’a. So Muhammad Bello was effectively the first Caliph, as the immediate heir of the Shehu. Prof. H.F.C. Smith (after 1966 known as Abdullahi Smith) used sometimes in his lectures the terms ‘caliph’ and ‘caliphate’ for the state centred on Sokoto, but it was I who chose ‘The Sokoto Caliphate’ as the title of my book (Smith preferred ‘caliphate of Sokoto’ but I liked the euphony of ‘Sokoto Caliphate’ with the Sarkin Musulmi Muhammad Bello’s personal seal below on the cover).
The current fashion for Islamic radicals such as ISIS to call themselves a caliphate is just a rhetorical boast – in no way are or were they ever the sole Amir of the Muslim umma in their wider region, the Middle East. It was the colonial British ca. 1903 who translated Sarkin Musulmi as ‘Sultan’. That title ‘Sultan’, in the Arabic correspondence of the precolonial 19th century, was only ever applied to the Emir of Kano or rarely to the Emir of Zaria. The British regarded the Ottoman caliphate as the ‘normal’ users of the title ‘caliph’, so to have used it for the man they appointed as the new Sarkin Musulmi in Sokoto was inappropriate, especially as he was allowed much reduced powers: they ‘downgraded’ his title to ‘Sultan’, while using only ‘Emir’ for other rulers such as Kano, Zaria and others. For my book’s title it would have been grossly anachronistic (and colonialist) to have used ‘The Sultanate of Sokoto’: we wanted only the term that could have been used by men like Waziri Gidado or Muhammad Bello himself. Hence, ‘The Sokoto Caliphate’. Waziri Junaidu of course knew about the choice of title and had no objections. As did the Sarkin Musulmi, when he permitted my use of his ancestor’s seal.
If you are worried about the ‘twitterati’, let them learn some more complicated Islamic history and ignore today’s political exaggerations and boasts!
PT: I saw a headline statement once, it was credited to you, it read – I’m paraphrasing – there would be no Nigeria without the Sokoto Caliphate. Many Nigerians today will take issue with that statement. Give an insight into the historical and colonial context that used the Caliphate as the foundation for a new geo-political entity.
Murray Last: The Royal Niger Company men, who made the first agreements with the Sokoto caliphate in Sokoto, were interested in the huge market that the whole caliphate seemed to offer to any organised commercial firm dealing in cloth and other items from Europe. As primarily river-borne merchants, they could ship goods in and out of the southern parts of the Sokoto caliphate much more easily than if they traded overland up from Lagos, through its insecure, forested hinterland to the river.
Access to the River Niger and River Benue ports was via southern Nigeria – hence it made sense to try and monopolise all the import and export trade of the whole area and control that area as a whole. Given the reluctance of the Sokoto state to get too involved with the Royal Niger Company, the Company decided to use military intimidation to force agreements on various Emirs. It was the RNC’s policy to attempt to create for itself a single huge trading area.
The great population (and its proven productivity in foodstuffs, cotton goods – as the soil was fertile and the labour force large), along with its easy accessibility by ship, made northern Nigeria a much bigger potential prize than a fragmented southern Nigeria; and since northern Nigeria was governed by a single centralised administration, it was realistic (if a bit visionary!) to think that the whole market could be taken over. The new railway in southwestern Nigeria could thus be connected (via Jebba) to the northern railway lines (then at Baro); political amalgamation was based on a rather pragmatic amalgamation of railways! And one long railway line was better than riverboats.
Had the rich northern plains been merely a series of independent warring statelets, the Royal Niger Company would have had to make treaties with each one-by-one, if indeed it could; by making treaties or subduing the Caliphate as a whole, the merchants’ dream of a “Nigeria” as a trading entity became feasible: the prosperous northern plains could have access to a harbour (at Lagos), with a railway from Kano to the sea. Hence “Nigeria” as a huge colonial project depended upon the RNC successfully taking control of the core of the Sokoto caliphate. And keeping it out of the hands of their keen French and German competitors!
PT: The urban legend about the Uthman b Fodiye-led jihadi movement paints the picture of a lust for conquest and domination, you would typically hear some Nigerians talk about the unrealized ambition of the jihadists to dip the Qur’an in the sea. Is that true of the movement? Is the evolution from jihad to the Caliphate indicative of such ambition? How did the jihad evolve into the Caliphate?
