Death in the Dark Continent: The Armies of Rei Bouba

06 August 2019
123_5217-90585.jpg Savannah Knights, North Star
The Silent City

Chris Peers (author of the Death in the Dark Continent colonial rules) offers us a guide to the the armies of Rei Bouba

The city of Rei Bouba can still be found on a modern map under that name, south-east of Garoua in the savannah country of northern Cameroon, not far from the Chad border. The map, however, gives no hint that this place was once a byword for mystery, as remote and inaccessible as Timbuktu. The people of Rei Bouba, who were known as the Boubandjidda, were mainly of Fulani origin. The Fulani were cattle herders, originally from Senegal, who by the 18th century had spread across the Western Sudan as far east as Darfur. By this time they had adopted both the Muslim religion and the cavalry tactics of the Hausa and other peoples with whom they had mixed. At some time in the late 18th century one group of Fulani advanced south of Lake Chad, drove the inhabitants into the Mandara Mountains, and established some sixty small emirates in the upland region which was to become known as Adamawa. The rulers of these mini states were known by the title of “Lamidos”. They were originally vassals of the Emir of Yola (just over the border in present-day Nigeria), who was himself a subject of the Emir of the great Hausa-Fulani Emirate of Sokoto. In contrast to the situation further north, where the Fulani devoted most of their energies to fighting their fellow Muslims, those in Adamawa regarded themselves as a sort of military colony with the responsibility of guarding and extending the frontiers of Islam, and they made little effort to assimilate the pagan tribes, whom they called “Kirdi”. Instead they subjected their neighbours to continual slave raids, which according to the elephant hunter “Karamoja” Bell were still taking place after the First World War.

The first overlord of Rei Bouba was Modibbo Adama, the first Emir of Yola (after whom the region and people of Adamawa were apparently named), who reigned from 1806 until 1848. Some time early in his reign a man called Ardo Yajo (whose family was originally from Mali) seized power in Rei Bouba. It was his son Jidda who first tried to break away from Yola and persuade the Sultan of Sokoto to recognise him as an independent Emir in his own right. The Sultan refused, and Adama responded by attacking and occupying the city of Rei. Jidda eventually drove him out and pushed the Yola forces back into what is now Nigeria, but although it was now effectively autonomous, Rei Bouba continued to send a nominal tribute in slaves to Yola until that Emirate was conquered by the British in 1901. Jidda was succeeded some time before 1872 by Buba Jirum, who presided over a period of prosperity, and by the end of the 19th century Rei Bouba had become one of the three leading states of the Adamawa region. 

At the time of the German occupation of what became their colony of Kamerun, the Lamido was a notorious tyrant known as Bouba Gida, who had allegedly murdered his own father and three of his brothers in order to seize the throne. In fact there were all sorts of stories about this mysterious character; according to Bell he was the son of a slave, who had started his own business as a slave raider and had founded the present city of Rei Bouba himself in a previously uninhabited spot. “The whole organisation”, says Bell in a rather back-handed tribute to the Lamido, “is an example of what can be done by courage, energy, force of character and extreme cunning allied to ferocity and cruelty.”This remote area retained its independence from European imperialism much longer than most of Africa, but in 1899, as British, French and German armies converged on the Lake Chad region, extinguishing on the way the last of the independent Fulani emirates, Rei Bouba finally fell under German control. 

However the new colonial authorities, impressed by the good order maintained by the Lamido (and no doubt by his “ferocity and cruelty”, which fitted in perfectly with German ideas of how a colony should be run), allowed him to retain his autonomy in internal affairs, and perhaps for this reason the conquest was carried out peacefully. When the First World War broke out Bouba Gida provided men and supplies for the German armies, but in early 1916, when British and French forces were closing in on the last German defenders of northern Kamerun, he changed sides. After the war the French took over this part of the country (which now became known as Cameroun), and reaffirmed the autonomy of his state as a reward for the Lamido's timely assistance. So it appears that it was principally due to the skill and cunning of old Bouba Gida that Rei Bouba, alone of the Adamawa emirates, survived into the middle of the 20th century. Even after the Second World War it remained what Bell calls “a remarkable relic of the old slave-dealing days”, and one of the very few places in colonial Africa “where a white man's actions are governed by a black man's wishes”.

