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Removal of traditional rulers by governors: Only law should determine what is gross misconduct, say lawyers

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Mazi Afam Osigwe


Nigeria has witnessed removal or dethronement of traditional rulers for alleged offences, ranging from lack of respect for the governor or often put, “gross misconduct.” These were once revered traditional institutions recognised and respected by subjects, irrespective of socio-economic or political status. Unfortunately, the institution appeared to be losing its glory, especially in the hands of governors.

While many blamed the situation on undue interference in politics by traditional rulers, which often lead them to compromise the value of their exalted office, others felt they should not be alienated from airing their political views simply by virtue of their office. Unfortunately, it also appeared there is no power in the constitution to protect traditional rulers, considering the ease with which they are removed and replaced by their respective governors.
 
Recently, Anambra State Governor dethroned three traditional rulers and withdrew their Certificate of Recognition. The sacked monarchs were said to   be among the 12 rulers suspended in the state for visiting Abuja to see President Muhammadu Buhari without the state government’s approval.
 
Recall too that one of Nigeria’s prominent figures and former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, was humiliated in like manner for speaking up against the state. Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, in March last year, dethroned the embattled Sanusi over what it called disrespect to lawful instructions from Government of Kano State and other lawful authorities.

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According to the circular announcing his removal from office, he was in total disrespect to lawful instructions from the office of the state Governor and other lawful authorities, including his persistent refusal to attend official meetings and programmes organised by the Government without any justification, which amount to total insubordination.

“It is on record and so many instances, Malam Muhammadu Sanusi II has been found breaching part 3 section 13 (a-e) of the Kano state Emirate Law 2019 and which if left unchecked will destroy the good and established image of the Kano Emirate.

“This removal is made after due consultation with the relevant stakeholders and in compliance with part 3 section 13 of the Kano state Emirate law and order reasons stated above. The removal is reached to safeguard the sanctity, culture, tradition, religion and prestige of the Kano Emirate built over a thousand years.
  
“His Excellency, Dr Ganduje calls on the General public to remain calm, law-abiding and to go about their normal businesses, while a new Emir of Kano Emirate will soon be appointed,” the SSG, Alhaji said.
 
Similar instance also took place in Kaduna, where the sitting governor deals decisively with any traditional ruler that holds any view contrary to his. One particular instance is the manner he oer-ruled kingmakers in the appointment of the current Emir of Zauzau (Zaria). This development, many considered as unhealthy to the nation in view of the position traditional rulers hold as the middlemen between citizens and the government. It is felt that incessant abuse of this institution will end up demystifying it before citizens and further encroach on the nation’s traditional values.
  
In his contribution, Mazi Afam Osigwe (SAN) admitted that different states of the federation have Chieftaincy and Deposition Law that prescribed the appointment of chiefs and traditional rulers. According to him, by law, there would appear to be powers vested in the state governors over traditional rulers. His worries however, was the extent to which governors followed the procedures stated in these different laws and to what extent the depositions would have been politicized by governors to dispose those that share different political views, criticize them or appear to support their opponents.
 
“I feel this is where we should be concerned but there is that law that gives them power after all, but have they been faithful to the provisions of this law or have they used their own selfish political aim just to silence those who may not be in agreement with them, which I think is the problem with deposition.”

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But on whether traditional rulers have not compromised their offices for selfish interests, the senior lawyer agreed that in many instances, traditional rulers have been at the beck and call of politicians and most often, help political players to come to power. “And when they fall out of favour with them, the governors use the same arguments that they may have benefited from to remove them,” he stated.

Yet, he expressed delight that there are a number of traditional rulers who uphold their primary responsibilities and don’t involve in partisan politics. Considering the revered office of traditional rulers, wouldn’t it be advisable that they desist from meddling in partisan politics? Osigwe noted that such was the essence of it.
 
“That is the essence of it. Most of them are natural rulers, the leadership flows from father to son and it is expected that they should be father to all and don’t take any partisan political side.
 
“None should be involved in advancing political affairs of a party against the other, to stay above aboard and be father to all” rather than descending into the realm of conflict and get bruised in the end,” he said.

Also speaking on the issue, a Port Harcourt-based lawyer, Chief Festus Oguche, gave a rundown of the evolution of traditional institutions. According to him, traditional institutions evolved from the matrix of society as a ready response to the organisational needs of human communal ordering and existence.

“These institutions flourished in all of Africa during the pre-colonial era and the traditional rulership system became entrenched as the ideal mode of social relations and societal governance.
 
“The current corrosion of the institution is not in any way connected with the collapse of monarchy and the rise of secularism in Europe, but rather, the fallout of the deliberate tinkering and weakening of the system by colonial policies and practices.
 
