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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.


SOKOTO, Nigeria — 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."

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.

"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."

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.

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