The Oracle: History and Its Unforgettable Events and Personalities That Shaped Them (Pt 10)

By Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN


Last week, our discourse into the Kanem-Bornu Empire, was extensively into the origin of Kanem; the rise of Kanems and the disintegration of Kanem. In all of these, the Kanem-Bornu Empire was known to the Arabian geographers as the Kanem Empire, from the 8th Century AD onward and lasted as the independent kingdom of Bornu (the Bornu Empire) until 1900. The Kanem Empire was located in the present countries of Chad, Nigeria and Libya. Today, we shall continue our x-ray on same. Thereafter, take on another Empire, Fante, in the central coastal region of Ghana.



Around that time, Fulani people, invading from the west, were able to make major inroads into Bornu during the Fulani War. By the early 19th century, Kanem-Bornu was clearly an Empire in decline, and in 1808, Fulani warriors conquered Ngazargamu. Usman dan Fodio led the Fulani thrust and proclaimed a jihad (holy war) on the irreligious Muslims of the area. His campaign eventually affected Kanem-Bornu and inspired a trend toward Islamic orthodoxy.


Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi contested the Fulani advance. Kanem was a Muslim scholar and non-Sayfawa warlord who had put together an alliance of Shuwa Arabs, Kanembu, and other semi-nomadic peoples. He eventually built in 1814 a capital at Kukawa (in present-day Nigeria). Sayfawamais remained titular monarchs until 1846. In that year, the last mai, in league with the Ouaddai Empire, precipitated a civil war, resulting in the death of Mai Ibrahim, the last mai. It was at that point that Kanemi’s son, Umar, became Shehu, thus ending one of the longest dynastic reigns in international history. By then, Hausaland in the west, was lost to the Sokoto Caliphate, while the East and North were lost to the Wadai Empire.

Although the dynasty ended, the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu survived. Umar eschewed the title mai for the simpler designation Shehu (from the Arabic shaykh), could not match his father’s vitality, and gradually allowed the kingdom to be ruled by Advisers (Wazirs). Bornu began a further decline as a result of administrative disorganization, regional particularism, and attacks by the militant Ouaddai Empire to the east. The decline continued under Umar’s sons. In 1893, Rabih az-Zubayr led an invading army from Eastern Sudan and conquered Bornu. Following his expulsion shortly thereafter, the state was absorbed by the new Northern Nigeria Protectorate, in the sphere of the British Empire, and eventually became part of the independent state of Nigeria. From the arrival of the British, a remnant of the old kingdom was (and still is) allowed to continue to exist in subjection to the various Governments of the country as the Borno Emirate.


Rabih’s invasion meant the death of Shehu Ashimi, Shehu Kyari and Shehu Sanda Wuduroma between 1893 and 1894. The British recognized Rahib as the ‘Sultan of Borno’, until the French killed Rabih on 22nd April 1900 during the Battle of Kousséri. The French then occupied Dikwa, Rabih’s capital, in April 1902, after the British had occupied Borno in March. Yet, based on their 1893 treaty, most of Borno remained under British control, while the Germans occupied Eastern Borno, including Dikwa, as ‘Deutsch Bornu’. The French did name Abubakar, the Shehu of Dikwa Emirate, until the British convinced him to be the Shehu of the Borno Emirate. The French then named his brother, Sanda, Shehu of Dikwa. Shehu Garbai formed a new capital, Yerwa, on 9th Jan. 1907. After WWI, Deutsch Bornu became the British Northern Cameroons. Upon Sheha Abubakar’s death in 1922, Sanda Kura became Shehu of Borno. Then upon his death in 1937, his cousin, Shehu of Dikwa, Sanda Kyarimi, became Shehu of Borno. As Vincent Hiribarren points out, “By becoming Shehu of the whole of Borno, Sanda Kyarimi reunited under his personal rule a territory which had been divided since 1902. For 35 years, two Shehus had co-existed.” In 1961, the Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, effectively joining the frontiers of the kingdom of Bornu.


The Fante lived around Cape Coast and Elmina in the Central Coastal Region of Ghana. They are one of the Akan peoples “Fante” referred to “The half that left”. They initially settled in the Mankessim (Wikipedia). They are believed to have migrated from Techiman (or Tekyiman) in the present day Northwestern Asante region in the 17th century, before they joined the Fante confederacy. In Italian, “Fanti” means infantryman or foot soldier. The Fanei speak a Twi language, which is part of the Kwa group, and number about 1,170,000. Inheritance and succession to public office are determined mostly by matrilineal descent.


According to their oral traditions, the Fante arrived in their present habitat from the north by the 17th Century. They served as middlemen in the commerce between the interior and British and Dutch traders on the coast. In the early 18th century, the Fante formed a confederation, primarily as a means of protection against Ashanti incursions from the interior. Several Fante-Ashanti wars followed. The Fante were aided by the British, who, however, destroyed the strong Fante confederation established between 1868 and 1872, believing it a threat to their hegemony on the coast. In 1874, a joint Fante-British army defeated the Ashanti, and in the same year the Fante became part of the British Gold Coast colony.

