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Negotiating power in medieval west-Africa: King Rumfa of Kano (1466-1499AD) between the empires of Songhai and Kanem-Bornu
Explaining the relative political fragmentation of Africa on the eve of colonialism
The 16th century was the zenith of imperial expansion in west Africa. Viewed from the perspective of the two dominant empires of Songhai and Kanem-bornu, more than half the population of west Africa were citizens of just two states with a combined size of over 2 million square kilometers, a west African merchant, pilgrim or scholar could travel from Kaniaga (western Mali) moving east to Logone-Birni (in northern Cameroon) and then north to Traghen in southern Libya, covering a distance of over 4,000 kilometers, while only requiring the permission of two states, this was the apogee of state power in west Africa on an unprecedented scale since the emergence of centralized polities in the region, it was the golden age of commerce and scholarship.
But viewed from the perspective of the small states on the peripheries of these imperial powers, the picture was rather mixed, while the developments in trade and learning were highly welcome and diasporas of such communities were encouraged to settle, imperial expansionism came at the expense of reduced political power in peripheral sates. Having to contend with the approach of powerful armies that could strike 2,000 miles from their capitals, some of these peripheral states contested the rising powers in the field of battle, most with disastrous results, but the majority of these states chose to negotiate with the imperial powers, allowing them to flourish and ultimately outlasting them.
Nowhere was the threat of this imperial expansionism more apparent than in the Hausalands, a region tucked in between the Songhai and Kanem-bornu empires that would become the last theatre of battle in this era of imperial conquest, while Songhai and Kanem-Bornu never openly fought in a feared clash of empires, they wrestled both the Hausa city-states and the kingdom of Agadez from each other in protracted proxy wars lasting decades between 1500 and 1550, ushering in a period of political upheaval in these states some of which reformed their institutions of governance to meet this new challenge.
In the half century that preceded the appearance of Songhai armies in Kano, a reformist king -Muhammad Rumfa, ascended to the throne of this Hausa city-state in 1466AD, Kano was then under the suzerainty of Kanem-Bornu to which it paid annual tribute but was otherwise largely autonomous in administration, warfare and trade. Contemporaneous with Rumfa’s rise was the spectacular unfolding power of Songhai which was then under its first emperor Sunni Ali (r. 1464-1492) who in just over a decade had greatly expanded his fledgling empire from his capital at Gao in eastern Mali to Walata in eastern Mauritania. Gao was beginning to feel the economic pull of the rising Hausa cities such as Kano that had been chipping away Gao's lucrative trade monopoly of gold and kola from the Akan region (in modern Ghana) through Borgu (modern Benin) so Sunni Ali set his sights on the wealthy city-states of the Hausalands beginning with the conquest of Kebbi, less than 500 kilometers west of Kano, which he used as a launchpad for conquering Borgu1, such that by the late 15th century, the armies of Songhai were nearer to Kano’s western borders than Kano’s own suzerain Bornu was to the east. and the task of extending Songhai’s reach to the Hausalands would be fulfilled by Sunni Ali’s successor Askiya Muhammed (r. 1493 -1528).
To his east, Kano's suzerain, the emperor of Kanem-Bornu, Mai Ali Gaji (r. 1465-1497AD) had established a permanent capital for his empire at Birni Gazargamo bringing him much closer to the Hausalands and in a better position to defend his vassals against Songhai encroachments as well as expand his empire further south of lake chad conquering the Kotoko city-states (such as Longone-Birni) and the Wandala kingdom, as well as extending his reach east to the Kingdom of Agadez, and regain the territories of Kanem that had been lost in a rebellion, over the succeeding decades, the armies of Kanem-Bornu would play a more active role in the affairs of Kano and inevitably reduce the level of autonomy that Kano had enjoyed earlier.2
Rumfa must have observed the approach of thse two powerful empires closing in on his small city-state which at the time covered no more than 50,000 sqkm and posed little challenge to their formidable armies, rather than hopelessly face off against them in what would be a doomed battle, he chose to greatly reform the political structure of his government such that his state could meet both empires on firmer footing. During his reign, the character and context of Kano's institutions underwent a fundamental and irreversible change thoroughly transforming the nature of the city state, this kind of political reform was a novel undertaking among the west African peripheral states but it would soon be replicated by his peers in the regions bordering Songhai and Kanem-bornu to successfully fend of the overtures of these two regional powers. and the reforms allowed Kano to maintain dynastic continuity throughout the political upheaval in the region brought about by the turbulent clashes of empires in the half-century that succeeded Rumfa's demise and for which Kano would attain virtual independence as the first among the peripheral states to permanently throw off both the yokes of Songhai and Kanem Bornu by 1550.
