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The Sanusi paradox

By Salma Phillips
02 April 2020   |   3:50 pm
There was no inkling, even a few days to the revelation, as I landed in the city of Kano; many weeks prior, I had been working assiduously to get an audience with the Emir, for a project I was working on; I’d been hoping that he would grant me an interview, in his famed library…


There was no inkling, even a few days to the revelation, as I landed in the city of Kano; many weeks prior, I had been working assiduously to get an audience with the Emir, for a project I was working on; I’d been hoping that he would grant me an interview, in his famed library in the Palace.

My reason for seeking an interview from him was founded on somewhat of a kindred spirit appeal, which drew me to his ideologies and his worldview.

When my crew and I rode past the Palace the first few days of our work, I felt a longing for that ideological kinship, forlornly wishing that I had been able to conclude all the stringent protocols for admission into the Palace before now.

And then, these protocols suddenly didn’t matter anymore; I received calls that the illustrious Mohammed Sanusi ii was no more the Emir of Kano – dethroned, unceremoniously, leaving a sense of brazen conniving hanging palpably in the air.

In no time the news was abroad in Kano, and with such rumours and conspiracy theories as are wont to attend to campaigns of such status
For much of my life, I have been sorely concerned, indeed exasperated, by the culturally shackling belief systems held by the people of my descent; my parentage is one-half Fulani, (my mother is Kalabari, Rivers State) and I lean quite fairly towards my Fulani background, having grown up with my father in parts of Northern Nigeria; it is a rich and proud heritage.

The history is vivid and passionate; the language classical; and the bearing imperial – these are attributes one could be inspired by, if only they were not utterly conditioned by the belief systems that should have been left in the distant past where they belonged.

As if the anachronism of patriarchy were not deplorable enough, Northern Nigeria consciously, religiously entrenches the exclusion, the suppression, and cancelling of women. This, for me, is the indelible blemish that perpetuates the backwardness of my people
Women in Northern Nigeria are simply background ambience. Only to be tolerated; and Northern women, even among the quite enlightened and westernized, continue to tolerate this state of affairs for fellow women and girls, in order not to rock business boats… social status boats… status quo boats.

This systematic reduction of women and girls as a way of life is what I witnessed growing up, thankfully though, from behind the protected safety of my father’s fairly.

liberal command at home; I saw women intimidated into the backyards of houses; I saw girls denied the chance of formal education, as it is held that Western education is a ruin of women; I saw minors handed off to all kinds of men in forced marriages, and I saw the health of the married minors jeopardized.

And then I saw that I was discouraged from voicing my outrage at these troubling barbarisms; family members and friends and associates frowned at me when I frowned at the primitivism.

It is this methodical silencing of voices that I grew up in, only simmering under, hoping and searching for like-minded thinkers, and even more importantly, like-minded, public-spirited speakers against the dehumanization of women and girls.

As I started out on my projects and campaigns, I looked around for other women of Northern extraction who would link up and form a stronger bond of women speaking out; we would have women’s backs; we would make our contributions to change the mindset, and influence a new generation of Northern girls who would help catapult the Northern culture into a brilliant future as is deserving.

While waiting for this futuristic utopia to germinate, I was presented with one of life’s many ironies.

During an NGO event, the Societal Healthcare Organization Breast Cancer Walk Initiative, in partnership with my foundation ( The Salma Phillips Foundation) I was privileged to have been in the presence of His Majesty, the then Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi ii, and I was astounded by his passion for the education of the girl child in Northern Nigeria!

It wasn’t quite Eureka in the sense that I had anticipated; here was a juggernaut of Northern Nigeria decision making, a man, one who anyone would easily have viewed as a leading agent of the patriarchy, declaring publicly for the emancipation of Northern women and girls through proper education!

Mohammed Sanusi, or SLS, as he is famously known as, has always courted controversy; before actually meeting him, the controversy was all I knew his name for; but over the years of seeing him in that light, my consciousness always seemed to recognize that his positions were usually that of public-spiritedness; in a society such as ours where self-interest and narrow agendas are orthodox, that naturally placed him in the minority bracket of the heretic.

If he had only left his non-conformism at the level of national politics, Sanusi would have been fine, even, way under the radar of the establishment, who could very well have ignored his voice and dismissed him as a maverick; his opinions would have remained conveniently in the realms of intellectual engagements over economics or social systems, among his peers and fellow leading men.

But Sanusi had dared; he had made bold to speak up for the most vulnerable; the girl child of Northern Nigeria; in a system that was hell-bent on repressing her. This was Sanusi’s soft underbelly; his Achilles heel.

