The Role of Hausa Women in the Traditional Sarauta System: Reflections on the Office and Institutions of Inna in Gobir Kingdom

Being a paper presented at the First International Conference on Gobir Kingdom, Past And Present: Transformation And Change, held at The Usmanu Danfodiyo University Auditorium, from 9th – 13th July, 2018

The Role of Hausa Women in the Traditional Sarauta System: Reflections on the Office and Institutions of Inna in Gobir Kingdom

Abdullahi Ibrahim Gobir, Ph.D.

Introduction: The Kingdom of Gobir

Pre-colonial African states – whether as city-states, chiefdoms, kingdoms or empires, usually had elaborate Sarauta systems.  That is, clearly defined political structures or organizations with clearly defined offices and institutions with still, clearly defined roles and functions. These offices, and/or political institutions provided the basis, nitty-gritty and justifications for the administration and governance.  They were also built in such a way that all the possible ideological requirements of the state were provided by these institutions and offices.  The offices or institutions could vary greatly.  Some were social, some were economic, some were cultural-cum-religious; others were military, etc.  Even in modern governance, the Ministry of Women affairs is quite distinct but as necessary as the office of National Orientation Agency.  Just as this is no more important than the Department of State Services.  So, governance as it were, was constituted by state organs, each as important and necessary as the others.  So it was during the empires of yore.

It is also the offices that ensured hitch-free rancours in government except in circumstances where officials and functionaries wanted to play intrigues.  Short of this, the systems worked amicably well and effectively.

The participation of women in traditional political organizations is a universal phenomenon.  In Europe during both the ancient period and the middle ages, very powerful Queens did partake active roles in governance – with women, sometimes, determining the fates of princes, palace or court officials as well as the fates of Diplomats.  It was the same situation in imperial China and India.  In Africa it was more or less the same situation.  In Borno, before the early modern period, Zazzau, Yorubaland, Igboland, women played prominent roles in governance.

According to a writer,

Female leadership is indigenous to African societies and manifested in numerous ways in both state and stateless entities.  In state societies, female leadership takes the form of queens, queen mothers, chiefs and paramount chiefs.  These women exercised independent power and prestige and performed prominent political roles equal to other world celebrated women leaders like Queen Elizabeth 1 of Britain, Golda Meir of Israel, Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Indira Gandhi of India.[1]


Between the 14th and 19th century, Hausaland was, generally speaking, a battleground among the various Hausa states.  Each of the Hausa states had occasion to enjoy dominance at one point or another.  But as observed by Galley, by 1800 Gobir was the most powerful state in Hausaland.[2]


Hausa Women in the Sarauta System

It has already been observed that female participation in governance is a universal practice.  For most of the 16th century, Zaria was the strongest state in Hausaland.[3]  This supremacy and brilliant rise was occasioned by the remarkable work of a Queen known as Barkwa Turunda.  Her daughters too contributed – Amina and another daughter, Zaria.  Together they laid a formidable history of the role of women in conquest, government and administration in Hausaland.  Even in post-Jihad Sokoto, Nana Asmau, the daughter of Shehu Usmanu was a pillar of support in the area of women’s wellbeing in the caliphate.  In Zamfara, there was the important office holder called ‘Yargoje.


The Office and the Institution of Inna in Gobir Kingdom

Islam had co-existed with traditional religious beliefs.  As a matter of fact it is virtually a struggle; while Islam was trying to suppress and extinguish traditional beliefs, on the one hand; on the other hand, traditional belief systems[4] were fighting back.  In the life of women, such a struggle, tried to undermine the ‘central sources of power and income available to the women’.[5]

The Inna of Gobir as will be shown played a central political role in the Gobir kingdom.  Inna is known by various other names in Hausaland.  That is, Iya or Magajiya.  She is usually appointed by the King.  She is usually of the same royal lineage as the king.[6]  In some cases a cousin sister to the king could be appointed or a senior sister of the king.


Functions of the Inna

Inna performed certain fundamental functions.  She had political functions because she was a chief, that is, sarauniya as the overall leader of all women in the kingdom.  She performed economic functions because, she collected taxes along with her official subordinates.  Such taxes were collected from artisans, builders, farmers, dyers, butchers etc.  During the king’s absence she acted as the wakiliyi (regent) in the capital.  She also played a military role and would avail herself on the battlefields on occasions.  So she was sort of war commander.  Inna Yarbukuma, according to information, even launched an attack on Zamfara.  It was at Inna’s house that Yunfa took a critical decision in 1809, that he would not flee as advised by his brother.  Instead, he fought to death.

