Death of a sultan, Richard Gott


The crocodile tears shed by the obituary writers in the British press for the 80-year-old Alhaji Muhammadu Maccido, the benign Sultan of Sokoto, killed in an aircrash near Abuja on Sunday, have tended to gloss over the fact that the British killed his predecessor, Attahiru Ahmadu, barely a century ago, as they embarked on their brutal and murderous conquest of Northern Nigeria.

According to popular legend, a cataclysmic and regime-changing event occurs in the Sokoto region every hundred years or so, and it may well be that the unfortunate aircrash, which carried off many other prominent figures from the emirate of Sokoto as well as the Sultan, will have a comparable impact to the Islamic jihad of Sheikh Othman dan Fodio in the early 19th century that established the great Fulani Empire, and to the British invasion launched by Colonel Frederick Lugard in 1903 that destroyed it.

The British had begun their conquest of Northern Nigeria in 1900, and the sheiks and emirs of the various city states soon knew what the British advance held in store for them. In a message to Lugard, Attahiru outlined his uncompromising opposition to a British invasion and occupation: “I do not consent that any one from you should ever dwell with us. I will never agree with you. I will have nothing ever to do with you. Between us and you there are no dealings, except as between Moslems and Unbelievers – War, as God Almighty has enjoined on us. There is no power or strength save in God on high.”

Attahiru was described by contemporaries as “a princely man, tall above average, and of noble bearing”. He always appeared dressed in white, sporting a coloured turban. His resistance in defence of Sokoto lasted for several months.

In January 1903, a British column of 700 African soldiers from the newly-created West African Frontier Force, led by 24 British officers, marched north from Zaria to Kano, a city emirate within the jurisdiction of the Sokoto sultanate. The Moslems put up a stiff resistance at the walled town of Bebedji, but were unable to prevent the British force from capturing Kano. In the absence of Aliyu, its Emir, who had traveled north to Sokoto to consult with Attahiru, Lugard appointed his younger brother as the new Emir.

As the rightful Emir returned, he was captured by the British force moving towards Sokoto, led by Brigadier George Kemball (a veteran of the Relief of Chitral in 1895). Aliju was exiled to the British military base at Lokoja, and remained there until his death some 20 years later in 1926.) Brigadier Kemball’s soldiers arrived outside Sokoto in the middle of March, and Attahiru’s men came out to attack.

Captain Frank Crozier (who later took part in the repression in Ireland in 1920 with the Black and Tans) described the scene: “The Fulani came over. Hundreds, thousands of shrieking humanity, mounted and on foot. Drumming and horning – up they come; right up to the bayonet points! The Maxims belch forth – Rat-tat-tat – that’s fine.”

British machine-guns were in use yet again, as they had been at Omdurman five years earlier, to mow down African and Moslem resistance. Later in the day, Crozier noted, British officers went over the battlefield to shoot the wounded. “Soon all was calm. Faithful slaves died by the score round the mystic green flag of the Emir – who flees. Officers run out to capture this flag and ‘finish off’ the wounded with sporting rifles … Charles [Wells] and I mooch around the dead bodies, seeing if there’s anything worth having on them.” What they thought was gold (and they hacked off someone’s leg to get at it) turned out to be brass.

The green flag of Islam, noted by Crozier, was the ancient banner of the 19th century Islamic leader Dan Fodio, and Attahiru’s men managed to recapture it from the British. The Sultan himself escaped from the ruins of his city, and used the flag to rally the peasantry into a resistance force.

In Sokoto, in March, Lugard had organised a public ceremony to install a successor to Attahiru. As at Kano, he chose the Sultan’s brother, also called Attahiru. “The troops with Guns and Maxims mounted,” wrote Lugard, “formed three sides of a large square in the centre of the town. The Sultan-elect and the Chief Officers of State with a few close attendants, some 25 in all, took their seats on a rug in the centre, and I proclaimed Attahiru ‘Serikin Mussulman’ and ‘Sultan of Sokoto’. I spoke a few words reassuring them of the freedom of religion, and our earnest desire to promote the peace and prosperity of the country. I urged them to learn our laws and ways, as we on our part should study theirs, so that we might work in harmony and with mutual knowledge and goodwill. I publicly shook hands with the new Sultan and wished him long life and prosperity.”

The British were in control of the city, but Attahiru held the countryside. “The movement inaugurated by Attahiru … is rapidly assuming the proportions of a Jihad,” reported Featherston Cargill, the British Resident at Kano, a few months later. Unless immediate steps are taken, he wrote, “we are likely to find the entire Mohammedan population arrayed against us … I consider it would be dangerous to underestimate the gravity of the situation, Attahiru and his followers must be crushed without delay.”

Attahiru had been joined by the Emir of Bida, the Magaji of Keffi (the deputy of the Emir of Zaria), and various disaffected chiefs and officials. According to the account of Captain C W J Orr, “the movement soon … assumed a dangerous aspect, since fanaticism was aroused and some thousands flocked to his banner.”

The troops that Cargill had requested were sent out from Kano, and pursued Attahiru’s forces “in a south-easterly direction, being joined by a small column from Bauchi. Still pursuing, the force reached a walled town named Burmi, near the banks of the Gongola.” The people of Burmi had been subdued the previous year (“dispersed by heavy rifle fire”) and their ruler, Mallam Jibrella, had been captured and dispatched to Lokoja. He was succeeded by Mallam Imam Musa, “a learned Hausa man who had returned from the East”, and declared himself to be the “Mahdi”, hostile to the British presence.

