By Bashir Adefaka
*A rare conversation and hospitality *Inside the Sultanate you never knew
Sokoto people live their lives based on the Qur’an injunction, “Obey Allah, His messenger and those in positions of authority among you.” This manifested the moment I arrived the seat of the Caliphate.
This domain midwifed Islam in Nigeria when Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio came from Futajalon in the year 1800. The people fashion their lives around the fear of God as prescribed by Islam. Therefore, they follow the leader who guides them on the path ‘ordained by Allah, sub’ana huwa ta’ala’.
The reason for the love the people have for the sole leader and administrator of the Sultanate, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, is, as you can imagine, not far-fetched.
When I arrived in Sokoto around 12 midnight of Monday, the day prior to the commencement of Ramadan, there was no sign that it was dark. The roads were well lit, thanks to the many street lights supported by security lights in front of most of the houses and shops on both sides of the roads.
There was no reason for the stranger just entering the seat of the Caliphate to entertain fear of any sort as taxi cabs and commercial motorcycle operators, jostling for his patronage, showed uncommon hospitality and warm reception. Their hospitality was not basically because of the drive for patronage but because it is the natural attitude of Sokoto people to visitors.
Inside the palace
A day with the Sultan, the leader of the seat of the Caliphate, further threw light on why and how the people are deep in selflessness, accommodation and hospitality when I was caused to relocate from my N5,000 per night hotel room to the Sultan’s palace – mind you, I had passed my first night in a hotel in Sokoto metropolis.
In many parts of the world, especially Nigeria, some monarchs do not sleep in their palaces. They operate in the palace during the day time but relocate to their private homes in choice areas of town in the night to sleep.
This is attributable to the remote areas in which the palaces in many towns are located. But for Sultan Abubakar III, he does not only choose to relate with his people at the various levels, he also sleeps in the palace located in the heart of Sokoto metropolis.
The Sultan’s neighbours are not those you can refer to as the cream of the society or the affluent; they are peasants. “We are okay with where we are and who we are. We may not be rich, or so rich, but we are highly comfortable,” one of the neighbours, who simply wanted to be addressed as Amisu, said.
These are people whose houses could not ordinarily be said to be of befitting standard beside the palace of the revered head of Muslims in Nigeria and Africa’s fourth most influential monarch.
Abubakar III is the younger brother of the late Sultan Ibrahim Muhammadu Maccido Dan Abubakar, often, in his life-time referred to as Muhammadu Maccido, who died with his son, Badamosi Maccido, and many others, aboard ADC Flight 53 that crashed in Abuja on October 29, 2006, at the age of 78. Sa’ad and Maccido are both sons of former Sultan, Sir Siddiq Abubakar III.
Husband of Hajia Nabila and father of four (Fatimah, Amir, Wali and Amira) Sa’ad Abubakar, a disengaged Brigadier-General of the Nigerian Army, was called home to become the 20th Sultan, on March 3, 2007, at a ceremony attended by then President Olusegun Obasanjo and several former Nigerian leaders, including Alhaji Usman Aliyu Shehu Shagari.
The Sultan is a leader with multiplicity of responsibilities. Apart from being a monarch overseeing the seat of the Caliphate, he is also naturally the President-General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, NSCIA; Co-chairman, Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, NIREC; and President-General, Jama’tu Nasiril Islam, JNI. He is also the permanent Amirul Hajj and leader of the Federal Government delegation to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj operations in Nigeria. All these, coupled with the wealth of experience he acquired in the course of his military career, came together to make him one of the most influential monarchs in Africa.
And all these responsibilities notwithstanding, Sultan Abubakar 111 does not deny his subjects in the Sokoto Sultanate the attention they need.
The Muslim leader and moon- sighting
My trip to the Sultanate coincided with the eve of the commencement of Ramadan 1434 AH when Muslims were expected to look out for the new moon. Muslims were given telephone numbers -including that of the Sultan -to be called in case the new moon was sighted anywhere in the country.
That night, the Sultan had been engaged in a series of meetings with members of the National Moon-sighting Committee charged with the responsibility of directing the deployment of gadgets and human resources in moon-sighting and collating information from outside Sokoto for announcement by the Sultan.
It happened that this year, new moon was not sighted on the evening of that Monday as envisaged; that day had coincided with Sha’ban 29, 1434AH. Sultan Abubakar III, if he wanted to act on an agreement that Muslims all over the country reached three years ago, should ordinarily have announced the commencement of the Ramadan that day.
According to the agreement, if new moon was not sighted or there was no information to that effect till 8.30pm that day, it meant the month of Sha’ban would be counted to complete 30 days and Ramadan will follow.
