from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Nigeria on the Brink

Sultan of Sokoto Responds to Sowore's Imprisonment in Nigeria

The sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslims, Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, speaks to the media at the state house in Abuja, on December 27, 2011. Wole Emmanuel/AFP/Getty Images

December 19, 2019

The sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslims, Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, speaks to the media at the state house in Abuja, on December 27, 2011. Wole Emmanuel/AFP/Getty Images
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On December 12, the Sultan of Sokoto publicly said that disobedience to court orders is “a recipe for lawlessness and chaos.” He said, “We must regularly obey and respect the laws of our land. We should never disregard the laws to avoid the consequences. If a court makes a judicial pronouncement on a particular matter, it should be obeyed to the letter.” Though he never mentioned Sowore by name, the Sultan’s audience understood that the context was the State Security Service (SSS) invasion of a court room and the re-arrest of Omoyele Sowore contrary to court order. He was speaking at a quarterly meeting of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council in Abuja.

Apparently under the sultan’s leadership, the Islamic establishment appears to be moving to oppose the SSS assault on the judiciary. The Sultan of Sokoto is regarded as the premier Islamic traditional ruler in Nigeria. In terms of formal protocol, he is usually listed first. He is the president-general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the paramount Islamic umbrella organization in Nigeria. Muslims in the north often accord him greater respect than secular leaders, including the president.

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Indeed, he and President Buhari are both supported by the northern man-in-the-street. Were the Sultan and the president seriously to diverge—and they are far from doing so, at present—it is difficult to know who would have the greater support. However, during military rule, military chiefs of state removed one Sultan of Sokoto and replaced him with another, though from within the same family. Before his enthronement, this Sultan, Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, was a career military officer. He served as Nigeria’s defense attache in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unlike many in public life, he shows a strong sense of Nigerian national identity and promotes national unity. He is known for his good relations with Christian leaders and for promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue. 

The Sowore re-arrest is consolidating opposition to the president by civil society, the press, international opinion and now religious leaders. It is to be hoped that the Buhari administration is looking actively for a way to defuse the Sowore issue, perhaps by allowing him to return to the United States.

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Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari

Islam

Rule of Law

Civil Society

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