By Julius Ogunro
Since the NNPP government took over in May this year, Kano State appears to have lurched to the right, becoming more fundamentalist in its interpretation and implementation of the Sharia law. Hisbah, the state’s Islamic moral police, has become energized, conducting various raids and arresting people who allegedly flouted its set of ethical and moral principles enshrined in Islamic law.
Recently, the Hisbah broke into a hostel of female students of the Bayero University, Kano (BUK). In a distressing video that surfaced online, the students were seen crying and begging as the Hisbah officials tried to forcefully make their way into their rooms. Earlier, the Hisbah operatives had raided several hotels in the state, where they arrested many young women and girls on suspicion of prostitution. The board has suddenly become very prominent in the news. If not conducting raids, it is providing counsel on the right conduct for young people or offering to arrange marriages for female social media influencers.
The Kano State Hisbah Board was set up in 2000 by Governor Rabiu Kwakwanso, in the wake of the controversy that greeted the implementation of the Sharia law by 11 northern states. It was overhauled in 2003 when Ibrahim Shekarau took over as the governor of the state. Since then, it has become a common feature of the state, frequently coming to national attention during Ramadan season when it enforces compliance, or when operatives destroy bottles of alcohol.
However, with the new NNPP government in place, it appears the Hisbah Board is increasingly playing a crucial role in the day-to-day life in Kano State, an indication of the more fundamentalist approach of the new government. Abba Kabir Yusuf, the governor of the state, gave a hint of this early in his rule when he ordered the demolition of the City’s roundabout, a popular cultural monument built by his predecessor, Abdullahi Ganduje. The reason: it had a symbol that looked like the cross, which is associated with Christianity.
The actions of the Kano State government, which indicates an inclination towards Islamic purity, are perhaps a political strategy to win the state’s influential religious scholars and residents who are overwhelmingly Muslims. Being the government of a minority party, without national support or from adjoining states, the Party and state government may be trying to entrench its roots in Kano by appealing to the commonality the people share in Islam.
This is perhaps a good political strategy to win some support for the government. However, the central problems of Kano State are not religious or moral. They are economic and they are pressing.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Kano is the state with the highest number of poor people in Nigeria with over 10 million residents living below the poverty line. Over 20 percent of the working-age population are unemployed, while over 50 percent lack access to electricity, and only 30 percent have access to piped water. The literacy rate in Kano is 52 percent which is below the national average of 63 percent. Over 50 percent of children under the age of five in the state are stunted, which is a sign of chronic malnutrition.
But by far, Kano’s endemic problem is with out-of-school children. With an estimated figure of three million, it is the state that accounts for most of the out-of-school children in Nigeria. This is alarming. One can almost certainly forecast the future of a society that fails to train its children, providing them with the right learning tools to function optimally in an increasingly complex world. That society will be plagued by crime, unemployment, inequality, and poverty.
With these serious development challenges, it is doubtful that enforcing moral or religious puritanism is the way to overcome them. History and experience tend to show that pandering to religious fundamentalism won’t lead to the achievement of developmental goals and targets. Mainly because extremism tends to stifle creativity; discourage dissent and critical thinking; suppress educational and scientific inquiry; promote conflict and violence, and encourage discrimination against certain groups of people. Already, some Kannywood actors and creatives are reportedly leaving the state for Abuja, and other places where they can express themselves more freely without the censorship of the Hisbah.
A good example where religious puritanism comes in conflict with development goals and objectives is Afghanistan. It is governed by the Taliban, an Islamist group that imposes a strict interpretation of Islam on the people. The Taliban share something in common with Kano’s NNPP government – the love to destroy things. On coming to power, the Taliban destroyed cultural monuments and statues, claiming that Islam forbade them. Since regaining power after the pullout of the US government in 2021, it has run a theocratic government in which the puritanical practice of Islam is its number one goal, ahead of education, the economy, and everything else.
No wonder Afghanistan’s economy is in tatters. The economic turmoil and collapse of various sectors have resulted in high unemployment rates, reportedly over 40 percent. Many Afghans lost their jobs due to the disruption of trade and businesses owing to the harsh theocratic rules imposed by the Taliban. Half of the population, girls, are not being educated, even as the group has banned the teaching of certain subjects such as music and arts. Its healthcare system is on the verge of collapse. Hospitals and clinics lack essential supplies and are understaffed due to the restrictions imposed by the Taliban, including one that forbids women healthcare workers, making it difficult for many Afghans to access healthcare.
Is this what the NNPP government wants for Kano, religious piety above everything else? That path will only lead to Afghanistan. As is often the case with religious fundamentalism, a little is rarely enough. The radicals will keep asking for more, coming up with new fundamentalist interpretations and stricter rules until the state is hardly recognizable. But there is another path, one that leads to Dubai. That road is paved with temperance, openness, curiosity, innovation, science, technology, and the appreciation of the arts.
Kano can still change course, or continue on the road to Kabul.