Instead of that, however, the Sultan and members of the moon-sighting committee, coordinating from Abuja, did not close that night until 11.30pm. It was at that time that the Sultan passed information to the media that Sha’ban should be counted to complete 30 on Tuesday, and that Wednesday, July 10 would be the day Ramadan fast should start.
Sultan Abubakar III did not have his dinner until after the rigorous moments had passed. And he was so concerned because, like he told Sunday Vanguard in a private talk in the palace after he had taken the regular morning greetings by his subjects, he wanted to ensure that Muslims in a nation- state as complex as Nigeria were not misled.
In spite of the stress passed through by the Sariki Musulumi of Nigeria in ensuring standard and accuracy in the moon-sighting, some Muslim clerics, under the aegis of League of Imams and Alfas, in Yoruba land, went outside the Sultan’s directive to call on their congregations to begin fast on a day that Sha’ban was supposed to be 30th.
Abubakar III, however, said that the issue had been resolved and that section of Muslim community in Yorubaland had made a u-turn to the status quo that was based on his leadership’s directive.
That was a great deal of achievement as Muslims had a uniform commencement of the fast this year unlike the year before. That gives an insight into how the Sultan administers the affairs of Muslims in Nigeria as President-General, NSCIA.
For such a busy man as the Sultan, what does a typical day in his life look like? The first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning is to say, “Alhamdulillahi llazi ahya’na ba’da mo amaotana wa ilayhi nushuur”, meaning, “Praise be to Allah who has given us life after he made us a dead and unto Him shall be we return”.
He then performs ablution and goes to pray around 5.00am according to the prevailing weather. In a nutshell, his day starts with worship and ends with worship of Allah.
Even at a time when media reports said a plot to kill him was foiled, Sultan Abubakar111 does not alter his daily schedule, going outside the comfort of his palace to observe his prayers with the rest of the people in the neighbourhood. He then returns to the palace, relaxes a little in his room where he attends to his family till about 8.30am when he comes down to his office where he engages in official matters till 10.00am.
A large number of his subjects usually throng the palace as early as 8.30am when he enters the office to attend to them.
To those people, leadership is a great deal not because of what they want him to give them but also because they love their leader with passion and want to see and exchange greetings with him before they go about their daily activities.
At 10am, the Sultan leaves the office for the palace auditorium which is spacious enough to accommodate a large number of his subjects. Inside the auditorium, the monarch sits between turbaned chiefs on two lines to his left and right frontward.
Two officers of the Department of State Services, DSS, stand at the main entrance of the auditorium. They are assisted by two turbaned palace guards (Dongaris) dressed in red-green light-stuff babaringa. The DSS officers and the Dongaris, it was gathered, are there mainly for crowd control and organization.
As heavily guarded by the police, the DSS and Civil Defence Corp officers and men as the Sultan’s Palace is, the unwritten rule is that no subject of the Sultan should be deprived the opportunity of seeing him. So, everybody is allowed but to do only one thing, “Enter, go down on the carpet and just greet. No extra talk and then come out”.
When a subject enters, he utters, “Salam alaykum Sariki”. And the Sultan lifts his arm and thumbs up in acknowledgement, answering, “Amin wa alaykum salam.” The chiefs seated on his two sides join in answering the greetings.
The greeting session that has become traditional since Abubakar III mounted the throne six years ago is well managed such that under 20 minutes, the hundreds wanting to see and greet the leader have taken their turns one after the other and gone away. On the Tuesday of the first week of Ramadan, the palace auditorium ritual was performed.
On beholding the crowd of the subjects on queue to greet the Sultan, my initial fear was that the crowd would engage the monarch so much so that I might be denied access to him, prompting a text message to inform him that I was already around in the reception area of the auditorium.
Moments thereafter, two turbaned palace officials and a DSS officer came into the reception and bellowed, “Come, mallam, come, come. His Eminence said you should come in!” Inside the inner-room where he had retired after attending to the multitude in the auditorium was the Sultan seated on the throne. On his right were seated four turbaned chiefs. They were clad in all-white attires. On his left were seated two palace officials who were there mainly to note whatever decision His Eminence would make as a result of my meeting with him.
Sultan: “You wanted an interview and I have said the time is not ripe.” Sunday Vanguard, “Yes, Your Eminence but I have seen enough to write about. I am not necessarily here to do an interview but also to study what happens around here and report it. However, I am here to also report your message to Muslims and Nigerians as Ramadan fast begins.”
