The Savanna States, 1500-1800

Nigeria Table of Contents

The sixteenth century marked a high point in the political history of northern Nigeria. During this period, the Songhai Empire reached its greatest limits, stretching from the Senegal and Gambia rivers in the far west and incorporating part of Hausaland in the east. At the same time, the Sayfawa Dynasty of Borno asserted itself, conquering Kanem and extending its control westward to Hausa cities that were not under Songhai imperial rule. For almost a century, much of northern Nigeria was part of one or the other of these empires, and after the 1590s Borno dominated the region for 200 years.

Songhai's sway over western Hausaland included the subordination of Kebbi, whose kanta (king) controlled the territory along the Sokoto River. Katsina and Gobir also paid tribute to Songhai, while Songhai merchants dominated the trade of the Hausa towns. It was at this time that the overland trade in kola nuts from the Akan forests of modern Ghana was initiated. Largely because of Songhai's influence, there was a remarkable blossoming of Islamic learning and culture.

The influence of Songhai collapsed abruptly in 1591, when an army from Morocco crossed the Sahara and conquered the capital city of Gao and the commercial center of Timbuktu. Morocco was not able to control the whole empire, and the various provinces, including the Hausa states, became independent. The collapse undermined Songhai's commercial and religious hegemony over the Hausa states and abruptly altered the course of history in the region.

Borno reached its apogee under mai Idris Aloma (ca. 1569-1600), during whose reign Kanem was reconquered. As a result of his campaigns, several Hausa cities, including Kano and Katsina, became tributaries. The destruction of Songhai left Borno uncontested as an imperial force, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Borno continued to dominate the political history of northern Nigeria. Now Borno became the center of Islamic learning and trade. Its capital at Birni Gazargamu, on the Komadugu Yobe River that flows eastward into Lake Chad, was well situated in the midst of a prosperous agricultural district. Textile production was a mainstay of its economy. Borno also controlled extensive salt deposits, which supplied its most important export to the west and south. These reserves were located at Bilma and Fachi in the Sahara, in the districts of Mangari and Muniyo adjacent to Birni Gazargamu, and on the northeastern shores of Lake Chad.

Despite Borno's hegemony, the Hausa states wrestled for ascendancy among themselves for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Gobir, Katsina, Zamfara, Kano, Kebbi, and Zaria formed various alliances, but only Zamfara ceased to exist as an autonomous state, falling to Gobir in the eighteenth century. Borno collected tribute from Kano and Katsina, and its merchants dominated the trade routes that passed through Hausaland. Gradually, however, Borno's position began to weaken. Its inability to check the political rivalries of the competing Hausa cities was one example of this decline. Another factor was the military threat of the Tuareg, whose warriors, centered at Agades in the center of present-day Nigeria, penetrated the northern districts of Borno. They even diverted the salt trade of Bilma and Fachi from Birni Gazargamu. Tuareg military superiority depended upon camels, which also were used to transport salt and dates to the savanna.

The major cause of Borno's decline was a severe drought and famine that struck the whole Sahel and savanna from Senegal to Ethiopia in the middle of the eighteenth century. There had been periodic droughts before; two serious droughts, one of seven years' duration, hit Borno in the seventeenth century. But the great drought of the 1740s and 1750s probably caused the most severe famine that the Sahel has known over the past several hundred years, including that of the 1970s. As a consequence of the mid-eighteenth century drought, Borno lost control of much of its northern territories to the Tuareg, whose mobility allowed them the flexibility to deal with famine conditions through war and plunder. Borno regained some of its former might in the succeeding decades, but another drought occurred in the 1790s, again weakening the state.

The ecological and political instability of the eighteenth century provided the background for the momentous events of the first decade of the nineteenth century, when the jihad of Usman dan Fodio revolutionized the whole of northern Nigeria. The military rivalries of the Hausa states and the political weakness of Borno put a severe strain on the economic resources of the region, just at a time when drought and famine undermined the prosperity of farmers and herders. Many Fulani moved into Hausaland and Borno at this time to escape areas where drought conditions were even worse, and their arrival increased tensions because they had no loyalty to the political authorities, who saw them as a source of increased taxation. By the end of the eighteenth century, some Muslim clerics began to articulate the grievances of the common people. Political efforts to eliminate or control these clerics only heightened the tensions. The stage was set for jihad.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress