Of Aristocratic Rebels and the Tyranny of Tradition, By Chris Ngwodo
If traditional rulers are not expected to draw attention to inconvenient facts, as the Emir of Kano has done, and are meant to simply carry on in cloistered indifference to pervasive social dysfunction, then why do they exist at all? If traditional rulers cannot speak truth, and are meant to be complicit in the ruination of the society, why do we need them? What is their purpose?
Whenever the sole or main argument in favour of an institution, a practice, or a position is “tradition”, it is at that point that we find power at its most disconnected from reason, authority at its most alienated from justice, and the status quo at its most degenerate. This axiom is relevant now in the light of the debate sparked off by the recent interventions of the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II. Recently, the Emir has drawn attention to the abysmal socioeconomic indices of Northern Nigeria, attributing them to failed social policy and has called for an intellectual revolution and urged Northern Muslims to reclaim their faith from those that use it as a cultural alibi for the sustenance of retrogressive practices that have kept the region mired in a crisis of development for decades.
Among the reactions to the Emir’s critiques have been vociferous condemnations of what some have termed his activist posturing and hypocritical grandstanding. The crux of the criticisms leveled against him seems to be that his serial interventions in the public space are in breach of some code of aristocratic decorum and protocol long established by tradition. His traducers claim that the Emir is dabbling in politics and is being far more vocal than the constraints of his exalted office permit. In so doing, he is violating tradition and culture, and bringing the throne into disrepute.
This particular strain of attack on the Emir – let us call it “the tradition argument” – should be closely interrogated. Culture and tradition are perhaps the most powerful enablers of sociopolitical evil on our shores. They are marshaled as unimpeachable license for impunity and sustained injustices. In Northern Nigeria, the cultural alibi has been used to justify and rationalise a host of social plagues ranging from the rejection of western education and the preponderance of child marriage to the sentencing of children to a life of destitution as almajiris, the subjugation of women and the denial of girl child education.
The Cultural Alibi
To be sure, the cultural alibi operates all over Nigeria. In the South-East, it was used to disinherit females and bar women from rightfully inheriting their late fathers’ estate until 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled that such practices as enshrined in Igbo law and custom were discriminatory and in conflict with the constitution. A cursory examination of the cultural alibi whenever and wherever it is invoked indicates that it is no more than a shield for securing feudal privileges and protecting predatory patriarchy.
It is precisely for this reason that the attempt to muzzle the Emir on account of some misbegotten sense of propriety must be challenged. Culture, like society, is not static but dynamic and constantly in flux. Tradition refers to the behavioural constraints that elites at any point in history impose on themselves and on their society. Culture and its components, including religion, customs and conventions, are existential subroutines that are devised and revised over time. People may be products of their culture but culture itself is also produced by people. Consequently, culture and tradition are not eternal bequests and are neither sacrosanct nor unquestionable. They can be rationally evaluated, refined and discarded where necessary in favour of higher behavioural codes. Wherever culture is projected as anything other than a man-made construct, then that is a sign of the guardians of the status quo reaffirming their aversion to any possibility of progress that threatens their outsized privileges.
Those who warn that the Emir risks being deposed by the Kano State governor for his recent “politically incorrect” statements are ironically affirming the inexorably dynamic and ever-changing nature of the society and her institutions. Emirs were once very powerful overlords of the Native Authority system. Yet in the space of decades, the Emirs were stripped of their corrupt Yandoka police, their courts and prisons, and now serve at the pleasure of state governors. Kano itself existed for hundreds of years before it became an emirate. It has evolved from a city-state to an emirate to the capital city of a state in the Nigerian federation. All these historical transitions have altered her social and political institutions and will continue do so. Whatever their powers, the guardians of the status quo cannot stop the march of time.
Some say that the Sarkin Kano’s commentaries amount to washing the North’s dirty linen in public. This is the “rufe asiri” argument (figuratively in Hausa, the avoidance of candour). However, this argument is akin to locking the stables long after the horse has bolted.