This article explores the political reforms of Muhammad Rumfa, and how the robust government he created ensured the success of Kano in the face of regional powers and how the survival of his city-state served as a harbinger of the relative level of state fragmentation that came to characterize the west African political landscape of the early modern era from the 17th century to the eve of colonialism.
map of west Africa in the 16th century showing the empires of Songhai and Kanem-Bornu and the city-state of Kano (underlined with red), plus the cities mentioned in this article
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The reforms of Muhammad Rumfa: governance, economy and defense.
Muhammad Rumfa was the son of the preceding king of Kano Yakubu (1452-146AD) but was regarded as founding a new dynasty (referred to as the “rumfawa”) because he introduced a new political order which greatly transformed the state, Rumfa was thus distinguished not by his genealogy but by his regime. The reforms were an inevitable consequence of a the rapidly evolving political and economic landscape of west africa at the time as well as the shifts in the internal governance of Kano under Rumfa’s predecessors, chief among these were the political realities brought by increasing power of the nobility such as the Galadima (often the second in command) who occupied dynastic offices and were thus able to pose a significant challenge to the kings' rule and had progressively gained significant authority as the senior executive of the state and become kingmakers, able to greatly influence the enthronement of a ne successor, added to this was the reduced autonomy of Kano with the growing demands of Bornu's suzerainty, the influences of the scholarly diasporas (such as the Kanuri, Wangara and visiting scholars from the Maghreb) to bring Kano's state structures more inline with the mainstream forms of governance contemporary in the wider Islamic world as well the demands of the trading diasporas (such as the Wangara, Tuaregs and the Arabs) to regulate trade as well as formalize the economic institutions of the state to more efficiently manage the influx of new commodities like gold and kola that had flooded the Huasalands after an import trade route had recently been opened that connected Kano to the region of Gonja in northern ghana.3
Faced with these new political and economic challenges, Rumfa set about reorganizing his state, augmenting his central authority by reducing the power of the nobility, establishing new lines of communication with his vassals, traders and scholars as well as ensuring dynastic continuity by establishing an electoral system for succeeding kings free from the influence of Kingmakers. As the Kano chronicler writes "Rumfa was the author of twelve innovations in Kano", three of these innovations were the most crucial to Kano's later success.4
Rumfa’s most notable innovation was the establishment of the Kano state council of nine executives, called the "Tara ta kano" this new body of governance included the office of the Galadima who had previously been independent, as well as other senior officials such as the Madaki and Makama (these were non-royal officials often with substantial fiefholdings and thus territorial administrative rights)5, to which he added the Ciroma (a crown prince usually his favored successor), the Sarkin bai (occupied by a eunuch official), the Wambai (often a powerful slave official), the Turaki Manya (the kings' kin but not closely related), the Sarkin Dawaki (could be occupied by a eunuch or a free official or a king's kin ineligible for succession) and the Dan Iya (a non-royal noble).6 These councilors inturn headed a lattice of lower offices answerable to them.
On the death of the king, four of the non-royal officials of the state council constituted themselves as an electoral council to choose and appoint the successor, these were the Madaki, Wambai, Sarkin bai and the Dan iya, even more importantly, the king was not expected to overule the joint advice of the four non-royal councilors according to Kano's constitutional doctrine and failure to observe this would lead to his deposition by the same,7
Kano’s officialdom in the 18th century, the first nine offices under the Sarki comprised the council of nine (excluding the Dan Lawan) a few aditions were made by Rufma’s sucessors8
The Kano council was envisaged by Rumfa firstly as a check against domination of the state government by kingmakers such as the Galadima, secondly as a way of formalizing territorial administration by bringing together the Madaki and Makama fief-holders, thirdly as a way of reducing the power of the nobility through the appointment of powerful slave officials thus creating alternate lines of communication removing the need to rely on a few nobles for policy decisions, and lastly as a way of checking the power of future kings who, given their tributary status with Kanem-Bornu, may undermine the structures of the state.9 Rumfa's council was modeled on Kanem-Bornu's “council of twelve” but was significantly different in function and organization, and over the succeeding centuries, it would play a pivotal role in Kano's success maintaining a delicate equilibrium where power oscillated between the council and the king in what historian M.G. Smith described as “a mixture of oligarchy and patrimonialism”.
