M. Bisalla , Sarkin Piti in 1973
Origin of Sarkin Piti
In southern Zaria, the Emirate had subjected all communities living in the plain, only those on the Plateau remained autonomous.
Abisi’s political position was intermediate, being in the marshland, they had a safe refuge on the Abisi Hill but needed the nearby Zaria plain to farm.
After the 1804 jihad (holy war), Abisi suffered from the Zaria Emirate expansion and had to respond to their incursions.
Abisi trained their men of valor by instituting a ceremonial hunt to consecrate the thatching of the Mogaji’s ritual hut devoted to hunting. To that effect, bands of hunters had to ambush a Fulani herdsman and bring back his head.
After the Emir Yero’s attacks in 1890, Abisi had been seriously constrained and they had to make a deal with him and paid tribute in exchange for their autonomy.
This period lasted for about 10 years because after the British conquered the Emirate in 1900, the Abisi were subdued and directly integrated into the Indirect rule for the next 50 years.
One problem of Abisi submission to the Emirate was how to deal with the new political order?
Who could represent them in all these negotiations?
Abisi Political Philosophy
All political actions are guided by a political philosophy.
Some will search how to preserve a good situation while others wish for change for the better.
These thoughts can be expressed in speeches a listener has to decipher because as always, there are all kinds of speech styles; examples, metaphors, prayers, praises and many other ones.
Political philosophy can also be embedded into all kinds of behaviors and objects: a national flag, the protocol of a royal family, a ceremony or ritual. These political actions and things need to be interpreted and discussed to be understood.
The institution of Sarkin Piti is witness to an elaborate Abisi political philosophy.
Choosing an Abisi Messenger
Once upon a time, the uyikut, the paramount chief of Abisi, was caught by Hausas. He was later released in exchange for one of his daughters.
After this dreadful experience, nobody wanted to be the go-between with the envoy of the Emirate, the Jekada who had his camp in Mariri.
They were too much afraid of being captured and sold in slavery.
The problem was : how to persuade someone to accept the appointment to be their messenger ?
They understood that he would be in a difficult situation because he would be caught between two loyalties when the Uyikut and the Jekada would disagree.
What could they do about this political situation?
Ambiguous Sarkin Piti
The position of this messenger was so ambivalent that the Abisi decided to solve the problem at the source, right before he would be confirmed the office of Sarkin Piti by the authorities of the Emirate.
Lacking military power, they resorted to their knowledge of the powers of supernatural agencies when dealing with dangerous situations.
They treated the would be Chief as if he was a dangerous wild animal.
When a hunter killed a dangerous predator such as a leopard or hyena, Abisi thought that a surviving mystic entity could take vengeance on him. Only the Abisi Mogaji (leopard chief) had the proper medicine to protect the hunter.
He could tame these entities during special ceremonies where the hunter was celebrated as a Hero and became immune to the malicious vengeance of the leopard.
It is logical that abisi saw a similarity between the ambivalence of good and bad in hunting powerful animals and the ambiguous nature of the go-between. The hunters had to do well in protecting their own people but at the same time, risking their lives in this and the other world.
Sarkin Piti Initiation
Unlike traditional leaders, Sarkin Piti was installed in a public ceremony.
The selection of a candidate was done alternately in two different sections and preferably the brother or a former Sarkin’s son.
The choice was then announced by one of his older brothers to the Mogaji who would summon all adults, men and women at his home for the next day.
That night, the candidate had to stay at his mother’s house where his /umat/ lives. This is his maternal uncle, a person with whom he is very close and can be like a “male mother” to him, generous and friendly.
There, people danced around the house like they do to celebrate Abisi Heroes. The next day, they go to the Mogaji’s ritual place on the Hill.
People sat by sections and the candidate sat with his maternal uncle group.
He was dressed in the traditional goatskin.
An old man of the Mogaji’s patriline executed a dance and turned around the crowd seven times. He then brandished a stick and pretend to aggressively seek the candidate.
At the end, he spotted him and rushed to get him. He pushed and shoved him toward the sacred hut where Mogaji awaited and made him drink water from his sacred source.
All this procedure shows, on the one hand, that he is a true Abisi with his goatskin dress and with the pure cool water of Abisi Hill and on the other, that they understand the psychological violence what they ask this man to support.
He was dressed in a large Hausa-style robe and a turban and was given a sword that he had to return to the Mogaji after his reign.
At that point, the Sarkin had to drink home-made beer in a container made of the skull of a beheaded Fulani man.
He was then told he will rule seven years after which he will die.
