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Profile : The Sultan of Sokoto Bridges Two Worlds in Nigeria : Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, the country’s most important Islamic leader, has proven to be adept at surviving factional temporal politics.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under a relentless sun in the vast open courtyard, the ritual trumpeters and traditional praise singers were still giving off an incredible din, as they do every time their leader enters or leaves the palace.

The Sultan of Sokoto was already ensconced comfortably inside his receiving chamber, layers of soundproofed walls muffling the noise and ranks of air-conditioning units battling the heat. As befits the 18th in a line of Nigeria’s most important Islamic leaders, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki was swathed in shimmering robes under an immaculate turban, and a wisp of lacy fabric shaded his chin. His most important retainers knelt or stood tremulously near his side, in an atmosphere that could almost have been lifted unchanged from antiquity.

But Ibrahim Dasuki is nothing if not a thoroughly modern man. Asked to comment on the events that culminated in his accession to the sultanate, Dasuki gave an answer that could have been heard in one of the high-rise boardrooms he had previously occupied as a millionaire industrialist and banker.

“What you want as a manager is to go to the top,” he said. “So if you’re in the line (of succession), you want to be sultan.”

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Two years ago Dasuki, now 67, saw his years of careful, even cunning, preparation bear fruit as a council of emirs in this politically crucial region of northern Nigeria named him successor to the just-deceased Sultan Siddiq Abubacar III. The accession would make him the spiritual leader of as many as 80 million Nigerian Muslims and possibly the most powerful temporal leader in an area that covers half of the huge country.

But what followed were five days of riots in which as many as 10 people died protesting his investiture.

It was not an auspicious start for the successor to Abubacar, who during a half-century reign had earned the reverence not only of Nigeria’s Muslims but many of its Christian citizens as well.

Yet in the two years since then, Dasuki has managed to effectively bridge the two worlds of Nigerian leadership--the ancient heritage of religious leadership and the fractious temporal politics of today. At the same time, he has managed to enhance the traditional observance of Islam in the region, while strengthening its ability to adapt to the real world.

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“He’s a modern Islamic traditionalist,” is the admiring view of one European diplomat in the Nigerian capital, Lagos.

Dasuki’s temporal role is sure to become even more important in the next 18 months as Nigeria continues its transition from military to civilian rule, set to climax with a civilian presidential election in late 1992.

It will be the second time in the country’s post-independence history that a military government voluntarily cedes power to civilians. (The military has ruled for 20 of the 30 years since independence.) As Africa’s most populous state, with as many as 150 million citizens, Nigeria’s experience is bound to be closely watched as a bellwether of real change in the continent’s distressing political history.

The sultan is likely to play a key role in the transition, for he is the most potent leader in Nigeria’s most critical region--the Muslim north, which has produced all but one of the country’s postwar heads of state. Northerners again expect the new president to be a Muslim from their region, and many are openly looking to the sultan to act as a temporal kingmaker.

It is a task that he does not overtly shun. “You cannot live in isolation,” he remarked recently during a rare interview with The Times. “In Islam, you haven’t got this distinction saying religion is one side and politics is another.”

Many believe it is no coincidence that he is also an intimate of President Ibrahim Babangida, who clearly relishes having a supporter enthroned in a crucial position.

Dasuki’s position reflects the unique role played in Nigeria by its traditional leaders, particularly the Islamic luminaries of the north. In a country that has known virtually nothing but political disorder since the end of British colonialism, the traditional leaders provide the only stability.

“Nigeria is trying to blend military and civilian government today,” Dasuki said in the interview. “But the ordinary man still looks to traditional institutions as his last resort.”

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Yet as the post-election riots attested, Dasuki’s very accession seemed likely to undermine his political influence.

At the time of Abubacar’s death in October, 1988, the Oxford-educated Dasuki was known mainly as one of Nigeria’s richest businessmen. He had been chairman of Nigeria Railways, and was founder and chairman of the Nigeria branch of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI), a bank soon to become infamous as an accused institutional launderer of drug money.

He was also a well-traveled diplomat and a powerful politician. As chairman of the country’s Commission on Local Government Reform, he had visited every state, meeting local politicians and religious leaders like an American politician lining up grass-roots support.

And he was already a potent figure within Nigeria’s important Islamic hierarchy. Thirty years ago he was personal secretary to Ahmadu Bello, a man of such overwhelming influence among Nigerian Muslims that since his death in 1966 his traditional title of Sardauna of Sokoto has never been filled. Toward the end of Abubacar’s life, when the sultanate was declining into poverty as the old leader’s life and stature were ebbing away, Dasuki had stepped forward to finance the institution out of his own capacious pocket, even paying the old leader monthly stipends and sending him shipments of food.

Today, many people see this as an effort to bid for the succession. At least one northern politician can remember audiences at which Abubacar’s own children were forced to stand by resentfully as the old man motioned Dasuki forward to tell him: “May God reward you for all you are doing for me. . . . May you get all you are looking for.”

Still, observers of the traditional hierarchy say it is exceedingly rare for anyone to campaign for such a solemn post as the sultanate with as much single-minded determination as Dasuki.

“Dasuki is a very clever person and an excellent strategist,” says Yusuf Martama Sule, a leading Muslim politician who initially opposed Dasuki’s election but says he has now come around to supporting him. “For a long time he had been planning for this.”

