Rabih az-Zubayr

Rabih az-Zubayr

Rabih az-Zubayr ibn Fadl Allah or Rabih Fadlallah (c. 1842–April 22, 1900) was a Sudanese warlord who established a powerful empire west of Lake Chad, in today's Chad.

Born around 1842 to an Arab family in Halfaya Al-Muluk, a suburb of Khartoum, he first served in the irregular Egyptian cavalry during the Ethiopian campaign, during which he was wounded. When he left the army in 1860s, he became the principal lieutenant of the Sudanese slaveholder Sebehr Rahma.

Lieutenant of al-Zubayr (1870–1879)

In the 19th century Khartoum became a very important slave market, provided through companies of "Khartumi" established in the region of Bahr el Ghazal, where they resided in "zaribas", fortified bases kept by "bazingirs" (slave soldiers). The warlord and slaveholder al-Zubayr assumed control of the region's "zaribas", and was nominated in 1872 pasha and governor of Bahr el Ghazal for the khedive Isma'il, ruler of Egypt. Rabih, who was possibly a relative of al-Zubayr, was the chief lieutenant of the pasha.

In 1874, az-Zubayr conquered the sultanate of Darfur. In 1876, he went to Cairo to request the khedive to officially sanction his position in Darfur, but was instead imprisoned. This caused in 1878 the revolt of az-Zubayr's son Suleyman, and of his lieutenants, like Rabih. In reaction the governor-general of Sudan, Gordon Pasha, made Romolo Gessi governor of Bahr el Ghazal, and sent him to suppress the rebellion; Suleyman surrendered July 15 1879, and was executed. Rabih instead is said to have left Suleyman the day before he surrendered, but Gessi reports instead that he had retreated already in June, after having suffered heavy losses.

Warlord (1879–1890)

To escape from the Egyptians, Rabih left the Bahr el Ghazal directed south with 700–800 "bazingiris" and 400 rifles. Using the tactics of the "Khartumi", he cut for himself in the 1880s a kingdom between the basins of the Nile and the Ubangi, in the country of Kreich and Dar Benda, south of Ouaddai, a region he utterly devastated.

In 1885, he attempted to return in Sudan following the invitation of the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad, who had taken Khartoum from the Egyptians. The Mahdi had sent as ambassadors Zin el-Abeddin and Jabar, and Rabih followed them back to Darfur, proposing to meet the Mahdi at Omdurman; but when he heard of a plot to kill him, he changed his mind and returned to Chad.

In 1887, Rabih's forces invaded Darfur, recruited "bazingirs", and settled down in Dar Kouti, but failed against the "aguid" Salamat Cherif ed-Din, commander of the sultan of Ouaddai's troops. In 1890, he attacked the Muslim chief Kobur in the north of Oubangui-Chari, deposed him and established in his place his nephew Mohammed al-Senoussi, on whom he imposed his suzerainty. This alliance was sealed by the marriage of Khadija, daughter of Mohammed al-Senoussi, with Rabih's son Fadlallah. Mohammed and Rabih attacked together Dar Runga, Kreich, Goula and then Banda Ngao.

First confrontations with France (1891–1893)

Mohammed al-Senoussi's alliance with Rabih worried the colonial powers, especially France that was considering taking control of central Africa. Mohammed al-Senoussi remained faithful to Rabih and in 1891 killed the French Paul Crampel in Dar Banda. Rabih recovered the expedition's weapons.

In the south-east of Lake Chad, he attacked the Baguirmi Kingdom in 1892, blaming the "Mbang" (king) Gaourang for having signed a protectorate with the infidel French. Gaourang was besieged from three to five months in Manjaffa, and was later forced to leave his capital, which was completely destroyed in March 1893.

Conquest of Borno (1893)

In 1893, Rabih also turned his attentions to "shehu" (king) Hashim ibn Omar's Borno Empire. Borno was a sahelian region that traced its origins back to the Middle Ages. That year, the empire consisted of 80,000 soldiers, mostly slaves officered by slaves, and was in full decline.

On the road to Borno, Rabih made prisoner the sultan of Karnak Logone, whose capital promptly opened its doors to his host. Hashim, Borno's "shehu", sent 15,000 men to confront Rabih; the latter routed them in May or September 1893 first at Am Hobbio (south of Dikoa) and then at Legaroua with only 2,000 horse. Hashim fled north of the Komadougou river and maybe tried to negotiate, but was assassinated at the instigation of his nephew Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Amin (called Kiyari), who succeeded his uncle and decided to fight Rabih. Rabih met Kiyari at Gashegar, at two days of walk from Kukawa, the capital of Borno; and Kiyari defeated Rabih and took his camp. The following day Rabih gathered his forces, and ordered 100 blows of whip be given to all his bannermen, including his own blessed son Fadlallah, sparing only Boubakar, who had fought bravely. Then he ordered a victorious counter-offensive; Kiyari, who had refused to flee, was captured and beheaded. As for Borno's capital, Kukawa, it was plundered and razed to the ground.

