When a soldier is The Sultan…

Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

Chris Paul Otaigbe

“I spent 31 years of my life in the military, in the Nigerian Army… before the Almighty brought me into this seat, which happens to lead over 80 million Nigerian Muslims.

I am the titular head of the defunct Sokoto Caliphate, which was founded on February 24, 1804. The caliphate was founded on knowledge and so, the belief in education “that in whatever we do, we put education first. We believe taking care of the education of a populace, makes the populace a much better person.

When I became Sultan in November 2006; I met a very disturbing trend, fertile with ethno-religious crisis which virtually wrecked the entire nation. Neighbor turned against neighbor; community turned against community. The crisis persisted. Thousands lost their lives, their livelihoods and their places of worship…

In the last few years, similar crisis has also claimed a greater number of Nigerians with over two million of them displaced and thousands dead.

In all this, there is a need to probe the religious content of this crisis and indeed, how can any true believer stand before God and profess that ‘ oh God, I killed my neighbor because his core religionists killed my people elsewhere… or much worse, how could one stand before the Almighty and say to Him, oh Lord, we had to massacre two hundred young souls from your preachers because they were going to the wrong schools, please reward us for good deeds. These and similar questions could not but challenge the conscience of any religious leader, who dedicates himself to peace-building, reconciliation and to promote dialogue…within and across the religious divide with a view to bringing succor and relief to our sourly tested communities….”

These were the words spoken by Mohammad Sa’ad Abubakar, at an international program that dwelt on inter religious and cultural diplomacy, where he was invited as a Speaker.

The 20th Sultan of Sokoto, the titular ruler of Sokoto in northern Nigeria, head of Jama’atu Nasril Islam (Society for the Support of Islam – JNI), and president-general of the Nigerian National Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA).

As Sultan of Sokoto, he is considered the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s ninety million Muslims, roughly fifty percent of the nation’s population.

Sa’adu Abubakar succeeded his brother, Muhammadu Maccido, who died on ADC Airlines Flight 53, the flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and had been destined for Sokoto.

Sa’adu Abubakar is a younger son of the seventeenth Sultan, Siddiq Abu Bakar dan Usman, who held the Sultanate for over fifty years. Abubakar is the fifth heir to the two century-old throne founded by his ancestor, Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio (1754–1817) leader of the Maliki school of Islam and the Qadiri branch of Sufism.

He attended the prestigious Barewa College, Zaria and proceeded to the Nigerian Defense Academy in 1975 where he was a member of the 18th Regular Course.[5] Abubakar was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1977 and served in the elite Armored Corps.

Indeed, he came onto the thrown of his fathers to inherit a community and a country in crisis. The popular perception of the Sultan in Nigeria is that he is the most powerful northern and Muslim leader whose word hold sway with personalities in power. In other words, even the President respects his advice and whoever is from the Sultan is honored anywhere in the country, even at the highest level of power.

The Sultan is that powerful in Nigeria and his position is revered in the country especially among the Muslims.

Sa’ad comes from a lineage of sultanate leadership spanning over a century.

The Sokoto Caliph was the ruler of the Sokoto Caliphate. The official title is Sultan of Sokoto and includes the title “Amir-ul-Momineen” (Leader of the Faithful). The post has become increasingly ceremonial since British rule, but the Sultan, considered a spiritual leader in the Muslim community in Nigeria, can still carry a lot of weight with Fulani and Hausa people from northern Nigeria.

Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the dynasty of Sokoto State and of the Fulani Empire (consisting of the Fulbe Jihad states of which Sokoto was suzerain), never used the high title of Sultan (his son was the first to do so), but was simply titled Amir al-Mu´minin, also styled Lamido Julbe (which literally means Governor of the believers in Fulani). The sultan of Sokoto is the leader of the Qadiriyya sufi order, historically the most important Muslim position in Nigeria and senior to the Emir of Kano, the leader of the less populous Tijaniyya sufi order.

Sa’ad’s predecessors were rarely seen nor heard and so their mystique lent credence to all sorts of speculations and perceptions, good or bad. But this 20th Sultan broke that ice as he comes out often enough to perform some interventionist roles when the need arises.

This is because Sa’ad realizes that these are no ordinary times and that as much as is possible, his presence and comments or opinion on national issues carry lots of weight with Nigerians particularly the Muslim community.

