I have found it difficult explaining to close friends and relations why I am not part of the hysteria erupting from the balkanization of the ancient Kano throne by State Governor Ganduje. Even those hardened by the depth of depravation of northern societies seem to think that we have hit a new low in Kano which deserves a new wave of outrage. I disagree. I insist that we have not hit that low, yet. You could say we are well on our way, and in truth we have headed towards sustainable decay and atrophy for a long while. The drama in Kano captures a central element in the character of contemporary northern Nigeria. It is about a clash of values, one chronically corrupted and the other poorly rooted, together dragging a people inexorably towards predictable disaster.
There are familiar historical patterns to the pathetic charade playing out in Kano. You have an ambitious and strong-willed occupant operating from traditional source of power and authority in a position that is designed to cage him, but finds it difficult to stay in his allotted corner. Then you have a politician with powers infinitely superior to his entitlements to them, desperately searching for validating symbols that should assure him that he is indeed powerful. Both operate in a setting that is too weak to enforce the demands of roles or punish violations. One represents the decaying pretensions of a culture that locates the carcass of power around institutions, persons and values, fatally wounded since the turn of the last century. The other is a caricature of a system that holds the conquered in bondage by creating the illusion that it is the universal solution to all bondage.
Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II represents the dying spasms of a cultural institution that suffers from chronic schizophrenia: permanently servile, yet incurably convinced that it is master. The institution of ‘traditional rulership’ as the anchor of our cultural integrity is the fraud that was foisted on a new nation by a British conquering power that was too poor (but not too weak) to assert full control over African rulers who were reduced to running errands for the new conquerors. Appropriately garbed to give the semblance of continuity and meaning to a conquered people, the ‘traditional ruler’ became effectively part of the conqueror’s oppression tools, parasiting over the spoils of superintending systems and rulers. Now and then, one or two attempted to rebel, and was promptly put in his place, reinforcing the effective subordination of the African culture under colonial rule. New, post-colonial rulers inherited the assets of a servile layer of left-over authority and the tensions that went with control that is thinly-rooted in the cultural mainstream of a people. Sanusi II’s grandfather was dethroned by the Sardauna of Sokoto, himself a prince that knew the importance of keeping Emirs and Chiefs on short leashes, so that the new African elite can deepen the colonial heritage.
Governor Ganduje offends even the lowest caliber of the Nigerian politician. He is the product of the worst possible legacy of an alien system which insists that human civilization flourishes only when everyone participates equally in the selection of people who will exercise huge powers over their lives. Rich and poor, the good, the bad and the gullible, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, everyone lines up to elect leaders who will be enlightened, competent, compassionate, honest and fair. In reality, wealth and privilege consign the poor to minor roles in a charade, a periodic frenzy that gives the poor the impression that they choose leaders. The game is rigged in favour of the most corrupt, the wealthy and the desperate. Factions of the wealthy divide the poor between them, pitting them against each other with crumbs and invented fears of each other. Those who emerge victorious now have opportunities for huge ego trips, breathtaking pillage, impunity, a morbid fear of the people they ‘govern’ and losing power. Those who lose out skulk away to plot worse plots for the next round of the farce called democracy.
Emir Sanusi II is governor Ganduje’s worst nightmare. Here is a restless achiever unwilling or unable to overhaul his basic character, having to wear shoes that are too small and insisting on walking on all sides of the street with them. Once in a while he strays into the path of a politician who is paranoid about being challenged and afraid of his own shadow. Worse, he steps on toes of powers more powerful than Ganduje, who then use Ganduje to rein him in. When he mentions sensitive and pervasive signs that northern Muslim communities are going under, he reminds everyone with responsibility that they are failing one of the largest communities in Africa that has no business with unbridled retrogression. This brings democratic pretenders, the clergy which lives off the pathetic ignorance and gullibility of the millions of the poor and an assortment of watchers who have strong ideas about the proper conduct of royalty together in a potent brew of hostility. When he hobnobs with partisan politics because the stakes are too high for him to remain remote and neutral, he attracts the wrath of politicians who attempt to hit him where it hurts most: a threat to his position as Emir.
The fight between Sanusi and Ganduje is not about the masses. It is one front in an old war that has raged in most of northern Nigeria for decades, a fight between competing value systems without mediating influences or respite. This is the fight that had progressively destroyed the basic political, administrative and other vital cultural values of especially Muslim North without putting in place working alternatives. There are many casualties in this war, one of which is the destruction of traditional governance structures by the military and politicians who neither understood their values nor limitations. The state has been progressively weakened by political leaders who thought power was incomplete unless traditional institutions were reduced in influence, degraded and humiliated. Another is the vacuum in faith leadership, part of which the traditional governance institution managed. This is the outcome of the progress of an ideology that accepts religion which champions obedience to leadership, but kept faith and politics miles apart. Religious leadership is now pocketed or fought to extinction. There are others: 13 million child beggars, Maitatsine, Boko Haram, huge, unemployed and uneducated young population, drugs, banditry and kidnapping and a sustained decline in an economy without parallel.
Sanusi II had said he has no ambition left. He would either die as a former Emir of Kano, or as Emir of Kano. Make no mistake about it though. He loves being Emir of Kano and poking fingers where royalty does not. If he survives this altercation with Ganduje, it will only be to prepare for the next one. Ganduje will have to sleep with one eye open. What he did was done before, and it collapsed. Whatever happens, he will be haunted by the Sanusi II ghost. In reality it will not be the ghost of Sanusi II. It will be power over a people he may not be able to exercise because his mandate is suspect; his confidence is weak and his leadership qualities are an insult to a democratic system. As for Sanusi, it is very likely that he would realise that when a giant is permanently engrossed in fighting minions, they ultimately win because they do not let him do what giants do. Over time, you may not be able to tell the difference between them. You can walk on both sides of the street, but you have to reckon with risks from both sides.