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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Welcome to the Sultanate of Sokoto

Article by: Jack Huntley

Pre-Colonial Heritage in Africa 

It would be easy to assume that the advent of colonialism in Africa meant the definitive end of the states that had previously occupied the vast lands of the continent. However, the story does not end up being so simple. In Nigeria, many of these pre-colonial states still exist today, albeit many times in diminished form. A prominent example can be found in what is arguably the most powerful traditional state of them all: the Sultanate of Sokoto, otherwise known as the Sokoto Sultanate Council. It is currently led by its 20th Sultan, Sa’adu Abubakar. The Sultanate dates to the early nineteenth century, and though stripped of formal political power by the British in 1903, retains influence in today’s modern world in line with its history. 

Nigeria’s Religious Leadership  

The Sokoto Caliphate began its life in 1804, as a revolutionary Islamic movement. The state’s founder, Usman Dan Fodio, was an Islamic scholar who preached the purification and revival of Islamic Orthodoxy in West Africa. His revolution led to the establishment of a new state encompassing all the Hausa tribes of what is now Northern Nigeria. Fulani himself, the Sultan retains profound influence today among Muslims generally and in particular the Hausa-Fulani, the two most prominent ethnic groups of the North. Without formal power, the Sultan and his council must rely principally on a different source of influence: the ear of the people. 

Half the Country

The Sultan of Sokoto today is the head of the two largest representative organizations for all Muslims in Nigeria. The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) and Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI). The NSCIA takes on functions of great importance to the entire Muslim population of Nigeria, which by most estimates includes at least half of the population of Nigeria, in a country of over two hundred million. The NSCIA is responsible for the annual sighting of the crescent moon that marks the beginning of the month of Ramadan, and the Sultan makes the declaration himself.  

Deep Importance with the Community 

As the head of organizations representing over one hundred million Muslims and taking on such important functions for that community, the Sultan is already an influential figure. To compound this power, Nigeria’s religious communities are also characterized by their depth of faith. According to data by Pew Research, eighty-eight per cent of the Nigerian population considers religion to be very important to them. As far as the Sultan is recognized by Muslims as a national leader, he can expect to be recognized by those same Muslims as an important voice in their lives. The Sultan also has special significance to the Qadiriyya Sufi sect, being a member himself and the successor of a long line of promulgators of the order dating back to the foundation of the Caliphate. 

The Sultan and Autonomous Action 

The extent to which figures like the Sultan actually influence the political landscape of Nigeria is difficult to determine. In late 2023, the Sultan made a statement through the NSCIA on behalf of Nigerian Muslims opposing violent action in response to a coup in Niger, thereby contrasting the more hawkish position of Nigerian President Bola Tinubu. Tinubu expressed willingness to intervene militarily in Niger and asked the Nigerian Senate to provide him with the needed authorization. Despite these differences with the national government, the Sultan was sent to Niger as part of a diplomatic delegation, showing that the government recognized his value. The power represented by him is evidently of great significance, but it is unclear to what extent he personally exercises it, and to what extent his public statements, actions, and other engagements are just signs of the political tides.

Limited Power? 

That being said, the directly measurable power of the Sultan to influence everyday events in Nigeria is limited compared to government officials invested with formal political power. In fact, oftentimes the inaction of the Sultan and figures like him tell us as much as their actions. The previous Sultan’s silence during the implementation of Sharia law in Northern Nigeria, where most figures loudly praised the action, comes to mind. His actions or lack thereof, and the actions of the organizations he leads are mostly limited to statements and speech. For all we know, the Sultan did not seek to stop the implementation of Sharia Law and did not concretely differentiate himself from the prevailing sentiment in favor of implementation. 

A Responsible Stakeholder?

Having discussed the degree of influence that the Sultan wields over Nigerian society, one question might arise: How is he using it? It is important to note the places where the Sultan fails to wield his power, such as in the just discussed case of the implementation of Sharia Law. However, of equal importance is to note what he does opt to throw his weight behind. This includes opposition to 2016 legislation to mandate that inheritance be split equally between men and women in Nigeria. That bill was subsequently ignored for several years and has not been implemented as of late 2023. Beyond understanding the influence of figures like the Sultan, the stake he and similar unelected figures have in these issues should be considered critically.

Informed Engagement 

The case of the Sultanate of Sokoto exemplifies the importance that countries the West seeks to engage and develop relations with are not monoliths, as they often appear to be in the popular imagination or in the most recent media headline. Rather, they are organisms of great complexity defined by overlapping centers of power, of which leaders like the Sultan of Sokoto are just one type. Or, to borrow the famous line from Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory. 

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