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Agenda, Opinion

Traditional rulers and Nigerian politics

Posted: Apr 17, 2015 at 5:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Bilkis Bakare, a public affairs analyst, in this piece argues for the inclusion of traditional rulers in the process of governance in Nigeria…

In traditional African society, especially in pre- colonial period, traditional rulers were part of the natural environment of their societies.

Cross section of traditional rulers at a leadership conference

Cross section of traditional rulers at a leadership conference

They assumed leadership position being the founders of the political communities. In the pre-colonial period, most societies in Nigeria were governed through the monarchical system. The Yoruba, Edo (Benin), Hausa, Kanuri, Junkun, were among the societies governed through this method. These monarchs were referred to in various names and appellations such as Oba, Emir, Obi, Aku and Saki. They were seen as divine beings with strange political and religious powers. They were considered as the representatives of God or the gods, the Supreme Being on earth. They were assisted by priests in spiritual matters. Absolute political power was centralized in the traditional rulers in pre-colonial era.

He was the judge, arbiter and chief security officer of his community in crises situations. Between 1951 and 1966, when Nigeria practiced a parliamentary system of government, there were two houses of parliaments in the three – later four – regions. These were the Houses of Assembly, with the members elected, and the House of Chiefs, comprising of the traditional rulers in the region. The House of Chiefs acted in an advisory capacity, drawing from the wisdom of the traditional rulers.

These traditional rulers had been very involved in Nigeria’s colonial period, depending on the region they were. For example, in the North where the British colonialists used the system of indirect rule, they used the established structures of the emirates, making the emirs act as their proxies. These expanded the powers of many emirs beyond the original boundaries of their emirates, as areas previously autonomous and without central leadership were annexed to their territory.

In fact some of them were even regional governors. For instance, the then Ooni of Ife, Sir Adesoji Aderemi served as the Governor of the Western region from 1960- 1967. He was also the first African Governor in the British Empire and Commonwealth. The 1979 Constitution went a step further by giving the traditional rulers representation in the National Council of State. The traditional rulers serve as linkage or “brokering” between grassroots and  the government ,extension of national identity through the conferral of traditional titles, low-level conflict resolution and judicial gate-keeping, ombudsman ship and  institutional safety-valve for overloaded and sub-apportioned bureaucracies.

However, the current political dispensation gives little or no roles to these royal fathers as their appointment and promotion are   now the responsibilities of their respective state governments. Traditional rulers are ranked and classified into 1” and 5<h class grade depending on thesize of their communities and power. The staff of office which symbolizes their political authority is being handed over to them by the state governors. Their salaries and allowances are also determined by the state governors. The fact that they are now under the administrative control of state governors has, to a great extent, demystified the mysterious aura surrounding the spiritual and political authorities of traditional rulers in the country. Hence, unlike what used to be the case, traditional rulers now reign but no longer rule.

The 1999 Constitution neither mentions the traditional institution nor assigns any role for them in the political sphere. This has made the institution to be rather inactive, except, perhaps, for when political office seekers are in search of ’royal blessings’ for their political endeavours. Ironically, when eventually voted into power, politicians don’t usually connect with the royal fathers on development and governance issues.

The truth, however, is that traditional rulers can play useful roles in brokering peace and amity between the people and the state, enhancing national unity, resolving minor and major conflicts and providing an institutional safety-valve for often inadequate state bureaucracies. In the area of security for example, the Nigerian police have sometimes been overwhelmed and swamped by the share enormity of the work and new crimes, which now includes terrorist threats confronting them and the citizens alike. Containing the scourge of the security challenges requires intelligence gathering at the grassroots, this is where traditional rulers are better positioned to help curtail crime.

The strategies for tackling security challenges in the country need to be re- structured by reversing the pattern of security from top – bottom to bottom-up approach, where intelligence gathering, peace and amity building starts from the grassroots where the traditional rulers and traditional institutions will play a critical role. It is a known fact that Nigerian prisons are congested, mostly with detainees awaiting trials, often for minor offences that could have been settled out of courts. There is, therefore, a need to consider giving traditional rulers direct power to anchor Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). This includes dispute resolution processes and techniques that act as a means for disagreeing parties to come to an agreement short of litigation. ADR basically is an alternative to a formal court hearing or litigation. Because its aim is reconciliation, traditional rulers are well positioned to drive ADR.

In reality, the bulk of what traditional rulers do is dispute resolution, and that is why they sit in their courts daily listening to cases and taking far-reaching and binding decisions on their subjects. What needed to be added here is formalizing it in law and allowing the courts to refer cases to them or require litigants to first take certain matters to the traditional court first, and approach the formal court if not satisfied.

Though traditional rulers in Nigeria may be said to be engaged in some of these already, it is still at very rudimentary level. To properly tap into the immense reservoir of resources at the disposal of the traditional rulers, there is a need to assign specific constitutional tasks for traditional rulers in the country. The enthronement of educated and enlightened minds as kings in modern day is now an added advantage for the kingship institution in the country. Gone were the days when illiterates were at the helm of affairs in our communities, the kingship institution is now peopled by professionals such as medical doctors, engineers, retired generals, professors, reverends, captains of industries etc. So, they are in a position to make quality contributions to nation building.

Since traditional rulers are closer to the grassroots, engaging them constructively is a straight way of bringing governance closer to the people. It is, therefore, in the interest of the people that traditional rulers should be co- opted into the process of governance in the country. Doing this would not only justify their continued funding by the three tiers of government, but also positioned them in good stead to play crucial role in nation building.