There were no European administrators in the country, and even explorers and tourists were mostly discouraged. Two well known British big-game hunters, Major P. H. G. Powell-Cotton and Fred Merfield, were allowed to visit Rei Bouba in the early years of the 20th century in search of a rare antelope, the giant eland (which they failed to find). And shortly after the Second World War an Austrian hunter, Ernst Zwilling, turned up to find the Sultan still in power and his medieval army still on show. Both Bouba Gida and his successor Bouba Amadou obviously relished their position, and enjoyed impressing their rare white visitors with their power and authority. All three of our sources describe a similar theatrical welcome. At the border they were met by a sort of guard of honour, which conducted them to the capital, and was joined along the way by one contingent after another until they were being escorted by a small army. The most spectacular element of this army was the heavy cavalry - equipped in Hausa-Fulani style with mail or quilted armour for both riders and horses - who saluted their visitors with ferocious mock charges. The city of Rei Bouba itself was surrounded by a wall of mud brick 20 feet high, with massive wooden gateways flanked by guard houses set into the walls, which at these points were 50 feet thick. The royal palace was situated within an even stronger inner citadel, enclosed by walls 40 or 50 feet in height. The Lamido was certainly an odd character, who occasionally allowed white visitors into his territory and even paraded his army to impress them, but scarcely deigned to speak to them himself, or to allow his subjects to do so any more than was absolutely necessary. Merfield's experience was particularly spooky, as he found the city completely silent - apart from the muezzins' calls to prayer - and the streets deserted. No one was to be seen except for the soldiers who provided the visitors' guard of honour and a handful of servants delegated to look after them. Whether the “silent city”, as Merfield calls it, was always like that, or whether the Sultan had arranged it to impress his guests, is not clear, but Bell confirms that singing, shouting and laughing aloud were banned, as were music, costly dress and ornamentation (except apparently among the soldiers), and - inevitably - the drinking of alcohol. Even inside the city the buildings were just ordinary grass and wattle huts, as anything more ostentatious was likewise forbidden. Another of the Lamido's eccentricities was his pet lion, which was led about on a chain by one of his servants. As the lion was not actually tame but was well known for his bad temper, this was not exactly a popular job and staff turnover was high. In fact Merfield was told that the post was reserved for people who had upset the boss, as an alternative to using the official executioner.  

Yam Baka skirmishers from the Silent City

The “costume of the country”, says Zwilling, was a short blue tunic, but men of substance were usually dressed in one or more voluminous “tobes” of various colours. A “tobe” was basically a huge baggy shirt, usually but not always worn over trousers. In one passage Zwilling mentions “lancers in red tobes”,in another an officer in“blue and red silk robes”, and elsewhere red fezzes and blue “Phrygian caps”. The cavalry (and, Zwilling implies, many of the infantry) wore iron helmets decorated with ostrich plumes.

Merfield describes the armoured cavalry thus:

“Their horses were canopied with cloth of crude designs and brilliant colours, covering the animals to their ears and reaching down almost to their fetlocks. Some of the riders wore mail, others were swathed in heavy robes, with colourful, plumed headgear, and they all carried spears with blades two feet long.”

Zwilling mentions horse caparisons in “a variety of patterns – blue and white triangles or squares”.Both he and Bell took black and white photographs showing this horse armour patterned with checks (by far the most common) or vertical stripes, in what appear to be white and one or two other colours. Zwilling also saw cavalrymen being followed by pages on foot, who carried a reserve supply of throwing spears. Merfield goes on to remark that “they rode magnificently and had an uncanny command of their horses”.The latter, Bell says, were all stallions, which was general Hausa-Fulani practice. According to Zwilling they were smallish but well bred Arab-Berber steeds, whose daily ration included half a calabash of beer (the animals being presumably exempt from the religious ban on alcohol). This contributed to their shining coats but may not have done much for their fitness! It is noteworthy that although these heavy cavalry were typical of those found in the armies of the Fulani and Hausa Emirates of the Western Sudan, none of our sources mention the light cavalry which were invariably in a majority further north. Adamawa was home to some of the Shuwa Arabs who provided much of the light cavalry for other Fulani armies, and Rei Bouba was not far from the land of the Musgum, who fought as light horsemen armed with throwing knives. Therefore it seems likely that in the days when Boubandjidda forces took the field in earnest, rather than just to show off to visitors, they would have been accompanied by at least some such troops. 

