Meeting Emirs with a Nigerian Prince During the Durbar Festivals of Northern Nigeria

May 2021: Three times a year usually during Islamic holidays, people in the Emirates of Northern Nigeria hold a parade or durbar to demonstrate loyalty to their Emir, an Islamic ruler, whose title dates back to the 1400’s.  These days the Emir’s do not have any legal powers, but they still possess incredible influence over the people of their Emirate. Nowhere is this more evident than in a durbar.

Durbars are popular events where the masses line the streets to see the Emir and parade participants proudly display their best jihad horses, clothing and weaponry. The parade last for hours and ends at the Emir’s palace where many of the Emir’s subjects ceremoniously pay homage to him while he is seated upon his throne.

My friends and I had the unique opportunity to visit eastern Nigeria and travel with a Nigerian prince to attend  durbars and to have a private audience with a few Emirs including one who was the uncle of the Prince.

The map above shows where I traveled in Nigeria. Kano in the far north near the Niger border is where the durbars are.
Nigerian Visa
One reason why I had waited this long to visit Nigeria is because the visa process is notoriously difficult. One friend recently applied for a visa at the USA Nigerian Embassy and due to complications had to hire an attorney in Nigeria to help him sort out his visa. Many other foreigners have either been denied a visa or had to pay exorbitant amounts to get theirs. 

Due to a newly introduced visa process, the business visa on arrival (BVOA), it became much easier and cheaper for foreigners to enter Nigeria. Essentially you are paying the fixer to lie and state that they are sponsoring you to visit Nigeria for business purposes even though you are just there for tourism. This type of visa cannot be issued far in advance, and you only know a few days before your trip if one is issued and it also has a limited duration. It can be challenging to find a competent and trustworthy fixer in Nigeria to arrange it.  Let’s face it Nigeria has a reputation for fraud and it’s not entirely undeserved.  My initial visa fixer, a highly recommend tour operator, tragically died in a bus accident. I was then referred to another fixer that was meant to be mostly reliable. After I submitted payment for two people, the visa handler promptly stopped communicating with me. In the end Joan Riviera/Last Places assisted me with finding a fixer to obtain the VOA.  


Banditry and Boko Haram


Unfortunately, Nigeria is no stranger to religious, and tribal strife. Additionally, areas of it suffer from banditry. A week before my visit violence broke out in one of the cities I was going to fly in to-Kaduna. Bandits raided a university and kidnapped hundreds of students for ransom, killing some in the scuffle. In other areas near Abuja, the capitol, Boko Haram, the villainous terror group also known to kidnap schoolgirls and force them into sex slavery or as they call it marriage, took a city just outside of Abuja. Needless to say, security was a big concern of mine.  Joan put me in touch with a friend of his-a Nigerian Prince of Jigawa-Zahraddeen Sanusi. The prince is the son of the Vice-Emir of Jigawa, nephew to the Emir and a potential future Emir. I spoke to Sanusi on WhatsApp, and he immediately went out of his way to ensure that my friends and I were taken care of in Nigeria. The prince and his entourage picked us up at the airport and brought us to various Durbars and arranged for us meet Emirs including his uncle. 
Our trip almost ended before it started. But thankfully the prince proved to be a well-connected man. He had a friend in immigration in Lagos who was able to assist us with our visas when we were having difficulty with getting them issued.  With our VOAs in hand, we thought we were ready to go. Then at the airport when checking in, we were told by airline staff that we could not board until we had proof of a paid Covid test as shown in the Nigerian immigration website portal. This was a problem because American credit cards, I found out, did not get along with Nigeria. Additionally, the Nigerian website was crashing. After lots of anguish and failed payment attempts with multiple credit cards, we were finally able to submit a payment and secure our boarding passes. 
Photo of the Prince, Jimmie and I

We transited via London where the entire airport was a ghost town as England was in the middle of another Covid lockdown. When we arrived in Nigeria it was the exact opposite. Although Nigeria had a weeklong quarantine requirement for arrivals, it wasn’t enforced. 