Socially, the Inna’s house was where royal brides and grooms were housed during their marriage festivities.  One scholar described the Inna as

a very commanding figure; her booted feet were not allowed to touch ground; mats were laid for her to walk on.  She was very intelligent and took care of widows and orphans.  She was relaxed and pleasant except when circumstances demanded that she behave otherwise.  She was generous and distributed booty fairly; she never betrayed any trust placed in her and stood by her kinsfolk.[7]


Uniqueness and Continuity

The Inna was quite a deputy to the king. To demonstrate her uniqueness, sort of distance her from feminism and move her closer to masculinity, she wore male attires and regalia on public occasions – trousers, boots long traditional gown and a turban.  On top of the turban, she capped it all with a Hausa traditional hat, malfa – usually worn by people of advanced ages.  She was well respected and one of her epithets is – maidamarar fama (a warrior); one always ready for action – war or any eventuality.[8]

So the office of the Inna is at once a spiritual, political and commanding office.  As a social institution, it caters for royal marital ceremonies, serves as a tax-collection institution and head of the womenfolk in the kingdom.  According to oral information, there had been 754 kings in the Gobir kingdom from the first king to the recent one in Sabon Birni (in 2018), who is now late, all these were supposed to have ruled along with various Inna. 


The Office of Inna in the Post Jihad Period

It is worthy of note that, after the fall of Alkalawa in 1809, the  people of Gobir migrated. They settled in different areas including Birnin Kadaye and Gawon Bazau. From there, some were reported to have left to Tsibiri (now in Niger Republic), while some under the leadership of Yariman Gobir Dan Halima founded the Sabon Birnin Dan Halima near River Bunsuru in 1853, they however, relocated to the present Sabon Birni after flood from the river destroyed the old Sabon Birni.[9] The Sarakunan Gobir of Tsibiri continued to ensure the survival of the office of Inna, while in Sabon Birni, from 1874 to 2003, only four have been recorded as follows:

1.                        Inna Yar Bukuma                -           1874-1878

2.                        Inna Bahillata                       -           1945-1969

3.                        Inna Ta Allah                       -           1970-1974

4.                        Inna Atumbulla                    -           1974-2003

Further research may reveal more of them.  Worthy of note, however, since 2003, after the demise of Inna Atumbulla, no Inna was appointed. This important office ought not to be killed.  It should be maintained, and even modernized.  This is in view of the modern roles and even new roles the modern society assigns to women.  For example, the office of the Inna can effectively be in charge of girl-child education and scholarships.  It can also be mobilized to facilitate seeking for jobs for women.  It can also as well organize workshops and sensitization seminars for women in women-related issues such:

-                      Birth attending

-                      Period of cholera and plagues

-                      Children’s issues and programmes such as immunization, etc.




Concluding Remarks

This presentation had been a brief discussion on the office of the Inna and its social, economic, political and military significance.  It is my candid opinion that this office should not only be maintained but modernized to assume modern roles.  Her office should have clearly defined functions and should be given to well educated women.  This should be the reform and new requirement.


[1]           A.B. Bawa, ‘History and Gender: A Cursory Look at the Forgotten Female

Heroines in the former Zamfara and Gobir Kingdoms’, paper presented at the 60th Congress of the Historical Society of Nigeria, held at the Management Sciences Auditorium, Main Campus, University of Abuja, 11th – 134th October, 2015, p.2


[2]              Harry A. Galley, History of Africa from the Earliest Times to 1800. I The Dryden

Press Inc., Illinois, 1970. P.82.


[3]              Basil Davidson, A History of West Africa, 1000-1800, Singapore, Longman, UK,



[4]              A.I. Yandaki, ‘The State of Islam and Traditional Religious Belief Systems in

Kasar Hausa or Hausaland from the earliest time to the Beginning of the 19th century’. Being a paper presented at the Religious Studies Conference, organized by the Department of Religious Studies, University of Ibadan, 1990.


[5]           H. Bodman and N. Tohidi, especially article by Barbara M. Cooper, ‘Gender       and

Religion in Hausaland: variations in Islamic practice in Niger and Nigeria’ Boulder Colorado, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998, pp. 21-37.


[6]              A.B. Bawa ‘Bori Practice: Cultural domination of Hausa women in Northern Nigeria’ paper            presented at Toyin Falola Annual Conference organized by Ibadan Cultural Studies Group,                University of Ibadan, 4th – 6th July, 2011, p.2


[7]              A.B. Bawa, ‘History and Gender:… op.cit.

[8]           Ibid.

[9]    A. I. Maikano, “The Biography of Sarkin Gobir, Sabon Birni, Alh. Abdulhamid            Balarabe Salihu”, B.A. Project, Dept of History, UDUS, 2012, p. 17.

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