Rumfa then established a permanent, central market called Kurmi in the heart of the city of Kano. While his predecessors had established markets in the city to handle the increasing volumes of long distance trade such as Abdullahi Burja (r. 1438-1452) who had used the services of a deposed Kanem-Bornu prince named Othman Kalnama to establish the market of Karabka, it was Rumfa who brought the markets under formal control of the state first by creating the central market of Kurmi and thereafter by appointing officials to regulate it as well as the minor markets around the city and across the state. The top official in charge of Kano’s markets was the Sarkin Kasuwa (market head) who exercised administrative control over the city's markets, below him were officials such as the Sarkin Pawa (chief butcher, who attimes doubled as the Sarkin Kasuwa) and the Karoma (often a woman in charge of the grain sellers), among other offices. These markets were sustained by the burgeoning caravan trade whose official, the Sarkin Zago, would funnel the items of trade directly into the market rather than conduct the business in private transactions.10
stalls in Kano’s Kurmi market (photos from the early 20th century)
Complementing the trade items derived from the caravan imports were the items derived from Kano’s local industries that furnished the market with locally produced dyed textiles, leatherworks and metalworks, while these were regulated outside the market to meet the palace demands of weapons and armor, the majority of their products were sold inside the main markets and their quality plus the standardization of measures used was assessed by the market officials, the latter were also incharge of inspecting and allocating market stalls. Its possible that the Kano system of returns was inplace by this time, which allowed purchasers of expensive cloth to return textiles of unsatisfactory quality to the vendor whose name was written in the parcel where the cloth was packaged. Virtually all market transactions were free from taxes at this early stage, the market officials supplied prisons with grain as well as territorial fiefholders with meat for festivals.11
The creation of a central market with an administration in charge of the minor markets greatly improved the state's capacity to regulate trade, attract traders and grow the local crafts industries particularly the production and dyeing of textiles whose local demand, complemented by its external demand, turned it into one of the main currencies of the region.
Last among Rumfa’s most important innovations were the extensive construction works undertaken in Kano; first on the city’s walls which were greatly expanded both to account for the increasing population within the capital itself as well as to reinforce the old fortification system. While the extent of Kano's fortification systems under his predecessors is unclear, the bulk of the city walls and rampart systems underwent major reconstruction, expansion and reinforcement under Rumfa for whom atleast six of the city's gates are credited.12
walls and gates of Kano
Rumfa then constructed his first palace that was later called the Gidan Makama in a densely settled section of the city, while it was significantly larger than his predecessors palatial residencies, it couldn't efficiently serve the newly expanded functions of the king's executive power which now included the concentration of officials both free and servile near his compound, and therefore necessitating the construction of a new palace that could accommodate these officials, his burgeoning royal family as well as serve as the venue for some of the administrative functions of the state.
sections of the Gidan Makama
Rumfa then built a much larger palace named Gidan Rumfa in a less crowded corner of the city that was essentially its own surburb, enclosed within a set of 30ft and 20ft high walls with well guarded gates, it measures 540meters in length and 280m in width but the entire complex itself covers 33 acres, and contained chambers for the king, court chambers for the Kano council, royal stables, dining areas for the princes and nobility, audience chambers, harem chambers and chambers for the slave officials, sections for housing the kings' personal guard and sections for the King’s crafts-persons such as dyers. All of these buildings were arranged in an elaborate labyrinthine order that was easy to defend in case of attack, the palace was the nucleus of the state's administration and the principle venue for the pomp and ceremony of court life, Rumfa thus introduced royal regalia which included the long royal horn (from the Kanem-Bornu empire) as well as the tradition of prostrating before the king by throwing dust on one's head13. (which was common in Songhai and was ultimately derived from the Mali and Ghana empire). The construction style of this secluded palace, the increasing use of slave officials, and the royal regalia were all current in both the Songhai and Kanem-bornu capitals of Askiya Muhammad in Gao and Mai Ali Gaji in Ngazargamu, so its unclear how much they influenced Rumfa’s construction styles and innovations. But the institution of these innovations, combined with the growing wealth from the caravan trade and local industry, had a profound effect on elevating the position of Kano as an independent power in the region able to stand on equal footing with the dominant west African powers.14
exterior of the palace of rumfa in Kano and a map of the complex in the 15th century
Rumfa’s reforms at work: an overview of the immediate effects of Rumfa’s innovations during the half-century of Songhai and Kanem-Bornu proxy warfare.
