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The traditional institution in modern Nigeria


Olubadan of Ibadanland, Oba Saliu Adetunji PHOTO: NAJEEM RAHEEM

Despite the many setbacks, the respect for the traditional institution in Nigeria since Independence has grown steadily, particularly among the political elite. Indeed, there was a recent media account by the veteran journalist, Peter Enahoro, about his brother, Honourable Anthony Enahoro, acquiring the traditional title of Adolor of Uromi to avoid being ridiculed in the Western House of Assembly as a mere “Mister” among members, who were mostly “traditional chiefs.”

The irony was also captured in 1982 by the veteran television journalist, Frank Olizeh, when he reported that, though the pre-Independence House of Chiefs had been eliminated in the post-Republican era, there was an uncanny paradox happening in which elected members of the House of Representatives were acquiring chieftaincy titles at a pace that their chamber was becoming the House of Chiefs! Indeed, the acquisition of chieftaincy titles is still seen as conferring legitimacy on recipients for their roles in modern Nigeria.

About a year ago, the Governor of Oyo State, Chief Abiola Ajimobi, personally endorsed a newspaper advertorial to thank all and sundry who joined in the celebration of the coronation of the new Olubadan of Ibadan. Similarly, Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State was actively involved in the coronation rites of Oba Ewuare II of Benin last October. The same happened earlier this month with the coronation of the new Tor Tiv, His Majesty, Professor James Ayatse, with the full participation of the Benue State Government. These are interesting examples of the political elite leading in the “re-traditionalisation” of the Nigerian polity, as coined by Dr. Tunji Olaopa of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy.


Another significant dimension in this era is the intimidating rise in, and diversity of, the professional knowledge and executive experience of the traditional rulers in the country. The Emir of Kano, Alhaji Sanusi II is the immediate past governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and prior to that, Managing Director of First Bank of Nigeria. Ayatse has been Vice Chancellor of two federal universities. The Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria of which I am the chancellor, currently has at least 57 alumni who are traditional rulers, including the present Emirs of Kano, Zaria and Katsina, Shehu of Borno, Gbong Gwom Jos, and the new traditional ruler of Ogidi, Igwe Alexander Uzo Onyido. Recently, a key member of the Central Council of Ibadan Indigenes (CCII), Chief Adeniyi Akintola (SAN), was quoted in the newspapers as saying that: “If you look at the current members of the Olubadan-in-Council, you will discover that they can make any faculty of a university. They are accomplished bankers, engineers, businessmen and academics. That is the trend now.”

The corollary to this development is that the stools are now more keenly contested, even as more effective laws also exist to smoothen the succession process. Recent successions in Kano and Ife were keenly competitive, but quickly resolved. The kingdoms of Warri/Itsekiri, Ibadan, Benin, etc followed established practices without hitches.

The bane of the traditional institution in the previous periods had been their actual or suspected involvement in partisan politics. In contemporary Nigeria, the institution has no business in partisan politics. Instead, the traditional rulers are uniting in the wars against the common enemies of disease, poverty, ignorance, corruption, crime, drug addiction, armed insurgency, impunity in public office, youth delinquency, etc. Many, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, Oba of Lagos, Emir of Kano, Alake of Egbaland, etc have become the voices of the voiceless, speaking out boldly on matters of general concern, locally, nationally and even internationally. We have become development catalysts and agents for mobilisation for policy implementation, monitoring, and review of policy options. My current focus in Onitsha is on peace building and reconciliation, youth empowerment, infrastructural development, crime eradication, and the preservation of our sense of community in the face of the inevitable forces of urbanisation. Oba Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, Ooni of Ife, has become the instant role model for youth enterprise and hard work.

Going forward . . .
So far, I have outlined the changes in the fortunes of the Nigerian traditional institution from the colonial times to the present. In that story, the colonial and military regimes are the low points. I have also stated that, whilst there have been clashes between the traditional and political elite, the traditional institution has generally fared much better under democratic dispensations, increasingly supported by the rule of law.

Indeed, our traditional institution today is probably at its peak of popular acceptance and approbation compared with other periods since the colonial times. A nationwide perception study carried out in 2010 by Professor Sylvanus J. S. Cookey and four other senior academics found overwhelming support in all parts of the country for the traditional institution as being relevant to the lives of the people. This is due to a combination of factors, such as, the counter-reaction to globalisation, the declining confidence in our modern political institution, and the rising calibre and leadership abilities of the emerging traditional rulers. The institution has thus remained a mystical factor in the lives of the ordinary citizen. It has shown resilience by being adept at adapting itself to its changing circumstances whilst holding to its core custodianship of the customs and traditions. The institution has successfully re-invented and renewed itself at every critical period by “running fast enough to stand still.”

Nevertheless, several measures are still necessary as we continue to uphold the position of the modern traditional institution in our body politic. First is the need for a constitutional provision for the institution. In the present constitutional arrangement (1999), the laws governing the traditional institution are enacted at the state government level only and provide strictly for consultative and advisory functions for the State Traditional Councils set up by these laws. There is no equivalent provision at the Federal Government level. Having withstood the vicissitudes of the colonial and post-colonial regimes and now achieved a workable role within our democratic culture, it becomes imperative that this new balance of roles is well captured and given legal backing in the constitution.

