The palace, under a rusted corrugated roof, looks mostly like a shed. Only one delicate pair of feet in its single room is shod, and they are in black rubber flip-flops.
This is the genteel court of Queen Hajiya Haidzatu Ahmed.
The queen’s henna-dyed fingers are childlike and slender, her smile girlish and her voice soft. Whenever she speaks, the men who are her courtiers listen, enraptured. Whenever she giggles, they laugh loudly. Whenever she explains some point, they nod solemnly.
In Nigeria’s conservative Islamic north, women are barred from ruling, except in the kingdom of Kumbwada. Here, an ancient curse keeps males off the throne, according to locals. Male pretenders who dare to try will be buried within a week.
The last man who wanted to overturn the tradition of female rulers was the queen’s father, Prince Amadu Kumbwada, 58 years ago. All he did was say he wanted to succeed his mother, then still alive. He was immediately taken ill.
The prince was rushed to a distant kingdom, where he eventually recovered. He never returned.
“There has never been a male ruler,” the queen says, chuckling, a sound like dry, crackling paper. “Even my father just voiced his desire to be chief, but it almost killed him.”
Her grandmother, on the throne for 73 years, died when she was 113.
Hajiya was a child when her father tried and failed to become his mother’s successor. She was too young to feel any sense of rivalry, but old enough to believe the curse would kill him.
She points up to the nail-pocked iron roof with a mischievous smile, to indicate that it’s God’s will.
“It’s a women’s affair,” the 65-year-old monarch says. “Women are the rulers and they rule as effectively as men, sometimes even better than men.”
These are alien pronouncements in a part of Nigeria where women typically are relegated to second place and strict Sharia, or Islamic law, is the rule.
But in the community Hajiya has ruled for 12 years, women get a sympathetic hearing in cases of wife beating or divorce.
“When domestic issues come to me, the way I treat them will be quite different to other traditional chiefs,” she says. “I’m a woman and I’m a mother and I have so much concern and experience when it comes to the issue of marriage and what it means for the maintenance of the home and what it means for two people to live together.”
Kumbwada, an undulating region with low, scrubby forest, is so notorious for banditry that the road is dotted with police checkpoints every few miles.
For years, there have been hostile mutterings among northern Islamic clerics in other tribal kingdoms that the curse against male rulers amounts to witchcraft.
“Once there is evidence of the use of black magic in any situation, Islam considers it a deviation which must be reversed,” Sheik Aminuddeen Abubakar, imam in the city of Kano, reportedly said several years ago. Reached by phone recently, he stood by his comments.
Musa Muhammad, the chief imam of Kumbwada, defended the queen, saying Kumbwada’s position was unique.
“We can’t live without a leader, and the fact that any male rulers that ascend the throne die quickly and mysteriously while female rulers reign for many years makes our case a peculiar one,” Muhammad says. “This is an exceptional situation none of us can change.”
As the traditional ruler, the queen handles disputes such as quarrels over land, divorces, petty violence, accusations of theft and arguments between neighbors. Government courts step in only if a traditional ruler refers a case or if the situation isn’t resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
“The royalty have a very important role in Nigerian society,” Hajiya says. “Of course we’re different than the elected powers. The real power, the confidence, is with us. Politicians think you can buy votes.
“I am closer to the people. The traditional rulers are the ones the people trust.”
Outside the palace, goats bleat and chickens cluck. Inside, it’s so hot that rivulets of perspiration make their way down people’s backs.
The queen could be a simple Nigerian villager in her baggy, shift-like cotton dress and blue-green scarf. She sits on her throne, an extra-wide, spotless armchair that looks designed for either someone very important or someone rather large. The throne is on a platform above her courtiers, elderly men in charge of collecting taxes, hearing complaints or arranging royal audiences.
Since her father’s hurried departure, when the princess was 7, she knew she was the heir to the throne. As a child, she played at being queen with other children in the village who were relegated to the roles of domestic servants and courtiers.
“When I was young, there was a very strong peer group of all the children in the village, both boys and girls. We had leaders and other parts like staff among us. I got used to a leadership role, even when I was a child. So I was prepared for this.”
Then, her subjects were children. As the real queen, she has more than 33,000 subjects, most of them poor farmers.
But apart from the childhood games, she had no education to prepare her for leadership.
“My only handicap is that I don’t have a Western education, because in my time, people didn’t educate their daughters. I’m not educated in the modern way, but in the traditional way, I have wisdom in my dealings with people. I’m proud to say that it would be hard to find someone educated who could rule as well as I can,” she says with calm dignity.
The queen has her pet hates. She doesn’t like divorce. She won’t tolerate wife beating. And she can’t bear the idea of leaving any case that comes before her unresolved, to be handed over to the local court system. She has never let that happen.
“I’ve never had a crisis I couldn’t solve,” she says.
Even politicians sometimes have to come to traditional rulers for help, she says.
“In a crisis, people don’t listen to politicians. Once we intervene, once we speak, to the people, it’s hands off.”
Most traditional African rulers reflexively side with the male head of the household in a family dispute. So a girl resisting marriage to a much older man she doesn’t love is likely to be ordered to obey her father. A woman who complains she is being beaten is likely to be told to obey her husband.
Hajiya had one wife-beating case early in her reign.
“I told him if he ever beat his wife again, I’d dissolve the marriage and put him in prison,” she remembers. “Marriage is not a joke, and women are not slaves.”
Since that case, she has made a point of campaigning against domestic violence whenever she holds court in local communities. She says she’s never had another beating case. People know where she stands.
“Men sometimes say the women provoke them, so that is why they beat them,” she says. “I tell them that there’s no justification, whatever happens.”
If a girl is miserable in an arranged marriage, the queen listens to her side of the story, even though she dislikes divorce.
“In such cases I try to strike a balance. I don’t just end such marriages. I try to be tactful and see if there’s any way this woman can come to love this man,” she says. “But if that’s not possible, if there’s no way she can have any compassion for him or love, it’s not her fault or his fault. It’s just natural.
“I intervene and ask for the marriage to be dissolved for the sake of the woman, the man and everyone’s sake.”
She often addresses women’s groups, urging members to become educated so that they can be future leaders. Most of all, she wants to live to see a female Nigerian president.
“It’s my most ardent wish. I think the problems in Nigeria have become intractable. Let’s try a woman. Men have failed.”
She keeps her grown daughter, Idris, by her side whenever she holds court, grooming her to be queen. Her son, Danjuma Salihu, also grown, seated on the floor among the courtiers, has no hopes of succession.
He may one day become chief in another dominion though.
“But not here,” she says. “Nobody has any doubts about it. He wouldn’t survive it.”