The Hausa States: The Pre-Islamic Confederacy

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The Hausa people are one of the largest ethnic group in Africa. The old Hausa ethnic locations before the Fulani jihad were known collectively as Hausa Bakwai and Hausa Banza, where “Bakwai” was a term used for the original seven Legitimate(Bakwai) Hausa states: Biram, Daura, Gobir, Rano, Katsina, Zaria (Zazzau), and Kano. “Banza” on the other hand was used to refer to the illegitimate (Banza) states or satellites of the Genuine Hausa States; Zamfara, Kebbi, Yauri, Gwari, Nupe Kororofa and Yoruba. The Hausa Bakwai states altogether encompassed an area above the confluence of the Niger and Benue River in today’s northern Nigeria. Each state was a completely independent political entity and operated independently.

The Hausa lands occupied the northern plains beyond the Jos plateau. They were a crossroad open to the states of Mali, Songhai and Bornu; and were the Trans-Saharan routes to Northern Africa and the South. Because of this strategic location, the Hausa lands experienced an influx of foreigners, mostly traders and clerics. This significantly shaped the polities of the different states as we will discuss.

maparchive - Africa, Culture and Trade 1500–1800


It is not readily perfectly clear as to how exactly the polity of each of these Hausa states operated up to until the jihad, but studies have shown that the early Hausa society was made up of kindreds living in villages which were largely agricultural and held non-Abrahamic beliefs.

These little villages metamorphosed over the course of time into larger towns called “Gari”. Each Gari was governed by a council of lineage heads. Some of these towns even grew further into larger walled cities or “Birane” with a diverse economy. The influx of immigrants, clerics and traders influenced largely the adoption of a monarchical-like style of leadership across these Hausa states. They all had very similar polities even though they were all independent and led by systems comprising mostly of a king or Sarki and a hierarchy of office holders.

hausa_sarki and subordinates
Richard Brady, “Hierarchy and Authority Among the Hausa”, Oxford University, 1979

Before venturing further into the type of polity these old states adopted, it is pertinent to explain an adopted and widespread leadership style that was popular in the Sahel western African region of those times and similar to what was practiced in the Hausa states. Drawing knowledge from what is known about two peripheral regions of Hausa land: Adarawa and Arewa.

hausa states - map.JPG


The Adarawa people are known as Adar, the Adar society is made up of communities. Each community functioned more or less like a confederacy of related kindred group. The community leaders are termed “Dean” or “ Earth-Priest” or “Priest-Chief”, these names are what literary works used to describe such institutions. The people considered the Priest-Chief to be the intermediary between the living on one hand, and the ancestors & local spirits on the other. They believed the priest-chiefs had been handed the responsibility of keeping and maintaining the sacred pact between the ancestors or first settlers and the local spirits. The pact, the people believed, granted them access to the natural resources of their habitat – lands, earth minerals, water etc. – as long as they offered the necessary rituals and sacrifices to the owners of the resources, whom they believe were the local spirits.

Each community or kindred had different occupational crafts and the corresponding spirits who were the owners of the resources of those crafts, for instance, the blacksmith believed that the owners of the iron were a spirit and the fisherman believed the owners of the water were a spirit etc. so there was more than one priest-chief in a community depending on the number of occupational crafts practiced.


Gubawa are the original indigenes of Arewa. Their political system was more or less the same as that of the Adar people, however among the priest-chiefs the Saranauya (“queen”) of Lugu and the Baura of Bagaji were the most prominent and important.

At some point this region experienced massive immigration of people from Borno somewhere maybe in the 17th century. This eventually led to the leader of the immigrants marrying the daughter of the Baura and ushered in a new system of leadership that became widespread in Hausa land.

It involves power-sharing between the leader of the immigrants and the priest-chief, “the future king” i.e. the leader of the immigrants appropriates political powers and the priest-chief of the indigenous people keeps their religious and age long duties. The priest-chief(s) position was indispensable and was the cornerstone of the system. It was deeply enshrined in the fabric of society because the people had an unshakable belief that the priest-chief was the keeper of the pact between the living, the spirits and the ancestors.

Similar political arrangements were adopted in other West African states such as the Mossi kingdoms.

