ous Emirs, continue to exert enormous influence.
Indeed, their present standing is testament to just how important the Caliphate was. At its height in the mid-19th century, it covered a huge area that included northern Nigeria and parts of what is today south- ern Niger and northern Benin. But it was more than a political empire. It was also a religious community, rendered distinct from its Islamic neighbours to the north and west by its piety, and from the animist peo- ples to the south, by its rejection of heathenism. And at its summit—combining the roles of king and high priest—was the Sultan. Based in Sokoto, he claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad, an assertion that, rhetorically at least, made both him and his rule beyond reproach. Yet even with this self-declared reli- gious authority, the Sultan still ruled through a series of viceroys or Emirs.
Today’s Sultan and Emirs are descendants of the men who originally seized power in the early 19th cen- tury. Yet they do not command the political author- ity that their forebearers once did. Its erosion began in the late 19th century as a result of European colonial expansion. In the wake of the soldiers, adventurers, and missionaries who extended British and French in- fluence over the West Africa subregion, came colonial administrators. Although not many in number, they formed two impervious layers both above and below those traditional rulers who were allowed to keep their thrones. Although often obscured, theirs was the word that really mattered, backed up as it was by the modern gunboats of the British and French navies. So placed, these bureaucrats set definite limits on what the tradi- tional rulers could and could not do.
Yet, arguably, the final nail in the coffin of the Sultan’s and Emirs’ sweeping political powers was