Given the sensitivity of the topics on which Sanusi has pronounced himself, he might want to consider, and compare, the benefits and risks of frequent public statements with a “mixed” approach of waging a more sustained intellectual battle of ideas about the direction of Islamic Northern society within the councils of the Northern emirs to mobilise support for his worldview.
On a recent “lightening” visit back home to Nigeria, I found myself accosted during my short stay in the South-East by several friends, relatives and even complete strangers on a subject in the news. That subject was the controversy sparked by recent statements by H.R.H. Muhammadu Sanusi II, the emir of Kano and a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, on the socio-economic condition of Northern Nigeria and the relationship between that reality and interpretations of the Islamic religion.
I was intrigued, as much by the substance of the comments and the passions with which they were rendered, as by the evident sentiment of my interlocutors that they were speaking with someone from their part of the country that they felt was tangibly connected with the erudite and controversial emir. The overall drift of their comments, however, was that certain home truths have deliberately not been spoken loudly, especially in the North or by Northerners, that the region has been held back by a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil and speak-no-evil syndrome, and that it is just as well that a core member of the region’s ruling class is speaking truth to conservative power.
To be sure, Sanusi is not the first to do so, though he may be the most controversial: former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar has loudly and consistently called for the constitutional restructuring of Nigeria, which popular wisdom believes is not highly favoured by the Northern political elite, but which the majority of Nigerians know to be inevitable if our country is to survive and thrive. Atiku has nevertheless pressed on and engaged politicians from the North on the subject. Leadership, we must remember, is not always a popularity contest. It is more about shaping future states of the society, and that includes the introduction and persuasive argumentation of ideas to which there may be initial resistance.
Yours truly is no authority on the Islamic religion and society in Northern Nigeria, but no educated Nigerian needs to be from that part of our country to understand and experience how the reality of the several social, economic and political factors unique to the North have complicated our march to development and nation-building. How, or even whether, these issues are tackled and resolved will determine the future trajectory of the Nigerian state. Which is to say that Sanusi’s comments are profoundly consequential.
I can recall a time when Sanusi Lamido Sanusi or “SLS” as he then was known, was rather more popular in the Islamic North and commensurately not so in the Christian South. And I remember that time because, in the line of duty at the CBN, I was a face of his policies on banking reform and the butt of reactions from his critics. And I have the “scars” to prove it! This was especially so with the “Islamic Banking” controversy, in which a regulatory policy initiative to extend financial inclusion through non-interest banking was interpreted by many in the South as an attempt by Sanusi to “Islamise” Nigeria through the financial system. (Non-interest banking is, in fact, explicitly provided for as a possible banking model under the Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act). In a divided polity, their voices rose in a loud protest. Many Muslims in the North, on the other hand, beat the drums for Sanusi, urging him not to “back down” in the face of the ensuing maelstrom.
Much of Sanusi’s professional adult life was spent preparing for his ultimate ambition of becoming the emir of Kano and reclaiming the throne occupied by his grandfather. One thing that makes him a potent agent of change is the combination of his deep knowledge as an Islamic scholar with being a banker and an economist. He is the only emir in the North with this profile.
It is necessary, before I continue, to “come clean” on some “conflicts of interest” inherently involved in my commenting on Sanusi’s controversial remarks on national issues as a traditional ruler. After I had had the privilege of a successful prior career in the global public and private sector for nearly two decades, Sanusi, by some divine “coincidence” played an instrumental role in my having the further privilege of national service to my country. Just a few days after his confirmation as the CBN Governor in June 2009 Sanusi, unsolicited, asked me in a meeting abroad to return home and join the Bank as a deputy governor if then-President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua accepted his recommendation to appoint me to the post. I hesitated at first, but the infectious nature of his vision, and the chance to play a humble part in a potentially transformative enterprise of financial sector reform, settled the matter. With a strong endorsement from Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala whose second opinion he sought, Sanusi pushed my candidature forward to UMYA. The rest is history.
