When a top-ranking American diplomat visits Nigeria, one might imagine that their first destination would be the commercial hub of Lagos or the seat of the government in Abuja.
But when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Africa’s biggest Muslim country, he did so in Sokoto, a relatively small state that is closer to Niamey, the capital of neighboring Niger , than to Lagos.
Kerry’s visit on Tuesday highlighted the esteem in which the Sultan of Sokoto—currently Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, the 20th man to hold the office—is held as a strategic partner by the U.S., particularly in the battle against Islamist extremism in Nigeria and the wider West African region.
During his visit, Kerry commended Abubakar for his role in promoting religious tolerance in Nigeria. The Sultan of Sokoto is the highest position of authority in mainstream Islam in Nigeria, and Abubakar thus has a key role in influencing a large proportion of Nigeria’s Muslim population, which numbers as many as 77 million. But to some Muslims and those of other faiths, including Christians, the Sultan is a divisive figure whose presence is a symbol of the internal ethnic and religious tensions in Africa’s most populous country.
The history of the position stretches back more than two centuries to the early 19th century and the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate by Usman dan Fodio. Millions of Muslims were united under the caliphate’s banner, and every Sultan of Sokoto is a descendant of Fodio. (The current sultan is the son of Siddiq Abubakar III, who in turn was the grandson of Mu’azu, one of Fodio’s grandsons.) The caliphate fell in the early 20th century to British colonialists, who retained the title of Sultan of Sokoto in what was then-called the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, and was later joined to its southern counterpart to become the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.
The sultan is the head of the Qadiriyya Sufi order and is considered the most senior of Nigeria’s Muslim leaders, ahead of the Emir of Kano—currently Sanusi Lamido Sanusi II, a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who heads up the Tijaniyyah order. The sultan is also the head of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, a body that the government consults on matters of religion. According to Sola Tayo, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Program, the sultan “sits comfortably” with the federal government, currently led by President Muhammadu Buhari, without having an ostensibly political role.
One of the key tests of the sultan’s role in recent years has been the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria. The group emerged in 2002, preaching a radical brand of Islam, and eventually took up arms against the government in 2009. Following an attack by Boko Haram on government buildings and police stations in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, Nigeria’s security forces brutally repressed the group, killing hundreds. The founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was captured but died in custody, with Nigerian police claiming he tried to escape, but others speculating that he was extrajudicially executed.
While he has since condemned the group as un-Islamic, the sultan’s first public comment on the group was to criticize the military’s heavy-handedness in dealing with it. “We cannot solve violence with violence,” Abubakar said in 2011.
“He’s advised the government not to treat every Muslim in the northeast like they’re a Boko Haram sympathizer, which is a very mainstream school of thought,” says Tayo. “You don’t go around antagonizing communities and encouraging the military to violate human rights all over the place.”
The sultan has been a moderate voice in promoting harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, where the population is split almost evenly between the two religions. Abubakar has affirmed Nigeria’s status as a “multi-religious country” that cannot be subjected to Islamization and has reportedly encouraged mixed Christian-Muslim marriages as a means of stemming interreligious conflict.
But he is still viewed with suspicion by some Christians and Kerry’s visit was condemned as “divisive” by the Christian Association of Nigeria, which questioned why the U.S. diplomat did not visit Christian leaders or meet with governors of the southern states, where the majority of the Christian population lives.
While Nigeria’s Muslims are mostly Sunni, there is a small but sizeable Shiite minority. Shiites do not tend to view the Sultan of Sokoto as a religious authority but Abubakar made a point of speaking up for the minority community following clashes between the Nigerian Army and members of the country’s main Shiite grouping, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. A judicial inquiry found in August that the army killed almost 350 Shiites during clashes in the northern city of Zaria in December 2015, also arresting the group’s leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, who remains in custody.
Abubakar warned following the violence that the military crackdown bore a striking resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Boko Haram at the time of Yusuf’s death. “The history of the circumstances that engendered the outbreak of militant insurgency in the past, with cataclysmic consequences that Nigeria is yet to recover from, should not be allowed to repeat itself,” the sultan said, a warning that would not please all Muslims in Nigeria, particularly the more hardline Sunnis. “Among a certain breed of Nigerian Muslim, anybody who speaks out in defense of Shiites is to be frowned upon,” says Tayo. “There are a lot of Nigerians in the more conservative strains of Islam who do not like the Shiites at all and think that the military did absolutely the right thing.”
The U.S. has made clear—in financial and military terms—its support for Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram. The Nigerian militant group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in 2015—although splits have since emerged—and the U.S. is fully committed to wiping out ISIS’s influence wherever it springs up. For Tayo, Kerry’s visit—besides being “great PR”—could be a means of keeping sweet an effective ally in America’s ongoing battle with Islamist extremism. “If the sultan has as much leverage with Nigerian Muslims as we know he does, then for someone like Kerry, it’s a great way to get the U.S. message across [by] using that conduit,” she says.