As a Paramount Ruler in Kano, a territory that represents a bedrock of 13th-Century worldview, you could not be the symbolic head of a religio-cultural establishment which insists that girl children need no education other than Islamic studies, and yet at once be the loudest clear voice on the behalf of the Northern girl children’s enlightenment.

This indeed is the core of the anomaly; a fascinating paradox for the progressive-minded which are few and far in between. A mortifying paradox for the atavistic, which are the mainstream in Northern Nigeria.

In my travels across this region, in the course of my project, I encountered what was clearly a pattern in the life of the people, specifically the ordinary folk; there is an acceptance of the system that sustains violence against women; in all forms; women who have been intimidated into the backyards for years have many children; the girls among these children are not put in schools, and a result, are highly exposed to threats of abuse, sexual and physical. There are many cases of men raping these girls, girls as little as 7 years old, 4 years old… and even 2 years old; these rapists are given a free pass by their fellow men, by the community, and by the jaundiced justice system, using claims of insanity of the rapists or simply by denial.

These damaged uneducated girls are soon handed off to men as wives; the only possible prospect open to the girls; the girls are soon forced into breeding children, physiological rigours which their tender bodies are not yet ready for. Many of the girls become afflicted by reproductive health problems that keep them bedridden for the rest of their lives; the ones who escape this foul misery, continue to breed more daughters who would face more of the same, perpetuating the vicious cycle; these women can only lament their lot internally, lest they awake the passions of reprimand from their leading men.

I was appalled by the general hush-hush of the people towards these behaviours. And my determination to speak out became further inflamed, ally or no. And then, soon enough, to my unexpected consolation, I found that I could have an ally sharing my dismay, in one of the eminent leading men.

Education is an important foundation to improve the status of women and has also been recognized as a fundamental strategy for development. No sustainable development is possible if women remain uneducated, discriminated against and disenfranchised. Northern Nigeria’s high gender inequity in education places the majority of young girls at a severe disadvantage. Less than half of young people (6 – 25 years) living in northern Nigeria are currently enrolled in school and the majority of students are males(70%). This
study’s findings indicate there are nearly twice as many boys graduating from primary school as compared to girls.

Girls are denied the benefits of education in northern Nigeria. This has grave consequences for both the individuals and society at large. Denying the girl-child access to education implies making her a dysfunctional member of society. Over 70.8% of women in the North-West are unable to read and write compared to 9.7% in the South-East zone. In 8 Northern states, over 80% of women are unable to read and write. 78% of adolescents girls are in marriages in the North-West, 68% in the North-East and 35% in the North-Central. This educational marginalization poses a threat in Northern Nigeria, especially for the girl-child.

At the event that I had earlier described, I had taken the opportunity to share my girl child education initiative with the Emir, and he had evinced quite a generous amount of interest, because, as he expatiated, his personal project corresponded with what I was working on – providing opportunities for the Girl child of Northern Nigeria to get formal and proper education, based on the knowledge that this would hugely boost the socio-economic standards of the Northern region.

Mohammed Sanusi is unequivocal about the advancement of women’s development, and in the social milieu that considers such anathema, Sanusi is the Devil’s advocate. Self-professed as the 10th Man as it were. In this instance, it is in the real sense of standing for facts and inalienable truths.

Mohammad Sanusi recently gave a speech in which he said the North-East and North-West of Nigeria are the poorest parts of the country. That statement did generate a lot of heat coming from his colleagues and compatriots among the elites and the Kano state government, They should all be ashamed of themselves. The truth is bitter and the numbers are disturbing. They do not care about poor women when they are able to educate their own daughters in the best of school in the world.

Northern Nigeria’s income inequality is one of the most serious but least talked about challenges. The disparity between the rich and poor is astonishing and deplorable. The poverty and inequality in Northern Nigeria are not due to a lack of resources, but to the ill-use, greed, misallocation and misappropriation of such resources.

I make bold to propound that this is at the centre of why Sanusi paid the price; this is the disrespect and rebuff that the Kano State Government proclaimed as basis for his removal, which was the harshest punitive measure they could conceive to humiliate him
I sense, in the comportment and bearing of Sanusi in the wake of the announcement that he felt no sense of humiliation; because he wasn’t brought down. His supporters remain staunch.

I surmise that there would have been a lurking smirk of cynicism behind his proud demeanour as he left the Maximum Security Palace, breathing in the air of freedom to speak and act against any forms of extremism, discrimination and repression; Sanusi would wield greater influence and impact with his humanism as an independent, unshackled by undeveloped traditions. How I garner all of these convictions? From Sanusi’s very own words – “You have to make a choice… whether you want to remain a slave wearing a turban, or a free man without a turban.”