- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

SOKOTO, Nigeria — Saluted by sword-waving Muslim warriors on horses and camels, African presidents and emirs yesterday celebrated the 200th anniversary of a “holy war” that launched the sub-Sahara’s greatest Islamic empire, and urged an end to Christian-Muslim violence.

Appeals for peace — evoking six years of fiery religious rampages by machete-armed mobs in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation — overlaid a day of musket-blasting pageantry in Sokoto, capital of the 19th-century Sokoto caliphate, or kingdom.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, condemned culprits of both faiths for the rising bloodshed in the nation’s modern-day holy wars.

“Anyone who burns houses or places of worship, either mosques or churches” is an “infidel,” said Mr. Obasanjo, who wore the brown embroidered caftan and towering white headdress of northern Muslims in a gesture of Muslim-Christian conciliation.

Mr. Obasanjo’s 1999 election ended 15 years of repressive junta rule, but unleashed religious, ethnic and political turmoil that since has claimed more than 10,000 lives in Nigeria.

Explosions of Muslim-Christian violence have killed hundreds this year alone — most recently last month in Adamawa state, where dozens died in clashes over the height of a mosque’s minarets next to the palace of a Christian tribal chief.

In May, religious slaughter led Mr. Obasanjo to declare emergency rule in one state for the first time in his six-year effort to cement civilian rule.

Yesterday, Mr. Obasanjo recalled the successes of the long-ago African empire.

“Contrary to the misrepresentations of some … we were already a highly organized people before the arrival of the adventurers of colonization,” the Nigerian leader said.

Sokoto, in Nigeria’s north, stood until British colonial rule as the center of a Muslim kingdom that spanned parts of six modern African nations — Nigeria, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Itinerant preacher Shehu Usman dan Fodio had catapulted the kingdom into being with an 1804-1808 holy war against non-Muslims and wayward Muslims.

The June 19, 1804, battle of Tafkin Kwatto, a village about 60 miles from Sokoto, was widely seen as the war’s turning point. The victory sparked jihads across the arid plains of Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan.

In Sokoto’s central square yesterday, Muslim Hausa and Fulani fighters in flowing robes and medieval battle garb paid fierce homage to that history.

Riding tasseled horses and camels, hundreds of warriors clutching swords, spears and battle-axes saluted Mr. Obasanjo, three former Nigerian presidents and the leaders of Ghana, Chad and Niger.

Sokoto today is part of 12 predominantly Muslim states that have adopted strict Islamic Shariah laws since 2000. Christians in Sokoto are few.

Fodio is still widely revered by Muslims as a hero for spreading piety and Arabic literacy. Yet some Christians remember his uncompromising attitude toward nonbelievers, for whom he was once quoted as saying “there is no free place of the intellect.”

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