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.