Political And Economic Condition Of West African States (1800 A.D)

Political Condition Of West African States (1800 A.D)

The general impression which one gets from the accounts of Muslim reformers and European explorers and missionaries is that West African states were in a state of political decadence in the opening years of the 19th century owing to the decline of Islam and the prevalence of the slave trade.

This is not surprising for while the Muslim accounts were meant to justify the Islamic revolutions of the early 19th century,the European accounts aimed at justifying European suppression of the slave trade, European efforts to destroy African political and social institutions and the imposition of colonial rule on West Africa.

However, these accounts were an over generalization of the actual political situation, for though some of the states were not as powerful by 1800 as they had been before, there was no general decline as the following survey will show.

The Western Sudan:

the principal effect of the Moroccan invasion of the Western Sudan was the break up of the Songhai empire, into “small independent states”.

From the ruins of that great empire, there emerged later several successor states, some of which survived into the 19th century, notably the Bambara states of Massina, Segu and Kaarta, the states of Futa Jallon and Futa Bondu and the Tukolor Kingdom of Futa Toro.


The Bambara state of Segu rose in the Middle Niger. By the end of the 18th century, it had achieved political stability and had become a strong military state under Ngolo Diari (1690-1790) and his successor Masong (1790-1808).

These rulers continued to expand the state by conquest and at the beginning of the 19th century, Jenne, Timbuktu and Massina were under its sway.

But during the reign of Da Dyara (1808-1827), Shehu Ahmadu freed Massina From Segu domination.


Kaarta, another Bambara state was an offshoot of the kingdom of Segu, having been founded by a rival branch of the Segu ruling dynasty which had migrated with part of the Segu people.

These two Bambara states, Segu and Kaarta were strong at the beginning of the 19th century.

They were often at war with each other and their rivalry continued until they were conquered by Alhaji Omar in 1854 and 1861 respectively.

Yet these states survived their wars of rivalry because the rulers were able to establish stable administrations based on traditional institutions since they were non-Muslim states.


The Fulani state of Massina had been part of the Songhai empire. After the fall of the empire it became part of the Moorish pashalate of Timbuktu but regained its independence in 1628.

In 1725, it became subject to Segu and remained so till the beginning of the 19th century. Nevertheless, it was able to remain as a distinct and stable political entity until about 1818 when Shehu Ahmadu freed it from Segu domination.

Until then,it owed its stability to its traditional rather than Islamic institutions.

However, it must be pointed out that Islam survived in few places notably Futa Jallon, Futa Bondu and Futa Toro to the west of the Bambara states of Segu and Kaarta.

These states emerged as powerful theocratic states in the 18th century and became centers of Islamic revival at the beginning of the 19th Century.

The Central Sudan: Bornu And Hausaland


The Kanuri state of Bornu was definitely weak politically in the opening years of the 19th century.

Though it still collected tribute from a number of vassal states, the area under its sway had shrunk considerably.

The Mais at this time were weak rulers who devoted more time to scholarship than to the political affairs of the empire.

It is no wonder therefore that Bornu was seriously threatened in the second half of the 18th century by the Tuaregs from the desert and the Kwararafa from the south- people who has formerly been subject to the Bornu empire.

So, at the beginning of the 19th century, Bornu fell an easy prey to the fulani reformist forces and Mai Ahmed the reigning monarch was driven into exile.

However, Bornu’s military weakness was not due to the decline of Islam but to the political impotence of its rulers for when a strong ruler emerged in the person of El Kanemi, the kingdom was restored to its pristine glory.


By the end of the 18th Century, the political contour of Hausaland was very much the same as it is today.

The leading Hausa states where Gobir, Katsina, Zamfara, Kano and Zaria.

In general, Hausaland presented a picture of weakness as could be seen from the relative ease with which the Fulani reformers seized control of the states from their Hausa rulers.

The Fulani victory was however made possible not because they were constantly fighting and quarreling with one another.

So, it was difficult for them to unite against the solid Fulani cohesion. In fact, some Hausa states like Gobir and Katsina were still to some extent strong militarily.

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The fact that the Fulani conquest was not easy and was never completed proves this.

Another evidence of the political vitality of the Hausa states is that their Fulani conquerors adopted, though with some modifications, the political institutions of the machinery of their administration.

Judging from the extent to which the Fulani adopted Hausa political and cultural usages and language, it can be said that the Fulani conquered the Hausa but Hausa culture conquered the Fulani, just as ancient Greek culture conquered the Roman conquerors of Greece.

The Grassland States:

Here we shall consider those kingdoms which flourished in the region between the Western and Central Sudan states to the north and forest states to the south.

There were the Mossi, the Jukun and Nupe kingdoms.

The Mossi kingdoms of Yatenga and Wagadugu owed their survival into 19th century to the remarkable political and social stability which enabled them to resist conquest by the Islamic states to the north.

They thus remained independent until the French conquest in 1894. The Jukun kingdom around Gongola-Benue basin was nominally a vassal state of Bornu by 1800.

But it still maintained its political entity under its rulers until it was later absorbed into the Fulani emirate of Muri.

The Nupe kingdom survived to this day in spite of the succession disputes between rival Etsus which plagued it at the beginning of the 19th century.

The survival of these pagan states must be attributed to the strength of their indigenous political institution rather than to any other factor.

The Forest States:

Here the picture is one of contrasts, for while such empires like Benin and Oyo were in a state of decline, the states of Dahomey and Asante were growing in strength at the beginning of the 19th century.


The empire of Benin was definitely in a state of decline in the 18th century owing to the rise of the Oyo empire to the west, the adverse efffects of the slave trade and the series of civil wars precipitated by succession disputes among the princes of the ruling house.

But the state or kingdom of Benin as distinct from the empire, was still strong at the beginning of the 19th century.