Women in Northern Nigeria could not vote until 1979. Before then, Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, the irrepressible activist whose life-long vocation was the political mobilisation of women, endured several brutal physical assaults by thugs for the criminal effrontery of being a woman and a political activist. Times have changed and they must continue to change for the better. The argument that “this is how we have always done it” as a basis for perpetuating retrogressive ideas and curbing divergent thinking, is untenable. If mere longevity of practice was sufficient to confer legitimacy, then we would still be confronting emirates steeped in warfare and slavery.
It is also telling that apparently more people have been angered by the Emir’s comments than the evils to which he has drawn attention. For instance, there has been no comparable backlash against the governor of Zamfara State who attributed the outbreak of meningitis to divine punishment for fornication – a pungent example of how politicians deploy bankrupt theologies to deflect attention from their dereliction of duty.
Some say that the Sarkin Kano’s commentaries amount to washing the North’s dirty linen in public. This is the “rufe asiri” argument (figuratively in Hausa, the avoidance of candour). However, this argument is akin to locking the stables long after the horse has bolted. Before our very eyes, the contradictions within Northern society sired one of the world’s most sadistic terrorist groups which has murdered tens of thousands people, laid waste to vast swathes of the North-East and left legions of orphans as a lost generation that could prolong what is already a multigenerational insurgency. Boko Haram’s use of children as bombers and warriors is an obvious metaphor for how the cultural alibi has despoiled Nigerian posterity. Boko Haram is the monstrous manifestation of the rabid anti-intellectualism, misogyny and religious intolerance to which the Emir and likeminded voices have been drawing attention. The time for “rufe asiri” is long gone. The putrid underbelly of the cultural alibi is staring us in the face.
A Lineage of Radical Dissent
In many respects, Sarkin Kano’s interventions (which predate his ascension to the throne) situate him firmly within a very historical tradition of radical dissent and inquisition by introspective aristocratic insiders. A thread can be traced from Sanusi’s engagements all the way back to Abdullahi Dan Fodio’s scathing condemnation of the newly installed rulers after the Jihad, for abandoning the revolution’s commitment to social justice and education and their remorseless self-aggrandisement.
More contemporarily, Mallam Aminu Kano and the Northern Elements Progressive Union and its Second Republic successor, the Peoples’ Redemption Party, essayed similar polemical attacks on the aristocratic classes and the tyrannical native authorities. In a statement on August 1, 1950, NEPU lamented that “for a population of some 15,000,000 people…there is only one missionary-trained doctor who is a Northerner, while there is no single engineer, economist, lawyer, educationist.” The party demanded “mass and compulsory education for all Northern youths of school age” and called for the establishment of “many more elementary schools, secondary schools, technical institutions and teacher training colleges to be opened in the North.”
Long before he ascended the throne of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, as he was then known, had condemned the opportunistic adoption of a brand of Sharia law that targeted the poor and the weak such as teen mothers and cattle thieves and left the edifice of decadent power and social inequity unscathed.
It is permissible to read the Emir of Kano’s recent critiques of Northern socioeconomic conditions as a reboot of NEPU’s analysis from over fifty years ago. Obviously, the North is not as bereft of professionals as it was in 1950 but there is no doubt that relative to the growth of the general population, it still records alarmingly high human capital deficits that suggest that too little has changed since then.
Another prefiguration of Muhammadu Sanusi II was the radical historian Yusufu Bala Usman whose trenchant thesis on the political manipulation of religion in Nigeria by the ruling class remains depressingly current and is probably the single most acute explanation for the crisis of development in Northern Nigeria. Many Northern political elites sell a vision to the underclass of their need to adopt a formulaic plebeian piety that supposedly simulates the pristine virtue of a thoroughly mythical version of Seventh century Arabia. In contrast, the aspiration the ruling classes have for themselves is rarefied access to the marvels of 21st century Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This is an instantly recognisable old-fashioned swindle in which the powerful prescribe holiness for the poor and hedonism for themselves.
Long before he ascended the throne of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, as he was then known, had condemned the opportunistic adoption of a brand of Sharia law that targeted the poor and the weak such as teen mothers and cattle thieves and left the edifice of decadent power and social inequity unscathed. In calling for Islam to be reclaimed, the Emir was drawing attention to something Usman had diagnosed in the late 1970s – the cynical manipulation of religious symbols for self-serving populist mobilisation.
