David Pilling Financial Times
Lunch with the FT Lamido Sanusi, The Emir of Kano on polygamy and Nigeria’s ‘missing billions’ The former Nigerian central banker on not feeling guilty about inheriting privilege
It is somewhat disconcerting to stare up at a 10ft portrait of the man with whom you are about to dine. There, on the luminescent green wall of his palace, is a portrait of the Emir of Kano in all his resplendence. He’s decked out in a full-length gold and blue robe, a shimmering hat like an outsized bowler, and furry sandals the size of dinner plates. That such a personage could be alive today, let alone about to eat with me, seems mildly preposterous.
It is nearly 8pm and the palace is eerily deserted. I’m being led by a retainer along a dark corridor. The emir had proposed dinner rather than lunch because of his schedule and the timings of flights to Kano, an ancient city in northern Nigeria. I’d looked into driving from Abuja, but had been warned about a recent spate of kidnappings.
I find myself alone in a library with a large throne at one end and an old ceiling fan clattering overhead. The books are mostly histories of Africa, but there is also a prominently displayed copy of Private Eye with a cover featuring Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, and a Muppet.
Part of the modern and the ancient establishment, the 56-year-old Lamido Sanusi II inhabits two worlds. As Emir of Kano, he is considered the most important Muslim authority in Nigeria after the Sultan of Sokoto. A former banker, he is also known for his actions as central bank governor in 2014, when he sent shockwaves through the establishment by exposing a $20bn shortfall in state coffers. Under the cloak of tradition, he takes pot shots at the elite and pronounces on social issues, including child marriage, which still flourishes in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north. There are those who consider him brilliant and those who consider him arrogant. Not a few consider him both.
Eventually someone comes for me. I’m walked through the formal gardens towards the emir’s quarters, an imposing white building, ablaze with lights. A retainer leads me into another library, this one more modern and with an almost cinema-sized flat-screen TV embedded in one of the floor-to ceiling-bookcases. There are 20,000 books.
Time passes. I fiddle with a tissue box printed with a photograph of the emir. On the side, where normally it would say Kleenex, it reads “Muhammad Sanusi II”.
The silence is disturbed by chanting. The doors are flung open and in glides Sanusi. “Sorry for being late,” he says. It is past 9pm. “I had not been informed you had arrived.” He speaks in an impeccable English of the sort that has withered in Britain itself. In the flesh, he’s wearing a simple white robe, his head covered with a Yasser Arafat-style headscarf.
Sanusi during his coronation in Kano in 2015 © Reuters
We move to the dining room, which is decorated in pale yellow. A table has been set and silver tureens are arranged along one wall. Oddly, for a house with dozens of servants, we are to serve ourselves. Sanusi, quite familiar with Lunch with the FT, describes the food. “This is waina,” he explains, pointing to some puffy bread. “W-A-I-N-A. It’s made from rice. The rice is ground. It’s then made into paste and fried in oil. And it goes with a vegetable soup.”
“This is tuwo shinkafa,” he continues, using a Hausa word for snow-white balls of pounded rice. He proceeds through each tureen: chicken and spinach curry, green soup, plantains, white rice and, of course, the orange jollof rice, without which no Nigerian feast is complete.“You routinely include the price tag,” he notes, referring to FT tradition. “My wives cooked this. I don’t know how much it cost them.
Before I can pick him up on that particular detail, he continues, “If I have a guest, he eats what we eat. It’s strange when you have people stay in your home, and you go out to get Chinese food. Grab a plate.”
I serve myself some soup, which turns out to be deliciously peppery and flecked with small chunks of meat, and some bread rolls and butter. We take it to the table. How did he become emir, a position his grandfather also held? “I’m sure you know that for most princes the ultimate is to sit on the throne,” he says, as though I’m constantly rubbing shoulders with kings-in-waiting.
In a system adapted by the British, who conquered the caliphate in 1903, “kingmakers” select three candidates and present them to the state governor. Sanusi’s great-uncle Ado Bayero had sat on the throne for 51 years. When he died in 2014, Sanusi made his interest known. “It was what I’ve always wanted to be.”