The constitution, at the minimum, should recognise the role of the traditional institution in communal life, such as mobilising the community for enlightenment, education, economic empowerment, peace building, safety, security, and custodianship of and leadership in advancing our culture. It is also necessary for the constitution to guarantee funding for community development activities over the existing provision of five per cent of the gross statutory allocation to the local governments, which is not even guaranteed and is haphazardly implemented.

The constitution should enshrine the non-involvement of traditional rulers in partisan politics as has been recommended by the National Council of Traditional Rulers of Nigeria (NCTRN) to the National Assembly. On the other hand, the constitution should also adequately protect the traditional institution from undue meddling and interference by the political elite and the moneyed class.

Furthermore, the constitution should create a National Council of Traditional Rulers at the federal level as a forum where traditional rulers’ representatives from all parts of the country can meet regularly to deliberate on major national issues and provide advice to the Federal Government. However, such a body should avoid the pitfalls of the existing non-statutory national body, which meets infrequently and far in-between, and appears not to represent the nation’s diversity in its leadership structure.

On our part, the traditional institution must continue to evolve with the times. Unlike in the ancestral days when succession to the throne was the preserve of a closed circle of the aristocracy, the cross section of respective communities, particularly the enlightened and intelligentsia, are now increasingly involved in open discussion of the necessary qualities and attributes for the throne, aided by the 21st century instant media. For instance, the CCII held a conference following the demise of Oba Samuel Odulanato to discuss necessary reforms to the Olubadan kingship, including the need for younger persons to emerge as future monarchs. More and more, the entire community should be driving the change process, not just a privileged few.

Secondly, several recent successions on the throne have represented both generational and attitudinal departures from the predecessors, without distorting the core customs and traditions of their people. This is well manifested by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, and the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Ikenwoli, who have broken new grounds in very refreshing and effortless manners by embarking on goodwill visits to neighbouring domains that were hitherto not in amity with their own kingdoms. On his coronation and enthronement on October 20, 2016, Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, proclaimed that Oramiyan, son of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba, should be regarded as the first Oba of Benin of the post-Oghiso dynasty; he thus became the 40th, not 39th, Oba of Benin. This proclamation dramatically ended the long standing struggle for precedence and supremacy between Benin and Ife and, instead, portrayed the shared heritage of the two great kingdoms. On his part, Ooni of Ife, Oba Ogunwusi, immediately after his coronation, had married a wife from Benin in the same spirit of amity. Such initiatives contribute in no small way to regional and national integration and peace. Traditional rulers must continue to build bridges of love and mutual respect across the country.


All in all, the traditional institution must continue to “run fast enough to stand still,” meaning that we must continue to stay abreast of change in a digital world, yet jealously guard and protect the core social values, customs and traditions that distinguish our respective people. Two key areas that demand urgent attention are the preservation of our languages and teaching our history in schools. We should continue to give more meaning to our cultural festivals, using them for showcasing our communities and the country, for transmitting our values and norms and for building bridges to our immediate neighbours and the rest of the country. Furthermore, traditional rulers should, collectively and individually, act as role models for the rest of the country by living exemplary lives.

I would like to close with a quotation as follows:
“The institution of traditional rulers is an enduring part of our heritage. It plays a critical role as the custodian of culture and traditions. Expectedly, our traditional rulers are closely linked with the grassroots, and so understand the problems of our people intimately. In our search for peace, order and stability in our society, the institution could be a veritable instrument. It is in the overall interest of our people that this institution in our national life is acknowledged and that clear provisions are made (in the Constitution) for its functions.”

That was General Sani Abacha speaking at the inauguration of the National Constitutional Conference in Abuja on June 27, 1994, barely eight years after the Babangida Political Bureau of 1986. Thus, even the armed forces became converted to appreciating the place of the traditional institution in the country. But they have gone beyond mere appreciation by offering some of their finest officers to occupy some of our most revered thrones in the country today. These include Alhaji Sa’adu Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto; Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III, Alake of Egbaland; Oba Babatunde Rilwanu Akiolu, Oba of Lagos; King Alfred Diette-Spiff, Amanyanabo of Twon-Brass; Alhaji Mohammed Sani Sami, Emir of Zuru; Felix Mujapkeruo, Orhue I, Orodje of Okpe; Da Jacob Gyang Buba, Gbong Gwom Jos; Alhaji Mustapha Jokolo, Emir of Gwandu; Igwe Wisdom Onebunne, Igwe Akwaihedi; Obi Gibson Nwosu, Eze Uzu Awka II; and many more.I guess that Lord Lugard and his band of colonialists are probably having a re-think in their graves.
• This is excerpted from a paper by Agbogidi Nnaemeka Achebe, Obi of Onitsha, to the Yoruba Tennis Club.



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