The earliest effect of Rumfa’s reforms was the influx of maghrebian traders in the later years Rumfa's reign, these traders then carried information about Kano to the wider Islamic world and elevated the prestige of Rumfa relative to his peers, its within this context that the north African scholar al-Maghili arrived in Kano in 1492AD (near the end of Rumfa's reign). Maghili was a militant scholar who had left north Africa after failing to influence the its rulers, while he didn't have much success in west Africa either, his presence at Kano helped further legitimize Rumfa’s rule by presenting him as a true muslim ruler whose authority could therefore not be challenged on religious grounds and thus insulating him from the rationale of his peers (the Askiya of Songhai and the Mai of Kanem-Bornu) from attacking his state on such terms, its important to note that Al-Maghili did not instigate the reforms of Rumfa but rather consecrated them15, he then left for Katsina and then to Gao, the Songhai capital and to the Askiya Muhammad who, among other questions, asked him on the lawfulness of campaigning against fellow Muslim rulers (the Askiya no doubt had the Hausa city-states like Kano and the Agadez kingdom in mind) although the advice of al-Maghili against such an endeavor didn't deter the Songhai ruler from attacking and briefly conquering these regions, the fact that these were Muslim states blunted his ability to pacify them and must have contributed to his withdraw and Songhai's general retreat from its eastern theatre. compared to its southwestern flanks where it habitually campaigned.
The advantages brought by the robust governance of the council combined with the extensive reinforcements of Kano's walls brought both immediate and long lasting benefits, in just over a decade after Rumfa's passing, the Songhai armies advanced onto the Hausalands from their base at Kebbi, taking the city-state of Katsina in 151416 and Zaria shortlyafter, later advancing onto Kano which was besieged but wasn't conquered although it was briefly subject to tribute17 the Askiya’s armies then proceeded north to attack Agadez again in 1515 (which was Kanem-Bornu's vassal until the Askiya's first attack in 1500). The Askiya’s gains eastwards were however checked by the rebellion of his vassal the Kanta (ruler) of kebbi who by 1517 had conquered the Hausa city-states and defeated his overlord's armies sent to crush him, the Kanta retained Kano in a fairly privileged position and its ruler king Kisoke (r. 1509-1565) is recorded to have "ruled over all hausaland" and successfully repulsed Kanem-Bornu's attempt to reassert its suzerainty over Kano when the former laid an unsuccessful siege outside Kano's walls, marking the second time an imperial army had failed to break through Kano's formidable fortification system built by Rumfa.18.Not long after the Kanta's death in 1545, Kisoke reasserted his independence from Kebbi and successfully repulsed a Kanem-Bornu attempt at reestablishing tributary status, for the next two centuries, Kano remained an independent state and Kisoke explicitly credited the prominent members of his council for the newly acquired independence, By Kisoke’s time few offices had been added especially the office of Maidaki (probably late in Rumfa’s reign or in his successor Abdullahi’s reign 1499-1509) the occupant of which became powerful official in Kisoke’s day and for the succeeding century, it was first occupied by his grandmother Hauwa and was later occupied by the mothers of the reigning kings, but despite its highly influential position in relation to the council, it wasn’t an electoral office and this ensured the council’s integrity just as Rumfa had envisioned it.19
Kano’s newly found independence was nearly unique in the region bordered by imperial powers, Katsina for example, remained under Kebbi and Kanem-Bornu's control as a tributary state until around 1700 20, Kebbi returned to Songhai's vassalage not long after the Kanta's death and it was still providing support for the Askiyas after the Morrocans had briefly occupied most of Songhai’s territories21, Agadez oscillated between Kanem-Bornu's and Songhai's control and after Songhai's fall remained firmly under Kanem-Bornu's heel, well into the 18th century22 . The autonomy of Kano throughout this period was an impressive feat enabled by the reforms and robust system of governance initiated by Rumfa, attracting scholars from across west Africa and north Africa who settled in the city and greatly enhanced its status as the one of the most prominent scholarly capitals of the "central Sudan" region (the region of the Hausalands, Agadez and Kanem-Bornu) rivaling the city of Ngazargamu, the capital of Kanem-Bornu, an example of this scholary diaspora is the family of a Wangara scholar named Zaghaite who arrive in Kano in the late 15th century under Rumfa that was given lands to settle23, another group of scholars permanently resident in Kano during Rumfa’s reign were the disciples of the aforementioned al-Maghili such as Malam Isa who became an important Shareef, these would then be joined in Kisoke's reign by Tunusian and Kanembu scholars some of whom gained positions in Kano's government.24 Kano's independence freed it from the financial burden of tribute allowing it to maintain its zero tax policy on caravan trade something few of its peers could afford to institute, this, more than anything else, attracted itinerant traders to Kano's markets, and influenced a flurry of descriptions in external accounts of the city such as the 15th century geographer Giovanni d'Anania who wrote of Kano, with its large stone walls, as one of the three cities of Africa (together with Fez and Cairo) where one could purchase any item25 and overtime would make it that "emporium of west Africa" as it was referred to by 19th century explorers.26
Conclusion: Rumfa and the peripheral states’ response to the dominant west African empires, and Africa’s later political fragmentation.
