The Role of Traditional Rulers in an Emerging Democratic Nigeria

by Uche Nworah

I bring you greetings from fellow Nigerians living in the diaspora, I believe that I speak the mind of every Nigerian living in the diaspora who would wish that the outcome of the deliberations today will contribute positively towards a new Nigerian constitution, a constitution that not only recognises the invaluable role our royal fathers and traditional rulers can play in national development, but most importantly a constitution that truly guarantees equity, freedom, prosperity and justice to all Nigerians.

It is on this note that I will like to inform us all that the millions of Nigerians living in the diaspora have not abandoned ship. We are all equally involved and as passionate and committed to the Nigerian project, and in the collective quest to see our beloved country, Nigeria, a potentially world economic power begin to take her rightful place in the global community of prosperous nations.

This I believe is the essence of this gathering today, to share ideas and views as part of an ongoing debate and dialogue amongst various stakeholders in the Nigerian project, which would ultimately culminate in making submissions to the Senate as they deliberate on aspects of the 1999 Nigerian constitution with a view to reviewing it.

In Who’s Interest? For Kingdom or Country?

The core issue, and central theme of our deliberations today, I believe, is the allocation of constitutional roles to traditional rulers. A question therefore arises on whether these agitations are purely in the national interest (for country), in the interests of the subjects (the citizens) or just in the ‘selfish’ interest of His Highnesses (for Kingdom).

Life teaches us that it is always advisable to give people the benefit of the doubt; in that sense, I would want to think that the clamour and agitation by the traditional rulers for constitutional recognition is purely in the national interest (for country).

Anyone who has had the opportunity of interacting closely with our traditional rulers will readily agree that some of them are sound and first class individuals. Recently, I had the opportunity of sharing a space with the Alafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi. It was at the 2007 edition of the Gathering of Africa’s Best (GAB) award in London. It was my first time of meeting the Alafin, and must say that he held me and the audience spell-bound that night with his masterful speech.

The Alafin was called out to make an impromptu speech and he did not disappoint. Without any prompts, papers or prepared notes, he reeled out history, names and dates like what one will normally watch in a movie. His speech which bothered on the place of the African in world history was not only motivating, but also eye opening. I still think that the standing ovation he received afterwards may not be enough to thank him for showing some of us the other side of traditional rulers. An intelligent side, a side that shows that traditional rulers can also be men of great intelligence and sound minds.

Another traditional ruler that comes to mind here is a man that has been hailed as one of the last true monarchs in Africa. I am talking about no other person than my traditional ruler, Igwe Osita Agwuna, Igwe of Umunri and Eze Enugwu-Ukwu. Those who have been privileged to interact with him on a one to one basis, or have witnessed his annual Igu Aro festival likens such encounters as one drinking from a fountain of knowledge.

But I keep asking myself, could the Alafin and Igwe Agwuna, and many more like them, probably idling away in their palaces and kingdoms not be made to be part of the Nigerian renaissance? And should specific roles be assigned to many others like them in the constitution?

There is no doubt that this debate has produced many contentious arguments which possess merits and demerits. The common questions arising from these various views on traditional rulers and the proposed review of the 1999 constitution could be summed up as follows:

  • What should be the role of traditional rulers in an emergent democratic Nigeria?

  • Should such roles and the additional ‘powers’ be specifically assigned and allocated by the constitution or should the traditional rulers continue to derive their ‘powers’ and roles from their people – members of their community and all those within their spheres of influence?

  • Assuming the traditional rulers are assigned specific roles in the constitution, how would that affect the present 3–tier government structure? Would that mean creating a fourth tier? What about functionality, responsibility, and funding?

To contextualise my argument, I would like to quote from two sources. I will quote Abba Mahmood first, who in an opinion piece published in the Leadership newspaper titled: Traditional Rulers and Contemporary Challenges asserts that

Traditional rulers used to have a constitutional role. The 1960 and 1963 constitutions created a Council of Chiefs for them in the regions and some of them were even regional governors. The 1979 Constitution gave them representation in the National Council of State. The current 1999 Constitution did not even mention the traditional institution. Is this not enough indicator of their plight and dwindling prestige?

Perhaps picking up from Mahmood’s cue, Nigeria’s Senate president, Senator David Mark, during a condolence visit at the palace of the Shehu of Borno, Mustapha Umaru El Kanemi on the passing away of the Waziri of Borno Alhaji Ahmed, was quoted in the Guardian newspaper of July 17th 2007 to have remarked thus

We will continue to assist our traditional rulers and leaders who are responsible for unity, peace in order to further strengthen their roles. We shall find specific roles for them in the constitution when we finally review the 1999 Constitution.

These two views best capture contemporary thinking on the issue; an acknowledgement that, yes, there is a problem and a situation involving our Royal fathers, and that something needs to be done. The dilemma however remains finding the best way forward in order not to compromise the ancient institutions that the traditional rulers represent, which is that of acting as custodians of native customs, culture, tradition, and as spiritual fathers of members of their immediate communities.

  • Should we go back to the pre-independence era and enshrine roles for the traditional rulers in the constitution?

