Do We Need Any Constitutional Role for Traditional Rulers?

by Ikechukwu A. Ogu

Around the 27th of December 2010, the news media reported the promise by President Goodluck Jonathan to send a Bill to the National Assembly for the purpose of enshrining in the Constitution some role(s) for Nigerian traditional rulers. The debate over the propriety or otherwise of such a constitutional provision has been raging in Nigeria for a very long period. Respectfully, I have my reservations about the proposal.

A consideration of the justification or otherwise of such a constitutional provision must reckon with many factors. One has to do with whether traditional rulers have been part of the cultures of the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. No doubt, the Hausas, Kanuris, Binis, Jukuns, Nupes and Yorubas had established kingdoms prior to the appearance of the Europeans on our shores. However, most other Nigerian communities were either under the suzerainty of these established kingdoms or without centralized kingships, and remained so until the arrival of Europeans and their trade in humans and goods or the imposition of warrant chiefs by the British colonialists. Furthermore, the egalitarian and republican Igbo race, as a general rule, had no kings. But very few Igbo communities found in Arochukwu, Oguta, Onitsha, the Nri legend towns, Anioma (Delta State) and Rivers State have a history of centralized kingship, many owing to influence of Binis or contact with Europeans. This accounts for the irrefutable aphorism among aboriginal Igbos that Igbo enweghi eze, meaning “the Igbo have no king.”

The colonialists had the erroneous assumption that the close-knit traditional-cum-religious monarchy of the Hausa-Fulanis, Binis, Kanuris, etc, applied throughout Nigeria, and that the Alaafin still exercised sovereign power over the entire Yoruba race. Consequently, they employed the services of kings where they existed or created warrant chiefs where none existed, to ensure the effectiveness of the Indirect Rule system. These kings or warrant chiefs manned the Native Courts established by the British. Most Igbos vehemently rejected these strange ‘kings’ and an evidence of such rejection was the Aba Women Riots (Ogu Ndom/Iyom) of 1929-1930.

This rejection notwithstanding, the warrant chiefs remained until when the military struck in 1966. Hence, under both the 1960 and 1963 Constitutions of Nigeria, each Region had a House of Chiefs constituted by traditional rulers. Following the creation of states, each enacted Traditional Rulers Edict/Law whereof some remnants of the warrant chiefs, their sons/relations or new persons were installed as traditional rulers of their communities. Matters relating to traditional rulers fall under the Residual Legislative List of the 1999 Constitution, hence states’ Houses of Assembly do legislate thereon. The exclusion from the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions of any role for traditional rulers must have been informed by sound reasons. Currently, we have three tiers of government in Nigeria. Will the proposed constitutional role constitute traditional rulers into the fourth tier of government?

The government should be mindful of the historical and cultural idiosyncrasies of the various ethnic groups in the country as it proposes giving traditional rulers a constitutional role. For instance, the egalitarian and republican nature of the Igbos has not changed; thus, except in very few borderline communities, the concept of kingship is still not esteemed by them. And the institution has generated much bad blood and bloodshed in many Igbo communities. The bloodletting and vendetta it caused in Awka-Etiti, Anambra State in the 1980s is still fresh in one’s memory. Some years ago, in another town in Anambra State, a notorious fraud (419) overlord (now deceased) forced the traditional ruler to abdicate the throne for him.

Secondly, matters are made worse when these traditional rulers are rarely chosen by their people. Rather, they are imposed by local government chairmen, commissioners for local government and chieftaincy affairs, state governors in connivance with influential indigenes. In most cases, persons of questionable character and bad repute, unworthy of the position, are imposed on communities as traditional rulers. Again, hardly in any Igbo community is respect accorded to the agreed way of choosing traditional rulers. All these have torn many Igbo communities apart, resulting in bloodshed and unending litigation. A check through the Causes Lists of the various High Courts in Igboland will reveal that suits over the appointment of traditional rulers constitute a large chunk of the cases pending in courts.

During the reign of Achike Udenwa as Imo State governor, many fraud (419) kingpins were imposed on communities as traditional rulers. Lacking integrity, they in turn ‘sell’ traditional titles to persons of their ilk and stir up crises in their towns. One town became so fragmented with resultant vendetta when the indigenes opposed the imposition of a fraudster (whose father was a notorious robber) as their traditional ruler. Despite this, the then Imo State government still installed him as Eze. In Igboland, the institution has become so politicized as governors use the stool to compensate their acolytes. For instance, Udenwa allegedly carved out an autonomous community and installed the father of his son in-law as the traditional ruler thereof! Yet, these traditional rulers are supposed to be non-partisan! In Abia State, Ngwa-Ukwu was balkanized into several autonomous communities, with equal number of traditional rulers, just because of a face-off between the Eze and former governor Orji Uzor Kalu.