This then is the intellectual tradition of which the Sarkin Kano is presently the most vocal torchbearer. (Senator Shehu Sani also grew up in this tradition). In ideological terms, Mallam Aminu and Dr. Usman were leftists, while the Emir is evidently to the right of these two iconic agitators. But at the beginning of his career as a public intellectual, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was a Marxist and only within the last fifteen years did his ideological conversion to neo-liberalism occur. Even so, his emphasis on social justice, women’s rights, mass education and his critiques of fraudulent religious populism in the North have been consistent.
It has been said that the controversy over the Emir’s engagements reflects the longstanding dichotomy between the worldly Yan boko (western-educated Northerners) and their more insular conservative traditionalist counterparts and their struggle for the soul of Northern Nigeria. From the perspective of the radical progressive tradition of which Mallam Aminu Kano and Bala Usman were luminaries, this controversy represents a different sort of ideological polarity. As their fellow ideologue, Balarabe Musa, the Second Republic Governor of Kaduna, declared in June 1981, “We do not belong to the retrograde North of feudalists, slaveholders, crooks, parasites and foreign agents. We are of the cultured North of democracy, liberation and social progress for all the people of Nigeria.” The intellectual lineage to which the Emir of Kano belongs would perceive his travails in the light of the multigenerational struggle between “the retrograde north” and “the cultured north.”
The fact that a figure of the Emir’s stature is highlighting these issues can galvanise both civil society and the government. It also has not escaped attention that some of those now accusing the Emir of being a prima donna had no such complaints when the previous administration was the subject of his barbs.
A man as self-possessed and opinionated as Sanusi was never going to be gagged and blindfolded by the alleged protocols of his office. The tension between free spirited intellection and conservative decorum was inevitable. Both the throne and its occupant are testing each other. Mallam Aminu and Usman were resisters who renounced their aristocratic pedigree in order to more effectively resist the status quo. The Sarkin Kano may well similarly walk the path of class suicide.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
Some of the Emir’s critics argue that given his access to people in high office, he should be availing himself of those private channels to deliver his counsel to reigning politicians. The simple response to this is that governance is neither a secret society nor a covert operation. The public deserves to be aware of all alternatives to extant policy. The fact that a figure of the Emir’s stature is highlighting these issues can galvanise both civil society and the government. It also has not escaped attention that some of those now accusing the Emir of being a prima donna had no such complaints when the previous administration was the subject of his barbs.
While the accusations of financial recklessness leveled against the Emir merit a response, different matters must not be conflated. The Emir has raised issues of grave existential consequence for Nigeria from which we must not be distracted. It is only fair to ask if these allegations of impropriety would have surfaced if Sarkin Kano had held his peace. Would his stewardship of the Kano Emirate Council treasury have become an issue if he had not ruffled conservative feathers and offended fragile political and “socio-cultural” sensibilities? How many cases of feudal overindulgence are out there obscured by a veil of conspiratorial silence all because the perpetrators have refused to break ranks and rock the boat of the conservative status quo?
Rarely, if ever, have the financial dealings of an emirate council been dragged into the public domain even though such treasuries have long been unobtrusively opaque. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that any malfeasance in this secretive administrative sphere is limited to Kano. Even so, if this leads to greater openness and transparency, it would aid the cause of institutional reform. The Emir will answer his accusers but the issues he has highlighted are of a far grander scale and urgently demand attention. This is one instance in which, despite our penchant for personalising issues, the messenger must pale into irrelevance and the message must take centre stage.
This rather needless controversy raises a secondary question. If traditional rulers are not expected to draw attention to inconvenient facts, as the Emir of Kano has done, and are meant to simply carry on in cloistered indifference to pervasive social dysfunction, then why do they exist at all? If traditional rulers cannot speak truth, and are meant to be complicit in the ruination of the society, why do we need them? What is their purpose? Despite their hoary veneer, traditional institutions are man-made institutions and whatever is formulated by man can be deconstructed by man. In a republic with aspirations to democratic egalitarianism, traditional rulers are a contradiction in terms and a dubious anachronism. Perhaps, Sarkin Kano’s attempt to question the status quo and reinvent the emiral institution will go down as either the alternative or the prelude to its ultimate extinction.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.