Achebe, Ogunwusi and Sanusi as growing national brands
In a recent article, I had good reasons to lament the steady collapse of the traditional institutions in Nigeria as possible catalyst of good governance and development. Increasingly, we began reading over the decades about the glaring disrepute into which traditional institutions and dynamics are falling. This is especially so with regard to the status of traditional rulers in Nigeria’s democratic experiment. It is a fact that the social science literature has almost ceased to give any significant role to traditional institutions in the formation of a dynamic and effective democratic governance. In fact, it seems almost a truism in social science scholarship as well as the energetic Nigerian public sphere that the traditional rulers constitute a huge part of Nigeria’s development palaver. No Nigerian will forget in a hurry the deplorable role that traditional rulers played especially in the June 12 democratic saga as well as in the attempt to generate legitimacy for the terroristic regime of Sani Abacha. And if we are to go far back into history, the British Indirect Rule Policy was able to succeed at its divide-and-rule intent due to the traitorous roles of some of our traditional governing structures. In fact, where these structures were not as strong as those of the Northern emirate and the Yoruba Obaship, the colonialists created their own structures that were consistent with the indigenous system and friendly to their exploitative mandate. The system of warrant chiefs in the Eastern part of Nigeria, therefore, served the same purpose as the Oba and the Emirs in giving the British colonialists a soft landing in Nigeria.
And then the terrible news of diabolical transactions, kidnappings, fraud, criminal rituals, political intrigues and even trivial skirmishes has all made matters worse. The most recent news in town is the Oba of Lagos crudely snubbing the Ooni of Ife at the World Conference of Banking Institutes in Lagos. This not only drives the nail into the coffin of ridicule that the traditional governing institutions have fallen, but it equally also ultimately raises critical concerns about the fate of democratic governance in Nigeria. Victor Hugo, the French novelist, had the same sense of the seeming irrelevance of kings. He delivered a statement of finality: “It is the end. But of what? The end of France? No. The end of kings? Yes.” But this is an extreme statement. Even the monarchy has at least some ceremonial constitutional role in British democracy. There is therefore no doubt that if we get our acts right, the traditional institutions can indeed become a cogent factor in transforming Nigeria’s democratic experiment. Essentially, the traditional governing structures, of which the emirs, kings and obis are principal actors, supervise the grassroots as the main domain of the demos. It is the point at which the people are able to connect to political deliberations and policy discourse since the two will eventually rebound on the welfare and well-being of the people.
As a reformer, the challenge is usually to see our points of convergences and divergences; points which could permit a modicum of optimism about even a very bad situation. It is so easy to be cynical about this traditional aspect of our political culture, but cynicism is very cheap and very easy. And it has never saved any nation. But reform is not easy. On the contrary, it is a complex process that is meant to unravel an even more complex predicament. If we therefore agree that the traditional governing structures are significant in calibrating the grassroots as the core of democratic governance, then we must also agree that reform is needed and possible. The first condition to recuperating the traditional governing structures then is to first recuperate the humanity of the traditional rulers who sit over them. Pierre Corneille gives us the insight: “As great as kings may be, they are what we are: they can err like other men.” This is the easiest point from which reform begins. Kings face the allure of wealth and the dizzying temptations of power. It is only those who have a larger-than-temptation vision that constitute the core of reform.
I have had reasons to outline the concept of “pockets of effectiveness” as a dynamics of reform that highlight some significant performance juncture around which the trajectory of reform can commence. In Nigeria, for instance, governance reform for me can begin with certain states, and Lagos State has been remarkably consistent since 1999 to deserve the status of good practice. With continuing performance from active and visionary governors like that, we cannot resign to cynicism and hopelessness. The same goes for recuperating traditional rulers in Nigeria. With the current Emir of Kano, Ooni of Ife and Obi of Onitsha, we seem to be witnessing a resurgence of radical ruler ship which is just not content with occupying a sinecure status and an elitist opportunism with no political capital that could be deployed to reconnecting the people back to the democratic imperative in Nigeria.
