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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.

May 14, 1991|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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).

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