Adds Dr. Tijani Baude, a political scientist at Uthman dan Fodio University in Sokoto, “Dasuki’s enthronement is an interesting case study in the acquisition of power through unpopular means and the pacification of a people outraged by the acquisition. He cultivated the necessary connections over a long period and it paid off.”

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For years Dasuki served as Babangida’s personal banker. One of his sons, Samba, had been the president’s military aide-de-camp and still holds an influential position in the armed forces and Babangida’s inner circle. Dasuki, it is widely held, was an important financier behind Nigeria’s last three military coups, in each of which Babangida participated.

There is some evidence that when the council of emirs sent its short list of three names to the military government for its selection of a new sultan, the president’s influence was crucial.

In truth, many Westerners would probably find odd the manner in which this country’s leading Islamic potentates choose their master. Not for Nigerians the gravity with which Catholics treat the selection of a Pope. After Abubacar’s death, the country’s outspoken newspapers and news weeklies openly handicapped the race for the succession as if the candidates were so much horseflesh.

Among the contenders were many of the late sultan’s 52 children, but traditional titles in this part of the world are not always passed down through strict primogeniture: Any direct male descendant of the legendary Uthman dan Fodio, who waged a jihad, or holy war, against northern Nigeria’s pagan warlords to found the Sokoto Caliphate in 1804, was eligible. The press boldly weighed the contenders against each other on grounds of piety, wealth, and political backing, and classified them as dark horses or favorites according to the results.

What actually happened in the council of kingmakers has never been clearly explained. Some people understand that the council actually elected Muhammadu Maccido, the late sultan’s eldest son and a popular favorite, but was persuaded or browbeaten into reneging by a high-level envoy sent by Babangida. Others, like Sule, believe that Dasuki was their first choice all along.

What is true is that someone arranged for Maccido to be publicly announced as the new sultan over radio and television broadcasts, as if to steal a march on the emirs’ vote. It might have been some disgruntled kingmakers, or even Maccido himself; no one seems to know.

The premature announcement sent thousands of people into the streets to celebrate; Maccido even gave an interview to discuss his sultanate. But a day later, everything had changed.

As if presciently, Dasuki’s local government reforms had given state governors the ultimate authority over the appointment of traditional leaders, the sultan not excepted. And a day after the announcement of Maccido the governor of Sokoto state made a second announcement: The new sultan was to be Ibrahim Dasuki.

Part of the reason for the popular discontent at Dasuki’s election was historic. Although he is a great-great-grandson of Uthman dan Fodio, Dasuki’s forebears had been passed over many times before.

“Customs die hard,” says Sule. “People had formed the impression--or the superstition--that the Dasuki line would never produce a sultan.”

Dasuki was widely considered to be less pious than his two main rivals, Maccido and Alhaji Shehu Malami, another prominent leader. This was largely the product of his great wealth and worldliness (although Malami is also a millionaire businessman).

Then there was his extensive political activism and his widespread business dealings. Many people in the north are fully aware of BCCI’s unsavory reputation elsewhere in the world.

“People even go so far as to say that he has connections with Jews, that he does business with them,” says Sule, who hastens to turn this apparent smear into a sign of virtue by adding: “But this has not affected his faith.”

In this delicate atmosphere, Dasuki moved quickly to consolidate support. Among his first acts as sultan was to ask the local authorities to release all those who had been jailed for participating in the post-election riots.

His speeches were replete with assurances that his intention was to strengthen the sultanate: “I will not be the sultan who will preside over the demeaning or lessening of this exalted institution,” he said soon after his installation. “I have no other job now than to pursue the cause of Islam with all my strength and the resources at my disposal.”

Before long, many Sokoto faithful were saying that Dasuki’s familiarity with modern life made him the right man to bring the sultanate into the 21st Century, according to a diplomatic observer.

Using his own money, he swiftly embarked on a long-overdue $2.5-million modernization of the palace itself, hauling down its mud walls and replacing them with a modern ferroconcrete structure. Lest this be seen as a selfish act, he also opened the palace more to the public, even establishing a Koranic school for children within its walls. Abubacar’s loyal retainers were mostly kept on.

Most important, he took steps to unite the disjointed Muslim community of Nigeria. Muslim-Christian antipathy in the sprawling country gets heavy press, but geographic animosities are even more important, and southern Muslims have traditionally mistrusted northern Muslims even more than they do Christians.

As for the furor over his election, he dismisses that as something that was never very important. Sultan Abubacar had suffered a similar uproar 50 years before, over discontent at his having been selected by the British colonial administration.

“It took him even longer to be installed,” Dasuki says, “and he was installed not at the palace, but at Government House (the regional colonial headquarters). But I was installed inside the palace.”

Biography Name: Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki Title: Sultan of Sokoto Age: 67 Personal: Born in a town called Dogondaji, near Sokoto, Nigeria. He was educated at local Islamic schools, Nigeria’s Barewa University, and for a year at Oxford University. Since then he has held prominent posts in business, politics and religious affairs. He has been first secretary at the Nigerian embassies in Khartoum, Sudan, and Bonn; chairman of Nigeria Railways and founder and chairman of the Nigeria unit of Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI). He has also been secretary-general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. Among his pastimes are collecting rare automobiles and raising racing and polo horses. Quote: “Nigeria today is trying to blend military and civilian government. But the ordinary man still looks to the traditional institutions as his last resort.”


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