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The Northern Kingdoms of the Savanna

Trade was the key to the emergence of organized communities in the savanna portions of Nigeria. Prehistoric inhabitants, adjusting to the encroaching desert, were widely scattered by the third millennium B.C., when the desiccation of the Sahara began. Trans-Saharan trade routes linked the western Sudan with the Mediterranean from the time of Carthage and with the upper Nile from a much earlier date, also establishing an avenue of communication and cultural influence that remained open until the end of the nineteenth century. By these same routes, Islam made its way south into West Africa after the ninth century A.D.

By then a string of dynastic states, including the earliest Hausa states, stretched across the western and central Sudan. The most powerful of these states were Ghana, Gao, and Kanem, which were not located within the boundaries of present-day Nigeria but which nonetheless had an indirect influence on the history of the Nigerian savanna. Ghana declined in the eleventh century but was succeeded by Mali, which consolidated much of the western Sudan under its imperial rule in the thirteenth century. Songhai emerged as an empire out of the small state of Gao in the fifteenth century. For a century, Songhai paid homage to Mali, but by the last decade of the fifteenth century it attained its independence and brought much of the Malian domains under its imperial sway. Although these western empires had little political influence on the savanna states of Nigeria before 1500, they had a strong cultural and economic impact that became more pronounced in the sixteenth century, especially because these states became associated with the spread of Islam and trade. In the sixteenth century, moreover, much of northern Nigeria paid homage to Songhai in the west or to Borno, a rival empire in the east (see fig. 3).


Figure 3. Principal Trans-Saharan Trade Routes, Ninth to Seventeenth Centuries

Borno's history is closely associated with Kanem, which had achieved imperial status in the Lake Chad basin by the thirteenth century. Kanem expanded westward to include the area that became Borno. Its dynasty, the Sayfawa, was descended from pastoralists who had settled in the Lake Chad region in the seventh century. The mai (king) of Kanem ruled in conjunction with a council of peers as a constitutional monarch. In the eleventh century, the mai and his court accepted Islam, as the western empires also had done. Islam was used to reinforce the political and social structures of the state, although many established customs were maintained. Women, for example, continued to exercise considerable political influence.

The mai employed his mounted bodyguard, composed of abid (slave-soldiers), and an inchoate army of nobles to extend Kanem's authority into Borno, on the western shore of Lake Chad. By tradition the territory was conferred on the heir to the throne to govern during his apprenticeship. In the fourteenth century, however, dynastic conflict forced the then-ruling group and its followers to relocate in Borno, where as a result the Kanuri emerged as an ethnic group in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The civil war that disrupted Kanem in the second half of the fourteenth century resulted in the independence of Borno.

Borno's prosperity depended on its stake in the trans-Sudanic slave trade and the desert trade in salt and livestock. The need to protect its commercial interests compelled Borno to intervene in Kanem, which continued to be a theater of war throughout the fifteenth and into the sixteenth centuries. Despite its relative political weakness in this period, Borno's court and mosques under the patronage of a line of scholarly kings earned fame as centers of Islamic culture and learning.

By the eleventh century, some of the Hausa states--such as those at Kano, Katsina, and Gobir--had developed into walled towns that engaged in trade and serviced caravans as well as manufactured cloth and leather goods. Millet, sorghum, sugarcane, and cotton were produced in the surrounding countryside, which also provided grazing land for cattle. Until the fifteenth century, the small Hausa states were on the periphery of the major empires of the era.

According to tradition, the Hausa rulers descended from a "founding hero" named Bayinjida, supposedly of Middle Eastern origin, who became sarki (king) of Daura after subduing a snake and marrying the queen of Daura. Their children founded the other Hausa towns, which traditionally are referred to as the Hausa bakwai (Hausa seven). Wedged in among the stronger Sudanic kingdoms, each of the Hausa states acquired special military, economic, or religious functions. No one state dominated the others, but at various times different states assumed a leading role. They were under constant pressure from Songhai to the west and Kanem-Borno to the east, to which they paid tribute. Armed conflict usually was motivated by economic concerns, as coalitions of Hausa states mounted wars, against the Jukun and Nupe in the middle belt to collect slaves, or against one another for control of important trade routes.

Commerce was in the hands of commoners. Within the cities, trades were organized through guilds, each of which was selfregulating and collected taxes from its members to be transmitted to the sarki as a pledge of loyalty. In return, the king guaranteed the security of the guild's trade. The surrounding countryside produced grain for local consumption and cotton and hides for processing.

Islam was introduced to Hausaland along the caravan routes. The famous Kano Chronicle records the conversion of Kano's ruling dynasty by clerics from Mali, demonstrating that the imperial influence of Mali extended far to the east. Acceptance of Islam was gradual and was often nominal in the countryside, where folk religion continued to exert a strong influence. Non-Islamic practices also were retained in the court ceremonies of the Hausa kings. Nonetheless, Kano and Katsina, with their famous mosques and schools, came to participate fully in the cultural and intellectual life of the Islamic world.

Fulbe pastoralists, known in Nigeria as Fulani, began to enter the Hausa country in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth century they were tending cattle, sheep, and goats in Borno as well. The Fulani came from the Senegal River valley, where their ancestors had developed a method of livestock management and specialization based on transhumance. The movement of cattle along north/south corridors in pursuit of grazing and water followed the climatic pattern of the rainy and dry seasons. Gradually, the pastoralists moved eastward, first into the centers of the Mali and Songhai empires and eventually into Hausaland and Borno. Some Fulbe converted to Islam in the Senegal region as early as the eleventh century, and one group of Muslim Fulani settled in the cities and mingled freely with the Hausa, from whom they became racially indistinguishable. There, they constituted a devoutly religious, educated elite who made themselves indispensable to the Hausa kings as government advisers, Islamic judges, and teachers. Other Fulani, the lighter-skinned pastoral nomads, remained aloof from the Hausa and in some measure from Islam as well, herding cattle outside the cities and seeking pastures for their herds.

Data as of June 1991

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