“In Nigeria for instance, the British found it convenient to create lackeys or puppets from existing pre-colonial traditional offices and at the same time, created monarchs where there was none, furtherance to its indirect rule policy.
 
“At the end, they left behind traditional systems that are distorted and completely disconnected with the people. The 1960 independence, as well as the 1963 Republican Constitutions made ample provisions for constitutional roles for traditional rulers,” Oguche said.

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He added that those roles were specific to their offices and not general in terms, but that notwithstanding, the traditional offices and institutions were accorded due recognition under those two organic instruments. “However, this position changed completely under the 1979 constitution and it subsists till this day under the current constitution,” he said.
 
Oguche noted that the implication is that no recognition or role of any kind is given or assigned to traditional rulers under the current constitutional dispensation. Rather, what exist are traditional offices created and regulated by the Chieftaincy Laws of the different states, and their existence is subject to the whims and caprices of the Governor.
 
His words: “The implication therefore is that the traditional rulership system and its attendant institutions exist at the pleasure of the Governor, who wields enormous powers over the appointment, discipline and removal of traditional rulers. Indeed, it is the state governments that run or administer the traditional offices and the accompanying institutions that support them.”
 
Oguche regretted that under such circumstance, the royal fathers must tow the governor’s positions and exhibit unquestionable loyalty to him, or lose their positions or even be banished from the kingdom even for flimsy excuses as was witnessed in case of former Emir of Kano.

“Paradoxically, it is within those jurisdictions where the kingship system never originally existed until the British came with the coinage of warrant chiefs, (as in Igbo land), that we see the spate of creation of artificial and superfluous  ‘autonomous communities’ by state chief executives, either as political largess or patronage to party loyalists and supporters.    “The relegation of such revered traditional offices and institutions (going by our political experience) has its merits and demerits, but it must be noted that the British that supplanted our pre-existing traditional rulership system with the modern modes of government and thereby emasculated their essences, returned to their country to venerate their monarch and ensure its preservation till this day.
 

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“The case for the creation of constitutional roles for traditional rulers has been prominent in the reports and recommendations of almost every constitutional conference held in this country, but its fruition has always been as elusive as the case for the making of a peoples’ constitution, as different from the current misnomer we call a constitution,” he said.
 
For another senior Abuja-based lawyer, Amobi Nzelu, only the court of law can save traditional rulers from undue intimidations and impunities by state governors, because according to him, though the Constitution, which is the grund-norm did not specifically stipulate extent of powers of governors over traditional rulers, it nevertheless empowers the governors to make their chieftaincy laws that defines their powers over traditional institutions.

“The 1991 Constitution is just the umbrella or the grund-norm but each state has its own laws on how to deal with issues of that particular nature. What the Constitution did was what they call ‘Doctrine of covering the seal’ without being specific on the powers of hiring or firing.

“Therefore, you look at the domestic law of each state as it relates to the issue of traditional rulers. If the law provides that these are what constitute serious offence or breach of protocols, the governor can go ahead and do what the domestic law has said. As I said, what the Constitution did was to provide an umbrella or a guideline on how to deal with that law. There is chieftaincy law in all the states that govern character, conduct, behaviours and activities of traditional rulers. If any traditional ruler goes contrary to the laws, the governor can apply sanctions.

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“But what we see in recent times is, once a governor wakes up in the morning and discovers that a traditional ruler is a political opponent, he will dethrone him for “gross misconduct” and appoint a new person. But the question is, what does the law of the state say that constitutes gross misconduct or an act that warrants punishment or sanctions meted by the governor? That is why I said the law must be read. If the law says ABCD and the governor is doing EFGH, he is operating outside the law and the affected or aggrieved traditional ruler can challenge him in court,” he said.

But Nzelu appears to hold a contrary view on the ban of traditional rulers from partisan politics. As a Nigerian who is involved in the affairs of his people and who would be affected by the policies and activities of any government in power, he believes that traditional institutions’ leaders should not be alienated from partisan politics. He maintained that every citizen is entitled to his opinion and none should be intimidated or unduly punished for sharing contrary views to those of the governor. Under the constitution, everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. That the traditional ruler does not agree with a governor is not enough to remove him. Everyone is entitled to his political view. If that is the error for removal, he can be challenged.
 
“The traditional ruler has the law as his defence. That is where lawyers can come in. First, was the traditional ruler given the opportunity to defend himself? If that was not done, the governor has breached the traditional ruler’s fundamental right to fair hearing and he stands the right to challenge such removal. If he is given the right to defend himself, the governor cannot get up in the morning and remove a traditional ruler appointed by the people, recognised and respected, for gross misconduct. It is not done. That his political opinion differs from your own is not an act of gross misconduct. It is only the court that can determine what constitutes gross misconduct, it is not the governor, it is no one else but the law,” Nzelu stated.

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