From the Niger to the Nile

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, a number of West African Muslims migrated east, settling in Sudan and Mecca, to seek refuge from European colonization.

The Niger River (USGS, via Unsplash).

On February 17, 1907, a brief note went out of the Dakar office of the Governor-General of French West Africa, addressed to subordinates. The governor had learned through French newspapers that:

According to a report on Northern Nigeria written by High Commissioner Sir W. Wallace, and published by the Colonial Office, thousands of Fulanis from the Middle Niger [central Mali] might be migrating from the French territory and heading towards the Nile valley … I would be grateful for any further information on this issue.

This note reveals the anxieties of both French and British administrations in the early years of colonial rule in Africa, as they faced a set of population movements that trumped the logic of their imperial borders.

The eastwards travels of West Africans toward the Nile valley largely predated European colonization. Among West African Muslims, this phenomenon was rooted in the old tradition of pilgrimage to the holy cities of Islam, Mecca, and Medina, in the Hejaz region of Arabia. Scholars Umar al-Naqar and Chanfi Ahmed have written about how numerous West African pilgrims reached these destinations by crossing the Sahel and Sahara from west to east, via a route called the Ṭarīq al-Sūdān (Sudan Road). The road started in Shinqit (Mauritania), Timbuktu or Jenne (Mali), and stretched all the way to the Red Sea ports of Sawakin (Sudan) or Masawa (Eritrea), via Hausaland, Chad, and Darfur. Pilgrims would then sail to the Hejaz.

King Ahmadou 1888. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the flow of travelers on the Sudan Road grew to include people rejecting European colonial rule. Key to these migrations were the Islamic notion of hijrah (emigration) and the figure of the mahdi, a redeemer set to appear shortly before the end of times. Hijrah is the doctrine whereby Muslims, should they find themselves in an environment hostile to their faith, should leave. In the newly-created French Soudan colony (Mali), members of communities such as the Gabero or the Kel el Suq migrated east, settling along the Sudan Road or traveling all the way to the Hejaz.

Another documented instance of hijrah was that of a group of defeated Fuutanke (a Fulani-speaking community from the Senegal River valley) in the French Soudan, who fled east, settling in Sokoto, Sudan, or Mecca. In the 19th century, Fuutanke scholar and warrior El Hajj Umar Tal led a jihad, conquering and occupying parts of present-day Senegal, Guinea, and Mali, while fighting French encroachment in the region. Tal died in 1864, but by the late 1890s the French army defeated all his successors, including his son Ahmadu, and dismantled his empire. Some of Ahmadu’s companions undertook hijrah, leaving the Niger valley to head toward the Nile, as a 1906 note (in the Archives Nationales du Sénégal) from a French colonial official in Fort-Lamy (present-day N’Djaména, Chad) attests:

Aḥmadu’s Tukulor [Fuutanke]—the last remnants of these hardliners who never accepted to submit to our domination—the former Sultan of Sokoto’s supporters, and the malcontents from Northern Nigeria, are going away towards the East, with no hope of ever returning … It will be up to the Anglo-Egyptian authorities to watch these newcomers, should they settle on the White Nile.

The Anglo-Egyptian colonial authorities in Sudan indeed had reasons to worry. A few years earlier, another series of events had propelled West African migrations on the Sudan Road, and seriously threatened their regime.

Draft note from the governor-general of French West Africa about the eastbound migrations of Fulanis, 1907. Archives Nationales du Sénégal.

According to early Islamic prophecies, the world was set to end in the 13th century of the Islamic calendar (1786-1883 AD). The announced end of times was to be heralded by the appearance of a ​mahdi.

Incidentally, in 1881, an uprising broke out in Sudan, then under Ottoman-Egyptian and British rule. A man by the name of Muhammad Ahmad successfully gathered an army, defeated Ottoman-Egyptian troops, and led a successful siege of Khartoum, killing former British Governor-General Charles Gordon. Proclaiming to be the mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad established a new State, the Sudanese Mahdiyya (1881-1898).

These events further fueled West African migrations eastward along the Sudan Road. The Mahdiyya attracted a number of West African migrants to its ranks, who largely sustained the rebellion, and remained in Sudan following its demise. In fact, one of the mahdi’s most trusted companions, the elderly Muhammad al-Dadari, was a Fulani man from Sokoto. Al-Dadari reportedly played a crucial role in organizing the mahdi’s succession in the moments following his death.

It is difficult to quantify how many among those who journeyed east on the Sudan Road from West Africa did so to take part in resistance, or to seek refuge from European colonization, especially as these migrations blended with other types of mobility. Many people traveled to perform the regular pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and journeyed back to West Africa. Christian Bawa-Yamba’s book Permanent Pilgrims, and Al Amin Abu Manga’s extensive scholarship, show that many West Africans settled in Sudan and formed diasporic communities, often finding an economic incentive to do so. Gregory Mann has explained that in a 2001 census, Mali counted the number of Malians living in Sudan and Egypt to be 200,000, twice as many as the 100,000 Malians estimated to live in France, illustrative of the fact that Africans migrate a lot more within the continent than outside of it.

These stories enrich our understanding of intracontinental migrations, and give us tools to connect the modern histories of countries rarely thought about in conjunction, such as Mali and Sudan. They also help us rethink the essentializing of African refugees: historically, seeking refuge on the continent has encompassed a variety of experiences, including West African Muslims who chose to emigrate rather than living under European rule.

Further Reading