On March 9, the governor of Kano state removed Sanusi Lamido Sanusi from his position as Emir of Kano, which is usually regarded as the second or third most important Muslim traditional ruler in Nigeria. Briefly under what amounted to internal exile in a neighboring state, Sanusi sued in the federal courts for his freedom. He won, and the Federal government did not intervene to block the judgement. He has now moved to join his family in Lagos. There is speculation, especially among some Nigerian expats, that he is looking to launch a political career, perhaps even contesting for the presidency in 2023.
Sanusi is a rather unique figure in Nigeria. Prior to his enthronement as Emir of Kano, he was the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) under the presidency of Umaru Yar'Adua and his successor, Goodluck Jonathan. In this position, Sanusi won the prestigious international award of “Central Banker of the Year.” As CBN governor, he publicly called attention to the disappearance of some $20 billion in oil revenue from the government’s coffers; Jonathan removed him as a result. At that time, especially among Nigerian expats and parts of the business community, there were hopes he would enter politics. But, as a member of the royal house of Kano, he instead sought successfully his election by the “kingmakers” to become the Emir of Kano after the death of his uncle, the previous emir. His election was supported and approved by the then-governor of Kano, Rabiu Kwankwaso, a member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) generally regarded as a reformer.
In 2015, Abdullahi Ganduje, a politician from the rival party, President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC), won the governorship. Sanusi was highly critical of the news governor’s alleged corruption. In the elections of 2019, Ganduje claimed that Sanusi was supporting his opponent for the governorship; traditional rulers are supposed to be above partisan politics. After Ganduje’s reelection, the emir’s criticism continued unabated. Ganduje secured the approval of the Kano state executive council to remove Sanusi and secured the election among the kingmakers of another member of the royal family to be Emir. There has been speculation that President Buhari had a hand in his removal, but such allegations are strongly denied by presidency spokesmen, who point out that relations with traditional rulers are the purview of governors, not the president.
Sanusi is apparently not contesting the governor’s right to remove him as emir. Though there are precedents going back to British colonial times for a governor to remove a traditional ruler, it is not done lightly, not least because of concern for popular unrest in the aftermath. Yet, the media reports little popular reaction in Kano to Sanusi’s removal. Sanusi emphasized the injustices faced by the poor of Nigeria’s political economy, particularly those in the north, in terms that resonate positively with a Westernized audience. But, he was not known for his liberality in the unstructured alms-giving that characterizes traditional charity. At the time twelve northern states adopted Sharia, a popular cause among the northern poor, he did not support it.
Should he wish to enter electoral politics, Sanusi’s way forward is not clear. He is popular among the captains of Nigeria’s modern economy, just as he is among international business people. He appears especially popular among Nigerian expats, both those living abroad and those returned home. Hence, Lagos would appear to be his natural political base. But, Lagos, including its political class, is dominated by the Yoruba. It is hard to see them making room for a northerner, especially a critic of the political economy from which they benefit.
On the national level, Nigeria’s system of political alternation, or “power shift,” between Christians and Muslim and between north and south, plays against him. Even under the British, the northern, Muslim, political class feared domination by the much wealthier and more advance south. They have long feared exclusion from government and hence from the wealth that accrues to those that capture the state and can access oil revenue. Power shift, in response to those fears, was an important part of the 1998 to 1999 transition from military to civilian government. In principle, after eight years under President Buhari, a Muslim from the north, it will be the Christian south’s turn in 2023.
Especially in Lagos, among Nigerian expats and in the internationally-oriented business community, it is increasingly said that Nigeria no longer needs power alternation to stay together. This was the argument used by supporters of the southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan when he ran in 2011, though it was ostensibly the north’s turn at the presidency. (The Muslim president, Umaru Yar’Adua, died in office. Jonathan, as vice president, was meant to finish Yar’Adua’s first term and then make way for a northern Muslim to run in 2011.) The aftermath of those elections, however, when it was clear that Jonathan had won not least by rigging, were marked by horrific bloodshed in the north; riots that started against Jonathan’s victory morphed into rival Christian-Muslim pogroms with a strong ethnic dimension. In 2015 the political classes nation-wide joined together to ensure the election of Buhari, thereby restoring power shift. In 2019, still the north’s turn, both major political parties fielded northern Muslim presidential candidates.
Some of the leading contemporary Yoruba politicians are Bola Tinubu and his successor as governor, Babatunde Fashola. Both are Muslims and southerners. Could a southern ticket include two Muslims, with Sanusi as a vice-presidential candidate? That is a possibility. However, the way forward for Tinubu, Fashiola, or other Muslim presidential candidates is not clear. Since 1993, the south’s Christian majority has become much more politicized and uncompromising. That, along with growing radical Islamic movements in the north, narrows the scope of the possible in Nigerian politics. Buhari’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo is a Christian Pentecostal preacher, also with a positive international reputation. What about an Osinbajo-Sanusi ticket? A dream for the business community. But Osinbajo denies political ambition and says he is merely “on loan” from his church to the government as vice president. In any event, 2023 is a long way away, and much could happen in the interim.