Kings Battle for a Millennium-Old Throne in Nigeria

One king has been barricaded in the palace, protected from potential usurpers by hundreds of subjects armed with sticks and machetes.

Another king, evicted from the same palace in May, is living in an annex down the road, dispatching lawyers to courthouses in an attempt to regain the throne.

The battle unfolding for the emirate of Kano — one of West Africa’s oldest and most revered kingdoms — is not just a struggle for an ancient throne, but also part of a wider contest for control over the most populous state in Africa’s most populous country.

The emirs of Kano once had absolute power, ruling over their subjects from the intricately decorated palace in the city of Kano, an ancient commercial hub just south of the Sahara.

Today, though rulers still sit on sumptuous thrones, wear silken gowns and have courtiers to fan them wherever they go, their kingdom is part of Nigeria, Africa’s biggest democracy, and they operate alongside its elected officials.

Like British monarchs, they have great influence over their subjects, but few official powers.

The clash between the two emirs has become a flashpoint ahead of the Nigerian presidential election in 2027.

Different branches of Nigeria’s elected government have chosen sides, analysts say: The local state government supports Emir Sanusi, a reformist and the current king, while the federal government supports Emir Aminu, a more traditional ruler who is fighting to retake the crown.

Never before have there been two claimants to the throne in Kano, a thrumming city that is home to 4.5 million people. Observers warn that the situation is so tense that riots could break out. “We did not think anyone would attack the emirate like this,” said Ruqayyah Salihi Bayero, a palace historian.

The kingdom of Kano dates back to the year 999. It was first ruled by Hausa kings and then, after it was conquered in 1805, by Fulani emirs. The throne is not hereditary; kings are chosen by kingmakers and by the governor of Kano.

Emir Sanusi — whose name was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi before ascending to the throne — became emir in 2014. He was less traditional than former emirs, who spent their days settling local disputes.

A former banker and central bank governor of Nigeria, occasionally spotted in Louboutin shoes, he was highly educated and popular in elite international business circles. He believed that girls should be educated, women’s rights should be respected and poor men should not marry multiple wives, ideas that didn’t land well with his conservative subjects, who called him a Western stooge.

Northern Nigeria’s aristocrats wear towering turbans, tied over the mouth to signify dignified silence. Emir Sanusi wore the turbans, but he was outspoken. He criticized politicians and called out corruption.

Soon after he became emir, he made an enemy of Kano state’s most powerful man, Abdullahi Ganduje, the governor at the time. Mr. Ganduje became known as “Gandollar” after he was filmed stuffing wads of dollars — an alleged bribe — into his capacious robes.

When Emir Sanusi criticized Mr. Ganduje’s behavior, the governor moved to retaliate. Emir Sanusi might have more than 1,000 years of history behind him, but the emirate was now part of Nigeria, and Mr. Ganduje was Kano’s highest elected official.

Accusing Emir Sanusi of “total insubordination,” Mr. Ganduje used his authority to kick the emir off the throne. Mr. Ganduje gave the crown to Aminu Ado Bayero, Emir Sanusi’s relative and trusted adviser.

Emir Sanusi was driven out of Kano and dumped in a village 300 miles away, from which he fled to Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, while the newly appointed emir moved into the palace. Emir Aminu was like the monarchs of old: he kept his mouth shut.

“He’s not trying to change anything,” said Abdulbasit Kassim, a historian of Muslim societies in West Africa. By contrast, he said: “Sanusi’s a disrupter.”

The emir of Kano rides on magnificent, tricked-out horses. He wears intricately embroidered gowns. If he wants to take a sip of water in public, his guards raise their red and green robes around him to protect his dignity and privacy.

But he can make no policy, raise no taxes and direct no army.

Still, Africa’s traditional leaders command great loyalty, and politicians are often keen to capitalize on it.

Abba Yusuf, who defeated Mr. Ganduje in an election last year, had vowed to restore Emir Sanusi to the throne if he became governor. On May 23, he fired Emir Aminu, expelling his retinue from the palace.

Emir Sanusi landed back in Kano around 12 hours later in a private jet. Then Mr. Yusuf hosted a ceremony that was part coronation, part political rally. The two men sat together on a sofa in the Nigerian national colors. Mr. Yusuf handed Emir Sanusi a letter confirming his reinstatement as emir as hundreds of Kano’s noblemen roared their support.

One by one, Kano’s princes prostrated themselves on the carpet in homage to the returned king — even those who had betrayed him. Emir Sanusi rose and took the microphone.

“An emir is not supposed to sing anyone’s praises,” he said. “But the governor is a hero.”

Late that night, when the festivities were over, Mr. Yusuf moved Emir Sanusi back into the palace. Emir Sanusi’s son Ashraf took to Instagram to document their homecoming. He panned with his phone over the palace interior.

Everything was gone: the drapes on the windows, electrical outlets from the walls. Emir Aminu’s courtiers had stripped the palace bare.

Though the restored king has the support of the local governor of Kano, leaders in the federal government in Nigeria have shown a preference for Emir Aminu, analysts say. A spokesman for Nigeria’s president denied that the federal government was taking sides.

Just days after he was deposed in May, the quiet king came back to the palace flanked by a contingent of soldiers sent by the government. They installed him in what is known locally as the “mini-palace” — an annex of the main palace used as a guesthouse, next to the burial ground of past Kano kings.

Emir Aminu’s father and Emir Sanusi’s grandfather, both former emirs, are both buried there.

Dozens of armed police officers now guard Emir Aminu round the clock at the annex. Until recently, hundreds of Emir Sanusi’s supporters also stood guard in support of their king just down the road at the palace.

Emir Aminu’s legal representative, Aminu Babba Dan’agundi, said that the correct procedure had not been followed when Emir Aminu was deposed earlier this year. “Nobody is above the law,” he said.

Despite an economic crisis, many Nigerians have become deeply invested in who will control the emirate.

“I despise Sanusi,” said Aminu Garba, a supporter of Emir Aminu, remembering a time the emir said that a wife slapped by her husband should slap back.

“Aminu’s here creating drama,” said Aisha Abdullahi, a recent graduate, adding that she supported Emir Sanusi because he was a friend to women.

Analysts say politicians are playing an outsize role in the crisis ahead of the 2027 election. Mr. Yusuf, the state governor, is likely to run for re-election. His success may depend on keeping Emir Sanusi in power.

The party in power at the federal level, though, needs Emir Aminu back on the throne in order to get enough votes in Kano, observers say.

“They’ve become pawns in a wider political chess game,” said Mr. Kassim, the historian.

Emir Aminu continues to fight a legal battle to be reinstated. So far, he’s mostly prevailed in the federal courts, while state courts have sided with Emir Sanusi.

“We have to find a way to bring peace and stability back to the state and nation in general,” said Ms. Bayero, the palace historian.

Mr. Yusuf, the governor, has twice ordered the police to evict Emir Aminu from the palace annex and arrest him. So far the police have refused, and recently they ordered hunters and vigilantes guarding Emir Sanusi to stand down, leaving him alone and vulnerable.

Above the palace flies the ancient royal flag. Last week, Emir Aminu hoisted a replica of it at outside the annex.

For the moment, both flags are still flying.

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