Murray Last, author of The Sokoto Caliphate, was a graduate student at the prestigious Yale University when he first heard about the ‘Fulani Empire’ in northern Nigeria.
That was in 1959, the year Northern Region – the jurisdiction that succeeded the ‘Empire’ – became self-governing under the rules created by colonial British government.
The young Mr Last’s African History professor, Harry Rudin, a Cameroonian, also introduced him to the Qadiriyya movement in West Africa.
But as much as he appreciated Mr Rudin’s scholarly leadership, Yale did not ignite Murray Last’s interest in the in the ‘Empire’, that happened at the University College, Ibadan (UCI).
In 1960 when Nigeria was newly independent, African History was getting more interest as a discipline in Europe and America, but it was still plagued by the pre-WWII mindset that showcased the written accounts of European traders, missionaries, mercenaries and conquerors as the totality of African History.
The “European scholar”, Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike later wrote in the introduction to The Sokoto Caliphate, that some historians “tended to equate written documents with history, and to take the absence of documents to mean the absence of events worthy of historical study”.
Mr Dike was the first African to complete training in western historical scholarship at King’s College, London. He was also the first African appointed as Professor of History at UCI and Vice-Chancellor from 1962 to 1967 after UCI became a full-fledged university. He died in 1983.
“As a result, in the nineteenth century, when Europe occupied Africa, her scholars did not attempt to understand or to build on the historical traditions in existence there,” the late Prof Dike said.
It was not only historical traditions that 19th Century European scholars ignored, there were also documentary evidence, written by Africans in real time, that they bypassed either because of the forestated lackadaisical approach to the history of sub-Saharan Africans or out of genuine ignorance of the documents’ existence. Either way, they ended up producing historical scholarship that almost always portrayed what Professor Last calls “the dark side of [Africa’s] past and its cliches”.
The attitude to historical scholarship at UCI differed significantly from that mode. Murray Last recounted in a recent interview that in the 1960s, UCI’s focus was on producing the “best bits” of Nigeria’s history.
“We were determined in Ibadan to show how African History could be just as seriously ‘scholarly’ as anything written about, say, Ancient Greece or Rome. Done like that, our new History couldn’t be written off as just more African folklore or an ethnography inventing the past”, he said.
That focus took the young Mr. Last from the graduate classrooms of UCI where he was learning classical Arabic to northern Nigeria in pursuit of decades-old manuscripts. His first stop was Kano where he helped catalogue the collection of Arabic manuscripts at Shahuci Judicial School Library. Then he was dispatched to Waziri Junaidu’s house in Sokoto.
Counting from Gidado dan Laima who was his great grandfather, Mr Junaidu was the 10th Waziri (vizier) of Sokoto, the administrative base of the ‘Fulani Empire’ or Sokoto Caliphate.
It became the Sokoto Sultanate after British conquest in 1903. Gidado dan Laima was Waziri to Muhammed Bello, son of Uthman dan Fodio and caliph of the ‘Fulani Empire’ from 1817 to 1837.
Dan Laima, who hosted the British explorer Hugh Clapperton on his two visits to Sokoto, is credited with expanding the Wizarah (Vizierate)’s role to include custodian of the Caliphate’s intellectual tradition and, passing it on to succeeding Waziris.
By the time Murray Last began graduate studies at UCI, the manuscripts in the custody of the Sokoto Wizarah were legend, especially the collection of 19th century Arabic correspondence.
Professor H.F.C. (later, Abdullahi) Smith, his supervisor, urged him to research the collection, the young Mr Last began that as soon as he secured an introduction to Waziri Junaidu in 1962. He started research work for his PhD thesis in Waziri Junaidu’s “small study room where the Arabic correspondence was kept”.
The study room was part of the family compound so Mr Last was privy to history while researching historical records. The present Waziri, Professor Sambo Wali Junaidu, was a schoolboy then, “I used to hear him arriving from school,” Mr Murray Last recalled in a recent email message.
Prof Last travelled widely within the borders of the defunct ‘Fulani Empire’ visiting more than fifty towns on the Nigerian side and twelve towns that are now part of Niger Republic while he was conducting his research.
The Sokoto Caliphate was first published in 1967. Except for the title, it was the sum of Murray Last’s 1964 PhD thesis, word for word. It was the first PhD thesis approved by the University of Ibadan.
That is the first of many records it broke. It was also the first book that documented the ‘Fulani Empire’ from the inside, utilizing books, records and letters written by its African leaders and officials in the Arabic original as primary source material, not, as non-UCI scholars did, accounts of European explorers like Clapperton or translations of Arabic texts by colonial administrators.
It was lauded as a landmark in the historiography of northern Nigeria and the then newly minted Dr Murray Last was hailed as the first scholar to focus minutely on the structure and administration of the ‘Fulani Empire’.
Fifty-four years on, The Sokoto Caliphate is the acknowledged classic text on the ‘Fulani Empire’. It has gone through several editions, including the Hausa edition, Daular Sakkwato, published in 2009, but has never had an all-Nigeria edition.
In late 2019, Premium Times Books began discussions with Professor Murray Last about publishing the Nigerian edition of The Sokoto Caliphate which he graciously agreed to.
Publishing The Sokoto Caliphate is in keeping with Premium Times Books’ mission statement of bringing books about Nigerians home to Nigeria.
At its zenith, the Sokoto Caliphate’s east-west boundary stretched from modern Cameroon to Burkina Faso and, north-south, from Agadez in Niger Republic to Ilorin. Its legacy in Nigeria reverberates through present day debates about constitutional reform, restructuring and regional autonomy.
“We at Premium Times Books, think the book, The Sokoto Caliphate, is, at the very least, a great resource material for ongoing debates,” Musikilu Mojeed, the Chief Operating Officer of the PREMIUM TIMES Group, said.