Kano, Nigeria, May 22 – When the emir of Kano returned from pilgrimage this month, dancing supporters lined the streets to welcome a monarch commanding millions as one of Nigeria’s principal Islamic leaders.
For years, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, has inherited an ancient title in northern Nigeria that gave him power over an area the size of Israel with the population of Portugal.
But this month his power was cut, in a clash between traditional rule and formal government in Africa’s most populous nation that has some worried about power struggles ahead.
The local governor carved up Kano emirate creating four new emirs — and Sanusi’s funds from state government were split among them in what critics say was a bid to curb his influence.
“Kano’s pre-eminence as an emirate is dented,” said Sule Bello, a history professor from Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University.
“The new emirates will cause the influence and the prestige of the traditional institution to be whittled away.”
In a changing Nigeria, it is a test case of tensions between governance styles old and new, experts say, that could have wide-reaching impact on other areas of the country.
– ‘Power struggles’ –
Kano state governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje is the man who signed the new emirs into law.
Ganduje was narrowly re-elected in February and sees Sanusi as pro-opposition — but insists he just wants to make traditional institutions more accountable.
“It is not a vendetta,” Ganduje told reporters. “I’m not against him.”
But others worry it is a divide-and-rule policy that could lead to conflict.
A group of activists, powerful politicians and academics from northern Nigeria calling themselves the “Friends of Democracy”, said they were worried about potential violence.
Creating new emirs means the “politicisation of traditional authority”, the group said.
“The situation will lead to power struggles for the throne among the different ruling clans in the new emirates,” said Bello, a former head of the National Council for Arts and Culture.
– Scholar and critic –
Sanusi, an Islamic scholar, is the 14th emir following centuries of rule.
But the 57-year-old straddles two very different worlds; a leader of an ancient monarchy, he was once the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria — a critical role in Africa’s biggest oil producer.
In that post, he earned a reputation as a straight-talking leader, not afraid to speak out against corruption, although he faced — and denied — accusations of graft himself.
He became emir in 2014, selected by elders and then confirmed by the governor, after inheriting the post from his great-uncle.
A modernist reformer, he has also spoken out against traditions of marrying multiple wives and having several children if the man cannot support the family, angering some Islamic leaders.
– ‘Unity’ –
Loyalty to the emir remains strong.
Many ordinary people have grown sceptical of democratic systems they see as rigged, and where elected officials treat public cash as their own private funds.
Traditional leaders, viewed as the holders of ancient cultural powers passed down through the centuries, still have major influence.
As an Islamic leader in a state with sharia law in majority Muslim northern Nigeria, it is a powerful post.
“I grew up to revere the emir,” said Saratu Bature, a mother, who cried at the news of the changes, fearing it could weaken an ancient system of stability.
“The emir has been a source of unity among our people,” she said. “The new decision will destroy all that.”
Many people are unhappy.
“The creation of new emirates in Kano was done in bad faith… the governor has politicised his personal problem with the emir,” said Mansur Ibrahim, a textile trader in Kano.
“Breaking it into smaller emirates will no doubt distort our history, culture and tradition.”
– Show of power –
Supporters of the emir of Kano see the new law as a way to reduce his influence in the state.
“Dismembering the emirate is nothing but destroying it,” said teacher Umar Habu.
“We all know the governor and the emir have differences, but instead of fighting the emir, the governor is destroying the royal institution. He is throwing away the baby and the bathwater.”
The move to cut Sanusi’s powers was made while he was in Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage to Mecca.
Neither Sanusi nor his courtiers have made a statement on the issue — but when he returned to Nigeria, his arrival reception was held with extra flair.
Supporters fired muskets into the air, as the emir drove through the city in a white Rolls-Royce, dressed in his finery of embroidered robes and turban.
It was a very visible display of power.
As a message, it could not have been clearer; the emir is here to stay.