The Sultan of Sokoto

Self-effacing spiritual leader of the Muslims in Nigeria respected for his gentle diplomacy

Muhammadu Maccido, religious leader: born Dange, Nigeria 20 April 1926; succeeded 1996 as Sultan of Sokoto; married (c52 children); died Abuja 29 October 2006.

The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Maccido, who was among the 96 people who perished in a plane crash shortly after take-off from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Sunday, was one of the most influential traditional rulers in Africa. The Sokoto caliphate has been devastated by the crash because Maccido's son, who was a senator, as well as a young grandson, died with him.

A direct descendant of Usman dan Fodio, the Muslim leader who, in the 19th century, engaged in a fierce jihad to spread Islam into three-quarters of what is now the West African region, Maccido was, as Sultan, President of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Nigeria. This meant that he was the spiritual leader of all Muslims in Nigeria. And, indeed, it was at his signal that important Islamic festivals, such as Eid ul-Fitr, were celebrated.

Although his heritage was enough to accord him respect throughout the Islamic world, he was particularly well regarded for qualities that were entirely personal to him. He was a gentle, well-spoken person and known for his humility.

His father, Siddiq Abubakar, ensured that Maccido was not only educated with his subjects but also that he took on jobs that taught him the secrets of good administration and the requirements of party politics. He served in so many positions that he got to know almost everyone who was anyone, not only in Northern Nigeria but in the Federation as a whole.

Muhammadu Maccido was born in 1926 in the village of Dange, a few miles from Sokoto, where his father was district head. Three of his siblings had died shortly after their birth and his father named him "Maccido" as a way of expressing a prayer in the Fulfulde language: "Let him survive!" Maccido did, to be enrolled, aged seven, at the Dange elementary school. He continued his education at the Sokoto Middle School, and then the Clerical Training College at Zaria. He specialised in office administration and before graduating in 1949 went to work with the Katsina Native Authority.

In 1952, he was sent to England, to the South Devon Technical College in Torquay, where he obtained a Diploma in Public Administration. His course mates included people destined to play an important part in administering Northern Nigeria, including Prince Muhammadu Bashir (now Emir of Daura); Prince Muhammadu Bahago (now Emir of Minna); and Prince Bello (now Emir of Paiko).

On his return home, Maccido served in the Sokoto Native Administration, and also took on his first traditional title, when he was "turbaned" as the "Chiroman Sakkwato". But things were changing in Northern Nigeria from traditional politics into modern party politics and Maccido was persuaded that it would be a good idea if he joined the Northern People's Congress (NPC), the party formed by his kinsman, the Sardauna of Sokoto, leader of the largest political movement in Northern Nigeria.

Under the aegis of the NPC, Maccido was elected as a member of the Northern Regional Legislative Assembly for Kaduna. He was appointed Commissioner of Agriculture in 1969, and also became Sokoto state chairman of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which ruled the Federation from 1979 to 1983. The President of the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, made Maccido his liaison officer in Sokoto state.

It came as no surprise when, in 1988, on the death of Sultan Abubakar, violent riots broke out in Sokoto after it was learnt that Maccido had, at the instigation of the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, been denied the succession to his father. The man chosen to occupy the Sultan's throne was Ibrahim Dasuki. When Babangida's successor, General Sani Abacha, removed Dasuki in 1996 and replaced him with Maccido, many Nigerians felt that the rightful Sultan was now on the throne.

Maccido's diplomacy has been largely responsible for stemming the tide of a movement in Northern Nigeria towards the strict imposition of sharia law. Some of the states have indeed adopted sharia, and although this has led to serious loss of life - as Christians in the sharia states take to the streets to protest - things could have been much worse, given the strength of the emotions aroused.

Maccido also used his influence to get some northern governors who were opposed to a vaccination campaign against polio to change their minds. And he was a strong supporter of Nigeria's HIV/Aids campaign. A traditional ruler with such an enlightened view of life will be difficult to replace.

Cameron Duodu

My memories of Muhammadu Maccido go back to the early 1960s, writes Professor Murray Last. As Sarkin Kudu, he was one of my closest mentors when I lived within the old city of Sokoto while researching a book, The Sokoto Caliphate (1967).

He was very much his father's son - like his father as Sultan, he was accessible to everyone, and deeply courteous. In the quiet, indirect way he had, he taught me manners (he once said, "Oh, the trouble we had after the [Second World W]ar in teaching the new British colonial officers how to behave"). He was never rich; though his house fed some 200 people every evening, it was from grain sent in to him as gifts from merchants. Indeed when he moved parties around 1978, from GNPP to NPN, he took care to return to GNPP all the monies he had received from them.

He was not a scholar, but he had the self-effacing piety and charisma that made people throng to him just to touch his gown - to his great dismay, he once told me, and slight fear too. So when his (temporary) predecessor as Sultan got the German contractors Julius Berger to rebuild the palace entirely - a house that traditionally (before colonial rule) had been his family house, complete with the original study of the second Sultan and the family's library of ancient manuscript books in Arabic - he was horrified by the new marble, the air-conditioning (that drank a 44-gallon drum of diesel every day), above all by the huge bedroom, where the bed was set centrally like a throne up several steps. Instead, once he had moved in (after refusing to enter for some three weeks), he camped in the study next door. He kept his old house too - his family was large (he is survived by some 52 children).

In short, he was what the ordinary Muslim - townsman or countryman - wanted as Sultan: a simple man, with "majesty", but not necessarily worldly power - not a vociferous politician, not a rich, modernising business tycoon. As head of the Muslim community, he was in a sense "standing" for them before Allah, especially just now when the world's end seems to many to be imminent.

He stood for a self-effacing practice of Islam: he was not initially enthusiastic about implementing the penal aspects of sharia law, he did not condone the new Shias' forceful preaching in the courtyard of the mosque; he strove hard to stop riots by youths against Christians.

He was, as they say, the "pillar" that upheld the roof over his community. It was a difficult task, as he himself recognised.

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
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