Murray Last: Uthman dan Fodio never personally fought in a battle, and his main early (1793) book, Ihya’ al-sunna, never mentions jihad. He was never a military commander. He certainly wanted the Hausa Muslim states to be more shari’a compliant, but there is no reason to think the Shehu expected the great Hausa cities to fall to his rather small forces (remember, the force that took Zaria city on the morning of Saturday 31st December 1808 consisted of only about 70 men!). Those cities looked invincible but Kano, Daura, Katsina, Zaria – even Birni Ngazargamu – all fell without a siege. Only Birnin Kebbi and Alkalawa fell eventually to jihadi attacks.
What is clear, though, is that at its height, young ambitious men were sent (or simply went) to the frontiers of the caliphate to make their reputations, and probably their fortunes, by fighting and raiding across the caliphate’s frontiers. This is where your ‘lust for conquest’ comes from; or indeed the supposed ‘flag in the sea’. I don’t know the actual evidence for that remark ever being used in the 19th century It’s not in any of the Arabic material I have ever seen. And anyway, it was irrelevant as Yorubaland was already Muslim – Lagos, Abeokuta and Ibadan were all Muslim camps or cities – so it was your Ikko/Eko elite who were already dipping the flags of Islam in the sea whenever (or if) they felt like doing so: but quite why they’d want to [do so] is beyond me. There will, also, have been a few Muslim merchants in Calabar too – whether in the oil, ivory or the slave trades, or all three. So, the (modern?) notion of the Shehu’s jihad reaching the Atlantic is mere rhetoric – Islam had already reached that shore.
PT: One of my favourite takeaways from your book is the encounter between William Wallace of the Royal Niger Company and Waziri Muhammad Bukhari [in 1894]. Wallace recounts that the Waziri was seated on a mat “quietly studying, through a pair of large, horn-rimmed spectacles, an Arabic manuscript”. With the possible exception of the coastal cities of Lagos and Calabar, the image of a studious bespectacled African in Nigeria of 1894 is pretty outlandish compared to the reality across the country. What does that image surmise about the Sokoto Caliphate?
Murray Last: The expansion of the jama’a out of Sokoto depended on Islamic scholars and students from all the different parts of the northern plains wanting to be taught by the Shehu and to join, as serious students, in his new Sufi circle that was the disciplined Qadiriyya. Once the Shehu’s brother and the Shehu’s sons had shown their father that they could, in their small bands of about 50 each, not only survive but win, the Shehu sent the now Islamically qualified students off back to their homes with the authority from him (in the form of a plain white flag for each key one of them) to attract like-minded young men and try to take over or reform their local centres of power. And this they did, remarkably easily (or so it seems in hindsight).
Most of the early students with a flag were primarily scholars, not jarumai or warriors. But once they grew old or died, more military-minded colleagues took over power – necessarily as there was widespread revolt once the original ruling malamai had passed away. You had to know how to fight, how to organise an army and ensure that it won. Not easy!
I suspect that you, Ladi, and many others may not fully appreciate how DIFFICULT it can be to start up a new principled administration with rather few men to help you – let alone to keep it running as you think it should. That was as true for the colonial British as it was for the jihadi scholars who had to move away from just reading and writing books/fine poetry and learn to ride rough horses, wield lances and swords; plus, they then had to hear disputes and make the correct judicial decision in ‘difficult’ cases, day after day. It doesn’t “just happen”!
But some scholars in the Sokoto administration tried to keep up their scholarship too. Given the amount of blindness – from cataract if nothing else – eyeglasses were useful imports brought in by north African merchants and quite possibly the RNC: there will have been a market for them! Reading books by oil lamp – not your nice paraffin lamp but a small clay bowl of groundnut or shea oil with a cotton string lit as the wick – for that you needed quite good eyesight. Many books were written by such poor light, though probably first composed off-head. But many were the texts, or bits of texts, that the scholars knew off-head, so they weren’t always running, like I am, to the bookshelf to find an exact reference. It’s so different – as I found out when I was a traditional Islamic student in Zaria city (with the Limamin Kona). My fellow students made me feel VERY stupid, except they were too courteous to show it. Again, I don’t think academics today are truly aware of what it took to be a ‘real’ ‘alim in those precolonial days.
PT: The Caliphate officially ceased to exist after the defeat of Caliph Muhammad Attahiru in 1903. Some analysts describe the defeat as a transition from Caliphate to Sultanate. How do you describe the post-1903 reality of the Caliphate?
