Emir Sanusi. Aminu Abubakar/AFP via Getty Images

Why Kano’s governor removed Emir Sanusi. And why it matters

Recently, the government of Kano State, north west Nigeria, removed the 14th Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi, and banished him from the state. The actions were seen as highly controversial. They marked the final act in a rather testy relationship between Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano and the former emir. In this interview, Professor Tijjani Naniya provides the historical perspective and explains what preceded the emir’s removal.

How did the role of the Emirate of Kano evolve?

Kano’s institution of kingship dates back to the closing decade of the 10th century AD. Rulers assumed the title of Sarki – or king – to signify overall authority over the settlement. Their main preoccupation was to protect and enhance people’s lives. This focus set the pace for Kano’s development in size, security, economy, religion, ethics and culture.

The jihad was a religious war spearheaded by Shaykh Usman dan Fodio in Hausa land in the early 19th century. It incorporated Kano into the Sokoto caliphate as a province or amirat (emirate) and the sarki was known as amir or emir.

Save for the subordinate status, the emir remained the chief executive in his realm except in judicial matters. In these his judgement was made subject to appeal to the sultan in Sokoto.

What was the impact of colonialism?

In 1903 Britain imposed indirect rule in Kano. Under the institution of Native Authority the traditional role of the emir remained relatively intact. The exception – again – was in judicial affairs. Here, his decisions, especially in criminal matters, had to be in consonance with the “Repugnant Clause” – a doctrine that says courts can’t enforce any customary law rule if it is contrary to the public good. The emir’s decisions also had to be supervised by a representative of the colonial authorities. This marked the first encounter between the emir and a superior official residing in his emirate.

After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, there was a misunderstanding between Emir Muhammad Sunusi 1 (1953-1963) and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the premier of Northern Nigeria. Their friendship had been cemented by inter-family marriages. But regional government policies introduced by the premier – particularly those that affected Kano, such as the power to allocate industrial plots – created tension. This led to the removal of the emir and his eventual exile to Katagum in Bauchi Province.

A similar situation emerged at the creation of Kano state in 1967. The appointment of a military governor for the state raised the issue of whose authority was to take precedence. The military governor’s reforms of the local government system brought him into conflict with the emir.

What happened subsequently?

Between 1967 and 1979, the command structure of the military regime limited any punitive measure against the emir. A different scenario arose in 1979 with the introduction of democracy. The governor came head-to-head with the emir over allegations of insubordination. His attempt to question the emir led to a rampage in July 1980.

In 2014, Emir Ado Bayero was involved in another confrontation with the governor of Kano, Alhaji Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso. This was over the vacant traditional office of Waziri (Vezir), after the occupant had passed away. The emir, in violation of traditional convention, conferred the title to a shigege (an outsider). This generated a public outcry. The governor asked the emir to reconsider the decision. Two days into the impasse that followed, the emir, after a brief illness, passed on. The issue between the two men was never resolved.

What was different about Emir Sanusi and how did he run into trouble?

The emergence of Muhammad Sanusi to the throne of Kano Emirate in 2014 was unique in some ways.

He was the first highly westernised, educated person to assume the throne. Second, he was the first multilingual emir in Kano, speaking fluent Arabic, English and French in addition to Hausa, his mother tongue.

Third, he was the first person in the Ibrahim Dabo (1819-1845) dynasty to inherit the throne through his grandfather.

Fourth, he was intellectually versatile, articulate and outspoken, ready at any given opportunity to engage on topical issues. These ranged from Shari'ah to economics, international finance, Almajirci (child begging), the education of girls and gender equality.

His views on many issues were radical, modern and secular in orientation.

For example, Emir Sanusi refused to conform to the palace etiquette when delivering speeches. These were meant to be short, measured and delivered only when necessary. But he went public at the slightest opportunity to express his opinion, even on government policies.

In addition, government in Kano saw him more as an opposition mouthpiece than a father and a collaborative stakeholder. This became more pronounced during the 2019 elections, when he was alleged to have clandestinely supported the opposition’s Abba Kabir Yusuf (popularly known as Abba gida-gida) against the incumbent governor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje.

This was not unexpected. Prior to his emergence as emir, Sanusi ran into stormy waters with political authorities as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria between 2009 and 2014. He was removed from that office by then President Goodluck Jonathan following the leak of a memo in which Sanusi alleged that $20 billion of oil revenue had gone missing under the president’s watch.

Does Nigeria need to resolve the issue at a constitutional level? What are the solutions?

Traditional rulers in most cultures are the custodians of cultural heritage. To destroy such institutions and reduce them to objects of mockery is a disrespect to societies. This makes it imperative for both the federal government and the National Assembly to do something to save these traditional institutions from collapse.

One way to achieve this would be by correcting the fact that specific roles for traditional institutions were excluded from the 1979 and the 1999 constitutions. Spelling out – and perhaps even itemising – official roles for traditional institutions in the constitution would save them from the onslaught of political leaders who, with their ephemeral tenures, ride on the glamour of electoral mandate to destroy the very institutions that over time laboured hard to establish the societies they now preside over as governors.

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