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His aristocratic lineage stretches back centuries and the young Sanusi seemed destined for a charmed existence, a none-too-demanding ascent to one of the most powerful positions in Nigeria’s rarefied northern elite.
That proved altogether too dull for the young Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. Instead, he charted his own course, making sure to take aim at the financial, political, and, most recently, religious establishment on the way up.
A fiercely articulate speaker, he seems compelled to attack the shibboleths of the ruling class from which he sprung. His fan base across the country fluctuates, but he remains tremendously popular with young Nigerians, reaching out to all ethnicities and religious faiths.
Some just enjoy the spectacle of a scion of the aristocracy laying into the country’s ruling class with such abandon and evocative language. More conspiratorial minds hypothesise that he is committing class suicide or has embarked on a long-term clandestine campaign for the presidency.
By all accounts, neither interpretation is right. The Emir of Kano is a philosopher king who revels in new ideas, determined to modernise northern Nigeria. He stands out because so few of his counterparts in the ruling elite take on this role of public intellectual, especially when it involves delivering inconvenient truths to the bastions of power.
Sanusi’s first big clash with authority was on his return from studying Islamic law and finance in Sudan in the early 1990s. Then General Sani Abacha, another Kano man, suspected Sanusi of mobilising a grassroots movement against his oppressive regime. After dodging that bullet, perhaps literally, Sanusi went on to head one of the top commercial banks in the country, First Bank of Nigeria.
It was as governor of the central bank that Sanusi rose to super-stardom in Nigeria and around the world. His first campaign – against grand corruption in the banking sector – sent shockwaves across Nigeria in 2009. He took six commercial banks into administration under the central bank’s tutelage and had two of their chief executives arrested. By so doing, he had averted a meltdown of the financial system.
Five years later, he shocked Nigerians again, announcing that some $20bn in oil revenue due to the central bank for sales between 2012 and 2013 had not been transferred from the state oil company and was unaccounted for in official financial reports.
Affronted by the message that he was presiding over an administration skilled in grand larceny, President Goodluck Jonathan suspended Sanusi, and security men confiscated his passport.
By June 2014, Sanusi was back in the spotlight as the newly enthroned emir of Kano. Taking the helm of Kano’s 700-year-old kingdom has not diminished Sanusi’s appetite for straight talking. Within months of President Muhammadu Buhari’s election in April 2015, Sanusi was criticising the government’s economic policy, including its refusal to float the naira and its plans for heavy foreign borrowing.
Then, in April of 2017, addressing an investment forum hosted by his friend Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State, Sanusi lambasted the northern elite for holding the region back: “Other Muslim nations have pushed forward girl-child education. They’ve pushed forward science and technology. We [in northern Nigeria] have adopted an interpretation of our culture and our religion that is rooted in the 13th century […], that refuses to recognise that the rest of the Muslim world has moved on.”
Conservatives, such as Ango Abdullahi – who chairs the Northern Elders Forum – and Zamfara State governor Abdulaziz Yari, hit back quickly. A Kano journalist, Jaafar Jaafar, followed with an acerbic critique of Sanusi, reminding him that his grandfather had been dethroned as emir. Their campaign to oust Sanusi has run into the ground for now.
Pressure from such critics might have persuaded others to moderate their views, but not Sanusi. He remains as enthusiastic as ever for radical change, as he explained in an interview with The Africa Report in Paris.
TAR: The crisis in the Sahel is deepening on all levels. What should be done as a matter of priority?
Sanusi Lamido Sanusi: When the French talk about the Sahel, they are talking about how many more French troops you need to deal with these terrorists in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. When China talks about the Sahel, it’s about reviving trade routes […]. That’s the kind of conversation we need to have. The Sahel was a major part of global commerce; it was the transit point of trade from Asia to the Atlantic and to Europe. The cities of the Sahel – Timbuktu, Gao, Kano, Agadez – were the richest cities in Africa before the steam ship, before colonialism. Many of the countries in the Sahel are part of a great Arab Islamic civilisation – the official language of communication was Arabic. If you take Kano, for 600-700 years the official language was Arabic. We had British colonialism for 60 years, and today the official language in Nigeria is English. Arabic is not an official language.
What are the implications of this?
Millions of children study the Koran and Arabic, understand the language – but on paper they are illiterate because they don’t speak English. That means there is no opportunity for them to become medical doctors, to become engineers, to become economists, to become historians.
If you study Arabic, you can study Arabic phonology, you can study the hadith, you can study the Koran, you can study Islamic law – which is fine. But you do not have other areas of knowledge that open opportunities for you in a modern economy. Now, the result is you have disgruntled people who end up in the hands of some radical scholar who sets them against the system, and they become extremists and terrorists.
When we are concerned about security, we must go back in the history of the Sahel and look at the rebalancing of our cultural priorities, the reopening of trade routes. I would like to see the French go to look at Niger and say: ‘How many solar panels do we need to generate 10,000MW of electricity? How many industries can we produce? What kind of crops can we encourage to halve desertification and give the farmers access to European and Asian markets?’ So you combat an environmental problem that has created poverty, and you also create economic empowerment for the population.
Do you think Morocco should integrate more closely with West Africa and join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)?
