Magazine article New Internationalist

The Sultan and I

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Sultan and I

Article excerpt

'So,' I ask the man sitting across the table from me, 'what should I call you?'

'Your Majesty,' he says.

'OK, your majesty; it is a real pleasure to meet you today...'

I am in the presence not of a king, but a sultan. His majesty sultan Senoussi Ibrahim Kamoun of N'délé is sitting in my small office in Bangui, clad in flowing traditional robes, his political adviser at his side. They both live in the town of N'délé in the remote northeast of the Central African Republic (CA R), with its fierce, ethnically diverse population who can be prone to in-fighting, its fabulous Sunday market - and its ramshackle blue-and-white sultanate palace complete with turrets and towers. The sultan is here in the capital for a seminar.

Sultan Senoussi is maybe 40 years old. He was appointed just over a year ago and was, he tells me, reluctant to take up the sultanate, as he was living and working in Bangui, more than 2,000 kilometres from N'délé. But he accepted the call because the local population told him they needed him. The former sultan was old and chronically sick, eventually unable to fulfil his role. His successor is now dedicated both to being the sultan and to bringing peace and development to his region.

'One of the reasons our region has been neglected for so long is because the majority of people [in N'délé] are Muslims,' sultan Senoussi says bluntly, but with an open smile. 'There are people who still think the Central African Republic is a purely Christian country, where Muslims are just an ethnic minority. But Islam has an ancient history here, and we are not an ethnic group. We're all Central Africans.'

N'délé has a turbulent ancient history of sultans who used to wield almost absolute power, like demigods. There were a number of sultanates in what is now the Central African Republic, but these days the position is far more symbolic, though it still has huge traditional resonance in Muslim communities. Sultan Senoussi says he is often called to intervene in local disputes, to calm tensions between families and communities. 'I advise all the different peoples of my town,' he says. 'I understand them and they respect me, because I work with them all.'

He isn't afraid to intervene with the military, either, using his status to tackle disputes between French troops now based in N'délé and Seleka rebels who still claim to be controlling the town. …

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