It survived until its conquest by the British in 1897.

In fact, the Benin state still exercised some sort of influence over Lagos, Akure, Southern Ekiti, western Ibo country and part of itsekiri and western Urhobo areas.

However, the sphere of Benin influence had decreased and continued to decrease throughout the 19th century while the Benin Kingdom which was the core of the empire remained intact under a virile monarchy.

However, Benin suffered an economic decline owing to the abolition of the slave trade and the advent of legitimate trade early in the 19th century.

The reason was that the British anti-slave trade squadrons restricted the export of slaves from Benin, and the rising palm oil trade favored the Niger Delta states, Urhobo and Itsekiri rather than Benin.

Nevertheless, Benin did not suffer an economic collapse because her slaves were now diverted to the production of agricultural crops for export.


Oyo empire began to decline in the second half of the 18th century.

By the Beginning of the 19th century, the central authority of the Alafin has been weakened by internal strife to the extent that some provincial chiefs or Obas and tributary Kings began to assert their independence.

Classic examples of these rebellions against the Alafin’s authority were those of the Egba, Dahomey and most important of all, that of Ilorin in 1817.

Other Yoruba Obas followed the above examples and before long, the Alafin was ruler of Oyo proper alone.

The Yoruba empire of Oyo had disintegrated. From the ashes of that great empire, there arose the Yoruba states all of which were engaged in the Yoruba civil wars which lasted most of the 19th century.

It has been suggested that the slave trade by changing the axis of Yoruba trade to the coast, thus undermining the economic basis of Oyo the metropolis of the empire, must take responsibility for the empire’s collapse.

While it must be admitted that the slave trade played a vital role, the collapse of the empire must be blamed more on the fortunes of the internal politics within the empire itself.


Dahomey was a typical state which disproves the theory of general political decadence of West African states at the beginning of the 19th century.

It survived a series of political crises which culminated in a change of dynasty in the early decades, and under king Ghezo (1818-1858) Dahomey reached the apogee of its power. Under him, the army was reorganized and improved and in 1827, Dahomey wons its independence from the disintegrating Oyo empire.

Ghezo also extended the boundaries of the kingdom in all directions and grew wealthy by selling war-captives as slaves to European slave-dealers on the coast.

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He fought desperately against the abolition of the slave trade which had become the mainstay of the state’s economy. Dahomey remained a strong state throughout the 19th century and took the french two years (1892-94) to conquer the state.

Its strength derived from its strong monarchy and a well organized professional army and its ability to change from dependence on the slave trade to dependence on legitimate trade and agriculture as the pressure of the abolition gained momentum.


Asante like Dahomey provides a classic example of a state which was growing rather than declining at the beginning of the 19th century.

After passing through a period of political instability which threatened the state and brought imperial expansion to a standstill during Osei Kwame’s region (1777-1801), Asante revived its former power under Osei Bonsu (1801-1824).

From then on, the work of imperial expansion went apace.

The Fante states were invaded several times as Asante tried to assert its sovereignty over them in order to have direct access to the coastal trade with Europeans.

These Asante invasions proved inimical to British coastal trade. Consequently, the British clashed with the Asante several times in the 19th century and even suffered defeats at their hands.

Asante power in the 19th century depended upon an efficient administrative system evolved by the Asantehenes, a strong professional army with a cavalry of Hausa and Malinke mercenaries and a sound economy based on an efficient financial organisation.

The Niger Delta States:

In response to the coastal slave trade with Europeans a number of large city-states had developed from small fishing villages in the Niger Delta area.

By 1800, the most important of these city-states were the Itsekiri kingdom, the kingdom of Brass, Kalabiri, Bonny and Calabar.

The economy of the states depended upon the slave trade and they were organized socially and politically under the “House System” to exploit that trade.

At the beginning of the 19th century, these kingdoms or city-states were wealthy and powerful.

Their merchants carried on trade with Europeans on a basis of equality and their rulers drew much respect from European traders.

But the abolition of the slave trade by Britain early in the century brought about a far-reaching revolution in the economy of the Niger Delta states.

They gradually changed from the trade in slaves to the exploitation of the palm oil trade and by the middle of the 19th century, they had become the leading exporters of the product in Africa.

In spite of the social disruption brought about by this revolution in their economy, these states remained strong until the British with the aid of gunboats, began to interfere in their internal affairs later in the century.

Economic Condition Of West African States (1800 A.D)

The dominant factor in the economy of the West African states at the beginning of the 19th century was the slave trade and its abolition.

From the 15th century, West African states had adapted their economies to the exploitation of the slave trade.

Thus, in spite of its serious adverse effects on life and industry, West African states resisted vigorously the abolition of the slave trade by Britain in the early decades of the 19th century.

However, when they discovered that the abolition had come to stay, they gradually adjusted their economy to take advantage of the growing legitimate trade in palm oil, ivory, shea-butter, indigo and other agricultural commodities which took the place of slaves in the coastal trade with Europeans.

How West African States Avoided Economic Collapse.

A second development which helped those states to obviate economic ruin which would have resulted from the abolition of the slave trade was that slaves were now diverted to the production of the agricultural products now in demand in the developing legitimate trade.

A third feature of the West African economy in the 19th century was the decline in the trans-saharan trade and the consequent change in the direction of commerce towards the coast.

The trans-saharan trade however continued on a diminished scale especially from kano until West Africa was partitioned by European powers towards the end of the 19th century.

Finally, it should be remembered that at the beginning of the 19th century, the means of communications and transport were poor.

There were no good roads or railways, no large boats on the rivers and no portable or convenient currency.

All these disabilities hampered the development of large-scale internal trade until the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries when European colonial government began to develop communications and transport and introduce convenient currencies.


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