The radicalism of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi began way back even before he became Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II. After distinguishing himself as a banker of note in several financial institutions around the world and in Nigeria, he was appointed the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The risk management culture which he championed in the banking sector became a first reform issue when he became governor of CBN. The stricter control of the financial institutions which he called for and initiated seemed justified given the global financial crisis, especially between 2005 and 2010. Sanusi’s uniqueness actually stems from his ability to connect his religious affinity with his progressive call for developmental initiatives. And all this he carried out within the context of a traditional social system that is known for its conservative predilections. As a banker and governor of CBN, he vigorously pushed the Islamic banking initiative as a means of opening up the banking sphere to more options. After a very turbulent but highly successful tenure as the governor of CBN, where his quiet combativeness in calling for more governance discipline earned him a suspension from office, it was the expectation of all that becoming an emir would definitely spell the end of Sanusi’s radicalism. How wrong that prognostication has been! Emir Sanusi’s radical agenda has now been turned into an active campaign that takes the North as a reform object, with Islam being a dynamic tool to facilitate bringing the North to speed on internal development. While Boko Haram is unleashing terror in the name of Islam, Emir Sanusi has turned the highly revered status of an emir into a reform status that speaks to issues of marriage, poverty, (girl child) education, health care, domestic violence, women rights, etc. And he has been strident in his argument for a progressive view of Islam as a force for development.
It is in this manner that the newly crowned Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi (Ojaja II), has also taken to a quiet activism to demonstrate his conviction that cultural capital can be deployed to heal the wounds of alienation and developmental inertia in Yorubaland. Unlike Emir Sanusi’s fiery activism, the Ooni of Ife has a quiet disposition that belies a forceful understanding of what needed to be done to transform Southwestern Nigeria. Like Emir Sanusi, Oba Ogunwusi is also a visionary who has equally tested his acumen in business and has succeeded. The Ooni was crowned within an atmosphere of political disaffection, cultural dislocation and developmental crisis which is acute, even if not exponential like the case of the North that Emir Sanusi is battling. In fact, as a result of the political choices of the late Ooni, the incumbent knew he had to wade against the current of disillusionment, especially against the throne of the Ooni. So far, he had not only avoided the eternal supremacy rift which sets the Ooni constantly against the Alaafin, but he seems to have set himself a different agenda of cultural unity and collective development. And his first herculean target, which he has engaged with alacrity, has been traversing Yorubaland in search of peace and a unifying voice for development. This seems unassailable since peace is the first condition for development. That lack of peace and unity set Ife-land back some decades after the internecine conflict between Ife and Modakeke.
While Onitsha, in Southeastern part of Nigeria, has not witnessed any conflict in recent memory, the task of progressive traditional rulership which confronts the Ooni of Ife and the Emir of Kano is no less for the Obi of Onitsha Agbogidi, Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Ugochukwu Achebe. The Igwe came from a brilliant educational background topped with an illustrious career steeped in management practices to the throne of the Obi of Onitsha. And like the other two monarchs, he has refused blatantly the lure of opportunism and quiet redundancy for the thorny path of progressive redefinition of what traditional governance means. The Obi could be referred to as the Peripatetic Monarch who combines a critical conceptual advocacy for the reinvention of traditional institutions in modern Nigeria with a keen and active harnessing of grassroots energies into firm development strategies. His interest in youth employment and empowerment invigorated him to channel his social capital towards the modern transformation of Onitsha. In all the ten years plus as the Obi, Igwe Agbogidi has left no one in any doubt of his managerial capacity to turn things around for the good of the grassroots.
The Igwe once lamented his lack of executive political status that would enable him to extend his developmental mandate to his people. The same could be said for the two others. And their achievement, even given this limitation, is all the more to be applauded. As patriots, their advocacy for grassroots development is carried out in a manner that connects to the larger Nigerian project and the imperative of democratic governance. The three have demonstrated the effectiveness of commencing democracy to a developmental drive from below. A larger political recognition could only further enlarge the potentiality for progressive development.
But while that is in the making, there is an opportunity to cumulate the efforts of these and others in their various domains into a bigger advocacy for traditional governance and development. When Emir Sanusi visited the Ooni of Ife, one could see the steady unfolding of a collegial spirit that makes it possible to empathize and share progressive initiatives. The Obi of Onitsha has gone around giving lectures on his grassroots initiatives and how traditional institutions could be democratically redeemed. A cumulation point could be a forum that would serve not only as a point for distilling the reform efforts of these radical rulers, but also serve to fan the efforts of these reform-minded traditional rulers into a flame with an ever-widening impact. For instance, I see a forum where there can be a rigorous discourse on how, say, the Optimum Community (OPTICOM) grassroots development framework (which the global icon, Prof. Akin Mabogunje has dedicated significant portion of his scholarly work and practice to articulating and implementing), could be translated into a national reform project through the formidable but influential authority wielded by these monarchs. In the near future, I see the progressive advocacy of Emir Sanusi, Oba Ogunwusi and Igwe Achebe yielding some democratic dividends in terms of the resurgence of traditional governance and development.
Has those institutions resurged back into prominence?
Olaopa is executive vice chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).