Imagine the sort of governance a community will have with a fraudster or other unworthy person as traditional ruler! In most cases, they constitute the greatest threat to peace and security in their communities, with some of them sponsoring and shielding kidnappers, hired assassins and other criminals! Now, would a constitutional role not amount to a license for them to be more brazen and arbitrary? Will it not embolden them to further subdue their subjects and tear their communities apart? In such cases, the recurrence of events similar to the Aba Women Riots and the bloodletting and vendetta witnessed in many Igbo towns cannot be ruled out.

In most parts of Igboland, kingship has served no useful purpose. Its existence has caused more harm than good, thus, its urgent abolition will make many communities heave a sigh of relief. After all, it was not originally part of Igbo tradition but a creation of the colonialists. Only very few Igbo communities can trace their kingship history beyond their first warrant chief. Thus, to the average Igbo man, its abolition will amount to jettisoning an imposed foreign culture. The Igbos should rather return to their revered tradition where first sons (Ndi opara), eldest males (Ndi Ojiofo) or delegates assembled (as Ama-ala) to decide issues affecting the community, with due regard given to competence, intelligence, pedigree, social solidarity, community service and verifiable and genuine wealth. The town unions – although under the pockets of traditional rulers in several communities – are more in tune with this egalitarian and republican culture of the Igbos.

Thirdly, there is an assumption that traditional rulers are custodians of their communities’ traditions and cultures. This, to a large extent, is untrue. In many cases, these are persons who have lived most of their lives outside their communities and even Nigeria. Again, we have stated that most of them are not chosen by their people, just like most Nigerian politicians. The result is the emergence of all manner of persons – bereft of good character and any knowledge of their tradition – as traditional rulers. There are so many traditional rulers i

n Igboland who cannot speak Igbo let alone offer kolanuts to guests in the Igbo fashion! Moreover, how can one who ascended the throne in a manner contrary to tradition become a custodian of tradition and culture?

Additionally, in today’s Nigeria, the existence of local government councils whose roles are specified in the constitution is not felt, as they perform none of their duties. This is so in many states where the governors are not performing. In such states, the allocations due to the local government councils are shared among the state governors, council chairmen and political heavyweights. Essentially, the creation and provision of constitutional roles for local government councils have not had any positive impact on governance in Nigeria. The touted rationale of ‘taking governance closer to the grassroots’ has not been justified. In this light, what good purpose will a similar constitutional provision for traditional rulers achieve? Is it just to give them constitutional recognition? I see no basis for that, as Nigeria does not operate [constitutional] monarchism.

Moreover, so far, public funds go into the maintenance of traditional rulers, with many of them having retinues of staff, fleets of cars, all at public expense. The provision of a constitutional role will surely involve budgetary allocations to them, as either a tier or institution of government. Yet, the various governments in Nigeria complain daily of lack of funds to provide basic amenities for the citizenry! Will traditional rulers be charged with the execution of developmental projects in their communities, alongside local government councils? In many communities in Igboland, traditional rulers preside over the mismanagement of funds contributed by the indigenes or provided (rarely) by the government or donors. For instance, the funds recently provided for the Local Empowerment and Environmental Management Programme (LEEMP) Projects were either misappropriated or misapplied in some communities.

Another thorny issue relates to the status of “traditional rulers in abroad.” Currently, these ‘traditional rulers in Diaspora’ are fighting to be accorded the same recognition as the ones back home. Hitherto, branches of town unions catered for the interests of their kinsmen living abroad, but ‘traditional rulers in abroad’ are now in vogue. What constitutional role will, say, the “Eze Igbo of Lagos”, “Oba Yoruba of Enugu” or “Sarkin Hausa of Calabar” play within his ‘area of authority’? Will such a role, if any, not conflict with that of the indigenous traditional ruler on whose land the ‘sojourner king’ resides? And what role will he play in his hometown?

Again, what form of government do we operate in Nigeria? Is it republicanism, monarchy or an amalgam of both? The provision of a constitutional role for traditional rulers will present Nigeria as operating both forms of government. It will also create the false impression that the institution of kingship is of general application in Nigeria. Should we have continued with the British system of government in 1963 by substituting a prominent Nigerian traditional ruler (rotationally) for the Queen of England?

In any case, if traditional rulers must have any constitutional role, it should be left for each state to determine, as the Regions did during the First Republic, reckoning with the opinions of indigenes of the various communities. Therefore, for parts of Nigeria with confirmed historical foundations for monarchy – North, South-West and some parts of South-South – each state’s House of Assembly may enact a law in that regard, as it may deem fit. But regarding communities with no such historical record of kingship – South-East (barring few towns) – individual states’ Houses of Assembly should either leave them as they are or abolish them, but the latter is preferable, for peace to reign in most Igbo communities.

The foregoing is no denial of the existence of very few traditional rulers, worthy of the appellation, whose character and exemplary leadership qualities have brought peace and progress to their communities and endeared them to their subjects. This breed of traditional rulers is as rare as its counterpart among Nigerian politicians. Even so, I humbly opine that Nigerian traditional rulers should remain as they are currently, that is, with no constitutional role, and urge Mr. President to reconsider his proposal.

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