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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 501-505

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Book Review

The Bamana Empire by the Niger: Kingdom, Jihad and Colonization, 1712-1920

War on the Savannah: The Military Collapse of the Sokoto Caliphate under the Invasion of the British Empire, 1897-1903

The Bamana Empire by the Niger: Kingdom, Jihad and Colonization, 1712-1920. By SUNDIATA A. DJATA. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997. Pp. xv + 251. $39.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

War on the Savannah: The Military Collapse of the Sokoto Caliphate under the Invasion of the British Empire, 1897-1903. By RISTO MARJOMAA. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 1998. Pp. 305. $25.00.

The books under review here are works of military history, though with radically different agendas. War on the Savannah is the more conventional of the two. In chronicling the British conquest of the Sokoto Caliphate of Northern Nigeria, Risto Marjomaa offers the most elaborate comparison yet drawn between a European army and that of its African enemy, in terms of "strategy, battlefield tactics, weaponry and the background and motivation of the troops involved" (p. 7). Sundiata A. Djata's monograph is quite another matter. Its overriding aims are to "legitimize" the Bamana empire of the Niger River valley, perhaps pre-colonial West Africa's most thoroughly militarized state system, and to show how the Bamana people managed to retain their identity despite being conquered by a Tukolor Muslim army in 1861 and then by the French thirty years later. In the process, we learn a great deal about the role of the military in state-building in pre-colonial Africa, and about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the West African and French styles of imperialism. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Sokoto Caliphate of Northern Nigeria was the largest of the handful of African states that had escaped being picked off by the European powers during the previous century. Its conquest by the African soldiers and British officers and NCOs of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) from 1897 to 1903 is the subject of Risto Marjomaa's book. War on the Savannah provides readers with the first [End Page 501] complete, systematic, and, most importantly, comparative account of this cataclysmic event.

The conflict in Northern Nigeria pitted two civilizations against each other that differed sharply not only in terms of social and political structures and cultural values, but also with respect to military organization, technology, and methods of warfare. The Caliphate's demise, Marjomaa contends, was rendered inevitable by its strategic and tactical inflexibility. The empire was further hampered by the autonomy of its constituent emirates, that precluded the establishment of a common defense and allowed the invading British to pick them off one by one. The empire lacked a standing army and relied for its defense on walled cities vulnerable to modern artillery and feudal levies commanded by aristocratic amateurs. The latter's brave cavalry charges were no match for the WAFF square, bristling with magazine rifles and machine guns. As the British marched in, the Caliphate made none of the political or military adjustments required to give its survival a fighting chance. Military innovations such as night attacks were never contemplated, much less tried, with the result that the British held the initiative in the war from beginning to end, forcing the Caliphate's armies to fight at times and places of their enemy's choosing--a certain recipe for disaster in warfare in general, and colonial warfare in particular.

There is nothing particularly path breaking in Marjomaa's analysis of the Caliphate's defeat. The elements of his diagnosis can be found in earlier accounts such as Concerning Brave Captains (1964) by D. J. M. Muffett, R. A. Adeleye's Power and Diplomacy in Northern Nigeria (1971), and Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate (1977) by Joseph P. Smaldone. What Marjomaa has to offer is a fuller and...


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