Usman Dan Fodio

Usman Dan Fodio: Founder of the Largest Emirate in Africa



Usman Dan Fodio
Usman Dan Fodio

Shaihu Usman Dan Fodio was a Fulani man who founded the largest emirate in Africa. He was a religious and military leader who founded the Sokoto Caliphate in today’s Northern Nigeria.

Due to oppression and harsh policies from the authorities he was forced to go on exile. The movement he led, known as a Jihad was a political and social revolution that upturned the leadership structure in Northern Nigeria.

Dan Fodio wrote so many books majorly on religious, society and governance and was a critic of government unpopular policies. He was a firm advocate for men and women as well as child education and supported many with scholarship.

Early Life

Usman Dan Fodio born in Gobir on December 15, 1754, was a religious Fulani scholar, Military leader, writer and the founder of the Sokoto caliphate.

Dan Fodio was a Fulani descendant of a Torodbe family which settled in the territory of the Hausa Kingdom.  His father Muhammad Fodiye a scholar, migrated from Futa-Toro in Senegal round about the 15th century.

Dan Fodio becomes a Religious Scholar

Dan Fodio studied the Quran under various tutors until he finally met Jibril Ibn Umar a renowned Islamic teacher. As a student under Umar, he was inspired to oppose and critize perceived injustice and illegal taxes on the people.

The kings at that time excessively oppressed the people who they had enslaved though they were Muslims. This was an aberration and an anomaly because it has wrong for a Muslim to enslave his brother according to the teachings of the Quran.

He also was a strong critic against pagan worship, fetish believes and divination and preached consistently against it .

For years he studied under Umar and by 1775 went into full-time practice as a teacher. He taught and preached the Quran for 12 years in Kebbi and 5 years in Zamfara state.

As a Religious Leader

During the early years of his teachings he claimed to have had visions which influenced his life. He believed he had spiritual powers to perform miracles and do other mysterious things. Also he claimed he had visions of ascending to heaven where he was initiated into the spiritual lineage of the prophets.

With time his influence and reputation caught the attention of the Sultan of Gobir, Sultan Nafata who granted him permission to propagate Islam. With this favor Usman settled and created a religious community in Degel his hometown. He spent 20 years teaching, preaching and writing with the intention to build a model Islamic Town.

People from diverse areas who heard about him and his reputation came to him for religious and political leadership.

His foremost followers were Fulani tribes, Hausa peasants and outcast who had become burdened with oppression under the monarchies and elites. Usman organized these various classes of people and integrated them into a single religious-political movement.

Due to the influence he had on his followers, they began to identify him with the Mahdi meaning “Divinely Guided One”. This was due to believe of a legendary redeemer whose coming was expected earnestly by the people.

 Conspiracy against Dan Fodio

Sultan Nafata had in around 1786 granted permission to Usman’s settlement to acquire and arm themselves. With the growing influence of Usman and his followers, and the gradual creation of a state within a state, Nafata became threatened.

African herdsman (Fulani) walking
African herdsman (Fulani) walking his cows

In 1797/98 Nafata reversed his earlier permission and also prohibited the conversion of sons of his kingdom from the religion of their fathers. Sultan Nafata went further, permitting only Usman Dan Fodio to preach with the aim to reduce movement’s influence on the people.

After the death of Nafata he was succeeded by his son Yunfa; a former student of Usman Dan Fodio. It was during the reign of Yunfa in1802, that relationship between Usman and the Gobir dynasty came to a total crash.

Followers of Dan Fodio had forcibly broken into a military garrison, freeing Muslim prisoners taken by a Gobir military expedition. Angered by this act Yunfa turned against Dan Fodio, revoked his Degel’s autonomy and attempted to have him assassinated.

Usman Goes on Exile

Usman was thus forced to carry out a Hijrah (to go on exile) and settled in Gudu in February 1804 and found succor with local Fulani nomads.

Despite his reluctance he was proclaimed commander of the faithfuls and accorded the title Sarkin Muslim in Gudu by his followers. Dan Fodio thus became a political and religious leader with powers to declare a jihad and also raise an army. This event consequently gave birth to a new and the first caliphate founded by Usman Dan Fodio.