As a former soldier and General, the Sultan knows that in crisis or war, the Leader does not have the luxury of keeping to his domain, alone. His experience at the leadership cadre where he held sway in his 31 years in the military taught him that the Leader must always communicate with his troops and seek dialogue across the divide to a war or crisis to avert war.

In this Boko Haram era of terrorism on Nigeria, the insurgents claim to be fighting a Jihad war in the name of Islam. For a long while, the voices of Muslim cleric and Leaders were not heard loud enough for Nigerians to be convinced that the Muslim Leadership is not culpable or liable in the insurgency. So, when Nigerians look in the direction of the Muslim Leadership in the country, the Sultan of Sokoto is the voice they want to hear and the face they want to see to either erase doubts about the culpability of the Leadership or disclaim the terrorists’ religionist attachment to their evil cause.

His words and appearances at events provide, each time, the opportunity for both the Sultan and the nation at large to be convinced that the true Muslim community is not a part or supporter of Boko Haram, or any violence in the name of Islam.

Abubakar headed a presidential security unit of the Armored Corps that guarded then military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida in the late 1980s. Abubakar also commanded a battalion of African peacekeepers in Chad during the early 1980s as part of the Organization of African Unity’s force and was military liaison officer for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the mid-1990s. He was appointed Commanding Officer 241 Recce Battalion, Kaduna in 1993. From 1995 to 1999, he was ECOWAS military liaison officer and commanding officer, 231 Tank Battalion (ECOMOG Operations) in Sierra Leone from 1999 to 2000. From 2003 to 2006, he served as Defense Attaché to Pakistan (also accredited for Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan). Upon his elder brother, Sultan Maccido’s death, he was recalled to take office as the 20th Sultan of Sokoto] and retired as a brigadier general.

As Mark Sanborn said, anyone, anywhere, can make a positive difference. Even though Sa’ad is not just anyone, at least within the Nigerian and African religious space, by his more overt approach to relating with his people and situations in the country, he comes out as one desirous of making a positive difference.

So, when John C. Maxwell said Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them, he must have been thinking of the 20th Sultan of Sokoto, who insists on doing what is right, not what is easy. As Nigerians have been witnessing most northern leaders negotiating with terrorists and criminals just to save their heads, Sa’ad said he must speak the truth about his religion to power.

According to John C. Maxwell, leadership is not about titles, positions, or flow charts. It is about one life influencing another. The current Sultan is undoubtedly underplaying the material power of his thrown to amplify the power of his royalty to influence the mass of his people to do the right thing to coexist with their fellow countrymen and women in a multi religious nation as Nigeria.

This is because, as Warren Bennis maintained when he said failing organizations are usually over-managed and under-led, Sultan Abubakar tries so much to ensure the Caliphate neither fails nor falls to the temptation of going the way of those misrepresenting the religion he superintends.

Sa’ad would agree with Jocko Willink that leading people is the most challenging and, therefore, the most gratifying undertaking of all human endeavors.

The Sokoto Caliphate leader understands the point Nelson Mandela was trying to make when the South African hero stated that a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. This has been the style of leadership of the most powerful Muslim leader in Nigeria.

Knowing that the vision of his fathers and predecessors to make Islam the true religion of peace is an obligation he must deliver not just for the over 80 million Muslims he shepherd, but to the generality of Nigeria’s citizenry.

It is a vision and a mandate that keep this very powerful northern king awake at night calculating the stakes and wondering how he would achieve this goal to the pride of his predecessors and to the glory of Almighty Allah.

But when he remembers how he applied his innate wisdom, will and skills as a commander of many military formations to deliver his assignment in the military, he wakes up the next day, confident that his deliverable is just a matter of time as he has already laid the fundamentals through his peace-promoting evangelism across country and the world, to change perception of his religion from what it is to what he desires it to be.

Little wonder, Warren Bennis said Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality, because Sa’ad’s method of administering his role as the 20th Sultan is visionary, enduring as it is endearing.

As the 20th Sultan of Sokoto celebrated his 63rd birthday on August 24, having been born on the 24th day of the 8th month of the year in 1956, well wishers from across the religious divide, including the mighty and the low in society, joined in wishing him good health, long life and prosperity in the service of fatherland.


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