The small British force that arrived at Burmi in pursuit of Attahiru, was led by Captain D W Sword. He appeared unaware that he faced a hostile population. Arriving at the walls of Burmi after a long march, he made demands for his men to be fed. “These were at once refused, and the messengers were attacked and driven out; severe fighting took place, and the British force was obliged to withdraw, after having 64 of their small number killed and wounded.” They were obliged to retreat to Bauchi.

The Imam Musa was killed in the fighting, but this was still a major British defeat. Charles Temple, the British Resident at Bauchi, gave an account of the battle: “On arriving before the walls of Burmi on May 13, [Captain Sword] found the natives to be hostile. He does not appear to have acted with the promptitude which the occasion required …

“On hearing the war chant, instead of immediately assuming the offensive, he took up a defensive position, and sent Major Plummer into the town with a few men to enquire into the sufficiently obvious temper of the people. Major Plummer was immediately compelled to retire from the town, and a heavy shower of arrows fell upon the square from the corner of the walls. The natives twice charged out of the gate, and were driven back.”

“In one of these charges, the Mallam Imam Musa was mortally wounded. A counter-charge was made, and Major Plummer actually entered the gate; he was however ordered to retire. The main force appears to have remained on the defensive within 80 yards of the wall (within easy arrow range) for about two hours; heavy casualties occurred amongst the troops. Although the enemy’s loss had been very severe, and the leader killed, no determined effort to assault and enter the town appears to have been made. At night-fall, the force retired from Burmi, leaving the enemy practically victorious … The blow struck to the prestige of the Government has been a severe one … The repulse of Captain Sword enormously encouraged the natives of the town, so that even the death of the Imam Musa on that occasion did not trouble them. A Mallam by the name of Sule Makana was soon found to lead them, and they [are] more than ever determined to resist the authority of the Government.”

“In my opinion,” wrote William Wallace, Lugard’s deputy, “the situation is serious as rising may spread.” He was right to be alarmed, for Attahiru soon arrived at the town with reinforcements “saying that the victory of Burmi showed that God had forgiven him, and that he would be able to force the white man to leave him alone …”

The Sultan joined forces with the Mallam Sule Makana, and prepared to resist the inevitable British counter-attack. The British force arrived from Lokoja in July, and began a second attack on the town. Boyd Alexander, one of the British soldiers, described the preparations the Moslem population had made:

“The defences of Burmi had been strengthened, all the seven gates having been barricaded save that on the south side, where a second trench had been dug in addition to the one that ran all the way round the walls. At the foot of the latter, holes had been made to enable the defenders to escape within the town. The construction of double trenches revealed a degree of ingenuity unexpected in the natives, and leads one to believe that there must have been some ex-soldiers of our own or of the French forces in the service of the Sultan. Previous to the attack, all the women and children had been sent away, and it is said that there were at least 10,000 men in the town. The majority of the defenders were armed with bows, and many of the arrows were poisoned; some used throwing spears and others ‘dane’ guns and rifles.”

The British attack on Burmi began at 11 o’clock on the morning of July 27: “As the troops neared the trenches, and got within the angle of the walls, suddenly the air was benighted with clouds of arrows and shouts of Allah! Allah! arose upon a deafening alarum of drums. So tremendous was the surprise of the shock, that the leading column was forced to fall back on its supports, and the men refused to go on, for they said the place was full of ‘juju’. Thereupon Major Marsh, who had been directing the operations from the square, realising the critical position, went down at once to the fighting line to lead the assault; but he had no sooner come within the line of fire than he was struck in the thigh by a poisoned arrow and died within twenty minutes.”

“The fighting continued with stubborn opposition till sunset,” according to Boyd Alexander’s account, with casualties numbering over 80. “The town was eventually stormed, and the fanatical inhabitants dispersed, after suffering heavy losses.” Amongst those killed was Sultan Attahiru himself, and “round his body were piled the corpses of 90 of his followers”. Most of the disaffected chiefs who had joined him were also killed, including the Magaji of Keffi.

The Moslems, refusing to surrender, had made their final stand at the mosque. “The body of Attahiru was found among the dead by the gate. It is said that he was praying in the mosque with his mallams when the attack was made, and hearing that the ‘white man’ had carried the gate, went down their with his personal followers to attempt to save defeat.”

According to Captain Crozier’s account of the battle, “over a thousand Fulani were killed by Maxim gun fire in and around a mosque from which there was little or no escape, photographs of decapitated ringleaders being taken for distribution round the country – so as to convince the diehards of the futility of fighting.”

The British believed at the time that their violent action at Burmi had “put an end to the last remnant of active disaffection throughout the Hausa States” and that the “pacification” of the country was now complete. Yet this was not so. Active Islamic resistance continued in Northern Nigeria until the 1930s, remaining a permanent concern and irritant to colonial officers.

It is just over a century since the British displayed photographs of Attahiru, the beheaded Sultan of Sokoto, throughout Northern Nigeria, and today the country is mourning the violent death of its latest spiritual leader. After nearly two centuries since the death of the great Dan Fodio and his creation of a great Islamic empire in Central Africa, it would be surprising if his legacy were not to be re-examined and perhaps built upon again.


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