Therefore the king needed the consent of the spirits which hitherto translates to the consent of the priest-chiefs. As a matter of fact, the priest-chiefs had the responsibility of selecting the king and in some cases even dethronement, since the spirits were the source of sovereignty and power. Therefore, any leader needed their consent.

The king’s duties were to ensure and create an atmosphere of prosperity and wellbeing of the people. These of course naturally translated to how well he could placate the local spirits and keep them happy. The kingship was, in short, some kind of a sacred kingship.

It is noteworthy that in some cases where a priest-chief held all leadership responsibilities he could be regarded as the equal of the king.  Some literary works often refer to those priest-chiefs as “prime minister” or “chief minister”. The king of Arewa also known as Sarkin Arewa  had a state-council of twelve members. Nine were indigenous priest-chiefs whose job was to elect the king from the lineage of the Bornoan immigrants.

This power sharing arrangement of kings and priest-chiefs is referred to as “Dual” or “contrapuntal paramountcy”, They were very popular in West Africa of those days and was practiced in the Hausa states of old.


An investigation using the very scanty available resources into what transpired in Katsina sometime between 1492 and 1493 gives us an insight into what might have been the structure of the leadership. The king, a Durbi (indigenous of the Durbawa an indigene of the land), was killed during a wrestling match by Muhammad Korau who was an immigrant and who subsequently became the first king of Katsina with the title of sarkin Katsina.

Muhammad Korau was a Wangara. Wangara was a term used to refer to a Muslim cleric and trader. The Wangarawa (plural of wangara) first arrived Hausa land in the 14th century. Clerics were almost always traders in those days because a huge function of clerics involved travelling which naturally made them traders to survive.

The facts were that after the incident, the Durbawa continued their role in the selection of Sarota (kingship) and continued to hold the power to elect kings. Durbawa is a term used to describe the indigenous people of Katsina. Secondly, the Durbi continued to direct religious affairs and issues that had to do with the local deities. If that is the case what it implies is that during that period, Katsina ran a leadership structure of dual paramountcy.


The Yauri polity shares similar characteristics with that of Katsina. The first king of Yauri was the son of a Wangara, he had to share his authority with 2 individuals that were the hereditary owners of two major cults in the society. One of them bore the title Durubi.


There are shreds of evidence that Zaria also had a dual paramountcy style of leadership. For instance, if we take into account that one of the predecessors of Queen Amina of Zaria had the title of “Bakwa Turunku” which means “stranger from Tekrur’”, there is a possibility that the leadership has a connection with the Wangara.


The political system of Gobir is not much different either. Studies show that the city had a foreign kingship sometime in the 15th century. Furthermore, in the Gobir ‘rump state’ of Tsibiri, the head priest-chief referred to as the “Sarkin Anna” was regarded in some sense to be the equal of the Sarkin Gobir. It is not clear however whether the foreign or alien kingship of Gobir originated from within the city or if it arose as a result of the rapidly growing new community of clerics and traders that were scattered across the length and breadth of Hausa land during that period.

Kano, city of the country of Hausa, vintage engraving.


Kano has a society very much like the Arewa and Adar people. From the “Kano Chronicle” we know that at an earlier unspecified period Kano was governed by eleven chiefs that were also heads of their clans. It is very likely that they were Priest-Chiefs because Kano had chiefs for different occupations (such as a chief for brewers, a chief for blacksmiths, etc.) although of all the chiefs there was the “Barbushe” with more authority who was regarded as the direct descendant of the founding ancestor (the first settler). The Barbushe was a priest of a Dalla Hill spirit and regarded as the paramount priest-chief.

Later Kano was invaded and conquered by the Kutumbawa under the leadership of the Bagauda. Although the people of Kano people were conquered, they still resisted the Kutumbawa and were very hostile. This was largely centred around religious issues. It is likely the Bagauda made himself the first king of Kano or the Sarki of Kano.

The hostilities climaxed during the reign of the ninth king “Tsamia” largely because according to records, he was able to convince the Priest-Chief to reveal to him the secret of their god. However, to avoid total chaos he appointed the two main opposition Priest-Chiefs to be members of his cabinet. They bore the titles “Sarkin Garazawa” and “Sarkin Tchbiri”. This might be an indication of some sought of dual leadership structure in Kano.

