Usman dan Fodio – Founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa

Dan Fodio was a Fulani cleric  and revolutionary leader who founded the Sokoto Caliphate. He has been widely regarded as the most accomplished reformer of 19th century Western Sudan. His fame is rooted in his call for a jihad against the rulers of Gobir, located in present-day Nigeria. The “purifying” jihad lasted for about 6 years and achieved a unification of the Hausa states under a stricter Islamic law. Not only was his scholar and tutor, but he was also a prolific writer, having authored tens of books on religion, culture and community.

Usman dan Fodio and the Sokoto Caliphate. In Usman’s Sokoto Caliphate, which was the biggest empire south of the Sahara at the time, literacy and scholarship for men and women was core.

Early Years

Born in 1754 in Maratta in the Hausa city-state of Gobir, in today’s northern Nigeria, Dan Fodio came from a line of early Fulani settlers in 15th century Hausaland. Right from childhood, he was a devout Muslim. He studied philosophy, theology and law in Agadez (located in present-day Niger, West Africa) under Jibril Ibn Umar. He was also educated in Islamic teaching and writing.

Around the age of 20, he traveled from community to community as a Muslim preacher and earned the honorable title of Sheikh Usman. Dan Fodio loved to share his vast knowledge in Islam and gained a reputation for condemning Hausa leaders who mixed pagan practices with Islam. His fame spread across Gobir and soon, he caught the attention of Gobir’s king, Rimfa, who felt so threatened by his popularity that he arranged for sheikh’s murder.

Religious campaign

In 1803, Dan Fodio fled to Gudu with hundreds of his followers and continued to propagate Islam. At Gudu, he was named the ‘Commander of the Faithful’, which positioned him as political and religious leader. Armed with the right to raise and command an army, he declared a jihad against King Yunfa, the son and heir of Rimfa as well as his people because he felt their way of life did not align with the teaching of Islam.

A revolt, which largely involved the Fulani, spread through Hausaland. The rebellion was supported by the Hausa people who felt marginalized by their rulers and were utterly displeased with the cattle tax imposed on them. In 1804, Dan Fodio launched the jihad against Gobir’s rulers, accusing them of being very corrupt, morally as well. Later that year, the military commander of Gobir, Yunfa, sent his army to challenge Dan Fodio’s community.

The Sokoto Caliphate

After bringing Hausaland under his control Usman dan Fodio became sultan of Sokoto, which at the time was the largest and most powerful state south of the Sahara. It had more than 22 million inhabitants at the time.

Dan Fodio pioneered Islam’s expansion across Hausa rural areas. He also penned  mystical poems and stories that garnered him acclaim as a great teacher and preacher. He was convinced he had been called to propagate Islam and to defeat Allah’s foes with the Sword of Truth, which was the written and oral word through prose and verse. Usman believed that he sword when Prophet Muhammad and Sufi preacher Abdul Qadir Gilani appeared in his dream.

His major focus was to achieve purity in Islam by reforming society, especially its political system. By 1808, Dan Fodio and his followers had brought under their control Gobir, Kano, and other states in Hausaland. He replaced nearly all Hausa rulers with Fulani emirs.

Usman retired from battle after 1811. The most intense battle had taken place in Gobir and its environs. In the end, the twin capitals of Sokoto and Gwandu was established, replacing  Gobir’s old kingdom. While Fodio returned to teaching, his armies had gone on with their conquests until 1815.

This religious revolt served to bring together the Hausa states under Islamic law. For the first time, all the Hausa states were ruled by one person. Dan Fodio’s new caliphate came to include much of present-day northern Nigeria, Northern Cameroon and some parts of Niger and Burkina Faso.

In 1812, the empire which became known as the Sokoto Caliphate and comprised emirates and sub-emirates, was formed. In the 19th century, Sokoto Caliphate was seen as the strongest, both economically and politically, in the West African region. Fodio is said to have helped advance the cause of Islamization of Northern Nigeria.


Usman dan Fodio died on April 20, 1817 in Sokoto. The Sheikh’s conquests were shared between his brother, Abdullahi, who took charge of the western part of the kingdom, and his son, Muhammad Bello, who ruled the eastern part.

Demise of the Caliphate

Upon the defeat of the Caliphate by British forces in 1903, the territory was divided among Britain itself, Germany and France.

Legacy of Usman dan Fodio

After Dan Fodio’s death in April 1817, he was succeeded by his son, Muhammed Bello, who became the ruler of the Caliphate. At the time of Usman’s death, the Caliphate was reputed to be the biggest state south of the Sahara.

Dan Fodio’s brother, Abdullahi, became the Emir of Gwandu and was responsible for the Western Emirates, Ilorin and Nupe. This means that one political structure ruled these Hausa city states. 12 caliphs have came after Dan Fodio; However, the British, led by Lugard, took over Sokoto in early 20th  century.

Dan Fodio’s jihad was the forerunner to later West African jihads in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It also inspired jihads that happened in Western Sudan and established Islam as the  leading faith among many people in Senegal and Chad.

It is believed that that British colonial government adopted the system of the Caliphate as a model of indirect rule where they could rule people through local kings. Fredrick Lugarde allude to the Caliphate system in his handbook on the colonization of Africa.

His movement caused a literary revolution in Gobir, Katsina, and other Hausa city states. The Arabic writings of the Sokoto Caliphate outweigh the literary work of central and western Sudan from 1000 AD.

Usman’s Fulani jihad was generally focused on bringing societal transformation. It had a  religious dimension but it was also relevant politically and financially and juridically.

Many Muslims regard Dan Fodio as a “renewer of the faith” or a Mujaddid. He has also been described by many as the most significant African reformer. He is credited with establishing a theocratic state based on a more pure and strict interpretation of Islam.

He was an advocate for literacy and was especially interested in the education of women. Not surprisingly, many of his daughters became writers and scholars. Many modern Islamic leaders have often alluded to his works in present times.

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