  • Should we create alternative models in line with recent developments in our socio-economic history, which adequately accommodates the traditional rulers in governance, and in the general the scheme of things?

  • Is it possible for us to have the best of both options?

Factors Responsible For The Waning Influence Of Traditional Rulers In Nigeria

There is no doubt that traditional rulers in Nigeria have gradually witnessed the erosion of their powers, from depending upon British colonial administration to dependence upon elected politicians. As their roles narrowed, that of the political parties increased. Perhaps it may be necessary at this point to identify the key issues that have contributed to the waning influence of the traditional rulers

  • Self-inflicted (partisanship in politics, defecation of traditional values, lack of integrity by some, money-for-chieftaincy policies, in-fighting and ‘Igweship’/’Ezeship’/’Obaship’/’Emirship’ tussles)

  • Military dictatorship ( clipping of wings and enthronement of subservient culture)

  • Social malaise ( moral decay in the society, lack of respect for elders and constituted authority – including traditional institutions)

  • Dwindling sphere of influence (creation of new states and local governments areas have further balkanized the ‘kingdom’ overseen by the traditional rulers)

  • The Young, Bold and Restless and their brash manners (The appointment of the likes of late Igwe John Nebolisa as the Igwe of Awkuzu further eroded the public’s confidence in traditional institutions)

  • Conflict of interest between local government authorities and traditional rulers, and a need to clarify who should do what in local community matters

  • Globalisation (waning influence and interest in monarchies, and traditional institutions worldwide)

  • Politics (Party politics have been played in a manner to undermine the influence of traditional rulers over local voters)

  • The Economy (Dwindling economic fortunes which also affected the traditional rulers have further eroded their influence and authority, a situation where some traditional rulers ride on Okada motorcycles and ‘beg for bread’ does not say much for the institution they represent)

  • Civilisation and development (the era of inquiring minds, professionals etc. This era has witnessed lots of social changes including open same-gender relationships and marriages (in the West), doubts and public questioning on the concepts of, and existence of one God, and Allah).

  • Abuse of privilege (giving chieftaincy titles and honours to less deserving members of the society has created a society with false values, and negative role models)

  • The single status movement and the agitation for republicanism (the desire to let the people decide their affairs rather than having a supreme human lording it over them)

Arguing For Constitutional Provision

  • Productivity: Tapping into the rich talents and wealth of experience of the traditional rulers (A man Osita Agwuna, Eze Umunri and Igwe Umunri who was an active nationalist could have served Nigeria in much better capacity, perhaps he may have been able to do this if he was empowered by the constitution). Abba Mahmood also submitted that “The Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Gwandu, the Etsu Nupe and the Emir of Zuru were Generals in the Nigerian Army. The Oba of Lagos was a Police AIG just as the Gbong Gwom Jos was a Police DIG. The Emir of Kazaure has a Ph.D. in Law, just as the Asagba of Asaba is a Professor and most of Emirs and Chiefs were also in the public service and diplomacy such as the Emir of Kano”.

  • Historical reasons (During pre and post-independent Nigeria, traditional rulers were assigned constitutional roles. Perhaps it could be as result of administrative expediency that the British very much involved traditional rulers in governance. At the lowest level of the colonial structures, traditional rulers were involved through a policy of indirect rule, while at the higher level, traditional rulers were involved through their participation in early politics.

The colonial administrative structure and chain of command looked like this: The Governor General was the head of administration, the Lieutenant Governors were in charge of the provinces, The District Officers (DO) were in charge of the divisions and the Native Authorities comprising the local traditional rulers were responsible for local administration and governance in their respective domains. The Native Authorities were the last link in the administrative chain; they enforced locally decisions made at the centre.

Traditional Rulers and Constitutional Timeline

The Richards Constitution – 1944-1951

  • The constitution established Houses of Assembly in each of the three regions, and a House of Chiefs in the North. The Houses of Assembly comprised official members (those appointed by the Governor, and unofficial members selected by the native Authorities from amongst themselves

The MacPherson constitution – 1951

  • Under the McPherson constitution, traditional rulers in the West and North made direct input into the selection of the members of their regional Houses of Assembly – at the Intermediate Electoral college in the West, and at the Final Electoral College in the North.

  • Regional Houses of Chiefs were established in both the North and West which equally influenced equally alongside the Houses of Assembly the passage of legislation in the area.

  • Traditional rulers were represented in the selection of members of the national House of Representatives both directly through the participation of the House of Chiefs, as well as indirectly through their influence over the composition of the regional Houses of Assembly.

The Lyttelton Constitution – 1954 (Revised in 1957)

The Lyttelton constitution greatly reduced the constitutional powers of the traditional rulers both at the centre and in the regions.

  • At the federal level, the legislature was divided into two Houses: The Senate and the House of Representatives.

  • The Senate was composed of 12 representatives appointed by the Governors of the regions.

  • The Governor–General also appointed two representatives for Lagos while the Chiefs of Lagos elected one.

  • The Oba of Lagos was automatically a member.

  • The House of Representatives consisted of 320 members who were directly elected, for the first time, the House of Chiefs played no role in this process

  • Members of the House of Chiefs were not allowed to be members of the Senate, nor member of any regional legislature.

