The most powerful man in this ancient city rides through the streets on prized thoroughbreds and in vintage Rolls-Royce convertibles. One servant holds a designer umbrella over his head, no matter the weather. Another fans him with exotic-bird feathers. As soon as they see him, a group of uniformed men fire cannons into the air.
Muhammad Sanusi II is the emir of Kano. For 1,000 years, his predecessors ruled one of Africa’s great empires. Now, Sanusi has inherited his family’s palace, its pageantry and its nostalgia for a Nigeria that no longer exists.
He is, by some measures, the most important traditional leader in West Africa. But in a country of pop stars, oil tycoons and cutthroat politicians, his reign has become a litmus test for the relevance of Nigeria’s tribal and religious chiefs. Is the man on Kano’s velvet throne an expensive anachronism?
Versions of that question are being asked across Africa, as mayors and chief executives compete for power with tribal elders and paramount chiefs, as young people engage with their communities on Facebook as frequently as the ones in their native villages, and as booming cities draw more families from their ancestral homes.
“People have this idea of what an emir should be — he’s elderly, he’s quiet, he’s detached,” Sanusi said. “I’m from a different generation.”
In 2014, Boko Haram, perhaps the world’s most vehemently anti-modern Islamist extremist group, tried to kill Sanusi in an attack on Kano’s central mosque. He happened to be traveling that day. More than 100 others were killed. The assassination attempt underscored Sanusi’s prominence and the risks he was undertaking as a reformer. Sanusi has not let up.
A few times a week, Sanusi holds court in an annex of his palace, a cathedral-like chamber where he sits atop an ornate throne, resting on cushions embroidered with his name. Visitors bow before him on a red carpet, their foreheads touching the ground.
On one hand, the hearings are a theatrical display. Sanusi’s henchmen surround him whenever he adjusts his robe or hat so the public can’t see his movements. Another group of men sound 10-foot iron horns before he takes the throne. Until someone takes out a smartphone, Sanusi’s palace appears stuck in time, in the 19th century, or the 10th.
But as a line forms of people seeking Sanusi’s counsel, it’s clear that his role is more than ceremonial. There are divorce cases and property disputes and visits from government officials. During one recent session, Nigeria’s police chief arrived with his deputies, lining up in front of the throne. Sanusi lectured them about criminal justice reform, the man with no official power instructing the formal keepers of Africa’s wealthiest nation.
Remaining relevant, and proving his modernity, has come at a price. Sanusi is a public critic of men who marry more than one wife when they can’t afford to support multiple families. He is a proponent of contraception and an advocate of women earning university degrees before they are married. In Kano’s conservative Islamic community, those positions haven’t gone over well.
“Many saw him tilting the balance toward a pro-Western agenda here, and that created problems,” said Tijani Nanyia, a history professor at Kano’s Maitama Sule University.
Childhood dream comes true
The Kingdom of Kano was established in the 10th century and grew into one of the continent’s great trading hubs, along the trans-Sahara route connecting northern and southern Africa. Over the centuries, it changed hands between powerful groups, eventually becoming an Islamic emirate in 1805.
The emirate remained important throughout British colonial rule. In 1961, Queen Elizabeth came to visit the emir. The city exported leather and cotton to Europe’s finest designers. The emir received an official salary from the central government. Presidents flocked to Kano to visit, to be seen in the presence of northern Nigeria’s power broker.
Even when he was a child, Sanusi dreamed of becoming emir, a hereditary position that belonged to his great-uncle from 1963 to 2014.
“On the playground, when we were playing games, he would play the part of the emir,” said Ahmed Umar, Nigeria’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who attended school with Sanusi.
But first Sanusi went into investment banking, taking a break to study Islamic law in Sudan before being chosen in 2009 as the head of Nigeria’s central bank. He wore a bow tie. He appeared on CNBC to discuss inflation and foreign reserves. In 2011, after implementing reforms known as “the Sanusi tsunami,” he was named Central Bank Governor of the Year by The Banker magazine.
In 2014, when his great-uncle died, Kano’s emirate council, a group of elders, chose Sanusi to be the next emir. It was a startling transition. Sanusi replaced the bow tie with ornate robes and hats and canes. He put himself at the center of Kano’s spectacle — the cannons now firing for him, his longtime friends now bowing at his feet.
But Sanusi knew as well as anyone that Nigeria was changing. He could read about it in the newspapers. He could see it on television.
“57 years post independence and we are still not quite clear as to what to do with our traditional political institutions,” Morenike Taire, a columnist at Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper, wrote in October 2017. “They seem kind of cute but serve no political purpose in the modern scheme of things.”
“They are literally relics of the dead past in the modern world,” a Nigerian comedy writer, David Hundeyin, told the New Yorker earlier this year, lambasting one chief whose entourage blessed an airplane with a traditional dance before takeoff.
‘A difficult transition’
Sanusi’s ancestors had overseen public education in northern Nigeria; they had controlled the region’s budget; they had dictated economic policy. Now, Sanusi is technically less powerful than Kano’s elected governor, who has the authority to fire the emir.
But Sanusi’s moral authority is real. He has devoted much of his recent time to reforms that would have been unimaginable under his predecessors. He has been praised for his liberalism — especially overseas. Before an interview with The Washington Post began, Sanusi opened and read a long, handwritten letter from the queen of the Netherlands.
But in Kano, even his means of reaching out to his subjects has been controversial.
Early on in his reign, Sanusi was a frequent contributor to a number of WhatsApp groups, joining friends and residents of the state in sometimes-heated conversations about Islam and modern life. Some traditionalists were shocked. Eventually, Sanusi stopped contributing to the groups.
“People said, ‘No, that’s not the role of the emir. He’s not supposed to be engaging in these debates on WhatsApp. That’s not how he earns respect,’” said Tijani Garba, a professor at Northwest University in Kano.
“It’s been a difficult transition,” Sanusi acknowledged.
He kept trying to redirect his authority — to prove that there was no contradiction between being an emir and embracing the modern world. But sometimes it felt like the modern world was derailing his efforts.
This month, a big story about the emir broke in the Nigerian press. The man at the helm of a fake Instagram account impersonating Sanusi was arrested.
He had 260,000 followers.
This article was originally written in Washington Post