The portrait of Rumfa under Kano is accentuated by the colorful description his reign receives in the 19th century Kano chronicle (much like the Askiya was described in the 17th century Tarikh chronicles of Timbuktu and Ali Gaji’s successor, Mai Idris was described in Ibn Furtu's 16th century chronicle), but underneath the praise lie the real actions of a ruler faced with unfavorable power politics, his reforms were part of a wider response by peripheral west African states to the larger empires that saw increased fortifications of cities, the rise of highly centralized governments as well as multiple economic and scholarly centers. West Africa’s political landscape after the fall of Songhai in the late 16th century and the decline of Bornu in the 18th century soon became dominated by dozens of relatively small states centered on highly fortified cities especially across Songhai's southern borders, states such as Gonja27 (in northern Ghana) and Kebbi were carved out of Songhai even at the height of the empire’s hegemony, and after Songhai's fall, these states were followed by the kingdom of Massina and Segu and the emergence of the Wattara along Songhai’s southern flanks, while in Kanem-Bornu’s territory, the tributary states of Agadez and Damagaram broke off, as well as most of the Kotoko city-states to its south such as Logone-Birni and Gulfey which became heavily fortified and asserted their independence forming the Lagwan kingdom28 such that by the late 18th century, no west African state exceeded 300,000 sqkm, and while the 19th century saw attempts at reestablishing large empires on the scale of Songhai (such as the Sokoto empire that subsumed Kano), none of the relatively large states of the 19th century succeeded in consolidating a region even a third as large as the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali or Songhai.
Popular explanations for “scramble of Africa” often point out that political fragmentation was one of the reasons why colonial powers found it relatively easy to take over the region and counterfactuals of an uncolonised Africa postulate that a united Africa in which empires such as Songhai survive to the 19th century would have successfully fended off European expansionism, some even go back to observe that the course of the Atlantic slave trade may have been different if west Africa had been under the control of a few large states, what these counterfactuals ignore is that the conditions that sustained vast empires like Songhai and Kanem-bornu in the past couldn't be replicated once the peripheral states such as Kano became the new cores of economic and political power. West Africa’s relative political fragmentation on the eve of colonialism was therefore not a "an aversion to African unity" but rather a product of a series of political phenomena that played out over centuries which ultimately favored smaller, wealthier states over large empires.
The walls of zinder (capital of Damagaram), and the Kotoko city states of Gulfey and Logone-Birni
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Timbuktu and the songhay empire by J.Hunwick, pg 92
West africa during the Atlantic slave trade by Christopher R. DeCorse, pg 112
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 124-125
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 131
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, 76-78
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 48
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 48-49)
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 85
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 134)
The government in kano by M.G.Smith pg 132, 23
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 63
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 131-132
Islam, Gender, and Slavery in West Africa. Circa 1500 by HJ Nast, pg 55
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 131
Islam in africa by N. Levtzion, pg 379
Timbuktu and the songhay empire by J.Hunwick pg 113
Timbuktu and the songhay empire by J.Hunwick pg 287
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 140
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 142
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, 141
Timbuktu and the songhay empire by J.Hunwick, pg 198,304
The International Journal of African Historical Studies 1985, pg 730
Source materials for the history of songhai, borno and hausaland in the sixteenth century by John hunwick, pg 584
The government in kano by M.G.Smith, pg 135,142
Being and becoming Hausa by A. Hour, pg 10
Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa by Heinrich Barth, pg 92
West Africa before the Colonial Era by Basil Davidson, pg 176
The land of Houlouf by Augustine Holl, pg 226