London’s Financial Times and the Washington’s Washington Post ran long articles on Muhammad Sanusi II, the emir of Kano. The emir is generally regarded as second only to the Sultan of Sokoto among Muslim traditional rulers in Nigeria. His office, and much of the ceremony that accompanies it, is more than a thousand years old.
The emir and his court is nothing if not picturesque, featuring an ancient Rolls Royce in impeccable condition dating from the colonial or early independence period and ranks of brilliantly robed retainers than recall the British raj in their Indian empire. The British followed a strategy of indirect rule in India and northern Nigeria, in both places largely preserving traditional, feudal government with all of its picturesque ceremonial.
Emir Muhammed Sanusi is more than a traditional religious leader and he enjoys much greater influence than do Indian maharajas today. He was the director of the Nigerian central bank following a distinguished business and banking career. He was fired from that position by President Goodluck Jonathan after showing that large sums of oil revenue had not been transferred from the Nigeria National Petroleum Company to the national treasury, and was therefore, in effect, missing. The governor of Kano selects emirs among a narrow pool of candidates, all of whom are members of the royal family. The then governor of Kaduna, no friend of President Jonathan, was apparently happy to make Sanusi the emir.
In addition to his business success, Sanusi is also an accomplished Islamic scholar. Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group present in northeastern Nigeria, has tried to assassinate him on occasion. From Boko Harma’s perspective, Sanusi is a Muslim apostate because he does not subscribe to the theological system of Boko Haram.
Furthermore, Sanusi is also a threat to Boko Haram because many people in Kano (Nigeria’s second largest city) accord him greater respect than they do secular institutions of government. As with other traditional rulers, many Nigerians prefer to use the emir for dispute resolution rather than the civil courts. Sanusi’s authority over his co-religionists is much greater than secular law provides for. He is truly a bridge between traditional Nigeria and the post-independence state. It well behooves diplomats and others to maintain close contact with the emir and Nigeria’s other traditional rulers.