Sanusi Lamido Sanusi has often been a polarising figure in Nigeria, but he now finds himself at the centre of a fresh controversy. Except that he is no longer a private citizen and is now Sarkin Kano Mohammadu Sanusi II.
In a speech last month, Sarkin Kano criticised the poverty of northern Nigeria and “the ascendancy of the most conservative viewpoints” in the region. This drew the ire of several elites, some of whom called for Sanusi II’s deposition. Soon after, the government of Kano State ordered an investigation into the emirate’s finances.
The ruler of Kano, a 700-year-old traditional state, is the second most powerful Muslim leader in Nigeria, one step below the Sultan of Sokoto. Sanusi II, as Sarkin Kano, is also the leader of the Tijaniyyah Sufi brotherhood, whose tens of millions of adherents spread all the way to Darfur.
Sanusi II has been a monarch since 2014. Not long after ascension, he chose the unconventional pre-Fulani dynastic style “Sarkin Kano” over the Islamic “Emir of Kano”. Before that, he was the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and was well-known for being outspoken. Traditional rulers in Nigeria are typically expected to be silent leaders, but in giving the Keynote Address at the 2017 Kaduna Investment Summit on 5 April, Sanusi II reverted to form.
In his speech, he argued that northern Nigeria remains extremely poor and that Borno and Yobe States, the epicentres of the Boko Haram insurgency, are amongst the poorest parts of the entire world. Nigeria may be seen as a rich country, he said, but only on the basis of oil extraction and economic activity in the south. A big part of the problem, he claimed, is the north’s conservatism.
“Other Muslim nations have pushed forward girl-child education. They’ve pushed forward science and technology. They have pushed forward the arts. We have this myth in northern Nigeria, where we try to create an Islamic society that never existed,” he said.
“We have adopted an interpretation of our culture and our religion that is rooted in the 13th century mindset that refuses to recognise that the rest of the Muslim world has moved on.”
The reactions to this criticism were swift.
Professor Ango Abdullahi, who chairs the Northern Elder’s Forum, responded by arguing that the North is in fact at an advantage compared to the rest of the country in terms of “population, proportion and resources”. He called on the Emir to “go and read the history of Nigeria” to learn about the North’s historic economic contributions to Nigeria.
The Governor of Zamfara State in the northwest, whom Sanusi II publicly took to task for claiming that a meningitis outbreak was a result of God’s wrath, was less restrained. He accused the leader of hypocrisy for living flamboyantly while posing as a defender of the poor.
Abuja-based journalist Jaafar Jaafar meanwhile weighed in with two vicious articles in his Daily Nigerian news site.
The first recalled the dethronement of Sanusi II’s grandfather as a cautionary tale, warning him against “arrogance”. It also made accusations of the emirate spending money “squandered [from] the treasury on exotic cars, unnecessary ‘restructuring’ of the palace, frequent foreign travels, chartered flights, customised sets of Christian Louboutin spiked shoes and Moroccan costumes, Internet bills, among others”.
The second went further in accusing Sanusi II of financial recklessness. It detailed allegations of expenditure on travel, exotic cars and internet bills amounting to several billions of naira. These claims led the Kano State government, which is suspected of being behind Jaafar’s revelations along with dissidents in the Palace, to launch an investigation into the Emirate’s accounts.
Those who thought this backlash would silence Sanusi II were mistaken. Barely a week after the Kaduna engagement, he agreed to give a keynote speech at the 1st Chibok Girls Annual Lecture organised by the Bring Back Our Girls group.
Many believed that Sanusi II would not actually give the address in a bid to calm tensions. But no one expected him to send his daughter, Shahida, to not only represent him but deliver his speech. This move was received with howls of outrage from the North’s Islamo-conservative elements.
Sending Shahida to take his place exemplified Sanusi II’s call for emancipating the place of girls in the North. The traditional leader has argued for greater educational access and opportunities for girls. Earlier this year, he constituted a committee to come up with a revised Islamic family law that would restrict men marrying more wives and birthing more children than they can cater for. And he has called on women to retaliate against physical abuse, citing a time his daughter fought back against a school bully as an example.
Sanusi II’s comments on this front have set off a firestorm in a northern Nigeria where even the most educated and competent women are to be seen and not heard, where most girls are married off early and children roam the streets because access to education of any quality is abysmal.
At the centre of this controversy is the question of what role traditional leaders should play in a secular constitutional republic. Additionally, can maintaining traditional values really be divorced from conservatism?
Over the last six decades in Nigeria, power has been partially stripped from traditional institutions in favour of state governors. Instead of guaranteeing the basics of development, these elites have animated a system of patronage across the country. This failing system, which creates a legitimacy vacuum into which traditional rulers as well as separatists enter, is bolstered by religious indoctrination and the politics of marginalisation.
Sanusi II is thus a curious naysayer to the status quo since he is a member of the elite. And revelations of his expenses will give opponents ammunition to drown out his message of reform with accusations of hypocrisy.
Yet Sanusi II’s message is timely as Nigeria continues to overheat, and not just in the north. While the Boko Haram insurgency continues to affect the northeast, there is an ongoing separatist movement in the southeast spearheaded by the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB). The southwest seems to be developing at a far faster rate than the rest of the country on almost all indices. Meanwhile central Nigeria has seen a flare up of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists, with a dangerous religious dimension.
All these are symptoms of underlying structural problems, and the first step to fixing them is to acknowledge that the present system does not work and to ask why. Sanusi II’s brutal look at the realities of the north and its millstone of religious conservatism therefore deserves more attention than the head-in-the-sand nostalgia of Professor Abdullahi or the obscurantist concerns of Jaafar.
While Sanusi II’s method of engagement has sometimes seemed improperly thought out, his underlying call for reform is deeply important − and a message should not be ignored for its messenger.
It is clear Sanusi II intends to use his traditional office to drag northern Nigeria kicking and screaming into modernity. The conservative, patriarchal elite of which he is a part may be working out how to deal with this, but Sanuni II’s argument and intentions are unimpeachable.
Regardless of how things turn out, Nigeria has a traditional ruler in the north around whom progressive elements can rally and promote their cause. No matter how the Nigerian elite respond to Sanusi II’s call for reform and his style, he will increase his soft power and influence in the coming months by going against the grain of all that has come before. Elites may try to dismiss him, but Sanusi II, his supporters, and their ideas, will have to be engaged with.
As the rainy season sets in Nigeria, it is clear that there will be several more storms blowing from the north in the coming months. Storms can change the landscape and could see the pensioning off of old, tired ideas in favour of the new thinking northern Nigeria so desperately needs. A storm, at its perfect time, can precede reconstruction and rebirth.
Mr Ali is a Nigerian lawyer and author of City of Memories (Parresia Books 2013). He is a member of Nairobi-based Jalada Africa and sits on the board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation (Uganda). He tweets at @richardalijos.