Aside from a negative Covid test upon arrival and departure, there were little to no covid regulations and judging from the behavior of the people, Covid didn’t exist. The few that did wear a mask, wore it around their chin.

Durbar Parades
Photo of the Emir in a Durbar
Durbar horseback riders
Snake charmer with cobras in Bichi Emirate Durbar 
Durbar Horseback Riders Blasting Air Guns and Playing Drums
Durbar horseback riders
Militia members Showing off their weaponry
Militia members Showing off their weaponry
Young girls are all dressed up in their finest clothing and adorned with makeup in attendance for the durbar

Assistant of the Prince/My Bodyguard

Assistant of the Prince/My Bodyguard

We attended two durbars over the course of the next few days. The durbars were being held because the Islamic holiday of Ramadan had just ended. One was in Bichi Emirate and the other in Kano Emirate. After two days of air travel and little sleep, we arrived in kano, and the prince and his entourage immediately swept us away to a durbar in Bichi-an hour’s drive from Kano. Once we arrived in Bichi, our vehicle pulled up to a dirt road and dropped us off into the intense heat of the mid-day sun-approx. 110 degrees. At our side and responsible for our safety were two of the prince’s assistants or bodyguards.  There were no other foreigners in view. Within minutes, the dusty roads erupted into mayhem. Thousands of people thrusted themselves passed us along with galloping horses and turbaned men holding rifles and various weapons of war.  At times we had to push back against the crowd to keep from falling beneath the horses. With thousands of people all unmasked around us, it was very apparent that Covid was not a concern in Nigeria. Before us marched drummers, musicians, snake charmers, nobleman on war horses displaying their allegiance to the Emir, militia members brandishing weapons and finally the Emir and hundreds of his guards and entourage.
Militia members proudly displaying weapons eyeball me while running the blade of their machete across their tongue in a show of intimidation 
Young girls are all dressed up in their finest clothing and adorned with makeup in attendance for the durbar
In both Durbars, the Emirs guards would pass along with musicians drumming and playing flutes. We also saw nomads on camels and jeeps full of militia men and boys that are hired by villages to protect against banditry in the absence of reliable police forces. I heard that in some cases the militias hired to protect villages become the very bandits they were hired to defend against.

The Emir rode by in his horse draped in all white with a decorative umbrella held over him for protection from the sun. The Emir’s guards would shoot air guns, which created crashing bangs. With the crushing crowd all around us, I was very aware of the stampede risk in case of a terror attack. Given Nigeria’s history of terror attacks, my senses heightened during every bang.

A nobleman father dresses his son up to rise a horse in the durbar
Demonstrating Allegiance to the Emir of Kano
The audience of the Emir
Guards of the Emir’s palace in Kano
Gateway to Emir’s palace in Kano
We were ushered through masses of people and a line of guards with clubs guarding the palace of the Emir. We were led by the prince and his bodyguards into the gates of the palace to the reception room where the throne awaited the arrival of the Emir. Throngs of loyal subjects waited to pay homage. 

After some time, the trumpets hailed, and the guards of the Emir covered him as he entered the room. The audience took their seats on the floor, shoes removed. The Emir sat in his throne silently. The Emir’s spokesperson would do all the speaking for the Emir from this point forth. The custom is that the Emir could not speak directly to the people, but they could speak to him, as they prostrated themselves before him. Everyone from police chiefs to wealthy businessmen, Islamic clerics to young boys prostrated themselves to the Emir paying their respects and praising him. 


Boy praying to Emir of Kano
Nobleman paying homage to Emir of Kano
Not understanding what was going on, I sat on the floor and did my best to keep a low profile and avoid showing any disrespect. Later when the Emir arose to leave the room, he approached me with the Prince and I did what everyone else did, I fell to the floor and bowed to him. Later the Prince told me that the Emir wanted to take a photo with me but instead if fell to my knees before him.  