Sultan: “What other message do you want me to pass across? I have always passed my messages to the people of Nigeria that Nigerians should abhor violence and live in peace and tranquility. That has always been in the press.
Except that I would advise the media, to ensure that no religion is favoured over another in terms of reportage. Our brothers and sisters in the media should do their job diligently in a way that no religious group would have a feeling that a particular media outfit is anti its faith.
“How did you get to that hotel that you went to lodge in? Do you know the people?”
Sunday Vanguard: “Because I arrived late in the night due to the fact that when my Chachangi plane landed in Abuja, there was no flight to Sokoto and I had to come by road, which was the reason I had to exchange text messages with you when it became clear that I would not arrive in time yesterday evening. So, when I came, I just picked a motorcycle which took me to a hotel.”
Sultan: “But it is dangerous for you to, having come in at that time, just pick a motorcycle to lodge in just any hotel. You should have come to the palace and take money to lodge in a better and more secure place. How much did you pay in that place?”
Sunday Vanguard: “I paid N5,000 for the night.”
Sultan (a short silence): “When do you want to go back to Lagos?”
Sunday Vanguard: “I want to leave with the last flight this evening.”
Sultan: “There is no flight to Lagos from Sokoto this evening.”
Sunday Vanguard: “Or I go to Abuja and fly from there to Lagos.”
Sultan: “There is no flight even to Abuja even now (11.00am) except you want to go by road and, if you go by road, ah! You would not arrive there until 10pm and that will be too late.”
Sunday Vanguard: “Okay, I will wait and go back tomorrow morning.”
Sultan: “There is a direct flight by AERO from Sokoto to Lagos. Now, I want to go and commission a project. How do we do it?”
He stood up and the four turbaned chiefs filed past shaking hands with me and then the Sultan also walked past and I bowed, saying, “Your Eminence!” One of the palace officials held me and said, “His Eminence has asked us to change your hotel to a better and more secure place and do other things.” That was how I enjoyed the hospitality of the Sultan for the rest of the visit.
Anytime he had a function outside the palace, he would come out through the entrance of the inner-room into the open arena of the compound where his convoy was stationed. As he stepped out, a big shout would rent the air, to be followed by the traditional Fulani trumpeting of majesty. Amid the trumpeting, the convoy would drive out.
For Sultan Abubakar 111, every day is full of activities. After receiving all kinds of visitors from the high and mighty to the low – he never underrates anybody – he breaks away from official duties for Suhr, afternoon prayer time, when he worships with fellow Muslims. He emerges from Suhr prayer to have lunch, sometimes with visitors. He returns to the office until it is time for Asri, late afternoon prayer. He does same for sunset prayer, Magrib. Ishai is his last of the five daily prayers after which he has dinner and goes to sleep.
His Assistant Private Secretary, Ali Maccido, told Sunday Vanguard, “The Sultan does not differentiate whether you are rich or poor. All people are the same before him. They eat and after eating they sit down to talk based on situations within the neighbourhood, the state and generally as they affect the people. Some of the people you saw yesterday were among those that had dinner with him. Where there is the need to assist the needy, he gives to them.”
Maccido went on, “You could see that people were falling over one another to have audience with him. It is not because of any welfare package they expected from him but because of the love they have for him. Since over six years ago that he became the Sultan, it has always been like that. People would come every morning for no more than greeting him and go their way.
“On several occasions like today now that we are starting Ramadan fast, he gives out to people. During Sallah, he gives out. When he takes out Zakat from his wealth, he distributes it to his people and whoever it reaches always has cause to glorify the name of the Lord. Sometimes not even on occasions or Sallah, he could just feel like assisting people and then he gives out – it could sometimes turn out to be an every day affair. Somebody may come to greet him and he just feels he has been seeing him around for a while and suspects that he is in need. And he would just call me, ‘Ali, go and give something to that man.’
The personal secretary went on, “I will take it from the angle of we that are his staff or insiders. When you do something right, he would continue to work with you. But he does not open his mouth to say, ‘Oh, Ali, you have done well’ or that the ‘private secretary, you have done well.’ No. He avoids doing that not to spoil you. Some people, when you praise them for doing well, it is then they will change and begin to do wrong. May be that is why he chooses to do it that way. When you work well, he will call you and give you another work. That is how he shows that he appreciates your work because he does not believe in words of appreciation.
“And when you do something bad, he would call you and say, ‘Why have you done this? I did not give you directive to do it. So, do not do it again.’ So, when you go wrong, he does not leave you to it. He would invite and direct you. And I appreciate him because I have learnt a lot from him for the six years I have worked with him. And having worked with him this way, I believe I can work anywhere.”