The infantry were mainly spearmen and archers, clad in tunics (presumably mostly blue), with leopard skins draped over their shoulders. One of Bell's photographs shows a group of “commanders of regiments” on foot, wearing what appear to be long, elaborately decorated kilts. A rather crude drawing from the same source depicts an archer in what looks like a sleeveless shirt made of leopard skin, and a plain knee-length kilt with trousers underneath. He wears a fez on his head and a wide sash or cummerbund round his waist, and has a quiver slung on his back. His feet are apparently bare. The spearmen had large shields made of buffalo, rhinoceros or elephant hide which covered most of their bodies, and the archers carried quivers full of poisoned arrows on their backs. The guards who escorted Merfield into the city carried an assortment of “swords, axes, spears and knobkerries”.Zwilling also mentions men armed with “jagged” throwing knives. Though these weapons were traditionally despised by the Fulani, they were in practice carried even by Muslims, and were especially popular among the non-Muslim tribes of eastern Cameroun. In Zwilling's time the old Lamido's successor, Bouba Amadou, had a bodyguard of 50 men armed with guns of various types and calibres (though the French authorities had forbidden travellers to supply him with ammunition), but this was probably a fairly recent development. Most 19th century Fulani armies obtained their firearms via the Sahara trade routes, but these were a very long way from Rei Bouba.

Drums and trumpets accompanied all the military exercises witnessed by the visitors, and no doubt had done so in the field in the old days, as they did in Fulani forces generally. Flags are not mentioned, though they presumably existed and may have resembled the ones carried by the armies of Sokoto; these were white or blue, sometimes horizontally striped, and occasionally carried inscriptions in Arabic. One Bubandjidda nobleman was accompanied by a servant with a red and white striped parasol. It appears that by the early 20th century the Lamido did not command his armies in person on the slave raids which they still unofficially conducted, but delegated the job to a subordinate, who may himself have been a slave, or even a eunuch. (Actually, according to Bell everyone in the kingdom was technically a slave of the Lamido.) 



The late 19th century army of Rei Bouba is one of the options covered in my Death In The Dark Continent rules:  army list number 10 is The Hausa-Fulani Emirates. The list below is, however, more specifically focused on the “silent city” under the rule of Bouba Gida, and includes a couple of new features designed to bring out its peculiar character. 


REI BOUBA, 1890 – 1899

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  • Ag 1, Disciplined if the Chief is Bouba Gida, otherwise Organised.
  • Yan lifida: Protected Heavy Cavalry with close combat weapons only (10 points)      1–2 
  • Shuwa Arab cavalry: Light Horse with spears (7 points)                                                              0–1
  • Musgum cavalry: Light Horse with throwing knives (9 points)                                      0–1
  • Yam baka: Skirmishers with spears or bows (4 points), or throwing knives (6 points) 1–6
  • Guardsmen: Warriors (6 points) or Elite Skirmishers (8 points) with spears               0–1



1.         A Chief representing Bouba Gida (1890 – 1899) may be Outstanding.

2.         Any or all Heavy Cavalry may be upgraded to to Elite(+4 points).

3.         Home terrain is Savannah.

4.         Defences:Town walls, Tembes.

5.         Stratagems:Drums.

Special Rule:Lion!We have no evidence that Bouba Gida’s pet lion actually accompanied the army into battle, but we can speculate that it might have had an adverse effect on an enemy if it had done. So if the Chief is Bouba Gida he can be accompanied by a base representing a lion being held on a chain by a slave, which costs 20 points. The beast will not actually be let loose to fight, but the horses of enemy cavalry do not know this, and the sound and smell of it may cause them to panic. 

Any opposing mounted unit which is within 12 inches of the lion in the morale phase of a turn must take 2 morale testsfor this cause. The lion moves at normal Skirmisher rate and is shot at as if it was a single base Skirmisher unit. It cannot be moved into close combat, but if an enemy contacts it it fights like an Elite Warrior base. It never needs to take morale tests itself, though if it is killed friendly units need to test as usual for seeing a unit destroyed.



W. D. M. Bell, “The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter”. London, 1923.

S. J. Hogben, “An Introduction to the History of the Islamic states of Northern Nigeria”. Ibadan, 1967.

F. G. Merfield, “Gorillas Were My Neighbours”. London, 1957.

E. A. Zwilling, “Jungle Fever”. London, 1956.

This article originally appeared in Miniature Wargames issue 415, November 2017



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