As soon as he came out of the hut, people were pushing to try to look at him but they could not because he was hidden under a large skin that was held above his head and only his feet could be seen under the cover of his clothes.
After a victory dance with /ararut/ horns, he was carried on the shoulders of a man (this is a special function of the /igↄrↄ/ house) to his father’s house. He is then sat on a horse and walked around Abisi land.
A few days later, he went on horseback, escorted by several other riders to Zaria where he was introduced to the Emir.
Self-impose is self-control
Abisi claims that this ritual was not imposed by the Hausa that they created it at the time of the conquest.
How to explain then they introduced themselves a sequence reminiscent of turbanning ceremonies practiced by the Emirs when appointing their representatives by giving them robes, turbans and another insignia of their office
How come their ceremony anticipates some elements of what will happen in Zaria when the “chief messenger” will go there a few days later?
In Abisi, the Sarkin is put in both worlds, an insider as an Abisi cultural hero and an outsider as a Hausa-Fulani foreigner.
On the one hand, the Sarkin being one of their own could be controlled and on the other, in expelling him, he could become their scapegoat. In fact, it appears as if they would declare:
‘’We impose on ourselves what others want to impose on us”.
That way, they could short-circuit the dangers of subjection imposed by the administration by turning him into a Hausa-Fulani before the Emir does.
Since the Sarkin could tip on the Hausa-Fulani side; Abisi preferred not to remain in doubt and choose to build on the worst of the alternatives.
Our Sarkin is Stronger than Yours
Abisi even took care to give the Sarkin a higher status than that which he will be assigned by the Emir.
If we rely on M.G. Smith (1960, p. 342), in Zaria, the installation ceremony is different for junior officers who only received a dress from the senior officers who received a dress, a turban, sword and another insignia of their offices.
In the Abisi ceremony, besides the dress devolved to subordinate, he is actually given a turban and a sword like if they wanted to better assimilate him to the highest echelons of imposed power.
But the effectiveness of the ritual does not end there; the Sarkin has to drink home-made beer in a container made of the skull of a beheaded Fulani man.
This way, the Sarkin can absorb some of the power of Fulani.
In abisi wording, the cranium is used as a calabash used to drink beer and this utensil also refers metaphorically to the woman and, by extension, to all subordinate. This action thus defines the Fulani as their inferior and the connection is explicit; the severed head was taken by Abisi.
It is as if they thought: we control the evil powers of the Fulani by transforming him into a docile woman and meanwhile, it may also be useful to ingest some of his virtues which will enable us to better understand the masters when we deal with them and, who knows, to outwit them?
The Sarkin lower status is also highlighted when he is covered with a large skin. It is similar to what happens during a Bori; to tame spirit possession, women stand under a cloth. Despite some abisi interpretation that the skin is used to protect the Sarkin from the sun, he is also in the position of a woman taken by an evil spirit, the Fulani spirit to be controlled by the ritual.
This part of the rite also dramatically assimilates the Sarkin to enemy powers with which he will have to compose as if the Abisi thought could not admit that one of them could commit such an abject task.
Sarkin Piti, must, therefore, be transformed into an enemy so has to be contaminated as little as possible in his Abisi identity and be cleared of any responsibilities.
The price that he should pay as a scapegoat will be, in theory, to die after seven years of his enthronement.
Playing the Full Hand
He becomes an ambiguous and ambivalent being, accountable for of all the troubles caused by the Hausa-Fulani colonization. To minimize these consequences, the ritual really shows that he must have a peripheral status that partially excludes him from society.
Presented as both an internal and an external being, the ritual plays on two levels, internally and externally, inside and outside, but in a reverse manner.
On the one hand, the Sarkin becomes a better tool of the Emir that he will be in reality by exaggerating his office’s markers with dress, turban, and sword. By making him a highly visible political sign, Abisi makes sure that his power will be recognized.
He is invested with the quintessence of the hated power and not with what he will be in reality, the most junior level of the Emirate administration.
Conversely, on the other hand, they secretly transform the Sarkin into a woman, thus subordinating the very principle of power they had him ingested in the skull of a captured Fulani which is in their control and will limit the damages the Sarkin could do.
The ritual is speaking in both directions: to the outside, to the gallery one might say, playing innocence.
They say: ‘We are ready to grant the Sarkin all the prerogatives of Hausa-Fulani power as to be well considered by them but, conversely and in secret, weakening him by using symbols they completely control so has to have the last word.’
Given the situation, is isn’t it what can best be done?
We have here, expressed through this new ritual, a strong philosophical response to the Hausa-Fulani conquest by the Abisi.