In the past few months, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, is a man reborn; from what he says these days, he seems to have had something akin to a Damascene conversion. There is a lot to be excited about when a theocratic ruler transforms into a social advocate to vehemently rail against the retrograde conservatism and benign aloofness of his exalted position. However, one should be cautiously happy. Sanusi’s position as a critic and the head of a politico-religious institution that is implicated in the very system he attacks makes his newfound calling a contradiction.
Sanusi is in a good place to criticise the retrogressive strains of religious culture that dominate the northern region – especially the way it plays out in education, issues of gender equality, and the overall development of northern Nigeria – because he is a northerner, a royal father, and a Muslim who at least will not be accused of Islamophobia. Here and there, Sanusi is already being lavished with praises for speaking the truth but at this stage, his proclamations on behalf of the proletariats need to be received with healthy doses of scepticism.
Sanusi’s zeal for the truth might be informed by a genuine conviction but “truth speaking” is also fast becoming another Nigerian pastime, an agenda pursued by politicians with suspect motives. These fellows are aware that there is a market for “truth,” that truth speakers are in such short supply that anytime someone raises one’s head above the parapet to rail against the establishment, one gets a pass for other moral failures. There are at least three examples of such characters in recent times.
One of them is the pastor of Omega Fire Ministries, Apostle Johnson Suleman, who stands accused of adultery and lavishing money cum gifts on women with whom he allegedly had sexual relations. Before his scandal, Suleman also spoke the truth. He took on the tense subject of “Fulani herdsmen,” and their murderous mania, a topic most men of God and even human rights advocates have almost refrained from publicly touching. Then, there were his running battles with the governor of Kaduna state, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, over some pieces of legislation deemed anti-Christian. Overnight, Suleman became a demi-god of sorts, and when news filtered in that he might not be what he preached, he reached for the ready-made excuse that he was being persecuted for speaking the truth. Up till now, the man of God has refused to follow established channels to exonerate himself of those accusations. He and his wife have resorted to making corny videos instead. Then, his accuser’s mother – a poor old woman from the village – was summoned to grovel before him.
The second truth speaker is Senator Dino Melaye, a man who has racked up as many scandals as he has accumulated uncertified certificates. Prior to his latest scandal, Melaye also spoke the truth – or, a version of it – especially during former Speaker Patricia Etteh’s financial scandal at the House of Representatives. Nigerians interpreted his “thuggery” as “the truth” then but these days, what he calls the truth is more or less his political strategy for confronting his traducers. His definition of truth shifts according to the political climate. Lately, he claimed (for the second time) that he was a victim of an attempted assassination; that somebody wanted his life because he speaks the truth. His post-trauma recollection of the assassination incident is curiously detailed and even more curious is how he quickly whipped out a self-stroking speech on how the attack would not deter him from speaking the truth!
The third truth speaker in recent times is Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president. Obasanjo also fancies himself has a truth speaker and recently, he turned his zealous mission towards the church. As a former prison pastor, the corruption in the church stumps him and he will have none of it.
However, his accusations about corruption in the Christendom make one wonder if he ever reflects on the many amoral quagmires that surrounded his reign in office? Obasanjo’s reign between 1976 and1979 and 1999 and 2007 had some of the worst corruption issues, systemic abuses, and flagrant denigration of democratic principles yet Obasanjo’s post-presidency career has been about “speaking the truth.” When you bring up the multiple corruption allegations against him, he gets testy and resorts to threats rather than simply speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
Truth has been so bastardised in Nigeria that when somebody claims to have found a new career speaking it, we must all be circumspect. We should let the person unfold as either genuine or as just another hypocrite whose postulations will ultimately impede the social and political process that can accelerate the reforms he champions. In the case of Sanusi, I think it is important not to hurriedly canonise him until he demonstrates the sincerity of his convictions.
Two years ago, Sanusi responded to the critics of his marriage to a teenager with a feisty defence of royal traditions, the conservatism of the Emirate, and the cultural differences between the northern and the southern regions of Nigeria. In that article, Sanusi revealed that his daughters could only marry from certain families and backgrounds due to their royal blood. I have gone back to that article to reconcile the Sanusi that made an impassioned case for the privileges of nobility with the one who has now turned around to condemn the conservative religious culture that imperils the north. Is Sanusi the kind of advocate that favours conservatism when it suits him personally and then “speaks the truth” when it is expedient? Or, could it also be that Sanusi is still working his way to true progressivism?
For example, some PR officers were quick to point out that Sanusi’s sending his daughter, Shahida, to represent him at the public lecture organised by the Bring Back Our Girls campaign group was the first time a woman would represent the Emir. At first glance, it signals that Sanusi genuinely believed in the equality of genders but will such feministic assertion hold up for his daughters’ marital choices? In such an instance, will Sanusi again retreat to the argument about religion and lineage as the key considerations in a marriage like he did in 2015 or he would repudiate the anachronistic customs that delimits his daughters’ marital choices and opts for genuine progressivism?
While I understand the excitement Sanusi is generating, I think we should also remind ourselves that truth is not merely about what is said, it is performative as well. Making controversial statements will not, on its own, lead to genuine reforms if all it does is earn the speaker garlands. The truth is lived, not just spoken. The truth is not only when Sanusi criticises the system that legitimates its Emirate but when he renounces the privileges attached to his positions that are sponsored by the same agents liable in the problems against which he speaks.
Speaking the truth – however defined- is now a moral redoubt for different people including the ethically challenged, moral cowards, and incorrigibly unaccountable. Even more annoying is the way these truth speakers cloak themselves in the vestment of self-righteousness while they live contrary to the ideals they proclaim. Because we can be too quick to buy what they are selling, they invariably turn into hypocrites rather than genuine reformers.
Sanusi’s advocacy might be a harbinger of good tidings for not just northern Nigeria but even the south as well, a region that is not quite living up to her potential either. There is a possibility that this might end well but it is too early to deck him in the shouts of “Hossana!”