Nigeria’s north risks growing sense of alienation

Standing on the dancefloor among shards of glass and splintered wood, Tony Baisie rues the day he agreed to help set up a nightclub in one of West Africa’s oldest Islamic cities.

For more than 15 years this converted office on an industrial back street in Kano, northern Nigeria, was a thriving business. Customers — Christian and Muslim — would dance among its mirrored walls or shoot pool in the courtyard outside.

But three weeks ago, members of Hisbah — a uniformed Islamic squad set up by Kano’s state governor in 2003 to enforce Sharia (Islamic law) — raided the club, smashing tables and chairs, and seizing its drinks stocks and sound systems.

“They took me away and detained me overnight,” Baisie said.

“Before they released me they made me sign an undertaking I would not sell alcohol or play music ever again in Kano.”


Africa’s most populous nation — roughly divided into a Muslim north and Christian south, but with sizeable minorities living in both regions — is full of paradox.

It is home to more Muslims than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa but is also the world’s second biggest consumer of Guinness beer.

‘Strictly social control’
A secular government sits in Abuja in the centre of a fervently religious nation. Mega churches in Lagos to the south attract weekly congregations numbering tens of thousands, while the north traces its Islamic heritage back centuries to the trans-Saharan trading routes linking it to north Africa.

Around a dozen northern states have introduced Sharia over the past decade, but it is practised to varying degrees and only four of them have enforcement squads like Kano’s Hisbah, a force of around 9 000 men in green and black uniforms.

Sa’idu Ahmad Dukawa, their director general, makes no apologies for what he says is a mission to purify the city.

“We are aware many non-Muslims in Kano are complaining bitterly that we are applying Sharia on them because we are saying stop bringing alcohol to Kano, stop opening brothels. They feel it is an infringement of the rights of Christians,” he said in his office, speaking in soft, measured tones.

“But I always argue that the fact we do not close churches, the fact we do not stop them from praying, the fact we do not force any one of them to Islam, I do not think there is any infringement. This is strictly social control.”

Risk of marginalisation
Kano is generally accepted to be Nigeria’s second most populous city after Lagos, although many of its residents insist on the accuracy of a 2006 census which put the state’s population higher than its southern rival at 9,4-million people.

Its low-rise streets, lined by acacia and tamarind trees coated in a permanent layer of dust from the Sahara, are a far cry from the lagoon-side sprawl of Lagos, which spills chaotically across what were once mangrove swamps.

Kano’s legions of motorcycle taxis, weaving their way around child beggars, are a familiar sight from other parts of Nigeria.

But in recent years they have started to carry predominantly male passengers, an outward sign of the city’s growing Islamic conservatism. Women, their heads veiled, travel in yellow three-wheeled tricycles, a black curtain around the passenger compartment shielding them from sight.

At night much of the city is dead, apart from one street in the Christian neighbourhood of Sabon Gari. Plastic tables and chairs spill into the road around dimly-lit shacks. The Hisbah have agreed a pact with a few bar owners here and turn a blind eye, but the beer is kept behind curtains.

Potential for state failure
Some diplomats fear growing religious conservatism, hostility to Western values and pervasive poverty could allow radicals to gain a hold, particularly as they set the north at odds with the rest of Nigeria, which is increasingly liberalising as it opens up to ever greater foreign investment.

Southern Nigeria is home to the mainstay oil industry and the flourishing banking sector, while the textile industry and agriculture of the north are in decline. The upper echelons of the military and civil service have increasingly been staffed by southerners since the end of military rule 12 years ago.

“The impoverished North, with its rivalry between Muslims and Christians and its new, indigenous forms of radical Islam, has become increasingly alienated from the government in Abuja,” wrote former US ambassador John Campbell in a book published last year called Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.

“Without Abuja moving to counter this alienation, the North has the potential to provide a major impetus towards state failure,” said Campbell, ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.

Radical sects
Campaigning for elections next month, which pit southern President Goodluck Jonathan against northern former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, has so far been largely free of the sort of rhetoric that seeks to whip up regional rivalries.

Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau, who set up the Hisbah, is also running in the presidential race but is a rank outsider.

Although Buhari is expected to win by a significant majority in Kano, campaign posters plastered on walls around the city are a patchwork of different candidates and parties, and plenty of ruling party supporters are vocal in debate on the street.

But some in the north fear another four years of rule by a southerner could further marginalise their region.

In the remote northeastern city of Maiduguri — centre of the centuries-old Sultanate of Borno — a radical Islamist sect has waged a campaign of violence against the state government.

‘No more violence’
Members of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful”, shot dead a leading governorship candidate in January and staged an uprising in 2009 in which hundreds died.

The leader of Hisbah said strict enforcement of Sharia was a bulwark against such unrest in Kano and, in a thinly-veiled threat, warned against any new government undermining it.

“The average Muslim has a teaching which tells him that once a town is sanitised there should be no more violence,” he said.

“The conscience of non-Muslims living in Kano is left to them. Either they sacrifice the alcohol business and prostitution business … or they continue to fight it and bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Dukawa said.

“The Ulama [Islamic scholars] will stop teaching that there is Sharia, that Kano is sanitised, maybe some will go out of their way to tell people that non-Muslims living in Kano have killed Sharia. And then let us wait and see the consequences.” — Reuters

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Elnathan John: Our merciful Nigerian father

“They say people disappear, young men with dreadlocked hair, with tattoos, or even just carrying a laptop in a backpack,” writes Elnathan John in a reflective essay about Nigeria.

Book review: The girl with the louding voice by Abi Daré

Abi Daré’s debut novel has been described as a celebration of girls who dare to dream

‘We don’t want to be shot to death’

Nigerian protesters have taken to the streets to protest the police’s brutal special anti-robbery unit, which they say profiles tech-savvy youths

Slam-dunk apps for basketball in Nigeria

Would-be professionals have taken to technology into their own hands to arrange fixtures and tournaments for their favourite sport

Where do Africans study abroad?

China is becoming the preferred destination for countries such as Ghana and Nigeria

Meet the creative Nigerian athletes earning alternative livings during lockdown

Nigerian basketball players Austin Akpejiori and Ukamaka Okoh are keeping busy during their Covid-mandated time off court — with interior design and shoemaking, respectively
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Eusebius McKaiser: Reject the dichotomy of political horrors

Senekal shows us that we must make a stand against the loud voice of the populist EFF and racist rightwingers

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday