Nigeria has made global headlines since April, both for the GDP recalibration that propelled it officially into position as Africa’s largest economy and for the more sinister kidnapping of 200 teenage girls by the anti-Western Boko Haram organization, based in the Muslim north.
But with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan facing increased pressure from both domestic and international critics on a growing list of grievances, the decision to appoint Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the Nigerian central bank, as the new emir of Kano gives one of Jonathan’s most prominent and credible opponents a new political viability. The decision comes at a time when the dominant force in Nigeria’s nascent democracy, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is severely split over Jonathan’s reelection hopes in the coming February 2015 presidential election.
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So who is Sanusi? What is the Kano emirate? And why is all of this so important to Nigeria’s future?
Who is Lamido Sanusi?
Sanusi was appointed as the central bank governor by former Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a northerner, in 2009. He quickly set about reforming the Nigerian banking sector, starting with a series of domestic bailouts in August 2009 that effectively nationalized nine Nigerian banks, a process that saw Sanusi fire most of the underperforming banks’ CEOs. Sanusi also rushed to tamp down Nigeria’s double-digit inflation by maintaining relatively high interest rates in the face of complaints from the political and business elite.
For this, and for his efforts to root out corruption within both the private and public sectors, Sanusi garnered global attention, so much so that Time Magazine named him one of the ‘Time 100’ in 2011.
But in February, Jonathan sacked Sanusi after the central banker charged the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) with a shortfall in revenues of between $20 billion and $50 billion otherwise due to the government. Though Sanusi’s term ended naturally in June, his suspension alarmed international investors who believed it undermined the Nigerian central bank’s independence — a notion that Sanusi himself highlighted upon his suspension:
Despite the president’s claims of Sanusi’s recklessness and mismanagement, many see his decision as a brazen political manoeuvre. Asked whether he believed his suspension was politically motivated, Sanusi replied: “It’s not for me to comment. I think the answer to that is obvious.” He remained upbeat and said that he was proud of what he had achieved, and hoped the economy would not be hurt by his suspension. However, in his parting shots, he reminded the Jonathan administration: “You can suspend an individual but you can’t suspend the truth.”
What is the Kano emirate?
The Kano emirate dates back at least two centuries. Kano, which is both a state and a city in northern Nigeria, is the second-largest metropolitan area in Nigeria after Lagos, and it’s the urban capital of the north and of the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group. Kano state is one of several northern states that instituted a form of shari’a law in 2000.
The Hausa dominated the Kano area for centuries, but when the Fulani, another ethnic group that swept into what is today northern Nigeria from the eastern Sahel, they took control of Kano in 1805. The emirate endured for nearly a century, until infighting weakened it so much that British colonial forces easily took control of the region by the end of the 19th century. The British, recognizing the benefits of merging British colonial rule with the legitimacy of the Kano emirate, established a new ‘Kano emirate council.’ The city of Kano became a chief administration center of what would become known as the Northern Protectorate, and the British delegated increasing amounts of power to the Kano emirate and to other traditional regional leaders, even as they took a more hands-on approach to colonial interests in the Southern Protectorate, based in Lagos. When Nigeria became independent in 1960, it was a country only recently unified, with two very different governance traditions between the more modernized, largely Christian south and the less urbanized, largely Muslim north, a region that had become accustomed to a great deal of autonomy.
Alhaji Ado Abdullahi Bayero (pictured above), who became the emir of Kano in 1963, has traditionally been one of the most important Muslim leaders in Nigeria’s post-independence history, and his influence was a stabilizing force in the first decade of Nigerian independence, which was marked by stark division on the basis of political, religious and ethnic differences within the three regions — northern, eastern and western (differences that led to the Biafra War from 1967 to 1970, when the Nigeria’s southeastern region attempted to break off from the rest of the country). Throughout his 51-year emirate, Ado Bayero was also a relatively modernizing and generally apolitical influence in northern Nigeria, and he consistently opposed Boko Haram and its anti-western, anti-education campaign — opposition that nearly took him life in an assassination attempt last year.
The Kano emirate is the second-most important role in Nigerian Islam, after the Sokono sultanate. Though the state government is responsible for appointing the emir of Kano, the role has no strictly constitutional or official state powers — instead, it blends traditional regional authority with religious powers. It’s a hereditary office insofar as the emir must be a descendant of the family of Ibrahim Dabo, the emir of Kano between 1819 and 1846. As it turns out, Bayero was also Sanusi’s great-uncle, which made Sanusi eligible for the office when Bayero died at age 83 last Friday.
Why is all of this so important?
Sanusi already had a measure of international renown as Nigeria’s highly competent, highly independent, anti-corruption and anti-inflation central bank governor. His ignoble sacking earlier this year by Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, had already positioned Sanusi as a potential challenger to Jonathan in the coming 2015 elections, in which Jonathan is expected to run, despite significant opposition from northern leaders within the PDP. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s first elected president, and a one-time Jonathan mentor, has allegedly warned Jonathan against running for reelection.
With the PDP divided, there’s a chance that the newly united opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which has attracted more than a few PDP defectors, could seriously challenge the political hegemony that the PDP has enjoyed since democratic elections began in 1999. The APC already controls many state-level governorships, including in Nigeria’s most populous Lagos state.
As a former central bank governor, and now, especially, as the emir of Kano, Sanusi isn’t likely to become the APC’s presidential candidate for the February 2015 election. Sanusi, who is politically independent, has nonetheless found common cause with the APC in the past. His new role will give him the political, spiritual and traditional perch from which he can mobilize northern voters in subtle ways — either against Jonathan’s reelection or in favor of the APC’s eventual presidential candidate.
The decision by Kano’s state leadership to elevate Sanusi to the emirate — instead of the more popular choice, Badero’s son, Alhaji Ado Abdullahi Bayero — was controversial, and it was almost certainly designed to send a pointed political message to Jonathan. Moreover, the decision to pass over Bayero’s son has caused riots in parts of Kano.
Those riots largely won’t matter in 2015 if the northern political elite, including Sanusi and including parts of the PDP, find themselves united behind a northern APC challenger to Jonathan’s reelection — especially if the challenger can credibly convince Nigerians that a northern president can more effectively halt the security challenge that Boko Haram poses throughout the country.
Photo credit to Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP/ Getty Images.