Murray Last: Yes, 1903 saw the diminution of the Sarkin Musulmi’s power, if not his implicit authority, over his subordinate Emirs. Not that Sarkin Kano was in any way ever ‘weaker’ practically than the Sarkin Musulmi – Sarkin Kano was richer, much better dressed, had a larger army, a stronger city, and so was known as ‘Sultan Kano’. In short, Sarkin Kano ruled a (large) place and its jama’a, NOT over all Muslims, the umma. But you seem not to appreciate that the unfortunate Sarkin Musulmi, Attahiru – while determined to oppose this invasive band of Kano-Hausa troops (mainly ex-RNC men) led by a handful of Nasara (Christians) in 1903 – had not actually been calmly elected (as Sarkin Musulmi) in the normal Sokoto way, so that many of the Sokoto army – alaas! – stayed away from the battle. He wasn’t impressively pious: he openly feared death, as observers happened to notice in the two serious battles he was present at. Meanwhile the colonial Brits, once in control, simply followed their practice in India where the Indian ‘princely states’ governed themselves under the eye of a ‘Resident’. Lugard’s “indirect rule” was nothing new. He, and especially his brother, knew Indian government practice well, as did most middle-class Britons who might be seeking employment in the new colonial administration; but they had to have had some military experience as well – many had learnt that trade in the Boer war. So the new “Sultan of Sokoto” was like, say, the Nizam of Hyderabad? Nonetheless the colonial men (some ex-RNC employees) never really felt secure. They could be murdered – and a few were.
PT: When the defunct Northern Region became self-governing in 1959, colonial administrators gave back the Caliphate flag and standard of office that they seized when Caliph Attahiru was defeated. What should Nigerians make of that gesture?
Murray Last: You are slightly over-dramatising the shift in 1959, Ladi, except that ‘drama’ was all part of the hype. There are/were quite a few flags around the north, and most very nondescript: they aren’t ‘special’ or ‘sacred’. An army used various flags, often more than one, to mark out key figures in the rather chaotic force that was on the move or encamped. The Britons probably took the one used at Sokoto as a souvenir and put it in the army (WAFF) museum in Zaria. There was no precolonial ‘staff of office’ – that was a British innovation as a symbol of authority, along with all the different ‘classes’ of Emirs and chiefs. All a bit absurd, but part of the ‘dramatics’ of power. The Emir of Kano had his own car well before any Resident did, for example (he was also paid more than the Resident: one Resident minuted that the Emir of Kano had more power than he had). Attahiru as Sarkin Musulmi will have used another flag when he set off on his hijra to Mecca (there was a special flag-bearer). I am not sure which flag was the one used in the dramatics of 1959, but it was all part of the Sardauna’s interest in pomp and circumstance, prompted undoubtedly by some of his strongly pro-Northern, British employees (who drafted for him his ‘auto’-biography).
PT: If Caliph Muhammad Bello, arguably the most influential of the Caliphs, could somehow appear at the court in Sokoto today, what will he find familiar and be able to relate to?
Murray Last: If Muhammad Bello returned to assess ‘the North’, I think he’d be impressed by the attempts to have shari’a law in use. He’d be surprised by the total absence of slaves and (mostly) concubines: remember, a few Emirs had as many as “600” concubines. Above all, he’d be shocked by [a] the sheer number of people everywhere but especially [b] by the scale of the huge cities and towns, with wide roads and bridges everywhere (remember, the main route between Sokoto and Katsina was a path about two-foot wide in some places ca. 1906). He’d also find most of the ‘bush’ and the major forests had gone. But he’d be more saddened by the decline of Gwandu’s authority in the far west, where it stretched as far as Burkina Faso today; and he’d probably be sorrowed by the loss of eastern Adamawa to Cameroun. And Borno might seem a shadow of its former self.
PT: Gidado dan Laima, the longest-serving Waziri, was appointed by Caliph Muhammad Bello. Is it factual to say the two men shaped the golden age of the Caliphate and the Vizierate?
Murray Last: Yes, Bello and Gidado managed the huge transition from the days of the Shehu with his enormous, caliphate-wide baraka that overwhelmed Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of ‘Abdullahi dan Fodio in Gwandu and how he sustained scholarship for a decade after the Shehu died. He was the better Arabist, the stricter legalist – but wasn’t, it seems, so interested in running a mega-state, let alone a sub-state. Whereas Bello did it all, with energy and firmness (perhaps too firm).
