The term “traditional” can be misleading. When talking about northern Nigeria, I prefer to say “hereditary Muslim rulers.” So I’ll say that hereditary Muslim rulers have substantial religious, political, economic, social, and cultural importance in many parts of northern Nigeria. These rulers, including the Sultan of Sokoto, the Shehu of Bornu, emirs, and other figures, trace the origins of their offices to two pre-colonial Islamic empires in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs: the Empire of Sokoto and the Empire of Kanem-Bornu. From the Sokoto side, in addition to the Sultan of Sokoto himself, the Emir of Kano, Al Hajj Ado Bayero, is one of the most important figures. He took office in 1963, making him one of the longest-serving rulers today (he is 82 years old). The assassination attempt against him on January 19, in which six people died, has caused considerable consternation, and has already led authorities to increase security measures in Kano State and elsewhere.
To condense a lot of history into a few quick sentences, the rulers from the Sokoto side came to power after the jihad of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio started in 1804. Kano was under Sokoto’s control during the nineteenth century but this does not mean that Sokoto could always impose its will there – for example, Kano fought a civil war in the 1890s to resist an unpopular candidate for the Emirate installed by Sokoto (see a brief account here, p. xii). British colonial officials in northern Nigeria from approximately 1900 to 1960 left hereditary Muslim rulers in office. But the British had complicated relationships with these rulers, relationships that could involve coercion and manipulation as well as strategic cooperation. In the postcolonial period, hereditary Muslim rulers have retained significant influence in politics and society. But critics of the emirate class from the independence era to the present have accused hereditary rulers of blocking progress and drawing too close to politicians. Since at least the Boko Haram uprising of 2009, some critics have also charged that hereditary rulers have not been forceful enough in speaking and acting against radicalism and violence. Despite criticism, however, hereditary rulers retain tremendous prestige among some of their constituents; when Boko Haram attacked Kano in January 2012, many people were deeply moved by the Emir’s public grief.
The Boko Haram sect originated in northeastern Nigeria and its epicenter to some extent remains Borno State. That area was part of Kanem-Bornu before the colonial era. But Boko Haram’s westward spread has brought it into areas that were part of Sokoto, including Kano.
When Boko Haram began its campaign of guerrilla-style attacks in 2010, I initially felt that its attitude toward the hereditary rulers was ambivalent. The incident that gave me that sense was a prison break in September 2010 when Boko Haram fighters spared the life of the Emir of Bauchi, even though they had an opportunity to kill him. With various assassination attempts against emirs and their relatives from 2010 to 2013,* however, it seems that hereditary rulers are now at least tertiary targets for Boko Haram (I say tertiary because there have been many more attacks on security personnel and Christian sites). It is also possible, as with other forms of violence, that the insecurity and uncertainty created by Boko Haram’s attacks has given space to violent opportunists who are not necessarily affiliated with Boko Haram. Nigerian officials have stated, however, that they arrested Boko Haram fighters, at least one of whom who confessed to the attempt against the Emir.
Assuming Boko Haram is behind the attack, what would motivate them to kill a hereditary ruler? I can think of two main reasons. First, they may view the emirs as part of the political establishment that they seek to destroy; in the Salafi milieu from which Boko Haram emerged, harsh criticisms circulate painting the hereditary rulers as allies of politicians and opponents of Salafis. Second, they may target emirs for their symbolic importance; the attack on the Emir of Kano may have been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of last January’s mass attack in the city. If terrorism in one sense aims at spectacle, killing the Emir near the anniversary would have been a shocking piece of political symbolism.
What effects will this incident have? Already, it has spurred a ban on commercial motorbikes in Kano (the likely reasoning being that Boko Haram frequently makes use of motorbikes in its attacks). Daura Emirate in neighboring Katsina State has cancelled public celebrations connected with the Mawlud (anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday). This is not the first time such celebrations have been cancelled or abridged in recent months. Politicians, the Sultan of Sokoto, and other Muslim leaders are calling for investigations and increased security measures; the Christian Association of Nigeria also condemned the attack. I imagine we will see hereditary Muslim rulers being even more cautious than before about how and whether they appear in public.
In terms of what this incident says about the position of hereditary rulers in the north, perhaps it is possible to see this as a sign of their vulnerability and their prestige all at once, even in ways that are contradictory. In the fall, after an assassination attempt on the Emir of Fika, the commentator Shehu Salisu argued, “All over the North, the inbred respect for ward and district heads, as well as emirs, is fast diminishing and, consequently, the authority and the myths behind the traditional institutions they head. For those who feared the institutions, a new boldness is in place; for those who had high regards for them, a subtle disdain has emerged and for members of the ruling clans, the rewards of being part of the royal classes are fast ebbing.” I think is some powerful evidence for this point of view. But there is also evidence that people hold hereditary rulers in high esteem. Even Boko Haram’s choice of the Emir of Kano as a target says something about the symbolic importance of his office.
I think that neither the hereditary rulers’ decline nor the maintenance of their current prestige is inevitable. Rather it seems to me that they stand at a crossroads, and that it will be for the younger ones among them – including the Sultan of Sokoto, who is relatively young at 56, and the next Emir of Kano, whoever he may be** – to make some difficult and fateful decisions about their roles in politics and society. The challenges posed to their authority by the fragmentation of the religious landscape in the north, and by Boko Haram as one manifestation of that fragmentation, are quite formidable. But these hereditary institutions have proven highly flexible over time, and their occupants have frequently been quite adept at navigating social and political change. I would not, in other words, count the emirs and the Sultan out quite yet.
*In my list of attacks on emirs last week, I missed two alleged assassination attempts/plots against the Emir of Kano – one in 2010 and one in 2011.
**Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a grand-nephew of the current Emir, is often mentioned as a potential successor, but he will face rivals.