This ancient Islamic city in the heart of Africa--the site of two deadly protests since the end of 1980--has been caught up in the fear of Westernization and the unsettling introduction of radical reforms that has spread unrest throughout the Moslem world.

Thousands of people have died in this city in the unrest, first in an 11-day uprising of Moslem militants in December 1980 that left thousands dead before it was crushed by the Nigerian Army. Then seven months later, a political provocation ended with a one-day rampage in which a leftist politician was burned alive and millions of dollars of property destroyed by fire.

Superficially, separated as they were by religion and politics, the two eruptions seemed unconnected. Yet, interviews with Nigerians in four of the 10 northern states, Sokoto, Kano, Kaduna and Borno, revealed a centuries-old Islamic society under the stress of worldly challenges to deeply held beliefs and efforts to cut intricate links to the past.

As reflected in the perpetual unrest in Kano, the present social ferment in northern Nigeria provides fertile ground for new messianic movements and further violent political clashes.

Unlike the Christians of southern Nigeria, who look to the West for new trends, northern Nigerians focus on developments in the East and look to Saudi Arabia for spiritual solace. Thousands of northern Nigerians go on the Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca each year.

Different events throughout the Moslem world, in varying measures, have found root in northern Nigeria. Among them are the alienation from the West, as reflected in the Islamic Iranian revolution, and the fissures between conventional religious and political authorities, as was the case in Egypt in the last days of the late Anwar Sadat's rule. Fundamentalists' attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca and the more recent insurrection in the Syrian city of Hamah have had their violent fundamentalists counterparts in northern Nigeria. The house-to-house battles in Hamah was eerily similar to the 1980 fighting in Kano between fundamentalists and soldiers. Officially, about 4,000 people died in the Kano uprising, but unofficial sources put the figure much higher.

The sudden and violent nature of clashes in northern Nigeria, where more than half of the country's estimated 100 million people live, were a constant source of concern during 13 years of military rule and remain a serious worry for the civilian government that came to power in 1979. Long-term violent social anarchy, tied to political repression, discredited the country's first civilian government and gave the Army the rationale to act in Nigeria's bloody coup in 1966.

"The violence and chaos exhibited in the Kano disturbances . . . we all condemn," said President Shehu Shagari in October on his government's second anniversary. "We will be unrelenting in our efforts to stamp out crime, to protect lives and property of all who inhabit Nigeria, citizens and foreigners alike."

Yet deadly battles between Moslem fundamentalists, rival factions of the same political parties, between competing parties and political traditionalists versus leftists reformers have continued throughout the north, according to News Agency of Nigeria, causing at least six deaths and $420,000 in property damage in December and January.

On March 31, 3,000 angry demonstrators stormed the Gongola state house of assembly while legislators were meeting, destroyed furniture and equipment and cut one assembly member with a knife in protest against a bill proposing the dissolution of the state's traditional emirates.

The Islamic emirates, 38 of which are functioning throughout northern Nigeria, are headed by dynastic religious-political leaders called emirs. In 1967, the military government abruptly took away the emirs' secular powers over local courts, police and prisons. Although they have officially been reduced to ceremonial functions, the emirs still wield more influence than elected politicians.

The most turbulent of the northern states, Kano contains within its modern-day boundaries one of the largest and most powerful of the emirates, from which the state derives its name. The seat of the emirate is also the state capital of Kano, the largest and most industrialized of the northern cities, with a population estimated at 2 million.

Islam was first brought into the then-500-year-old Hausa states of northern Nigeria in the 14th century by Arab warriors, Koranic scholars and trans-Saharan caravan traders. In later centuries, large numbers of Moslem Fulani cattle herders migrated into the region. The rule by emirs evolved as well as an imperial caste system, which distinguished those who were ruling classes from the subject classes. Rigid distinctions between northerners still exist.

"You cannot understand northern Nigeria without studying the history of the emirate system and Islam," said Jibril Aminu, vice chancellor of Maiduguri University in Borno state. "Modern political institutions have not been accepted into the breasts of the people."

But it is exactly the traditional system of relationships that northern reformers want to overturn. They began almost immediately after taking power in 1979 in Kano and Kaduna states by abolishing the Haraji adult community and Jangali cattle taxes as traditional tools of emir coercion and graft. The reformers doubled and, in some cases, tripled public school enrollments in their first two years in power, arguing that education was a right rather than the selective privilege it had been in the recent past.

"We want to reduce class differences and create a meritocracy where people are not given things by circumstances of birth," said one of the self-described radicals, Kano state governor Mohammed Abubaker Rimi, in an interview. Tension is generated, he added, "because introducing these types of changes into a society that is not used to it is very difficult."

While the average Hausa peasant and Fulani cattle herder in Kano state might have been grateful for the abolishment of taxes, they still remain loyal to the emirs first, knowledgeable Nigerians said, as representatives of allah on Earth.

Kano has been the place for the most dramatic confrontations between the reformers and the traditionalists. Kano state is the most populous in the north, 12 million people, and the most homogeneous, almost 100 percent Moslem.

Kano's emir traditionally has been the enforcer of the fundamentalist concerns. Kano is also the home of the north's most persistent reformer, Aminu Kano, head of the leftist People's Redemption Party. The Redemption Party swept the Kano state polls in the 1979 elections, although analysts credit the party's win more to the fact that it was seen as a local organization than to any ideological reasons.

But if by winning the state gubernatorial election as the Redemption Party candidate, Rimi thought he had won also his avowed mandate to do away with the Kano emir's power, he discovered differently when he delivered an ultimatum to Emir Ado Bayero in July. In a letter, Rimi gave the emir 48 hours to show why he should not be removed from office for deliberate acts of disrespect toward the state government and refusing to attend installation ceremonies for district chiefs.

When the contents of the letter became known in Kano, people took to the streets in a riot that forced state government officials to go into hiding; burned down the house of Rimi's political adviser, Bala Mohammed, with him inside, and set fire to the governor's residence, the state house of assembly, Kano's radio station and numerous other state buildings.

"The emir system is hundreds of years old and the millions of people who cannot read or write find comfort in the system," said Redemption Party leader Aminu Kano. "Even though we believe in radical changes, we must be careful that we don't frighten the people."

"Over time, we have done well," Aminu Kano added. "The commoners are in power in Kano state for the first time and women have voted for the first time."

The spread of Western education and the American Peace Corps, when it was here in the early 1960s, were catalysts that have "contributed to the tension we feel here today," said Kano lawyer Suleimanu Kumo. There has been an increase in individualism (a negative value here), "an increase in drug use, an increase in crime, and alcoholism in now widespread," Kumo continued.

But recently in Kano, Kumo said, university students have begun to reassert "true Islamic values." This movement is "not Islamic fundamentalism that Westerners talk about," insisted Ahmad. "The university students are now able to study Islam in its pure form rather than the Islam mixed with Hausa-Fulani culture, which complicates it."