Having a Private Audience with the Emir of Zaria and Jigawa
Emir of Jigawa
During the next few days in Nigeria, the Prince took us to meet the Emir of Zaria and his uncle, the Emir of Jigawa. The 2-hour drive to Zaria there was in one word terrifying. Nigeria in my opinion after traveling the world, easily was one of the world’s most dangerous driving destinations.  In Nigeria traffic accidents kill more people each year than AID’s and malaria combined. The seriousness of this matter was made known to me before I came to Nigeria. A really nice lady that I was going to hire as a guide died when her bus that was speeding blew a tire and drove off the road killing 19 people.

Driving in Nigeria truly was scary.  Vehicles pass each other at full speed into incoming traffic and along the shoulder. Burnt out wrecks sit along the road as constant reminders that death is always near on the road.  On many occasions we found ourselves just falling shy of certain death by no less than a miracle. My co-traveler had enough at one point and cursed out the driver. The driver, too focused on the road and trying to squeeze in between trucks at a death-defying speed, was oblivious to my friend’s rant.  Despite the poor safety records on the roads in Nigeria, strangely no one wears a seatbelt.

Emir of Zaria
In both palaces-Zaria and Jigawa, we sat in a couch to side of the Emir, who was in his throne. The Emir’s entourage sat before him on the floor. I was given a microphone to speak to the Emir. Surprisingly both Emirs were well traveled and had been all around the world and even attended university in the USA. We spoke of the USA, and of the duties of the Emir. I was taught that the Emir is the traditional mediator for domestic and civil altercations. The Emir’s duty is to enforce Islamic Sharia law and to act as a morale authority to help guide his people. More serious criminal altercations are resolved by the Nigerian government. 

Both Emirs escorted us with their entourage around their palace. As the Emir walked, I made sure to walk beside him and never in front. The entourage constantly would walk in front to make sure the path was clear even though the passageways were familiar to the Emir. The entourage would repeat praises to the Emir as we walked and would carry an umbrella over him when in the sun. 

Me speaking to the Emir of Zaria 
The Emirs were proud of the traditional architecture of their palaces. They showed us their horse stables and spoke of their culture and proud Fulani heritage. They took us to various parts of the palace but did not show us their personal quarters. 
Jigawa Emir’s palace
The palace and town of Zaria was nice, but my favorite was Jigawa-the home of the prince. The municipality of Jigawa was smaller more isolated and nestled in between huge scenic rock outcroppings. Jigawa was more rural and relaxed and the palace more vibrant and colorful. The prince took us to meet his uncle the Emir and his father the Vice-Emir. Everywhere where he went the people would bow before the prince and praise him.
The Emir of Jigawa and I-One of the only times anyone requested I wear a mask outside of the airport in Nigeria
Muftahu, the Prince’s bodyguard and a new friend of mine
Palace of Jigawa
Exploring the Old City of Kano
The old city of Kano is not to be missed. We walked around the winding alleyways through the mud brick houses among smiling children and Islamic madrassas. We visited the leather tannery area, where everything from goat to python skins was being prepared to be sold. We also visited the dye pits where traditional clothing is dyed via natural die pits. Lastly, we went to the market, which had amazing handicrafts but sadly I couldn’t buy anything because I had another few weeks left in Africa and didn’t have space to carry anything. 
Man tanning a giant python skin
Girl in old Kano
Old Kano
Cancelled Flights
On our last day in Kano, two of our flights out were cancelled. Reportedly our plane had to make an emergency landing the night before and now our flight was cancelled. Luckily, we were able to catch the last flight out of Kano to Lagos even though this was almost cancelled too.

We left Kano and said goodbye to the prince. We were very appreciative of everything the prince did to help us in Kano and for taking the time out of his busy schedule to accommodate us and for giving us a glimpse into his world. In return, I invited the prince and his wife to San Diego, and this December I hope to be his guide and show him my world.