When the official delegation from Zungeru arrived in the ancient Emirate of Kano for the Durbar in 1913, they were unaware of the rude shock that awaited. That year, it was hosted on January 1st to celebrate the thirteenth anniversary since British takeover of the Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1900. During the typical Durbar, ornately dressed horsemen, courtiers, and performers, as well as the Emir of Kano, would parade through the city to ovation from the crowds. These days, the Kano Durbar is usually staged twice a year. Once at the end of the Ramadan fast, and again at the end of the Hajj. But like its historical precedents, the grand display of horseback pageantry remains a spectacle to behold. As one account describes it, “the highpoint of the event is a series of break-neck cavalry charges saluting the Emir.”
The 1913 event attracted more than the local crowds. People came from far and wide to witness the show. Kano was the largest city in Northern Nigeria and a major hub of commerce and culture. Dignitaries from across Northern Nigeria were also in attendance. The Emir Haliru of Gwandu arrived with a delegation that represented both the Gwandu Emirate and the Sokoto Caliphate. By Islamic culture, Sokoto was the most senior Emirate of Northern Nigeria and it was led by a Sultan who also went by the title, Sarikin Muslimin, which means, Commander of the Faithful. This tradition goes back to the days of the jihad led by the Shehu Usman dan Fodio. However, Gwandu’s relationship with Sokoto was special because the Gwandu Emirate was founded by Abdullahi, a brother and general of the Shehu. Haliru was also representing his cousin, Muhammadu Attahiru II, the Sultan of Sokoto at the event. Another dignitary at the Durbar was Muhammadu Majigi, the Emir of Bida or Etsu Nupe. When Haliru arrived for the Durbar, Majigi joined the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Abbas, to welcome the Gwandu delegation. Majigi had been born in Gwandu and the reign of his father, Umaru Majigi, was authorized by the Sarikin Gwandu. His excitement at Gwandu’s arrival is understandable and by accompanying the Emir of Kano to receive Sarikin Haliru, he may have also been paying homage to Sokoto’s suzerainty.
Zungeru was not an emirate but could lay claims to a different kind of prominence. It was the seat of the colonial government and as such, a very important town. Its delegation was led by the Sarikin Zungeru, who had amongst his officials, a member of the Town Council named Kolo. During the festivities, a Kano man called Balarabe arranged to have Kolo arrested and arraigned before the Alkali (Judge) of the Native Court. It transpired that Kolo had been a slave of Balarabe, but ran away to Jebba around 1899. Upon questioning by the Alkali, Kolo confirmed that it was true. Based on this, the Alkali declared that Kolo was still Balarabe’s slave and could only be released through manumission, that is, by purchasing his freedom. Kolo’s freedom was priced by the Alkali at four pounds and ten shillings (£4, 10s). In today’s money, that is the equivalent to a little under £700, and over N600,000 Naira at parallel market rates. It was quite a sum.
Determined to keep his Councillor, the Sarikin Zungeru quickly paid the price so Kolo could walk away a free man. The money was handed over by the Wakili, a staff of the Sarikin and senior official of the Zungeru Native Authority who had accompanied Kolo to the Court. Although Kolo was now free, the case was far from over. The incident was brought to the attention of the Assistant Governor of the Northern Protectorate, probably by the Sarikin Zungeru. It appears the case was of interest to the colonial authorities because an official investigation was opened into the matter. The British Resident in charge of Kano Province was called upon to explain. He claimed that during a visit to Zungeru by the Emir of Kano around 1905, Kolo was recognized as a runaway slave and that he paid £1 for his freedom. It was also alleged that Kolo was not forced before the court, but appeared of his own volition, aware that he could not be detained. He observed that such attitudes were common amongst former slaves seeking to discharge any obligations towards their former masters. Furthermore, he asserted that the experience of the Sarikin Zungeru was sufficient for him to reject any form of coercion and thus his decision to pay for Kolo must have been voluntary.
Unsatisfied with this response, and possibly irritated by the symbolism of Councillor Kolo’s re-enslavement and manumission, a search for scapegoats began. First, it was recommended that the Alkali be officially rebuked for ruling that Kolo was still a slave despite the lapse of time. Protests that the Alkali was within his rights to arrive at the decision were ignored, and the reprimand was executed. Another recommendation was for Balarabe to return the money paid for Kolo. However, four months had passed by the time of the order and the District Officer explained that, “Balarabe would suffer unmerited hardship if he were made to return the money.” However, he recommended that funds be taken from the Beit-el-mal, that is, the Native Treasury for Kano City. This step, he observed, would ensure that the Native Authorities of Kano did not allow such an incident to occur again. It was approved and the funds were returned to the Sarikin Zungeru.
Slavery is Dead, Long-live Colonialism
One of the primary justifications given by the British for their nineteenth-century colonial adventures in Africa, was the abolition of slavery. When Queen Victoria granted the Royal Niger Company a Charter to administer Northern Nigeria in 1886, the abolition of slavery was a core mandate and it did not change when the British took direct control of the country at the dawn of the new century. Within a short period of assuming responsibility for Northern Nigeria, Frederick Lugard issued The Slavery Proclamation to protect people from being enslaved. This law eliminated the legal status of being a slave, but did not emancipate those in domestic servitude. However, their sale, purchase or transfer was outlawed. Furthermore, the law provided that all children born after April 1, 1901, were to be free. Prior to this, those born of slaves inherited the status of their parents.
In the case of Kolo, it is not difficult to imagine how the incident embarrassed a colonial government that badly wanted everyone to see that it was working hard to end slavery. A few measures were taken to prevent a recurrence. First, it was communicated that anyone who had escaped from slavery before the British took over could not be recaptured as a slave. As the Cantonment Magistrate at Zungeru put it, “if it applied to everybody, no employees of the Europeans would be safe.” Second, it was impressed upon the Native Authorities that disputes of such nature were to be brought before the Resident and not the court.
These steps appear to uphold the colonial policy of suppressing slavery, but one curiosity remains. Lugard’s annual report to the British Parliament for 1905-6 declared that the colonial government had established procedures for setting slaves free through manumission. In this system, enslaved people had the right to request freedom and it could not be denied by their owners. Rather, all slaves who asked for freedom were to be taken before a native court where the Judge would fix an equitable sum for their release. In this sense, it can be argued that Balarabe followed the law when he took Kolo to court, and that the Alkali did his duty by setting a price for Kolo’s freedom. But, if they were obeying the law, why did Balarabe and the Alkali get into hot water with the government? Perhaps it was less about upholding anti-slavery laws, and more about preserving the prestige of colonial power. Slavery may have died, but colonialism was alive.
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