The word ‘Asafo’ is derived from ‘sa’ (meaning war) and ‘fo’ (meaning people). Warrior groups are active throughout the Akan area, but it is the Fante tribe which inhabits the coastal region of Ghana, that has developed a sophisticated and expressive community with a social and political organization based on martial principles, and elaborate traditions of visual art.


The situation throughout the Fante region was always fraught with political complexities, for there were twenty-four traditional states along an eighty mile stretch of the Atlantic coast, and each state was independently ruled by a paramount chief or ‘omanhen’, supported by elders and a hierarchy of divisional, town and village chiefs. In any one state there may be from two to fourteen Asafo companies, with as many as seven active companies in a single town. There is a lack of political unity within the Fante culture as a whole, so that inter-company rivalries – as well as disagreements between the states – are, not surprisingly, endemic. When the Fante were not fighting together against a common enemy, these antagonisms often extended to open conflict among them. Observers report that battles between Asafo companies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left many dead and wounded.

By exploiting these divisions, the Europeans could `divide and rule’ and ensure that their control of the coast went unchallenged. At the same time, by organizing the Asafo warriors into efficient military units, they could bring together an army for a quick reaction to any threat from the interior. The enemy was, more often than not, the powerful Ashanti kingdom, a traditional opponent of the Fante, and a dangerous and unpredictable supplier of gold and slaves to the European traders on the coast. The primary function of the Asafo, as we have seen, was defence of the state, nevertheless, the companies were key players in a balance-of- power struggle – typical of the many that exist in communities the world over – between the military and civilian groups within government. Although the Asafo were subordinate to their chiefs and paramount chief, they were intimately involved in the selection of the chief and were responsible for his crowning or ‘enstoolment’. As long as the chief had the support of the people – as represented by the Asafo – he had the authority accorded to him by tradition; the prerogative to appoint and remove Chiefs remained with the people. Asafo elders also served as advisers to the chief.

While Fante chieftaincy was aristocratic and matrilineal – the chief tracing his descent through females back to the founders of the community – the Asafo are patrilineal and democratic, every child, male or female, automatically entered his father’s company, and membership was open to all classes, from stool holders to fishermen.

The installation of a new Asafo captain was the principal motivation for the creation of a flag. It was the responsibility of the incumbent to commission and pay for the ensign, which then became the collective property of his company. The choice of design was his, albeit partly limited to mimicking the examples established by precedent to be the artistic property of the company. The personalizing of flags in memory of the commissioning officer is now a common occurrence.

The display of Asafo flags was associated with the social activities of the company and the town as a whole. For the town the major event of the year is the Akwambo (path-clearing) festival. This was a time of unity, of renewing allegiances and friendships and of the homecoming of family members especially for the celebrations. Paths were cleared to shrines of the gods, often by the river, and as this is a large-scale event, it was the time of the presentation of new Asafo leaders, such as supi or asafohen. Bearing their flags, the Asafo companies’ paraded through the streets, to the river, to the town shrines and past the houses of the chiefs to demonstrate their allegiances.

At these festivals the companies of a town proudly and aggressively defended the right to parade specific and exclusive colours, cloth patterns, emblems and motifs on their art forms. The violation by mimickry of a company’s artistic property established by precedent and since 1859 by local law, was seen as an act of open aggression. The flags were also shown at other Asafo events, including the funeral of a company member and the commissioning of a new or remodeled shrine, or on an important anniversary of its original construction. Town, regional and national events, such as the enstoolment of chiefs, the annual Yam Festival and state holidays, were all celebrated with a show of Asafo flags.

At these social events the flags were displayed in a variety of ways. The flagpoles of the posubans, the shrines of each company, proudly carried the flags aloft and the houses of Asafo members adjacent to the shrine, as well as the shrine itself, were decked with strings of colourful colonial and Ghanaian ensigns, Flags were carried in processions and, most dynamically, there was a spectacular display of elaborate dancing with the flag by specially trained Asafo officers, the ‘frankakitsanyi’.”

In 1853, Cruickshank noted that each company had a distinctive flag; for a company member, ‘the honour of his flag is the first consideration’. He also commented that some flags were specifically designed as challenges or insults to rival companies.

These visual insults and provocations often resulted in fatal inter- company clashes. An image of one company catching their enemies in a dragnet brandished by one company at a festival in July, 1991, nearly caused a riot! Earlier incidents such as these led to the strict control of flag imagery. At Cape Coast, beginning in the 1860s, all companies were ordered to submit their flags to the Colonial Governor for his approval and to register the approved designs and colours with his secretary. The display of unregistered flags was punishable by law. Even today a new flag must be approved by the paramount chief, the general of the combined companies. The Asafo elders then paraded before all the other companies in the area to make sure that no one is offended.


“There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” (William Halsey).

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