Do we need traditional rulers? (I)

Nigeria claims to be a republic. A republic connotes the absence of a monarchy, and the idea of a republic makes the presence of traditional monarchical institutions an aberration.

It was the Romans that first established the form of government called a ‘republic’ when they overthrew their Etruscan conquerors in 509 B.C.E. Once free, they founded a government in which citizens elected representatives to rule on their behalf.

The modern republic first appeared in France as a system of government and model of sovereignty on September 25, 1792, and subsequently developed into nothing less than a comprehensive worldview and way of organising and understanding history.

It all began with the price of bread; and dozens of other social, political and economic factors. 1789 marked the start of the French Revolution, when women marched on Versailles, citizens stormed the Bastille, and the monarchy was dethroned. Out of the revolution was born the First Republic, organised in 1792 with a National Convention made up of several political parties, including the Montagnards, who drew support from the bourgeoisie in Paris, and the Girondins, who wanted a national government chosen by all French citizens.

No one knows the number of monarchs in Nigeria but there seems to be one ruling over every other city and village and they put a strain on the nation’s treasury and national unity.

Across the country, new ‘kings’ and chiefs are regularly minted by governors keen to gain electoral traction from freshly monarchisised communities.

In 2018, the Akwa Ibom State Government installed 230 new traditional rulers, adding them to the extensive harem of dated potentates already ubiquitous in the state and in the country.

That same year, J.C Ihejirika and Evans Ogbugo, academics at the Rivers State University identified 133 traditional stools in Rivers state. “There are as well other local/traditional rulers who are not recognised but are also in-charge of their respective communities,” they had said.

The expansion of traditional institutions in Nigeria in terms of influence and quantity of office holders, and its increasing visibility are irritating facts, German historian and political scientist, Axel Harneit-Sievers said in a 1998 study on ‘Chieftaincy and the state in Southeastern Nigeria’.

Traditional institutions and their office holders, kings, queens, and chiefs, have had negative to little impact on modern development.

Read also: Do we need traditional rulers? (II)

They have been agents of division and divisiveness. Neither the atomisation of ancient kingdoms and empires into thousands of petty realms and exaggerated fiefdoms, nor the award of chieftaincies by disparate ‘royal fathers’ have helped in the construction of a Pan-Nigerian identity which is the most critical driver for national unity.

On the contrary, traditional institutions and traditional rulers have since the creation of Nigeria in 1914 facilitated the recourse to ethnic chauvinism rather than to national patriotism. They have done this by awarding valorised chieftaincies, beadings, cappings and turbanings which have led to the creation of ultra-ethnic-conscious communities over nationalist identity.

It was this resort to ethnic loyalties over a conscious Nigerian identity that made the late northern regional premier, Ahmadu Bello, himself a tribal chief with the title of Sar’dauna of Sokoto to demonise the entire Igbo tribe in a 1964 interview. “Well, the Igbos,” he had said, “are more or less a type of people whose desire is mainly to dominate everybody. If they go to a village or town, they want to monopolise everything in that area. If you put them in a labour camp as a labourer, within a year, they will try to emerge as the headman of that camp”.

He had gone to say that his policy as premier was to give preference to expatriates over non-northern Nigerians when it came to employment.

In ‘Awolowo, Azikiwe and the Igbo-Yoruba Lagos Press War’ published in BusinessDay on August 22, 2019, University of York Associate Lecturer, Dr Remi Adekoya, traced the ethnic nature of the relationship between both men. Awolowo and Azikiwe were heavily chieftainised personalities who went to war on behalf of their ethnic groups.

“From its inception,” Adekoya said, “the Egbe Omo Odùduwà, of which Obafemi Awolowo was Secretary-General, faced accusations from Zik and his media of ethnicising politics. The latter conveniently ignored the fact an Igbo equivalent of the Egbe Omo Odùduwà, the Igbo Federal Union, likewise existed and operated at the time.

“For most of 1948, the (their) rival newspapers waged an aggressive war of words. For instance, after Zik supported the creation of a rival Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, the Yoruba Federal Union, Daily Service published an editorial titled ‘Nnamdi Azikiwe is warned not to strain the patience of Yoruba people”.

“In response, Azikiwe’s Pilot (West African Pilot) argued that: “Henceforth the cry must be one of battle against the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, its leaders, at home and abroad, uphill, and down dale, in the streets of Nigeria and in the residence of its advocates. The Egbe Omo Oduduwa is the enemy of Nigeria; it must be crushed to the earth. There is no going back, until the Fascist organization of Sir Adeyemo Alakija (leader of Egbe) has been dismembered”.