It is understandably difficult, therefore, to overstate my respect and appreciation for Lamido Sanusi. We worked closely together in the CBN and, along with other colleagues, accomplished much. And yet, unschooled in the typical Nigerian pastime of sycophancy, I had the rare occasion to disagree with his approach to political or policy questions on grounds of principle. To quote the character Antonio, addressing Sebastian in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest: “Whereof what’s past is prologue: what to come, in yours and my discharge”.
Having addressed the personal connection to our subject, we can now return to the question of whether Sanusi, as a revered traditional ruler, should speak out so publicly, frequently and controversially on social and political issues of the day. Our society is one in which having the courage of one’s convictions is discouraged and often misinterpreted. In Igbo, the phrase would be: onye si gi kwube? (“Who asked you to say”?). We should note, and in all fairness to him, that along with social and religious issues, Emir Sanusi has been as vocal in his criticisms of the economic competence of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration as he was of the sins of the Goodluck Jonathan government. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that Sanusi’s controversial comments are and were motivated by a deep patriotism and not by any mala fides, ethnic, religious or otherwise. As is often the case, time brings more accurate perspectives to national controversies, and it, no doubt, will in the current matter of the emir and his more conservative kith and kin.
It is telling that, at least in regard to his economic critiques of both federal and state governments, Sanusi’s critics do not question the substance or soundness of his views. The problem seems to be that of a perceived incongruity between his position and his public channels of communication. The challenge for the North and its leaders is to focus more on the message than on the messenger and decide what type of society they want to be in the context of a part of a country striving to embrace modern economic and political transformation, without necessarily letting go of all that makes it culturally unique. One of the fundamental challenges of leadership in Nigeria is to grapple with the role of culture in development, bearing in mind the saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, often with negative consequences. Culture must be dynamic, with the unquestionably good aspects retained while those that keep us backward must necessarily be jettisoned. To illustrate, no one kills twins at birth in certain parts of Igboland anymore.
Sanusi’s present travails are important also because he has put his finger on one of the must debilitating characteristics of our polity: the outsized (and ultimately provocative) role of religion as a tool to political power when, in a supposedly secular state, it should be a private matter.
Culture also includes political culture, which has implications for economic development. It is far more productive to invest in developing the technical skills of young people, and empowering them to achieve “escape velocity” from poverty, than it is to focus single-mindedly on prospecting for oil in Lake Chad, politically “desirable” as that may be. What have the oil wells of the Niger Delta accomplished for the region’s citizens?
On the question of the education of girls in the North, Sanusi has been consistent in his passion for meeting this crucial challenge. The statistics are truly depressing. I recall that it was the subject of his keynote address at the 2013 Isaac Moghalu Foundation Public Lecture in Abuja, organised by my family. Any society that holds women down will not make progress. That is just a straightforward fact. As he has correctly noted, there are predominantly Muslim societies such as Morocco and Malaysia, that are increasingly competitive players in the world economy and are better role models for the Muslim North in Nigeria.
Much of Sanusi’s professional adult life was spent preparing for his ultimate ambition of becoming the emir of Kano and reclaiming the throne occupied by his grandfather. One thing that makes him a potent agent of change is the combination of his deep knowledge as an Islamic scholar with being a banker and an economist. He is the only emir in the North with this profile. Given the sensitivity of the topics on which Sanusi has pronounced himself, he might want to consider, and compare, the benefits and risks of frequent public statements with a “mixed” approach of waging a more sustained intellectual battle of ideas about the direction of Islamic Northern society within the councils of the Northern emirs to mobilise support for his worldview.
Sanusi’s present travails are important also because he has put his finger on one of the must debilitating characteristics of our polity: the outsized (and ultimately provocative) role of religion as a tool to political power when, in a supposedly secular state, it should be a private matter. It is just as well that Muhammadu Sanusi II has come to this point in his evolution. There is of course, also, the question of whether real change can be brought about within the confines of any elite group, or whether an egg must be broken to make an omelette. We should hope that Sanusi gets to keep the throne he fought so hard to obtain, and reign long on it. But, should he happen to fall on his sword, he might wish to consider the one option to which his personality has always truly pre-disposed him: electoral politics.