PT: Is it also factual to say that the Vizierate became custodian of the Caliphate’s intellectual legacy post 1903?
Murray Last: Yes, I think the Gidado family had both a library and a serious scholarly interest, though Gidado himself did not perhaps write as elegantly or as much as ‘Abd al-Qadir “Dan Tafa”. Gidado had the political acumen and diplomatic skill necessary – though he had his critics too! He kept at bay the very ambitiously domineering visitor, al-hajj ‘Umar al-Futi, and, ca. 1837, sent him on his way west.
PT: One academic report states that the military campaign against the Caliphate was built around the inability of its separate governments to combine or cooperate in response to British moves first by the RNC and later the Lugard administration. In furtherance of this, the British conducted what I call a war on the cheap by attacking one emirate at a time building up to the big prize in Sokoto. How do you explain the Caliphate’s inability to mount a unified response to British advance?
Murray Last: Not being a military-focused state, the caliphate never had a large standing army or ever organised a caliphate-wide force. That’s NOT what the state was about. Indeed, only in the 1850s did the Sarkin Musulumi have a permanent, small corps of soldiers ready for ‘special forces’ actions. So defence was left in the capable hands of local Emirs, like Ilorin, or Nupe – but they never had a disciplined army with regular professional regiments equipped with uniforms and weapons, let alone trained in the special tactics needed to defeat the small groups of armed men that the RNC occasionally sent in against them. The elite were scholars, not jarumai (warriors). And being pious they tended to assume Allah was in total charge of what was coming, especially when the imminent opposition locally were Nasara (Christians). Was it not, after all, Allah alone who created the Sokoto caliphate? Was He going to preserve it? Or were the ‘end days’ near? Again, Ladi, you need to imagine what you’d actually do, as an Etsu or an Emir, with the resources you then had to hand – and with a mind-set rather different from your current one. It’s easy to imagine now a modern army martialled to defend the caliphate, but perhaps you forget how hard even the current Nigerian army finds it to destroy Boko Haram, or even bandits in Zamfara and Katsina. The early Britons first went round, ca. 1905, from village to village, one man (usually new to the district) with a small squad of barefooted Hausa soldiers and his union-jack flag on a stick, and they destroyed every serious gun they could find – and executed (by public hanging?) anyone found seriously trying to hide such a weapon. It’s what they had done in 1857-8 India too, and hung many there. NOT pleasant at all, but you’d be mad not to try and disarm systematically any territory you are pretending to ‘take over’, especially if you have only a very small force to back you in a crisis.
I agree, I know there were a few men in the caliphate who knew about, perhaps had experienced, European warfare in Egypt, Algeria and in the Sudan. And some did indeed try tested tactics learnt abroad. But it was too late to create an organised modern army, with an educated officer corps and the military technology of modern rifles, machine guns and field guns, with all the ammunition required. What would you have done then, Ladi, especially if you hadn’t ever expected a wholesale invasion by Nasara-led Hausa troops, strangely trained and armed – a force you thought might come only suddenly but briefly, like a rainstorm, and then go away? (Remember: RNC raids before had always been short-lived.) How would you have guessed, in 1903, that these few foreigners would stay, unwanted and uninvited, for 60 years? Would you have had the wisdom to realise that they MUST be resisted at any cost, immediately, NOW… ? And that any compromise or bargaining with these rough aliens was simply out of the question? Despite many senior men, in Sokoto and elsewhere (such as Yola), knowing how foreigners had been slowly engulfing all of North Africa and Egypt for the last twenty or more years (even Muhammad Bello in the 1820s knew that Britons had taken over much of India), there might have been panic in your palaces or resigned despair… but in fact most chose, if they could, to leave their homelands in the northern plains and head East towards Mecca. A well-tried solution: if in doubt, get out – and live to fight again elsewhere. In movement lies freedom? [Isn’t that many Nigerians’ hope too in emigrating today?]
PT: I read a latter-day comment on The Sokoto Caliphate – a 1992 PhD thesis – where the author surmised that you prioritized intellectual and administrative structures of the Caliphate over its economic and state policies. Is that a fair assessment and why so?