  • At the regional level, the Houses of Chiefs and Houses of Assembly held similar functions

  • Either House could introduce legislation which required the approval of the other House.

  • The cabinet or council of ministers at the federal level and the executive council at the regional level also provided a role for traditional and appointed rulers

The Independence Constitution – 1960

  • Independence saw the position of traditional rulers in the federal and regional legislature eroded in favour of appointed chiefs

  • Traditional rulers in the North fared better through the creation of The Council of Chiefs – a policy making body whose decisions were binding on the government

  • Minority councils created in the Eastern and Western regions further reduced the roles of traditional rulers to mere advisory

The 1979 Constitution

  • The only formal structures in which traditional rulers are included in the 1979 constitution is membership into the Council of State at the federal level, and the Council of Chiefs at the state level.

1999 Constitution

  • There is no prescribed role for traditional rulers in the 1999 constitution

  • Further checks and balances (recent reports of the excesses of the 3 arms of government (legislature, executive, judiciary), likewise the 3–tier of government (federal, state, local) make a compelling argument for the traditional rulers to be introduced into the equation as further check and balance on the system)

  • Relevance (this may seem like a selfish argument on the part of the traditional rulers, trying to use the constitution to achieve some kind of relevance in the socio-political system)

  • Fair play and Equity (The argument of what is good for the geese (politicians), being also good for the gander (traditional rulers).

  • Political backing (President Yar’Adua has proposed to set up a National Council of Traditional Rulers – NCTR. Senate president has also indicated that the Senate will support a constitutional provision for traditional rulers. However the questions remains, are these purported support of the idea just a way of ‘appeasing’ the traditional rulers, as we saw in the days of Ibrahim Babangida and his car loans to junior Army officer?)

Arguing Against Constitutional Provision

  • Submission to known standards of scrutiny and accountability (If the constitution assigns roles to the traditional rulers, it is therefore to be expected that they will submit themselves to be scrutinised by the public who will pass judgements and comment on their actions. Such may lead to the debasing of the traditional institution which is normally held in his regard. Unless the UK model is adopted where her majesty, the Queen’s affairs remain largely secretive)

  • Changing Times (perhaps the traditional rulers may have been very much involved in governance in colonial times, but times have changed. Let the politicians run governmental affairs)

  • Funding (Any constitutionally assigned roles will require funding by way of paying salaries, allowances to traditional rulers, their aides, furnishing their palaces, offices, cars etc. This may further put a strain on local, state and federal government purses)

  • Duplication of efforts (there may be conflicts of interests at the local government level, leading to duplication of efforts. There is an argument that what ever the traditional may be asked to do by the constitution could be better done by the constituted local government authorities, who were created primarily to bring government closer to the people).

  • The risk of alienation (A feeling of alienation may arise amongst the subjects as the traditional rulers concern themselves with other matters of governance)

  • Problems of bureaucracy arising from adding another tier to the already existing 3-tiers of government. (This may result in slow decision making and implementation processes)

  • Some may argue that the traditional rulers are already powerful and influential, having derived the powers from their people, and that all they need do is to harness such authorities appropriately towards helping to attract development to their local communities. They do not necessarily need extra constitutional provisions to do that.

  • To really function as agents of change, traditional rulers should work in tandem with the various community development and town unions in their areas to facilitate change in their society. That should be more than enough to keep them busy.


  • Perhaps this issue should be balloted by the traditional rulers themselves after considering the merits and demerits of the arguments for and against constitutional recognition, but I doubt if there will be enough time for them to do that, in time for the coming constitutional review by the senate.

  • I would still love to see the traditional rulers separated from the ‘madness’ of being involved in governance. Only a thin line separates partisanship and the type of governance they would like to be involved in, any little slip would tip them over to the other side and that is the side that may lead to the erosion of whatever credibility and respect they command among the Nigerian people. Let the politicians deal with all that ‘dirty business of politics’. There are serious risks of losing credibility if the traditional rulers get into the political ring formally.

  • I suggest that governments at the 3-tiers involve traditional rulers more in local government affairs. The issue of their welfare should also be considered and be accommodated in yearly budget cycles. That way, the institution of traditional rulers as we know it will preserve its dignity somewhat rather than the sad situation we have presently where some of our royal fathers go around ‘begging for bread’.

This Paper Was Prepared For The 3 – Day National Stakeholders’ Workshop On The Role of Traditional Institutions In The Three Tiers Of Government Holding At The Abuja International Conference Centre. 11th, 12th And 13th November 2007.

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Qasim Oyekola August 21, 2010 - 8:12 pm

excellent. The role of our traditional rulers cannot be ignored.

musa November 13, 2009 - 6:54 pm

this is a great but how does one cite this article

awwal September 30, 2009 - 7:58 pm

it is a nice article that portray the positions of the traditional rulers since the pre-colonial period. however, the only shorcoming i see in the article is the absence of sources. in other words, the author did not adequately provide us with references he consulted in writing the article.

stanest March 20, 2008 - 7:12 am

it is quite satisfactory


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