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Interrogating Ukwuani African administrative system

By Guardian Nigeria
12 February 2023   |   4:16 am
Traditional Administrative System is one of Ozah's ever growing contributions to the development of Ukwuani literature. The 161-page book is a bold stride at exploring the traditional autochthonous system of administration of Ukwuani people of Delta State.

Author: Michael Ozah; Title: Ukwuani Traditional Administrative System; Publishers: Proudly Ukwuani Ventures ; Reviewer: Matthew Ndudi Ojieh

Traditional Administrative System is one of Ozah’s ever growing contributions to the development of Ukwuani literature. The 161-page book is a bold stride at exploring the traditional autochthonous system of administration of Ukwuani people of Delta State.

The book examines the evolution and sociopolitical antecedents of Ukwuani’s gerontocracy, its experience through the colonial and postcolonial era and modern day relevance.

The author gives a detailed, insightful and breathtaking analysis of the structure, organs and arms of Ukwuani traditional system of government. Coming at a time when Nigeria’s buffeted federalism is under attack by calls for restructuring, the book is a subtle suggestion by the author for African nations to reexamine their indigenous traditional system of government with a view to harnessing same rather than go a borrowing from strange systems.

The author points out that democratic indices inhere in Ukwuani traditional administrative system and by extension in most African indigenous systems of government. Accordingly, the democracy, which Western civilisation prides itself as having exported to Africa had been homegrown here in mankind’s primary continent long before the West set its foot on our black soil.

Ozah’s work on Ukwuani traditional administration is a phenomenal exercise in research, what with its lucidity of thought, brilliancy of presentation and profundity of logic.

The eight-chapter book opens with the pre-colonial traditional system of governance in the land and traces the evolution of the system of administration to the migration and settlement pattern and the lineal family structure during the formative years of Ukwuani society.

He identifies Ukwuani classical age grade system as the basis of dispensing civic duties responsibilities and as the structure that birthed the institutional framework of administration in the land. The calibration of society into age groups and the apportionment of civic tasks in deference to age, ability and maturity is the hallmark of gerontocracy.

The author rummages through oral tradition, colonial documents, especially the Intelligence Reports, and contemporary developments to reach very valid conclusions. He identifies the Okwa Council of Elders as the Upper House of Ukwuani Parliament, the Inotu titled holders as the Lower House of Parliament, and the Okpala uku and the Onotu uku as heading the Executive arm.

The general assembly of the village represents the fulcrum of participatory democracy. The second chapter dwells on the traditional judicial system. It takes the reader through the court system, the police, major crimes, the penal system and judgment enforcement procedure.

The judicial process reveals traits of democracy also. Interestingly, such internationally recognised legal norms and maxims like audi alteram partem and nemo dat in causa sua can also be traced in the Ukwuani judicial system.

Chapter three explores the clan structure of Ukwuani land and colonialism. The Ukwuani did not evolve a pan Ukwuani government because there was no force strong enough, human or economic, which could coerce it into a single political community like a kingdom or empire.

Each clan was therefore a separate, sovereign independent polity, a situation that conned bemused colonial Britain into regarding them as acephalous states. The author says the clan was the highest polity known to the Ukwuani who were not likely to take orders from any authority beyond the Clan-head.

Contrary to insinuations by an iconoclast author that it was the British who constituted the Ukwuani into clans, Ozah was able to show very vividly that clanship and Clan-headship in Ukwuani land predated colonialism and that the colonialists employed the then existing clan structure to implement their indirect rule policy in Ukwuani land. The traditional administrative system revolved fundamentally around the clans and the British had a policy of preserving the local institutions of colonized peoples.

The impact of colonial rule on Ukwuani autochthonous system of administration is examined in chapter four of the book. This chapter pries into the establishment of colonial rule in Ukwuani land in the opening years of the 20th century and how the British policy of direct rule by Native Courts sidelined the indigenous traditional authorities.

The system of direct rule lasted for about a quarter of a century until resentment arising from the typical Ukwuani aversion to the herd mentality led to a reversal of the direct rule policy and the introduction of indirect rule, which incorporated Ukwuani’s indigenous traditional structures of governance into the colonial structure.

The clan structure, the Okpala uku, Okwa, Onotu uku and Ugo became functionaries of colonial administration. The rise of the new political class of educated elites and their effect on the traditional structures are discussed in chapter five. The new political class made up of educated elites and returnee World War lI veterans were too eager to wrest political power from the traditionalists.

Their gradual injection into the Clan Councils by British colonialism began the process of thawing and weathering of the traditional powers of the pre colonial administrative setting. From the 1930s when the policy of indirect rule was introduced to Ukwuani land to the 1940s and 50s when the emergent political class began to spring up, especially with the introduction of political parties and MacPherson constitution’s elective principle, Ukwuani traditional rulers began to lose grip on governance.

Ultimately, when the British were leaving in 1960 they had succeeded in wresting sovereignty from the autochthonous traditional rulers of Ukwuani land and handing same to elected emergent political class now known as politicians.

Not even the creation of the House of Chiefs by the modern State government could salvage traditional structures which had been so bastardized and corrupted that by the late 1970s the Midwest State government had to set up the Ighodaro Commission to investigate and identity the true aotuchthonous traditional institutions of many communities in Bendel State.

For the Ukwuani, it was rested on the Okpala ukuship. Unfortunately by the mid 1980s the elites had. begun to usurp traditional authority by the introduction of strange traditional titles like Onochieze, Olisoeze and many other weird traditional titles and descriptions with which the Okpala uku was supplanted as regent.

By the 1990s modern monarchy had emerged in clans like Amai, Emu and Utagba Uno, causing great political upheavals and discontent in the affected clans and bitter and acrimonious litigation in the last mentioned clan.

The author takes a swipe at the attempt to introduce monarchy as elitist usurping of the traditional institutions and a failure to appreciate communal self worth, arguing that the Okpala gerontocratic system should be sustained with pride as Ukwuani’s contribution to political philosophy. He submits that only a plebiscite can validate and legitimise a change in our traditional institutional structure.

The book also has seven appendices contaning valuable historical information like the text of the British Treaty with Amai 1896, the author’s legal evaluation of the Treaty and its implications, list of Okpala uku and Okpala of the clans and constituent villages respectively and Onotu ukus of Ukwuani clans west of the Ase river as at February to June 1932, lists of Okpala ukus of Abbi from 1938, of Umutu from age immemorial, of Ngulu Onicha Ukwuani from 1922 and of Utagba Uno from immemorial times till the time of publication. It also contains an earlier published article in which Ozah, a product of the law faculty of the University of Benin and head of legal department of the Vanguard newspapers called on his Ukwuani people to reinvent their traditional institutions in the face of modern challenges.

On the whole, the book is well written and edited and I invite the reader to savour Ozah’s breathtaking historical narrative of Ukwuani’s indigenous administrative system and to dip in the wealth of knowledge therein.
Ojieh lives in Kwale