Murray Last: Yes, in the early 1960s when Nigeria was newly independent, in Ibadan we were focused on the best bits of Nigeria’s history – not the dark side of the past and its cliches. And one of these best bits was the sheer scale of the caliphate, its sophisticated administration and, above all, its written documentation. There aren’t economic records for the 19th century – not even taxation documents. And we were then interested in hard evidence, not in hearsay, to argue for the complexity of pre-colonial government. There was real excitement in uncovering (and offering to a newly independent public) the records of this remarkable precolonial polity, very much the largest in precolonial Africa, in which peace was maintained for decades, where revolts and rebellions were few, AND where the administrators wrote, in good classical Arabic, guides on to how to run the new polity. To be honest, some recent scholars have tried serious economic history for the precolonial period but it’s rather flimsy material.
When African History was a totally new subject in academic Britain and the USA, we were determined in Ibadan to show how African History could be just as seriously ‘scholarly’ as anything written about, say, Ancient Greece or Rome. Done like that, our new History couldn’t be written off as just more African folklore or an ethnography inventing the past. My footnotes had to be detailed and precise – or as precise as I could make it, down to folio page of this manuscript or that. AND the idea was to do it through Nigerian eyes, on their terms, and NOT follow slavishly the European fashionable theories in political economy or political science. Hence, we avoided cultish Marxism or American styles of poli. sci (political science). I admit, I still do avoid them both – my commitment is to northern Nigerian intellectuals, not to Oxford, Harvard or the London School of Economics (let alone Paris!). I regret that modern historians haven’t pursued a careful understanding of the past and its minute details: the evidence will soon be gone, as their grannies and granddads, uncles and aunts have almost all passed away. We HAD to listen to them before they departed, and by and large we did. But, alas, not all – some died a week or so before I got back to them with a tape-recorder.
PT: How would you respond to those who say the real legacy of the Caliphate is the perpetuation of the sarauta versus talakawa privileged social relations as perceived in the lowly human development index data of present-day Northern Nigeria?
Murray Last: Oh dear, the talakawa problem! Remarkably few of those who discuss the talakawa have ever lived as their guest amongst them in the ‘bush’ (as I did for two years; I am still in almost weekly touch with my ex-hosts in their farmstead). All one is usually offered are figures – derived from the World Bank, as if they or their agents have any real expertise or first-hand experience in the Hausa countryside. Almost all the statistics used are fantasy – I have done ‘statistical’ studies in villages myself – and while there clearly is poverty in some places, the culture of the talakawa still thrives. Southerners call it ‘underdevelopment’ or something, but have they ever seen the prosperity, the well-being, to be found in some farmsteads? Or how politically savvy many of the young men are? Farmers’ families eat well, discuss the news (yes!) and keep their houses clean!
I admit some masu sarauta can be horrible, but not all are – and as a class are too varied to be crudely lumped into a binary system beloved only of theorists. Being a Sarki can be hard work and not necessarily much fun. And not all are rich, as I know from those I have known personally; they may be too generous, I don’t know. But I have known masu sarauta who were genuinely loved and were about as un-pompous as can be imagined – poorly dressed yet respected. Wicked Hausa humour can destroy excessive self-importance! Northern Nigeria is far too diverse to be categorised as some in poli. sci. (or the development wallahs) seem to want to do.
I personally have been struck by the sense of self-respect and even pride that one meets in ordinary people – a sense that makes such things as ‘the development index’ a foreign bit of artificial nonsense. People may not have a certificate of education (though many do now) but they’ll be good at maths or analysis to make them a success in the marketplace. They may not speak English or pidgin, but they are savvy negotiators AND can be humorous too. And they don’t beat their wives (or indeed their children)… They don’t commit suicide, either. Isn’t this as useful a style of ‘development’ as anything that can be found in, say, south London lifestyles?
More importantly perhaps is the way a masu sarauta v. talakawa analysis totally ignores the roles of merchants and malamai, of rich traders and cattle-owners (often different from herders, of course) – all the ‘middle-class’ of Hausa society that is crucial to both the mores and the stability of the culture. The Hausa world can be very ‘bourgeois’!!
PT: The Sokoto Caliphate’s manuscript was the first PhD thesis approved by the University of Ibadan. What was the defence and approval process like and what was it like being the first across that benchmark?
