The Ajuran; a theocratic polity
About 1500, there rose to power in the Benaadir interior a group known as the Ajuran. Traditions say that the Ajuran governed from Qallafo on the upper Shebelle river, to the Indian ocean coast, and from Mareg, in the extreme north of the Benaadir, to the Jubba river in the south. To this legendary people are attributed a great variety of technological marvels; large stone wells, many of which still are used throughout the Southern Somali interior; systems of dikes and dams for irrigation along the Shebelle and huge houses and fortifications of stone. It is said that the Ajuran leaders were the first to impose a regular system of tribute on the surrounding population. The Ajuran had a powerful army and may have employed firearms toward the close of their period of domination.
Evidence to be published elsewhere suggests that the Ajuran were in fact a group of allied Hawiyya clans. Moving from the southern Ogaden into the inter-riverine area, these Hawiyya groups gained control of several important chains of wells. They also occupied stretches of the alluvial plains along the lower and middle Shebelle, plains previously cultivated by Bantu-speaking farmers. By dominating the critical watering sites and river crossings, the Ajuran controlled the trade routes which ran from the Jubba and Shebelle basins to the Benaadir coast. Taxes collected from nomads, farmers, and caravan traders provided the bases of Ajuran wealth and power.
For our present purpose, what should be noted is the terminology employed in oral accounts (predominately Hawiyya) to describe the leadership of the Ajuran. The key figure was the Imam, who was chosen from the family of the Garen within the Jambelle section of the Hawiyya. This is one of the rare instances where a leader in southern Somalia is recalled with the title of Imam, rather than a Somali title (ugas, waber, islao) or with the more amorphous suldaan. The Garen Imam apparently fulfilled the traditional Islamic role, for one account says that “the Imam of Ajuran was in the mosque, preaching the khudba, when the war began.”
Traditions dealing with the Ajuran also refer to wazirs, amirs, and naibs who held various positions in the Ajuran administration. (Such titles sometimes are preserved in Benaadir place-names such as Awal-el-amir, “tomb of the emir.”) Most of my informants asserted that the law of the Ajuran was the Shari’a. What this admittedly fragmentary evidence suggests is the existence in the sixteenth-century Benaadir of a theocratic conception of government and its identification with a specific clan confederation. Even if the Ajuran “state” consisted solely of those territories held by Hawiyya clans, and even if the confederation’s underlying cohesion rested on agnatic ties, the idiom of rulership was Islamic and the central focus of authority- the Imam- was a theocratic one.
Available evidence further suggests that the emergence of a theocratic tradition in the Benaadir was linked to events in the northern parts of the horn of Africa, rather than with developments along the nearby Indian ocean coast. It is known that some sections of the Hawiyya participated in the sixteenth-century jihaad of Ahmed Gran against Abyssinia. The Garen, who provided the Imam of the Ajuran, appeared to have ruled a kingdom of sorts in the Ogaden prior to their appearance in the Benaadir. Then too, the ancestors of Amir ‘Umar, a governor of Merka in the Ajuran era, supposedly came from the Sudan and (more immediately) passed through Darandolle (Hawiyya) country in the eastern Ogaden. Since sections of the Hawiyya were migrating southward both before and during Gran’s jihaad, it is not inconcievable that they brought certain theocratic notions with them. Indeed, the Ajuran maintained a wakil (governor) in the region around Qallafo. This area not only was the traditional Hawiyya homeland, but also stood midway geographically between the emirate of Harar and Benaadir, an ideal link for the transmission of political and religious ideas.
B.G Martin has shown how immigrants from Southern Arabia provided inspiration and manpower throughout the years of Muslim-Christian warfare in the Horn. He has further suggested that, particularly after the collapse of Ahmed Gran’s offensive, many Hadrami sharifs and sayyids drifted southward in the hope of carving out new spheres of authority for themselves. In a few cases these immigrants can be identified with those families known in Somalia as gibil’aad (“white skins,”) several of whom have traditions of arriving along the Benaadir in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It is not difficult to imagine the gibil’aad serving as religious counselors, legal experts, and tax collectors in the Ajuran administration. Their zeal for formal Islamic authority may have reionforced the confederation’s tendency towards theocratizisation.
Also, on an another case, Borana Galla traditions recall continual fighting with the sagal (the “nine”, almost certainly that division of the Rahanweyn known as Alemo Sagal). While Somali-Galla warfare is particularly associated in Borana tradition with the gada of Abbayi Babbo (1667-1674). It probably flared intermittently throughout the century. Infact the Ajuran are said to have sent periodic military expeditions against Galla forces which were threatening the frontiers of their domain. It is interesting to speculate whether the Galla would have made significantly greater inroads into southern Somalia if their earliest (in the third quarter of the sixteenth-century) had not occured during the peak of Ajuran power in the inter-river area. It is equally possible that Galla pressures acted as a catalyst for the further consolidation of the Ajuran confederacy.
Briefly, to complete the saga of the Ajuran, traditions agree that they ruled for about 150 years. By the middle of the seventeenth-century, other militant Hawiyya clans were challenging the hegemony of the Garen in various districts of the Benaadir. These challenges led to the fragmentation of Ajuran unity; the Abgal (Gurgate Hawiyya) took control of the hinterland of Mogadishu and eventually the town itself; the El-Amir (probably Hirab Hawiyya) assumed power in Merka, the Sil’is (Gurgate) near Afgoy, and the Galjaal and Badi Ado (Guggundabe Hawiyya) along the mid-Shebelle. Each of these groups had traditions of battling and ultimately defeating the Ajuran. Such shifts in power no doubt were linked to the arrival of new groups of Hawiyya and to the growing numerical superiority of certain of them who then forcibly could occupy wells and pasture previously held by the Ajuran. Traditions variously point to arrogance, tyranny, religious latitude, and economic oppressions as causes for the Ajuran decline. By 1700, there is virtually no trace of the Ajuran polity in the Benaadir.
“Migrations, Islam and Politics in the Somali Benaadir 1500-1843”
By Lee Cassanelli