The timing was fortunate. Sanusi had just been suspended by President Goodluck Jonathan from the central bank for his revelations about the “missing billions”. These remain, as Sanusi puts it, “unaccounted for”, despite the vaunted anti-corruption drive of Jonathan’s successor, Muhammadu Buhari. “The thing about the ‘missing billions’ is you’re never going to find them in one place,” he says, explaining that much of the money was dissipated in complex arbitrage, invoice and subsidy scams.
Jonathan and the governor of Kano were adversaries. Any enemy of Jonathan’s was a friend of the governor. Sanusi got the nod. “As a Muslim, we believe that God decides who will be emir,” he explains, dipping his heavy silver spoon into the elegant soup bowl. “Then he creates a situation such that circumstances conspire to lead to that predetermined result.”
It hits me how strange this encounter is. This is possibly the only time in my life I’ll sit down with a man who believes he was selected by God. It is like dropping in for a bite with the Sun King. If God relies on the machinations of Nigerian politics to bring about his will, I muse, then he really does work in mysterious ways. Divinely chosen or not, Sanusi is in no doubt he deserves it.
A horse belonging to the the Emir of Kano © David Pilling
“It’s not for me to say,” he adds, before proceeding, “but the kingmakers look at a number of qualities. I spent my life as a successful banker. I taught economics at the university. I worked at an investment bank. I was chief risk officer in the two largest banks in the country. I was the CEO of the oldest and largest commercial bank in Nigeria, First Bank. I was the best central bank governor four years out of five. Why would I feel guilty about inheriting privilege? I have earned my stars in every competitive environment.” With a CV like that, God could hardly have said no.
Sanusi is part of the 25m-strong Fulani ethnic group who live across a tract of the Sahel and West Africa. Primarily Muslim, they trace their roots to North Africa and the Middle East. His line of emirs dates from the jihad waged by Usman dan Fodio, born in 1754, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, which overran much of what is today northern Nigeria. Kano had been founded in the 10th century. The palace we’re in was built five centuries later. “I’m the 57th king, but I’m the 14th Fulani emir and the 13th in my line.”
He scans the ornate surroundings. “I grew up here. My father was a crown prince but he was a career diplomat, so I was brought up by a guardian.” He was sent to Catholic primary school in the nearby city of Kaduna and went on to King’s College Lagos, the Ahmadu Bello University and later the International University of Africa in Khartoum. “I have the benefit of having been in and out of this culture, knowing all the traditions of the palace, but also mixing in a more heterogeneous setting.”
It feels empty, I say. Who else lives here? “You’d be surprised. You’ve got some princesses, my grandfather’s sisters, my cousins, my father’s sisters, my nieces. Then we’ve got the wives and concubines of previous emirs who chose to stay here. And you’ve got the help and their families. Historically, you had slaves in the palace, and they’re now basically part of the families. So they’re there. They literally call themselves ‘the slaves of kings’. They use that word, but you don’t buy or sell or own them.”
For a self-proclaimed modernist, I say, “isn’t this all a bit . . . ” — I fumble for the word — “medieval?” “It’s important for us to retain our history, to retain our roots. But the books, you see, are not medieval.” Later, he directs me to some volumes from his “Marxist days”, including the Collected Works of Vladimir Lenin.
“A lot of my writings are progressive. I’ve been involved in such debates as why it is OK to cut off the hand of a man who stole a goat, but allow a governor or a minister who stole millions to get away with it.” That hardly makes him a Trotskyite. “People think I’m radical, but I’m not,” he says, pouring us both some blood-red hibiscus juice. “In Sudan, they call it kerkede.” It’s sweet with a subtle tartness.
“My daughter wants to be the next emir of Kano, and she’s disappointed I’ve not yet appointed a woman to the Kano Emirate Council.” Couldn’t she be emir, I ask, prompting a giggle. “It’s got to be incremental, without necessarily turning the society on its head,” he says, adding that perhaps his granddaughter or great-granddaughter could take the position. Sanusi has seven daughters and five sons.
“That is the greatest challenge for us. How are you a custodian of a legacy, of a history, of a culture? And how do you also serve as a guide as that culture navigates its way in a modern world?”
It seems a good time to broach his marital arrangements. As we help ourselves to another round of food — I go for the curry and a tennis-sized ball of pounded rice — I inquire which of his wives prepared the food. “OK, I have four wives,” he says, clarifying that his fourth is still at university and won’t join him at the palace until she has graduated. “I believe this came from two of the wives,” he says.