Murray Last: My PhD thesis was printed word for word as ‘The Sokoto caliphate’ (but with a different title of course); the examiner’s report was printed on the back cover of the book, and my abstract was on the inside front cover. But I added some photos for the book. My external examiner was Thomas Hodgkin, and he read the thesis over night, I was told, and fell asleep. So my viva examination was very gentle, unlike that given to my colleague Adiele Afigbo. I was lucky, as he was a more brilliant scholar and faster writer than ever I was. We sat across from each other at a particular table on the fourth floor of UCI library – there I was introduced to Senghor by the vice-chancellor Kenneth Dike. I insisted that I could not receive my degree until Afigbo was passed, which he soon was. So, it was Zik, the President, who gave us our certificates. I felt very honoured, of course. I had been asked by Kenneth Dike if I wanted a London PhD or an Ibadan one – so of course, I answered I wanted an Ibadan one. And I have defended it against racist History professors in SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies)! University College London saw no problem in appointing me with my Ibadan qualification, which neither SOAS nor Oxford could countenance; not even if they read my thesis, they said – ignoramuses that they were!
PT: You began your research in Sokoto in 1962. What was the city like then? Did you get a sense of how residents felt about living in what one might describe as the Caliphate’s legacy city?
Murray Last: Sokoto in 1962 was nice – quiet, friendly, accepting of my stammer and bad Hausa. It was hot, especially as I kept Ramadan there when it was in the month of April. A neighbour was locally regarded as the ‘best’ Sufi in the city – but he was dressed so ordinarily and was so kind to me that I never realised his city-wide fame as a Sufi till later. Camels after market-day passed my house in the darkness of the night, stepping neatly over the sleeping bodies in their path. The marketplaces were wonderful sources of beautiful things to treasure, such as the remarkable children’s toys made of painted clay: horses with three legs, ‘brides’ with 18th century hairstyles – plus more modern gadgetry like a model radio or a bed. The famous Sokoto leather was still being tanned using natural dyes and made into elegant bags specifically suitable for Arabic books (gafaka). No, there wasn’t any sense of self-importance to the city. Its public libraries had Arabic books from the 19th century, but it was not a city of pomp, and certainly not in the quarter where I was lodged, with the Sardauna’s house nearby up the road and the Sultan’s palace in the other direction. I didn’t have enough money for ‘going out’; and I NEVER went to the Club in the GRA, which I regarded as far too ‘colonial’. Similarly, I never wore shorts or wore a hat. I did, though, once attend a Beauty Contest organised (surprising though it may seem today) by the NPC!
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PT: Did you get a chance to interact with Sultan Abubakar back then? What of the Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello?
Murray Last: I would always greet the elderly Sarkin Musulmi (Sultan Abubakar) if I was leaving Sokoto for a while or had just returned. He put up with me, my stammer and my poor Hausa. One of his senior sons once remarked, to someone visiting the palace, that I was a ‘dan gida’ – that made me feel very proud! I never went to see the Sardauna, though I sometimes shared food sent from his house to a friend of mine: delicious! I have NEVER had the habit of trying to see important people – they are not my interest, and I wouldn’t interest them being a naive young man, a visitor, albeit a guest of the gidan Waziri. I did, though, visit S L Akintola when he was in Olokomeji (as a detainee), and his daughter Dele visited me in Sultan Bello Hall. So, I may perhaps have helped SLA just once to pass a less boring morning.
PT: You got close to Waziri Junaid, in your tribute after he passed, you paint the picture of a generous intellectual who gave you access to his library and a humble community leader who was beloved by the people. Waziri Junaid was in office at a time too when the role of the Amir al-mu’minin, the political and administrative structure of the emirates vis-à-vis the government of the Northern Region and Nigeria was in a flux. What role did he play in all of these? It is rumoured that Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Region, and his cousin, Amir al-mu’minin, Sultan Abubakar, had personal and political differences. Was Waziri Junaid able to play the mediatory role his forbears played in the 19th century?
Murray Last: At the time, I did not follow the Waziri’s various political roles or jobs. He was essentially a close advisor to the Sultan, whom my friends (and I) all preferred to the ambitious Sardauna. There was simply no joke one could make about the Sultan – but plenty of jokes were made about the Sardauna, at least in Sokoto, and everyone would laugh. Similarly, we all dismissed the Sardauna’s apparent wish to become Sultan (he wasn’t eligible by traditional rules), but had the Sardauna lived, he might have been made Sultan, just as Dasuki was later (though he too was technically ineligible). The basic problem is that the Sultan’s house was relabelled a ‘palace’ by the British and turned into government property. But by traditional practice, that house and its contents are the personal, private property of the descendants of Muhammad Bello: neither the Sardauna nor Dasuki therefore had any ‘right’ to it except under the colonialists’ arbitrary rules. They had their own family’s houses to use.
