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Leah, the Sardauna’s daughter


The Sadauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello and school girls

One of the greatest struggles of the old North was how to convince its citizens to send their female wards to schools.

Women, for the flag bearers of the old North, were not to be seen or heard.

I remember one of my trips to Sokoto in 1987 to see Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, the Baradeen Sokoto and one of the leading princes of the sultanate.


He later ascended the throne after the death of Sultan Siddiq Abubakar. I did not see any adult female in Dasuki’s Maiyetti Allah Lodge. All of them were far away from the public area.

But it was clear even then that Sokoto had changed and was still changing from the era when Ahmadu Bello, the late Premier of the defunct Northern Region, was the Lord of the Manor.

Bello was born in 1910, seven years after the last independent Caliph, Muhammadu Attahiru the first, was killed at the battle of Burmi.

For more than 100 years, the Caliphate Armies had been the lord of the Savannah plane; their soldiers on their magnificent horses were ever ready for battle.

When he got the news of the British forces marching to his headquarters, the Caliph Muhammadu Attahiru moved his troops to confront the invaders. He would not negotiate nor surrender.

The Caliphate soldiers, in their flowing robes, mounted well caparisoned horses. They were fully armed with flashing swords produced by skilled blacksmiths of the empire.

The battle was joined and the caliphate army suffered a shocking defeat. The caliph fell and the ruminant of his troops fled across the Sahara.

Lugard installed a new ruler and forbade him from using the title of caliph. Henceforth, the ruler of Sokoto was to use the less evocative title of Sultan.

The story of the British conquest was the one that dominated Bello’s childhood. Despite the confrontations, Lugard coveted the friendship of the Muslim rulers.

From his experience in India, the Muslims were more likely to be friendly to the British, who were Christians, than adherents of other religions.

That was the experience of Lugard in India and he quickly employed that experience in the new territory which he was to name Nigeria after the amalgamation of 1914.

Henceforth, as long as the Sultan and the emirs stayed out of trouble and continued to support the British imperialists, the British would keep Christian missionaries away from the Muslim North.

Lugard and his successors kept their words. The missionaries were kept at bay from all the areas claimed by the emirs. In the 1930s when British missionaries were permitted to open a leper’s colony in Sokoto, they were forbidden to preach to their patients.

They were not to show them copies of the Bible or summon them to the chapel.

In the end, some of the cured lepers claimed to have converted, but not one of them returned. The hostility and ostracism was great in the old Sokoto for anyone to convert to Christianity.

By the time Bello became Premier of the North in 1954, he realised that the old way cannot last forever. He, as a young lad, had trekked for one week from Sokoto to Katsina to take the entrance examination to Katsina College.

He was determined to modernise the North and bring it to the 20th Century.

He built schools and schools and ultimately founded a university, the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The ABU has one of the largest university campuses in the world.

When I visited ABU in 1987, the campus was at the centre of tremendous changes in the North and the struggle between the conservative elements and their radical challengers typified by the radical prince from Katsina, Bala Usman, an historian.

The ABU girls, fashionably clad in off-shoulder bou-bou, they loved jewelries, some of them sporting gold chains on their ankles. They were the symbol of the quest for liberation from the conservative norms of the old North.

Indeed, when the women are not free, the society cannot claim to be free. They were the daughters of Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, who had done a lot to encourage the education of women in all parts of the North.

There is a cruel irony for what has happened to the practice of Islam since the days of Bello. As Premier, he inherited only two secondary schools for girls in the entire North. These were Queen Amina College and Alhuda College, both in Kano.

The Sardauna took special interest in girl’s education. Each school girl was his daughter and he toured the entire North, which is now 18 states of the Federation and Abuja, encouraging parents to know the importance of education.

By the time the Sardauna was killed in 1966, girls education had gathered proper momentum.

Today, the daughters of the Sardauna are under siege, especially in the North-East where the Boko Haram terrorists are active. In one of their latest triumphs, they have kidnapped 110 girls from a secondary school in Dapchi, Yobe State, one of the poorest states in Nigeria.

The government of President Muhammadu Buhari has succeeded in negotiating the release of 109 of the girls.

One girl is conspicuously missing: Leah Sharibu. Her colleagues said Leah was held back by her captors because she refused to convert to Islam under duress.

The fate of Leah is emblematic of how low the old North had sunk from the days of Bello. In the First Republic, all students in the North wore similar uniforms.

There was no discrimination between Christians and Muslims. Many Muslim students attended Christian schools and vice-versa. Indeed, Christmas, in the Kano of yore was one of the biggest festivals in the city.

Many Christians gladly gave their children Arabic names, hence today we have Reverend Hassan and Pastor Mohammed in the North.

Those who bore names like Hassan Kukah, Yakubu Gowon or Yakubu Danjuma never felt it was wrong. One of the most powerful members of the Ahmadu Bello’s kitchen cabinet was Reverend Lot from the Plateau.

The inheritors of Bello have now almost destroyed the legacy. Today even the cosmopolitan cities of Kano and Kaduna bear the pockmarks of religious tension and invisible divides.

Therefore, the war against Boko Haram is not for our soldiers alone. Muslim leaders should go back to their mosques and their schools and teach tolerance and the importance of education, especially education of the girl child.

They should speak out against early marriages that seem to consign the girl-child to the wasting routine of child-bearing, beastly life and early death.

They should realize that Queen Amina of the old Zaria could not have attained immortality and universal fame if she had been consigned to a life time in the darkness of discrimination and forceful idleness.

Therefore, Islamic leaders should emphasis the building of schools not just of mosques and madrasahs.

They should free the religion from the grip of those who equate freedom to mean only their own freedom to inflict violence on the legacy of tolerance and education instituted by the Sardauna.

They can start this campaign by insisting on freedom for Leah, the Sarduana’s daughter.

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