A mass meeting of Igbos in Lagos declared any attacks on Zik would be considered attacks on the Igbo nation.

Ironically, Herbert S. Lewis, professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison noted of colonisation, “rather than dividing groups (though they certainly did split some between two or more countries), the major impact of the colonial enterprise was to bring peoples together for the first time in sustained interaction within single political entities. This often had the effect of forcing people who might previously have had no direct contact with each other into economic, political, and social competition”.

The threat of tribalism (as ethnicity is too often called in the African context), has haunted Nigeria since independence. The reality is that it represents a backward and embarrassingly “primitive” force that is destructive of progress and national unity.

The root of the problem, Lewis further noted, is that ethnic loyalties and identities are powerful bases for social and political life in the world today, despite earlier theories to the contrary. Far from being atavistic, residual, or “merely circumstantial,” they may serve as the basis for social relations, the development of new patterns of culture, and as political interest groups. Ethnic groups are proving to be far more easily mobilised than were “classes” because they can combine a broad range of social, cultural, economic, and political interests with a real sense of identification, loyalty, and emotion.

Individual and group identities are tied up in ethnicity in ways they are not in class, and appeals to ethnic pride and to grievances over unequal economic opportunities, discrimination, suppression of language, history, and cultural heritage serve increasingly to mobilise peoples.

At the centre of these ethnic pride and grievances are traditional institutions and their personages. Eliminate them, and off goes ethnic irredentism and then comes the progressive construction of national identity and pride.

Keen to build a modern state uncontaminated by ethnic irredentists, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister had declared that independent India would not accept the divine right of kings. In May 1947, he declared that any princely state which refused to join the Constituent Assembly would be treated as an enemy state.

“I do not consider myself an outsider in any State. The whole of India is my home and I claim the right to go to any part. I am not sorry for what has happened. If it makes Rulers and others think hard of the new condition in India and the temper of her people, so be it,” he had pronounced.

Nehru’s opposition to the Monarchy, noted Indian Journalist Sandeep Bamzai, and as a consequence, “to the tin pot Maharajas who ruled the states by virtue of their treaties and other linkages to the British paramountcy was almost visceral”.

The central government began retiring the monarchs and ultimately abolished the 565 traditional rulers and their princely states. The princely states were under the control of their hereditary rulers under a form of indirect rule. By 1971, the 26th amendment to the Constitution of India withdrew recognition of the princes as rulers, took away their remaining privileges, and abolished the remuneration granted to them by privy purses. Their once opulent palaces are now museums and hotels.

India is doing very fine today without these traditional rulers. Its people are healthily constructing and mediating their traditions and cultures without these so-called custodians of cultures. India, aloud and robust democracy, is relatively peaceful without the traditional rulers; more peaceful than Nigeria indeed!

Traditional institutions in Nigeria have never been profit centres that significantly add to the social, economic and reputational bottom line of the country. On the contrary, they are heavy cost centres chalking up about 5% of local government revenues with no discernible Level of Effort.

Apart from propitiating the gods and ancestors, there is nothing useful that can be attributed to the work of traditional institutions that cannot be done outside them. The people are capable of mobilising themselves as has been proved by political and social mobilisations across the country with no input from traditional rulers and, after all, traditions which are dynamic are owned and guarded by the people and not the rulers.

Unlike independent India’s nascent rulers, Nigeria’s post-independence political leaders never made any effort to build a Pan-Nigerian consensus and a Pan-Nigerian identity. They were too beholden to their nativist power structure, guarded and guided by the elemental influences of primeval traditional institutions and rulers.

In the background were always the traditional rulers whispering the need to protect the political leaders’ ‘heritages’. Paradoxically, the idea of a post-traditional modern state has eluded the country, and feudalism, in which the relationships of vassalage places people in positions of authority over other people, not entire territories, has incongruously fossilised and become elevated in a so-called Republic.

“Feudalism,” writes John Snape, “was about persons, rather than purposes”. In the same way, traditional institutions in Nigeria today cannot coherently justify to the people the raison d’etre for their continued existence.

A modern nation state cannot exist side by side with a multiplicity of irrelevant traditional institutions and petty monarchs who are not beholden and cannot be beholden to the idea of a modern Nigeria. That idea is a threat to their antiquitous hold on the people.