From central banker to Islamic king

August 15, 2014

Kano, Nigeria

By Joe Penney

Last year Lamido Sanusi wore pin stripe suits and a colorful array of bow ties to work, and his job consisted mostly of managing interest rates and keeping inflation under control.

Today, he sports long flowing gowns and a white veil over his face, while his daily activities include reciting the Quran and blessing visitors who bow before his feathered slippers.

The Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II at the palace in Kano

Sanusi was crowned Muhammadu Sanusi II, the 14th Emir of Kano in June, taking over from Ado Abdullahi Bayero after his death. Reuters visited his palace, an elaborately decorated place within the historic walled city, last month. He is surrounded at all times by their court and bodyguards, who wear brightly colored headwraps and babban riga, or big gowns.

A grandson of the 11th Emir of Kano and prince in the royal family, Sanusi was Central Bank governor from 2009 to 2013, when President Goodluck Jonathan suspended him after he exposed massive corruption at the state oil firm. Critics said Sanusi had no right to use his post as a pulpit from which to preach about corruption.

For Sanusi, it makes quite a change from his old job.

The Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II rides a horse with his bodyguards by his side from the Grand Mosque to the emir's palace in Kano

His first months have shown the major challenges he faces: a string of suicide bombings, carried out by women, forced him to cancel the traditional end of Ramadan celebrations called the Durbar.

His Kingdom is under the authority of the Sokoto Caliphate, a relic of an Islamic empire created by Fulani Islamic scholar and jihadist Usman Dan Fodio. At the turn of the 19th century it comprised northern Nigeria and parts of modern-day Niger, Benin and Cameroon, before British and French colonists carved these places up between themselves nearly a century later.

People walk outside the Emir of Zaria's palace in Zaria

The British left the traditional Islamic kingdoms of the north intact, unlike the kingdoms and chieftancies of the largely Christian south over which they ruled more directly.

The result: although on paper they play a ceremonial role, they wield huge influence in reality.

“The monarch typically has more power than the governor,” of the state, says Hadiza Bala Usman, a member of the neighbouring Katsina royal family told Reuters on a visit to Sanusi’s palace

Visitors wait to greet the Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II at the emir's palace during Ramadan in Kano

Because Kano is a hub for commerce and the largest city in the north – a legacy of its history as a central stopover for the caravan routes carrying goods between the African interior and the Mediterranean – the Emir of Kano is often considered the most powerful monarch in Nigeria despite being second in command to the Sultan of Sokoto.

The Islamist Boko Haram insurgency that is increasingly targeting Kano has not spared traditional rulers it regards as self-serving and not strict enough in their application of Sharia or Islamic law.

A tricycle driver rides past graffiti reading "Death to America" at the entrance to the old city in Zaria


Boko Haram were suspected of being behind an attack on the convoy of Sanusi’s predecessor, Ado Abdullahi Bayero, in January last year that killed four of his body guards.

Sanusi also faces possible civil unrest in Kano if Jonathan, a Christian southerner seen by many northerners as divisive, wins another term in 2015 elections. Jonathan is unpopular in Kano.

“We are taking over at a time when there are challenges in the north: peace and stability, the very poor economic conditions, …joblessness,” Sanusi said to Nigerian television station Channels shortly after he was named emir.

Women attend an Islamic school in Kaduna

Not that there’s all that much he can do about Kano’s economy, which has been in decline for decades, since cheap Chinese clothing imports made all its textile factories go bust and oil from the south crowded out the rest of the economy.

In other ways, it won’t be such a jarring change.

The Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II receives visitors before saying a prayer for them at the Emir's palace in Kano

Sanusi appears as comfortable in leading Friday prayers in Arabic and Hausa to the thousands of Kano faithful as he does lecturing about macroeconomic development at Oxford University.


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