If you look at what it has been doing in its expansion into the African banking industry, links with its phosphate industries, selling fertilisers, attempts to improve cultural ties with Tijaniyyah and other Sufi brotherhoods, Morocco is one country that has taken the conscious decision to find strength from its history. If you think of the trans-Saharan trade routes, you can think of West Africa and the Maghreb as one single economic block – the bigger the better. Europe is expanding. Turkey wants to become European. Turkey has never been European, but it wants to be. The cultural and historical affinity between, say, northern Nigeria and Morocco is much stronger than affinity between Turkey and France.
Should West Africa rethink its trade routes and economic communities?
The countries in West, Central and North Africa need to understand that while they are political entities based on maps drawn by empires, they are also part of something that’s much bigger. Kano and Kaduna are part of Nigeria, but they are also part of Sahel.
Every time we think of development, it is how do you move goods from Lagos to the north, and goods from the north to Lagos? We’re not thinking of how do you move goods across northern Nigeria to northern Ghana without coming to Lagos. You’ve got to think of ECOWAS both as consisting of coastal states and as a Sahelian region and try to make that connection.
The thing is to look at countries like Morocco and this attempt to engage with Africa rather than just dismiss it as: ‘These are Arabs going to West Africa’. There is some sense, given the history, to what they are doing. There is a way in which we can reach some arrangement beneficial to both Morocco and to us in West Africa. When Morocco said it wanted to join ECOWAS, there was this seminar in Abuja that urged the government to reject it as an attempt to challenge Nigeria’s supremacy in West Africa and said that this country [Morocco] has nothing in common with West Africa.
Is the West hypocritical about democracy?
This idea that we want people to have democracy but we only accept the results if it conforms to what we want […], I mean look, I don’t want Donald Trump, but I wouldn’t ask for his assassination. I would vote him out after four years. But that’s who Americans voted for, and we’ve got to live with that. What we want is for the West to accept that if the Arabs vote for a Muslim Brotherhood party, let them vote for them. After four years, let the people in those countries decide they do not want them.
How worried are you about this tide of ultra-nationalism and growth of neo-fascist parties?
The world goes through these phases. You’ve had an economic crash. When people get into difficulty, they look for who to blame. They turn around, and it’s the Muslim, it’s the black, it’s the foreigner, it’s the Jew – it’s always happened historically. What we need is a sufficiently large number of sensible and calm hands who will say to people: ‘This is wrong.’ The West has the advantage of having at senior levels of political leadership highly educated, cosmopolitan people – whether they are on the right or on the left – who understand the long-term implications of encouraging these kind of movements. I think Trump is an exception, I don’t think you’ve had an American president before – not even Reagan was this bad – who encouraged this kind of reaction. I don’t think it’s going to be a trend. I don’t see that it’s possible in France or in Germany or in the Netherlands.
If economic conditions don’t improve in Africa, do you think you will see the growth of mass protests, mass political mobilisation against the ruling classes?
It depends on what you’re looking at. What is Boko Haram? What are the herder-settler clashes? What’s all this kidnapping and robbery in Nigeria? In a sense this is the Nigerian version of people coming to the streets to demonstrate. These people are marginalised, they feel there is no future. They are against the system – they just do it the wrong way. If you have bad governance, if you have poverty, you will see a reaction. Whether it’s the kind of reaction you want where people come out on the street and demonstrate in Venezuela, or radical armies that want secession or they want an Islamic republic, […] these are expressions of different forms of discontent. It’s difficult to turn a large number of people into radical Islamists or drug gangs if they have jobs and security.
How has the introduction of sharia law changed Nigeria’s politics and economy?
I was against the politicisation of Islam. I did not believe that those who said they wanted sharia understood what sharia was. For them, implementation was cutting off the hand of a thief, stoning adulteresses. It was just punishments without laying the foundations.
You’ve got mass poverty, mass hunger. You’ve not provided education, you’ve not provided healthcare, you’ve not provided jobs for people, and all you want is to cut off the hand of a man who steals. And you think that is sharia. When you look at Islamic law, the punishments account for less than 2% of all the teachings of the law.
Zamfara State was the first state in Nigeria to implement sharia; it has the highest incidence of poverty. So what conclusion would you draw from that? We need to address the issues of education, healthcare, life expectancy and domestic violence.
A movement calling for independence for south-east Nigeria has been labelled terrorist. Do you see it as a major threat?
There’s a discourse today about Biafra, people thinking that they can have another civil war. Nigeria had a civil war from 1967 to 1970. It was Nigerian troops against Biafran troops. If you have a civil war today in Nigeria between, say, the north and other parts of the country you’re going to have Islamic State come in, you’re going to have Al-Qaeda come in, Boko Haram, you’re going to have Christians and Muslims. It’s going to be a religious war. It is not going to be an internal war, not after Libya. The world has changed.
Do you agree that the south-east has been marginalised?
Where do you have the lowest levels of electricity? Where do you have the lowest life expectancy? Where do you have the lowest per capita income? Where do you have the highest rates of unemployment? You’ll find that it is in the Muslim north. The south-east in terms of human development indices has been much, much better than the north. So this idea that they are marginalised, I don’t know.
When [General Olusegun] Obasanjo was president, the finance minister, the central bank governor, the director general of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the director of the stock exchange were all from the south-east. The entire economy was in the hands of the south-east. So they need to get back into the ruling party or get their party to win elections.
Many of the Igbos have their investments outside Igboland. They have houses all over the country, they’ve got investments all over the country. There are more investments by Igbo outside Igboland than in Igboland. So if you break up the country, they’ve got more to lose.
This article came from the November 2017 print edition of The Africa Report
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