Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Nigeria's violence political, not religious, says Muslim leader

From Christian Purefoy, CNN
Click to play
The spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims
  • Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar is the spiritual leader of Nigeria's 70 million Muslims
  • The Sultan of Sokoto reigns at a time of religious division in Nigeria
  • He says most of the crises in Nigeria are not religious, but are politically motivated

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- With some 70 million followers, Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar is the spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslim population.

As heir to the 200-year-old throne of West Africa's 19th-century Caliphate Empire, Abubakar is one of the most influential traditional rulers in the region.

Four years after he was appointed Sultan of Sokoto, he reigns at a time of deepening religious division in Nigeria, a nation almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.

Africa's most populous nation, with 150 million people, has been struggling with a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and continued violence between the Muslim north and Christian south of the country.

Thousands of people have been killed in religious-related violence since Nigeria gained independence in 1960.

Becoming the Sultan of Sokoto
Struggling with the rise of extremism

But Abubakar, who had a long career in the army before becoming sultan, says the fighting that's rocked Nigeria goes beyond religion.

"There could be some few cases of religious crisis in some places but most of the crises we have in this country are not religious -- they are politically motivated," he says.

While Abubakar acknowledges that there is a small minority of extremists, he says that they don't represent the majority of peaceful Muslims.

"We're in the majority but the very few people who don't believe in this maybe are into taking up arms against innocent lives, taking innocent lives," he says. "They are few and that's our concern and we are looking into how we can put a check to those atrocities that these people commit in the name of religion."

In July 2009, a radical Islamic sect known as Boko Haram attacked government buildings across the north of Nigeria. After a week of intense fighting an estimated 700 people were killed and the uprising was eventually put down.

But attacks and killings continue as Boko Haram pursues its aim of enforcing Sharia law more ruthlessly across the North. The group is also thought to be behind a series of recent bombings in the wake of the re-election of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south.

Abubakar says he is very concerned about politicians using religion for their own motives.

"It's the politicians who are the ones who arm them," he says. "The politicians arm these people, they give them money but as I said, they are in the minority -- the majority of us are peace-loving, are really out for a stable Nigeria."

With a career spanning three decades in the Nigerian army, Abubakar has a long experience in the fight against extremism. His military identity saw him serving in some of the world's hotspots, including Sierra Leona, Pakistan and the Gulf States.

"That was a very good appointment that really opened my eyes very well to the politics and challenges of the world in terms of religious extremism, religious problems and other social views," he says.

All that happened through my life as a soldier really helped me now in what I'm doing now.
--Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto
  • Nigeria
  • Islam
  • Religion
  • Africa

Abubakar says the military life prepared him for his current position of sultan.

"All that happened through my life as a soldier really helped me now in what I'm doing now," he says.

"You find out you don't have to use force to get people to do what you're supposed to do -- even wars are fought to keep peace, so if you know you can get peace without fighting war then why do you have to fight war?" he says.

The Sokoto Caliphate was founded some 200 years ago by Usman Dan Fodio -- an Islamic scholar who led a jihad to spread Islam across West Africa.

In the 19th century, the empire stretched across what is modern-day northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Since then there have been 20 sultans -- each one a descendent of the first sultan -- with Abubakar being the latest spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslim population

He says traditional religious rulers are still relevant in modern-day Nigeria, which has the sixth largest Muslim population in the world, according to the Pew Forum.

"The influence of traditional leaders is still there because we are the ones who live with the people, we are the ones who sleep with them, we're with the grassroots, we know their problems and therefore the traditional institutions are very much respected and is also a major stakeholder in the affairs of our country," says Abubakar.