Some of our readers, I say, will be uncomfortable at the idea of polygamy. In the era of #MeToo, isn’t it a tradition whose time is up? “If it’s a religious law, it’s a religious law. I get a lot of comments from the west on polygamy. But let me give you a different perspective. In Britain today, you can have relationships with any number of women. You can have six partners. If they agree and you’re not forcing them, you are not committing any offence. But if you decided to marry them, you’d go to jail. I don’t understand that. If a society does not criminalise adultery, it has no business criminalising polygamy.”
In that case, if a woman wants to have three or four husbands, surely the same logic should apply? He smiles at the obvious rejoinder and talks about the need, in a patriarchal society of the pre-DNA era, to determine the male parentage of a child. But we live in the DNA era, I object, cutting off a discourse about Bertrand Russell. He nods. He concedes too that, in much of Africa, before the imposition of Islam and Christianity, matrilineal societies, such as the Ashanti, were common. In the end, he falls back on religion. “I know Islamic law doesn’t allow it.”
Ironically, Sanusi has regularly spoken out against polygamy — for poor people. “It’s a total misconception of Islamic law for people to think that you have the right to marry more than one wife and not be able to maintain them. It’s not a blank cheque. You can’t just produce children and leave them on the streets begging and out of school.” He links many of the problems of Nigeria’s north, which is generally poorer than the predominantly Christian south, to misinterpretations of Islamic creed. “We have a youth bulge and youth unemployment. We have a drug problem. And it’s all come from, I think, a collapse of family values.”
Sanusi fetches one of the rice balls which, he says, he will eat with knife and fork rather than with his fingers. He turns to militant Islam. He has spoken out often against Boko Haram, the Islamist group that has terrorised much of north-east Nigeria. A few days after our dinner, the group kidnapped 110 girls from nearby Yobe state in a replica of the Chibok abductions of 2014. Back then, Boko Haram was threatening Kano itself. Sanusi was on pilgrimage to Mecca a few months after he became emir when two suicide bombers detonated themselves and gunmen opened fire at Kano’s central mosque, killing 120 people. He caught the next plane back. “When I arrived, the imam, everybody had abandoned the mosque. So I led prayers every single day after sunset. Everybody gathered round. I encouraged defiance. I think that was a turning point.”
A car driving out of the emir’s palace during his coronation in 2015 © Reuters
Boko Haram is not the only armed group terrorising Nigeria. Herdsmen belonging to Sanusi’s Fulani group have been accused of entering villages across Nigeria armed with AK-47s and leaving slaughter in their wake. Sanusi says that is a one-sided account, saying villagers have slaughtered hundreds of Fulani without attracting the same opprobrium. Herdsmen, he says, have been pushed by the effects of global warming to look for pasture, while their traditional grazing routes have been colonised by settled farmers. I return to the tureens for a last helping, picking plantains and jollof rice, which is pleasantly al dente with a tangy flavour. Sanusi blames Nigeria’s politicians for whipping up conflict. “By being demagogues, they divert attention from their own failings. So they don’t have to account for the roads not built, the schools not built, the hospitals they’ve not constructed, the women dying in childbirth.”
He won’t be drawn on party politics, saying his position demands neutrality. “I am an emir and my subjects, my people, have different political loyalties.” For decades, he says, “Nigeria has been nothing but a rentier state, a site of the extraction of rent by an elite. There have been sporadic attempts to change that, to address that. I suppose this government has focused a little bit more on agriculture, power and infrastructure,” he says, giving lukewarm praise for Buhari’s government. It is approaching midnight, surely the latest ever “Lunch” with the FT. When we step back into the garden, a man in the shadows springs to his feet. He walks a few paces ahead of us, chanting.
“The fourth emir in my line was called Mohammed Bello,” Sanusi says. “He became blind, so a tradition was started where he would be directed. They would tell him when to stand up, when to walk, when to turn left, when to turn right, when to bend his head, when to be careful.”
The tradition has persisted, and Sanusi too is chanted through the palace. “Frankly, it’s funny. Sometimes, even though we see, it is as if we are blind.”
We say our farewells at the gate. In the dark, I stumble down three stone steps. As I regain my footing, I mutter to myself — where is that chanter when you need him?
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos