When the news of the dethronement and “banishment” of the (now former) Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, broke just over a week ago, many people, including his friends and foes were shocked and completely taken aback. Few outside the inner sanctum of Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State could have been prepared for such a momentous event happening to such a revered office in northern Nigeria. The Emir’s grandfather, Sanusi I, had suffered a similar fate almost 60 years to the day.
In traditional Africa, and in the ancient world in general, dethronement and banishment are meted out to tyrannical rulers, who had ignored the wishes of their people. It was then such a rare event that the community affected could remain convulsed in a long period of introspection and purgatory, sometimes for years afterwards. Nowadays, though, such action is becoming known for its regularity and illegality. By consequence, its potency has waned over time. Nonetheless, to depose the most important traditional figure in the Islamic north must be earth-shaking in any circumstance, modern times or not.
At first, my mind went straight to the debasement of traditional institutions being witnessed across the country, fairly frequently, in the last twenty years, and the need to highlight that on this platform this week. But, as the days went by and more details of his supposed ‘feud’ with the state governor surfaced, it suddenly became clearer that there was something even more arresting, more profound and deserving of analysis than the damage to traditional institutions, important though that is.
Sanusi, a former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, was an unusual Emir. He practically talked his way onto the throne, and almost in equal breath, talked his way out of it. Articulate, brash, self-assured with a touch of ‘Lagos boy’ swaga, he makes himself at home across the ethnic divide while being firmly rooted in his Fulani worldview. Until his accession to the throne, he was widely admired and feted around the financial world for his leadership and acumen. He was also seen as the pride of the north; a rare gem equal to what any other section of Nigeria had to offer. He could have gone into anything after leaving the CBN, or picked up a prestigious position in an international body with relative ease. The sky appeared to be the limit of his ambition going forward. He knew, or must have known, that pursuing a career in an area so steeped in culture and tradition would restrain him a little, but, equally, he must have made a level-headed calculation about his own ability to straddle the world of tradition and modernity unscathed.
When Sanusi, as Emir, began to offer his unsolicited advice on government policy at the drop of a hat, it sent ripples through the political establishment. A highly opinionated person, he had something to say about everything; rate of inflation, fiscal policy, monetary policy, government borrowing, debt service ratio, public accounts, unemployment, domestic violence, you name it. Sanusi is well-travelled and scholarly, some would say, Westernised, in a positive sense of the word. Despite this seemingly ‘liberal’ demeanour, he is also a person of faith, versed in Islamic doctrine and ethics. Navigating life between liberalism and aristocracy is a quandary with which he has had trouble and still has trouble dealing with.
While serving as governor, he once appeared for a CBN meeting in the full regalia of an Emirati Prince to the dismay of everyone in attendance. The media jumped on it, and he too appeared to have relished the attention. Asked what he thought about what political leaders expected of him as a traditional ruler, at a public forum last year, his answer was a fascinating insight into his inner turmoil; “they, (the politicians) only see me in a fire-fighting role; dousing tension wherever and whenever needed in the community, and generally keeping things calm”. “They want me to encourage children to go to school, but not to query why the schools are not being built or why mosques are being built instead of schools”. In other words, the Emir is a figure that politicians want to see, but not heard. On that account, he often declined several speaking invitations. In the last year though, Sanusi appeared to have thrown caution to the wind as the banker/economist devil in him edged him on.
The hard facts about poverty, unemployment and illiteracy so dominant and prevalent particularly in the north forced him to speak up; to challenge and cajole political leaders to do more. This was seen as descending into the political arena, attracting the ire of the elite across the board. What ultimately led to the revolt against him was not really his critical remarks about public policy, but the deliberate issue he took with the ‘hidden agenda’ of the “Federal Character” principle. “There ought to be a sunset clause on the quota system” he said publicly. This economic heresy was nail in coffin for the Emir. His ouster had little or nothing to do with the historical “power struggle” within the Emirate, not attending meetings, or his numerous criticisms of government policy, but everything to do with letting the cat out of the bag; blowing the whistle and opening the lid on an unpalatable truth.
To demonstrate the gravity of what Sanusi has done, Israel’s nuclear weapons’ capability is an open, yet, a state secret, which no Israeli is allowed to divulge under any circumstances. It is regarded as treason for anyone to make any type of revelation about it anywhere. Admitting to the inequity of the Nigerian Federal Character principle by such a prominent northerner is equally tantamount to ‘treason’ in the power psychology of his brethren. It is even more egregious coming from the stool of the most revered traditional institution in the region. It is an unpardonable, unforgivable betrayal. By so doing, the Emir sealed his own fate. He became a dangerous loose cannon, and a cancer to be removed without further ado.
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So, what is it about the “Federal Character” principle that makes it such a raw issue? Well, there is a glaring disparity between the educational attainment, professional qualifications, competency and vocational skills of people in the North compared to the south. Consequently, if recruitment to, and promotion within public services were to be based on merits alone, the North (despite population advantage) would be overrun by the south overnight. The federal character patchwork therefore makes it obligatory to allocate positions proportionately instead, but there is a snag. There is still not enough highly educated, well trained and qualified pool of personnel to choose from in the North so, by necessity, the criteria for recruitment are often lowered to fill the northern quota. And, with the north being adjudged to contain the combined population of the whole south, the system is permanently rigged for the benefit of the elite, their sons, daughters and cronies at the expense of the down and out; the “Almajiris”, the poor, and the unconnected. No true-blooded northerner is supposed to concede this point in any public fora, let alone on camera. The Emir, however, chose to play the prodigal son on the matter, for the purpose of ‘saving the North from itself’. A southerner making the same point would obviously ring hollow in the corridors of power, but an Emir; the Emir of Kano? A rubicon had been crossed, especially in the heat of agitation for “restructuring”. The irony is, he may now be the best recruiting sergeant for the cause. Not bad if Kano’s loss becomes Nigeria’s gain, most people would feel. So, let not Sanusi’s ’enemies’ celebrate too much. This wounded lion will soon come roaring back.