During a day of pageantry Nigerian horsemen of the Sokoto Caliphate strained to rein in their skittish steeds as horns blared and the sun beat down from a blue sky on to the parched earth of the field of honour.

Black-turbaned camel riders added to the occasion as they struck their war drums with thousands of followers raising their voices in song.

The Grand Durbar, or meeting, celebrated the bicentenary of Shehu (Shaikh) Uthman Don Fodio's struggle to unite the Islamic emirates of west Africa and was used by present-day leaders to rekindle peace in a region that has faced years of religious conflict. 

The first caliph's campaign was led by 25,000 desert horsemen, but he established an empire spanning 650,000 sq km where learning, tolerance and the rule of law became the norm.

Return to Islamic values

"It is never too late to return to those values," declared Nigeria's modern day ruler, President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian who on Sunday donned the turban of a northern Muslim and mounted a nomad's horse.

As he and Sultan Muhammadu Maccido Abu Bakar III rode through the dust and the wildly cheering crowds, an army of sword-wielding infantrymen, drum-beating camel riders and splendidly robed horsemen surged behind them.

Each royal house from the three dozen emirates united during Don Fodio's long ride to victory was represented in the multi-coloured tunics worn by dozens of tribes among them the Hausa, Fulani and Tuareg, from across the region. 

Sunday's pageant served as a
dramatic reminder of the past

Proud as they are, the warriors bowed respectfully as they passed the guests of honour, 200 traditional rulers, the presidents of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Ghana and envoys from as far as Senegal.

Dust from the parade ground was mixed with acrid black smoke as volleys of musket fire rang out among the revellers, who had come to renew two centuries of allegiance to the sultan, ruler of this ancient Nigerian city.

The pomp and pageantry might seem out of place in a modern African republic which is home to 65 million Muslims and the continent's largest oil exporter.

But many Nigerians feel there is a dire need to return to the values promoted by Don Fodio, whose caliphate rescued the region from the whims of local feudal lords and built a society of learning, Islamic values and social equality.

With today's Nigeria and other parts of the caliph's former West African realm sinking deeper into poverty and beset by corruption, lawlessness and ethnic strife, Sultan Maccido feels his countrymen should look to the past.

Many Nigerians are also of the opinion that foreign oil companies are the ones who benefit most from its resources.

Peaceful co-existence

"It is never too late to return to those values''

Olusegun Obasanjo
President of Nigeria

"For our part we will continue to preach peaceful co-existence irrespective of our religious and or cultural differences," the monarch told the crowd and, through television, the rest of his tens of millions of followers.

Both the Sultan and Obasanjo lamented a recent upsurge in violence between Nigeria's Muslims and Christians which has left hundreds dead in the past two months alone and called for peace and understanding.

Then they mounted their horses, draped in the extravagant finery of desert notables, and followed by footmen supporting white, brocaded canopies.

Around them the crowd roared with approval, waving their weapons in a display that recalled a battle fought on the very same field in 1903 when Sultan Attahiru I took on the British Empire in the Battle of Gingiwa.

The sultan's brave last stand cost him his temporal power, as his lands were carved up by British and French colonisers, but his successors continued to serve as spiritual leaders under empire, dictators and latterly elected rule.

Sunday's celebration served as a dramatic reminder of a long-gone golden age, and perhaps of a time when Nigerians had more to unite than divide them.