Furthermore, it was the Sardauna who pushed(?) the Sultan against his better judgement into going on the umra to Mecca – and that caused massive popular upset across the North. The Waziri went along with the Sultan, but of course the Waziri was free, as the Sultan was not, to go to Mecca. But the system survived that upheaval – ‘tashin dunya’ passed.
I was warned to leave town before nightfall
PT: Some analysts posit that the January 1966 military coup d’etat and its aftermath was a hit against the continuing influence of the Caliphate and retaliation for that hit. Were you in Nigeria at that time? Would you say there is any truth to that assertion?
Murray Last: Nzeogwu, though brought up, like Ojukwu, in the Hausa north, remained an outsider to that world. It is even said that the Sardauna mentored Nzeogwu. Certainly, the Sardauna had a bevy of young men around him, keen to get ahead and usually very able administrators/civil servants. Nzeogwu may have been excluded, or excluded himself, from that circle. So, his coup was long planned – I heard his night exercises every midnight or later in Kaduna during December 1965 as I drove back late from the National Archives and remarked to my host that it’d be a good cover for a coup. But there was widespread dislike of the Sardauna and his government among students and others in ABU.
And the day after the coup – January 16th 1966 – there was initially so much open relief on the ABU campus that it shocked me. It was only later, when I was living within Zaria city (at Babban Dodo), that I encountered the anger at the way Igbo traders (and journalists) were mocking their Hausa fellow traders in Zaria’s Sabon Gari over the death of their ‘father’, and were pushing aside various motorpark workers elsewhere, telling the Hausa that the rules had now all changed and it was the Hausa who were now the underlings in market or motorpark.
Hearing the Hausa men tell among themselves each evening of the insults they had heard from Igbos that day showed me vividly how the initial relief at the coup had transformed into fury. It worried me little at the time (living safely in the centre of Zaria city) but I was naive enough not to expect serious violence. That I only witnessed later when for example, in April 1966, I was in Jalingo: there, one Sunday afternoon, I was formally warned killing was to happen. I was told I must leave town before nightfall.
In a sense, then, the coup was aimed at bringing down a political system once modelled on the ideal of the old caliphate. One of its side-effects, however, seemed to be a re-moulding of a northern ‘nationalism’ around the proud idea of the old ‘Sokoto Caliphate’.
My book, by having that title, I think may have helped to re-focus the language of northern Nigerian history around ‘the caliphate’ at exactly the time when some thought a re-valuing of the past was needed. We didn’t know that at the time – the book’s title was fixed long before the Sardauna was murdered – but it may have been serendipitous. Instead of calling the past a “Fulani empire” as the colonial British had called it, we now had a more appealing label – the “Sokoto caliphate” – which accentuated a local, Islamic and, above all, a non-ethnic notion of power.
PT: Finally, sir, in this digital age where everything is i-centric – iPad, iPod, iReporter, etc – what would you say the millennial and Gen Z demography in Nigeria have to gain directly from the Caliphate’s legacy? Why should they care about the Sokoto Caliphate?
Murray Last: All Nigerians, whether iPadded or not, should care to know about the Sokoto caliphate because [a] it portrays a model of unified, law-based government where warfare was minimised as never before, and where trade prospered, exporting locally made, prized goods as far as north Africa and Timbuktu; [b] it underlines a tradition of fine indigenous, scholarly writing that is unparalleled in African history; [c] at its core was the concern for justice, in its case based on shari’a law properly and correctly applied by trained judges.
Nigeria today could do with those same principles – justice, peacefulness, honest trade – that the Sokoto caliphate stood for. It wasn’t always successful in every part of the polity – but it was much the largest precolonial polity in Africa and it lasted a whole century: that’s surely something to be proud of. Everyone needs to know how, in nitty-gritty detail, it was actually achieved. Such huge states don’t “just happen” – they take hard work, commitment, sincerity over time, despite the many difficulties of everyday life. Above all, the Sokoto caliphate was a remarkable achievement, and we must celebrate the good in our pasts as well as being aware of the darker aspects. “The Sokoto Caliphate” as a book was meant, in the 1960s, to offer all readers a way into the details of that remarkable achievement, through the caliphate scholars’ own words, ideas and records – a kind of antidote to colonialism.
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Murray Last says Nigeria could do with those same principles – justice, peacefulness, honest trade – that the Sokoto caliphate stood for.