It is somewhat disconcerting to stare up at a 10ft portrait of the man with whom you are about to dine. There, on the luminescent green wall of his palace, is a portrait of the Emir of Kano in all his resplendence. He’s decked out in a full-length gold and blue robe, a shimmering hat like an outsized bowler, and furry sandals the size of dinner plates. That such a personage could be alive today, let alone about to eat with me, seems mildly preposterous. It is nearly 8pm and the palace is eerily deserted. I’m being led by a retainer along a dark corridor. The emir had proposed dinner rather than lunch because of his schedule and the timings of flights to Kano, an ancient city in northern Nigeria. I’d looked into driving from Abuja, but had been warned about a recent spate of kidnappings. I find myself alone in a library with a large throne at one end and an old ceiling fan clattering overhead. The books are mostly histories of Africa, but there is also a prominently displayed copy of Private Eye with a cover featuring Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, and a Muppet.
Part of the modern and the ancient establishment, the 56-year-old Lamido Sanusi II inhabits two worlds. As Emir of Kano, he is considered the most important Muslim authority in Nigeria after the Sultan of Sokoto. A former banker, he is also known for his actions as central bank governor in 2014, when he sent shockwaves through the establishment by exposing a $20bn shortfall in state coffers. Under the cloak of tradition, he takes pot shots at the elite and pronounces on social issues, including child marriage, which still flourishes in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north. There are those who consider him brilliant and those who consider him arrogant. Not a few consider him both. Eventually someone comes for me. I’m walked through the formal gardens towards the emir’s quarters, an imposing white building, ablaze with lights. A retainer leads me into another library, this one more modern and with an almost cinema-sized flat-screen TV embedded in one of the floor-to ceiling-bookcases. There are 20,000 books. Time passes. I fiddle with a tissue box printed with a photograph of the emir. On the side, where normally it would say Kleenex, it reads “Muhammad Sanusi II”. The silence is disturbed by chanting. The doors are flung open and in glides Sanusi. “Sorry for being late,” he says. It is past 9pm. “I had not been informed you had arrived.” He speaks in an impeccable English of the sort that has withered in Britain itself.
In the flesh, he’s wearing a simple white robe, his head covered with a Yasser Arafat-style headscarf. We move to the dining room, which is decorated in pale yellow.
A table has been set and silver tureens are arranged along one wall. Oddly, for a house with dozens of servants, we are to serve ourselves. Sanusi, quite familiar with Lunch with the FT, describes the food. “This is waina,” he explains, pointing to some puffy bread. “W-A-I-N-A. It’s made from rice. The rice is ground. It’s then made into paste and fried in oil. And it goes with a vegetable soup.” “This is tuwo shinkafa,” he continues, using a Hausa word for snow-white balls of pounded rice. He proceeds through each tureen: chicken and spinach curry, green soup, plantains, white rice and, of course, the orange jollof rice, without which no Nigerian feast is complete.
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