Nigerian Muslims welcome new spiritual leader

A 53-year-old retired army colonel was today named as the new Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual head of Nigeria's estimated 70 …

A 53-year-old retired army colonel was today named as the new Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual head of Nigeria's estimated 70 million Muslims, to succeed his half-brother who died in a plane crash on Sunday.

Hundreds of wellwishers stormed the Sultan's palace to congratulate Mohammed Sada Abubakar on his appointment as the leader of the Sokoto Caliphate, which spread Islam across Africa's most populous nation in the 19th century.

"May he continue where the late Sultan stopped," said Muhammadu Bello, a trader in Sokoto's central market. "I want to congratulate the state government for choosing a consensus Sultan."

The appointment was made by the Governor of Sokoto from a shortlist drawn up by clan chiefs from around the state, located in the far north of Nigeria on the arid Niger border.


The previous Sultan, Ibrahim Muhammadu Maccido, was one of 99 people killed on Sunday when a Boeing 737 operated by domestic carrier ADC slammed into a cornfield minutes after take off from the capital Abuja. Nine people survived.

President Olusegun Obasanjo replaced his aviation minister today in the wake of the crash.

Abubakar is expected to be escorted by horsemen from the Sultan's palace to the central Sokoto mosque tomorrow, where he will lead a prayer session.

Observers said the transition would be made smoother by the fact that the title would stay in the family, which is descended from Uthman dan Fodio, an Islamic scholar who launched a jihad in 1804 to spread Islam to most of northern Nigeria.

Abubakar is the younger half-brother of the late Sultan, sharing the same father. His army career has included a peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, presidential security and a posting as defence attache on the Middle East based in Pakistan. He retired in February this year.

The Sultan's largely ceremonial role includes declaring the timing of Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan. He also acts as the foremost traditional ruler in northern Nigeria.

Maccido was a quiet, conservative leader who used his position to promote calm whenever religious violence occurred, such as during riots over the staging of the 2002 Miss World pageant and when religious bloodshed broke out in the central state of Plateau in 2004.

He also helped to persuade some northern Nigerian states to end a boycott of polio vaccines in 2004. Some governors banned the vaccine arguing it was part of a western plot to spread infertility and AIDS among Muslims. It caused an epidemic of the crippling disease among children across Nigeria and Africa which authorities are still struggling to contain.

Nigeria is split about evenly between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south, although large religious minorities exist in both regions.