Rabah made Dikoa his capital, and built there his palace which was to won later the admiration of the French governor Emile Gentil.

Borno's Lord (1893–1900)

Wanting to modernize his army, Rabih and attempted in 1895 to make an accord with British Royal Niger Company in Yola and Ibi so to obtain gunpowder and ammunition, but without success. He started confronting the British in 1896 and the following year even started marching on Kano, while his vassal Mohammed al-Sanussi founded a fortified capital, Ndele, between Bahr Aouk and the Ubangi River, that he as to maintain till 1911.

For seven years Rabih was "shehu" of Borno, and spent much efforts to reinvigorate an old decadent empire that had maintained till then the same feudal structures it had in the 16th century. Rabih kept in their places the vassal sultans, but subjected them to his lieutenants, mostly Arab Sudanese like him. He promulgated a legal code based on the sharia, rationalized taxation through the creation of a budget, imposed on Borno a sort of military dictatorship which aroused the interest of the colonial powers. Émile Gentil was to speak of Rabih's reforms in Borno with a certain degree of interest; they would later inspire him in organizing the territory of Chad.

Much is told about his brutality (for example, he once had one of her concubines executed because she kept a talisman designed to obtain Rabih's love, and with her the marabout that had deciphered the talisman); or about the evenings he passed listening to Ali, the poet who sang his exploits.

More seriously, Rabih constantly launched "razzias" to plunder and capture slaves: return to the traditional activity of the sultans of Borno, already described in 1526 by Leo Africanus. It is estimated that 1500–2000 slaves were exported every year by his vassal Mohammed al-Senoussi, without counting the deaths, the casualties, and other losses; the figures for Rabah must be much higher.

France vs. Rabih (1899–1900)

In 1899 Rabah disposed of 10.000 men among infantry and cavalry, all provided with rifles (mostly obsolete, except for 400 rifles of precision), plus a great number of auxiliaries equipped with lances or arcs. He kept garrisons at Baggara and Karnak Logone.

In 1899, Rabih received in Dikoa the French explorer Ferdinand de Béhagle. The talks between them degenerated, and Béhagle was arrested. On July 17, Lieutenant Bretonnet, who had been sent by France against Rabih, was killed with most of his men at Togbao, at the edge of the Chari River, present-day Sarh. Rabih gained three cannons from this victory (which the French retook at Kousséri) and ordered his son Fadlallah, who he had left in Dikoa, to hang Béhagle.

In response, a French column proceeding from Gabon and lead by Emile Gentil, supported by the steamboat "Leon Blot", confronted Rabih at Kouno at the end of the year. Even if the French were pushed back suffering losses, this did not prevent them from continuing and taking Kousséri. Here, they combined with the Lamy column (proceeding from Algeria) and the Joalland-Meynier column (proceeding from Niger). Lamy took command of the united forces.

The final showdown between Rabih and the French took place on April 22 1900. The French forces disposed of 700 men, plus the 600 riflemen and 200 cavalry provided by the allied Baguirmians. Leaving Kousséri the French in three columns attacked his camp, and in the ensuing battle, the commander Lamy was killed. However, Rabih's forces were overwhelmed and, while attempting to flee across the Chari River, Rabih was killed.

Rabih's defeat brought about the rapid disintegration of his empire. His son Fadlallah was defeated and killed a year later, while his chief vassal, Mohammed al-Senussi, was murdered in 1911 at French instigation. All Rabih's territories fell in French hands, except for Borno which went to Britain.


*"This article draws heavily on the Rabah article in the French-language Wikipedia."
*Gaston Dujarric, "La vie du sultan Rabah", Paris, 1902
*Von Oppenheim, "Rabeh und das Tsadseegebiet", Berlin, 1902
*A. Babikir, "L'Empire du Rabih", Paris, 1954
*"Encyclopædia Britannica", "Rabih az-Zubayr", (2000)
*cite book|author=Gentil, Émile|title=La chute de l'empire de Rabah|publisher=Hachette|year=1971|

External links

* [http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Rabah_Zobeir 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica]

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