In the mid-15th century Muhammad Rumfa became king. He did his best to propagate Islam. One of his reasons might be that coming from a long line of kings of foreign heritage, whose powers had always been checked or equalled by the Priest-Chiefs, he knew that achieving an Islamic society would remove the power and the traditions of the Priest-Chiefs.

It was not clear how the successors to the throne were determined before the 15th century but from about 1452 to 1655 there was a strict father to son succession. The Kano kingship shortly before the beginning of 1452 experienced some sought of civil unrest. This is indicated by the two very short reigns before that time. This tussle was strongly believed to be between two factions; the faction of immigrants (clerics & traders) and the faction of indigenous people (priest chiefs). The former seemed to get their way owing to the long periods of father to son succession of the throne between 1452 and 1655. They not only tried to enforce a new religion, they also tried to change the rule of succession, however towards the ending of 1655 the feud reared its head again and resurrected the pre-1452 leadership conditions, restoring the power and privileges of the Priest-Chiefs.

During the latter part of the 15th century Zaria and Katsina began to develop a new type of society as trade and economy boomed. This growth of a new type of cosmopolitan or commercial society gave rise to a breed of ambitious and wealthy foreigners and traders attempting to seize the kingship and enforce a new type of leadership.

In Kano the descendants of the alien kingship lineage sought the alliance of these foreigners. Both were initially successful but in the long run they failed to impose their philosophies on the society and had to resort back to collaborating with the Priest-Chiefs to maintain the more successful dual paramountcy. The kings became like a sacred king.

hausa Kano City Walls and Gates Old map
The ancient Kano walls were built between 1095 and 1134 during the reign of Sarki Gijimasu (King Kijimasu) and completed in the 14th century; and measure 40 ft. thick at base, 30 to 50 ft. in height (15m) with 15 gates.

ORIGIN OF THE HAUSA (Oral tradition)

The origin story of the Hausa old states was transmitted through oral tradition. The story dates from the 9th to 10th centuries AD at earliest. It is believed that a founder, Bayajidda, came from the east accompanied by retinue and military escorts. The east in most accounts is considered Bagdad (1). Examples of reasons given for his journey to Africa and across the Sahara include either the conquest of his homeland, exile by his father or fictional work for social control.

The name Bayajida is derived from a phrase “He couldn’t understand before” being “Ba ya ji da” in Hausa. His original name would have been foreign, considered “Abu Zaid” by some. “Bayajida” is possibly a name given to him by the indigenes (2).

He married a local princess Magaram from the Kanem-Bornu Empire who bore him a son. Either after tension with her father or after a possible failed attempt to usurp the monarch of Kanem-Bornu, he fled to Garun Gabas (Hadejia), where he left his wife and son Biram.(3)

He procured a knife (or sword) from local blacksmiths after reaching Gaya (near Kano) before proceeding to Daura (in modern day Katsina). There, he freed the people of Daura from a sacred snake that prevented them from accessing a particular well on six days of the week except Friday. Impressed, Magajiva Daurama the queen of Daura offered him half our kingdom. Bayajida declined and wisely requested her hand in marriage instead.

The queens of Daura were forbidden to marry and had to remain celibate while in their post. This implies a possible religious significance to the post of queen. According to the palace oral version of the story the queen of Daura had to undergo rituals before obtaining permission to consummate her marriage. She gave Bayajida a concubine called Bagwariya to ease the wait. (4)

Bagwariya bore a son, she named Karap da Gari which meant “He snatched the town” in Hausa. Queen Magajiya was next to give birth and out of concern named her biological son Bawo meaning “give it back”. Bayajida therefore fathered three sons by three different women.

Bawo later fathered six sons who went on to rule six of the seven Hausa states (Daura, Gobir, Kano, Katsina, Rano and Zazzau), while the first son of Bayajidda ruled the Biram.

The serpent was named Sarki (which is the Hausa word for king). It is therefore unclear whether the serpent represents a person who controlled the water supply of Daura.