Dan Fodio would later go on to found the largest emirate in the history of Africa.

The Jihad that Created the Largest Emirate in Africa

Jihad Fighters of Usman
Jihad Fighters of Usman

By the eighteenth century, there was rising oppression, discontent and disenchantment with insecurity that characterized the Hausa states and Borno. Within some circles and amongst some clerics, the need for revolt and overthrow of the authorities was discussed in hushed tones.

Usman was expectedly part of this group of persons and by 1804 began making preparations for a Jihad against those in authority. He wrote extensively several articles and books to justify the jihad he was about to launch; one of his assertions was Sultan Yunfa’s attacks on Muslims. Therefore, he branded Yunfa an unbeliever who must be fought as well as anyone who assisted an unbeliever will be fought.

Though he did not participate actively in the war he raised an army and appointed commanders to lead them. His army comprised mainly people from his tribe the Fulani’s, Hausa peasants and others who were sympathetic to his cause.

Defeat of the Hausa States

Dan Fodio launched his attack in 1804 on Gobir and thereafter simultaneously carried out underground attacks throughout the Hausa States and Borno.

Map of Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria
Map of Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria

At the initial stage of the war his army experienced defeats and the nagging problem of food supplies to his troops. The tides nevertheless turned in his favor when in 1805 his troops launched a successful campaign against the Kingdoms in Kebbi. After that defeat they established a permanent military base in Gwandu, Kebbi State.

By 1805/06 numerous communities in Katsina, Kano, Duara and Zamfara had all fallen to the onslaught of his army. After their defeats they all recognized the authority and supremacy of Usman Dan Fodio.

The Jihad continued and by 1808 all the Hausa States had been captured while some of the ruling dynasties escaped.

They retreated and built walled cities to protect themselves from the rampaging army of Dan Fodio. Record, has settlements of these fleeing dynasties in present day Abuja established by the ousted Zaria Dynasty and the Kebbi rulers that fled to Arugungu.

Finally in October 1808, Alkalawa the capital of Gobir fell after about four attempts were made to conquer it.

Attempts to permanently hold Borno State failed when Al kanemi a prominent cleric led a resistant against the Fulani occupiers. Al kanemi successfully held the town and thereafter established himself and his lineage as the new ruling house.

Latter days and Death

After his successful conquest, Usman Dan Fodio created a new state known as the Sokoto Caliphate founded in 1809. All the emirates under this Caliphate recognized him as their supreme leader, with a loosed confederation binding them.

Further attempts to expand his territory led him to organize a military expedition into Yoruba land. His army was defeated in Ibadan; nevertheless he was already in control and command of all the Hausa Kingdoms now the Fulani Empire.

Due to old age his brother Abdullahi and his son Muhammad Bello carried on with the Jihad. Dan Fodio continued to work on the task of building an efficient government based on Islamic laws. He retired in 1811 but wrote more on Islamic issues until his death.

Usman Dan Fodio died on April 20, 1817 and was succeeded by his son who became ruler of the biggest state South of the Sahara at that time.

After his Death

A rift between Bello and his Uncle resulted in division of the caliphate into Eastern and Western divisions. The East was led by Bello with Capital in Sokoto while the West was led by Abdullahi with his capital in Gwandu. However Bello was still recognized as the Supreme leader of the Caliphate.

The jihad still continued and by 1830 Ilorin, which was the headquarters of the Oyo Cavalry had become part of the caliphate.

The Jihad continued and in the 1830s, areas in Bauchi, Adamawa and areas extending into Northern Cameroon, parts of Nupe came under the authority of the Caliphate. The advancement was halted when the British colonialist penetrated deep into the hinterlands of Nigeria.


The exploits of Usman Dan Fodio inspired many other jihadists who founded Islamic cities in Chad, Senegal, Sudan and many more. His activities influenced in no small measure the course of history throughout the region.

The empire he created was the largest in Ancient Africa, stretching from Dori in modern Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Nigeria.

A popular saying of his is ‘the Government of a country is the Government of the King without question. If the King is a Muslim, his land is Muslim. If he is an unbeliever; his land is a land of unbelievers. In these circumstances it is obligatory for anyone to leave it for another country’.

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