Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Nigeria celebrates the glorious history of the caliphate

PAGEANTRY Muslims and Christians united to mark the 200th anniversary of the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate, which unified the emirates of west Africa


Courtesans of the Sultan of Sokoto prepare for the Durbar festival in Sokoto, Nigeria, on Sunday.


The proud horsemen of the Sokoto Caliphate strained to rein in their skittish steeds as the horns blared and the sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky onto the parched earth of the field of honor.

Nearby the black-turbanned camel riders found it easier to control their placid mounts as the beat of the war drums mounted in intensity, and the wailing voices of thousands of Muslim pilgrims rose in song.

The Grand Durbar called to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio's jihad to unite the Islamic emirates of west Africa deliberately recalled his skill in war, but Nigerians see in his legacy a hope for peace.

For while the first caliph's campaign was led by 25,000 desert warriors, the inheritance he left to an empire spanning 650,000km2 was one of learning, tolerance and the rule of law.

"It is never too late to return to those values," said Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian who on Sunday donned the turban of a northern Muslim lord and mounted a nomad's warhorse.

As he and Sultan Muhammadu Maccido Abubakar III cantered through the dust and the wildly cheering crowds, an army of sword-wielding infantrymen, drum-beating camel riders and splendidly robed horsemen surged behind them.

Each royal house from the three dozen emirates united during Dan Fodio's long ride to victory was represented in the multicolored tunics worn by dozens of tribes -- Hausa, Fulani and Touareg -- from across the region.

Proud as they are, the warriors bowed respectfully as they passed the bicentary durbar's guests of honor: 200 traditional rulers, the presidents of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Ghana and envoys from as far as distant Senegal.

Dust from the parade ground was mixed with acrid black smoke as volleys of musket fire rang out among the revellers, who had come to renew two centuries of allegiance to the sultan, ruler of this ancient Nigerian city.

Many Nigerians feel they need to return to the values promoted by Dan Fodio, whose caliphate rescued the region from the whims of local feudal lords and built a society built on learning, Shariah law and social equality.

With today's Nigeria and other parts of the caliph's former west African realm sinking deeper into poverty and beset by corruption, lawlessness and ethnic strife, Sultan Maccido feels his countrymen should look to the past.

"For our part we will continue to preach peaceful co-existence irrespective of our religious and cultural differences," the monarch told the crowd and, through television, the rest of his tens of millions of followers.

Both the sultan and Obasanjo lamented a recent upsurge in violence between Nigeria's Muslims and Christians -- which has left hundreds dead in the past two months alone -- and called for peace and understanding.

Then they mounted their horses, draped in the extravagant finery of desert notables, followed by footmen supporting white, brocaded canopies.

The display recalled a battle fought on the very same field in 1903 when Sultan Attahiru I took on the British Empire in the Battle of Gingiwa.

The sultan's last stand cost him his temporal power, but his successors continued to serve as spiritual leaders under empires, dictators and latterly elected rule.

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