Sanusi, who regularly railed against the government’s record on corruption, was suspended from his post at the bank in February by President Goodluck Jonathan in a decision that alarmed international investors.
His move into such a revered position, after the death of his great-uncle the last emir on Friday, could unsettle some in Jonathan’s administration which rules over a religiously divided country and is facing national elections in 2015. The emir is the second-highest Muslim authority in Nigeria.
Underlining local politics also raging behind the decision, several hundred supporters of another hopeful candidate – the late emir’s oldest son – massed outside the state government building, destroying street signs until police fired in the air to disperse them, witnesses said.
Sanusi’s switch from the offices of the capital Abuja to the palace in Kano will make him a central player in confronting a mounting insurgency by Islamist Boko Haram militants in the northeast.
The fighters have set their sights on toppling the traditional Muslim hierarchy, accusing it of failing to enforce what they see as their true interpretation of the Koran.
“Sanusi Lamido Sanusi is the new Emir of Kano,” the state government said, using a fuller version of his name.
Sanusi took the throne, which has few constitutional powers, amid tight security. Soldiers manned major road junctions in the North’s main city that has suffered a string of bomb attacks blamed on Boko Haram.
He had been shortlisted by four “kingmakers”– part of ancient succession rules set up by an emirate known for its sumptuous displays of royal regalia and ritual.
There is no automatic father-to-son succession, but candidates have to come from leading families.
Sanusi, whose policies are credited with stabilising the naira currency and bringing inflation in Africa’s second biggest economy to single digits, told Reuters in February his position in one of Kano’s leading families had given him a psychological boost.
“If you’re a prince you don’t have fear of power. You are not intimidated by authority because you’ve grown up around it,” he said.
Government figures and analysts will be looking for any change in tone from his great-uncle Ado Abdullahi Bayero, who ruled as emir for half a century before dying in his palace at the age of 83.
Ado Abdullahi Bayero steered clear of overtly political statements and won praise for his efforts to ease tensions between Kano’s majority Muslim population and minority Christians.
The new emir was suspended from the bank after presenting parliament with evidence that the state oil firm Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to pay 20 billion dollars into federal coffers.
NNPC has repeatedly denied Sanusi’s allegations, which brought him into conflict with Jonathan’s administration a year before the elections.
The administration of Jonathan, a southern Christian, denied any link between Sanusi’s removal and his allegations and went on to accuse the central bank of procurement irregularities during Sanusi’s tenure. He has dismissed those charges.
The Emirate of Kano was one of the great Islamic empires that dotted the Sahara from medieval times, profiting from caravan routes connecting Africa’s interior with its Mediterranean coast.
Former colonial ruler Britain kept most of the northern hierarchy in place and the emirate continued to hold sway over the largely underdeveloped region after independence in 1960.