There is disagreement over whether Bayajidda was historical or a personification of the migrations which created the Hausa states – marriages between patrilineal immigrant princes and matrilineal indigenous royalty.

These events marked a change from matriarchy to patriarchy.

What is profound is that many of the ancient stories of the Near East involve marriages relating to wells including how Isaac picked Rebecca and how Moses met Zipporah at a well of the Midianites. Serpents lived near rivers, springs and wells were both feared and venerated.

Fallacies: Pre-colonial Africans were all socialists

The complex political arrangements of the Hausa states demonstrate that African societies produced not only monarchies but also confederate power structures – an association of independent sovereign states or communities.

The dual paramountcy model of two powers ruling one region demonstrated political sophistication, where for each Hausa state lineage-based kings handled politics but were checked by a council of lineage-based chiefs. This was only developed centuries later in England by Simon De Montfort in the 13th century when he introduced the Westminster Parliament.

If the queens of Daura were celibate, how were queens selected? By elections? How were the matriarchal monarchs of Hausaland selected?

The exploitation of the location of the Hausa states by building walled states between West Africa and East Africa, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, demonstrates a civilization aware of power of logistics in profit-making.

Specialisation into different crafts and the existence of craft-based “chiefs” provides evidence of social organisation rather than a homogenous network of villages in which everyone was equal and in which decisions were made through village assemblies. Chiefs exercised representative power for members of their craft and checked the power of kings over a period of several centuries.

Fallacies: Hamitic theory

Without going through each African civilisation one by one, this article demonstrates that social order and hierarchy existed in at least the Hausa states before the integration of foreign princes into the elite class. Both Daura and Kanem-Bornu had monarchs and a council of elders before the arrival of Bayajida. Each of the seven Hausa Bakwai has a king list going back to the 9th century, for instance before the founding of England or the United States.  In this case, foreign means non-Hausa not non-Africa.

Fallacies: Arabs imported social organisation to Africa

Although Bayajida may have come from the Near East, or North Africa, he did not bring social organisation to the Hausa states. These already existed.

Queens list of the predecessors of Kabara (“queen”) Daurama II, queen of Daura, demonstrates this (5):

  • Kufuru
  • Ginu
  • Yakumo
  • Yakunya
  • Wanzamu
  • Yanbamu
  • Gizir-gizir
  • Inna-Gari
  • Daurama
  • Ga-Wata
  • Shata
  • Fatatuma
  • Sai-Da- Mata
  • Ja-Mata
  • Ha-Mata
  • Zama
  • Sha-Wata
  • Daurama II

If an average reign lasted 20 years, the queens list may cover c. 340 years, more or less, and records of Hausa states may therefore go back to the 5th Century.


While there is more to be discovered about how Pre-Jihad Hausa states managed their polities, there is enough evidence to indicate that the dual (or contrapuntal) paramountcy was popular and was practiced widely throughout major Hausa Lands despite their autonomy. The strategic trade route location of Hausa lands made it a magnet for foreigners and traders. This greatly affected the way of life of the locals and was the catalyst for the adoption of kingship which was alien to the local indigenes who were largely led by priest-chiefs and agricultural. The Concept of Kingship or Sarki in Hausa land could not function effectively without the assistance of the Priest-Chiefs. The Priest chiefs in most cases wielded more power than the Sarki or King.

maparchive - Africa, Desert States c. 1350–1600

(1)  Abdurrahman, Alasan; transcribed by Dierk Lange. “Oral version of the Bayajidda legend” (PDF). Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa. Retrieved 2006-12-20.

(2)  Pinado Abdu-Waba, Abdoulaye Mamman Amadou and Gwendolin Hilse. Gerda Henkel Foundation Last retrieved 2018-11-01.

(3)  Yahaya, Ibrahim Yaro (1988). “Some Parallels in Unofficial Islamic Beliefs in Near Eastern and Hausa Folk Traditions”. al-Ma’thurat al Sha’biyyah. pp. 1–24. Retrieved 2006-12-21.

(4)  Palace version of the Bayajidda legend in Lange, Ancient Kingdoms, 293-4.

(5) Palmer, H. R (1908). Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1908.

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The Hausa States: The Pre-Islamic Confederacy

by Editorial Team time to read: 13 min