A YEAR ago arrivals on the outskirts to Kano had to pass a sign forbidding alcohol consumption and banning women from riding on motorbikes. Now it is gone. Kano may be the sixth-biggest Muslim city in the world — after Karachi, Jakarta, Dhaka, Cairo and Istanbul — but it is far from the most conservative.
Women lift their hemlines to get on the back of achabas, motorbikes that are the main source of transport. Mini vans carry both sexes to their destination. It is possible to get a cold beer to wash away sand inhaled during a day on the edge of the Sahara.
The relaxation of sharia rules has come gradually, but it has accelerated with a recent change of guard. Ibrahim Shekarau, the former governor, liked to please radical clerics. He put up pious signs even as prostitutes plied their trade and policemen took bribes from alcohol merchants.
When Rabiu Kwankwaso took over last year, he dropped the charade. Few protested in the city of almost 10 million Muslims, where thousands of minarets puncture the skyline through the dust of the dry season.
Most women dress modestly but a few wear trousers and shirts. Uncovered heads arouse no comment. At traffic lights hawkers surround cars to sell plastic goods and phone cards. Boys offer bootleg Bollywood films while Indian music plays on the radio rather than modern Nigerian pop produced in the south of the country. This is a political statement: Kanoites have little time for their southern compatriots, who are predominantly Christian.
They accuse them of hogging government posts and oil revenues. Such antagonism is common across the north and has contributed to the rise of a radical Islamist group, Boko Haram. On January 20, Kano was the target of the group’s most deadly attack to date. A series of co-ordinated bombings and ambushes destroyed police buildings and secret-service offices, leaving some 200 dead.
The president, Goodluck Jonathan, fired his police chief in response. Boko Haram justified the assault as revenge for the arrest of several of its members. Over the past three years it has killed almost 1 000 people in attacks across Nigeria.
The group was founded a decade ago in Maiduguri, a city in the north-east. It claims to campaign for the strict implementation of sharia, which is widely but loosely followed in Nigeria’s Muslim north and absent in the Christian south. Traders in Kano markets are reluctant to comment on Boko Haram, fearing more attacks.
The group’s name is almost never mentioned in public and instead referred to as “BH” or “the terror”. Intimidating businesses is a powerful tactic. Once a rich trans-Saharan trade hub, the city can ill afford to lose more commerce. For centuries it enjoyed high levels of literacy and a degree of architectural sophistication. But its main industries, cotton and leather, have collapsed, unable to compete with low-cost imports. “
The Chinese are choking small-scale businesses,” laments Sani Yusuf, a manager at Kano’s indigo-dye pits, some of the oldest in Africa. His machinery is decrepit.
Generators struggle to compensate for the “epileptic” city grid. “Business is very difficult,” says Yusuf Mukta, a worker at a plastics factory. “There is not sufficient power. Diesel for generators is expensive, and we have no support from the government.”
For now religious homogeneity in Kano creates harmony, one resident says. “It allows people to communicate. There is little bitterness or resentment.” But as 10 million souls are confined to their homes during a newly imposed night-time curfew following this month’s attack, many will wonder how long until BH strikes again. –– Economist.