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OBJ’s remarks to Obas: Time we revisited legal architecture for kingship in Nigeria

OBJ’s remarks to Obas: Time we revisited legal architecture for kingship in Nigeria

Barely a week ago, a video of former President Olusegun Obasanjo (OBJ) addressing Yoruba Kings in a manner that some have tagged as disrespectful of long held traditional norms surfaced online.

In the video, OBJ could be seen making the point that in any gathering where a President or Governor is present, Kings present must stand up as an act of respect to the President or Governor. OBJ would then go on to command the Kings present to stand up (“E dide!”) and subsequently told them to sit down (“E joko!”).

Concerns have largely been raised in different quarters as to what could have triggered the seemingly ungracious remarks and even more disconcerting, the rather harsh tone deployed by OBJ (who has often been an advocate of respect to royal fathers best demonstrated in the reverence or respect he had accorded the Ooni of Ife and Olu of Warri at different times) in commanding Yoruba Kings – considered next to the deities (“Igbakeji Orisa”), in such an appalling manner.

Just last week and in a Vanguard publication, Dayo Johnson reported that certain Yoruba leaders, under the aegis of Omo Yoruba Worldwide Association, tagged OBJ recent actions as being “profoundly beneath the dignity of…Yoruba culture and tradition…and an affront to …cherished customs…egregious display of arrogance and disrespect toward…revered Obas in Yorubaland.”

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Crux of this article

Considering the propriety of OBJ’s actions has been addressed by a good number of people, this article will refrain from commenting on the propriety of the “tone” and/or “manner” with/in which OBJ addressed the much respected and revered Yoruba Kings on the order of precedence at public events where holders of the office of the President or Governor is seated or present.

Rather, this article will largely be concerned with the underlying problem that birthed the recent statement credited to OBJ, particularly, as it pertains to order of precedence between Kings and the offices of Governor/President. In doing justice to the crux of this article, I will attempt to examine the propriety of the legal architecture impliedly providing for precedence between Kings and holders of the President and/or Governorship titles, pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial, and contemporary time.


Seasoned Nigerian Historians like Professors Jacob Festus Ade Ajayi and Joseph Adebowale Atanda (both now of blessed memory) opined that the established political, religious, and spiritual leadership in pre-colonial Nigeria placed great seriousness on established Indigenous traditions, norms, and culture. Literature in this regard, as a matter of fact, reveals that religion and politics played in pre – Colonial Nigeria and largely critical to maintaining peace, stability, and order.

Professor Atanda for instance believed that the interaction between politics and religion in Nigeria, helped the country sustain peaceful coexistence, cooperation, and harmony. Thus, asserting that ‘[r]eligion and politics was the basis of authority and power for the rulers and religion was used to maintain law and order.’ Professor Atanda further noted, in one of his authoritative works, that religious sanctions helped to check criminal behaviours, promote good and law-abiding citizens. He would go on to opine that ‘political power was a sacred trust, exercised for the common good of the society’ and that the king’s right to rule was ‘divinely ordained’ and ‘assisted by an institutionalized council of chiefs.’ Further research would, however, reveal that while the ruler may appear to have held absolute powers, in practice, there were certain checks and balances found in Institutions age-grades, guilds, associations, secret societies, and open societies that helped to maintain law and order by suppressing tension and clashes of interest among the people. For instance, traditional religion became an instrument used as check and balance in the political system, as exemplified in the Yoruba tradition of the then Oyo Mesi (Council of Chiefs) beginning the removal process of Alaafin by presenting a white calabash with the words “the earth rejects you, the gods reject you, and the people reject you,” where an Alaafin becomes despotic, used his political power arbitrarily, and loses all sense of good reasoning. The implication of the presentation of the empty calabash was that the Alaafin had to commit suicide, and scholars have reported this happening a good number of times. So, one can safely argue that there were indeed effective checks and balances in pre-colonial Nigeria with peace and order maintained.

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Before the advent of the colonial rulers who, as captured in the Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart’ upset the good order of natural leadership we had in different communities across Nigeria, traditional rulers were mostly expected to promote social justice, harmony, and political stability. In some cases, they serve as the authoritative link between the deities and ancestors with the help of others.

Colonial era

Some scholars concluded that Kings, though still Kings by title during the colonial era, were mostly reduced to ‘mere official chiefs and instruments’ in the hands of the colonial administrators, no thanks to the legal architecture created by the colonial powers who created legitimacy for their subjugation of our traditional system by making laws that practically made our Kings secondary institutions to the colonial imposed office holders. Further buttressing this position, Chief Festus Oguche (distinguished Port-Harcourt Lawyer) boldly stated in an interview with The Guardian Newspaper circa February 2021 and while attempting to explain the rundown of our cherished traditional institutions in the hands of the colonial power(s) that our traditional institutions ‘flourished…during the pre-colonial era and the traditional rulership system became entrenched as the ideal mode of social relations and societal governance,’ but all this changed when the “the British found it convenient to create lackeys or puppets from existing pre-colonial traditional offices and at the same time, created monarchs where there was none, furtherance to its indirect rule policy.’ Chief Festus Oguche would go on to opine that ‘[T]he current corrosion of the institution is…the fallout of the deliberate tinkering and weakening of the system by colonial policies and practices.’ One could not but agree with the brilliant postulations of Chief Festus Oguche as the same has equally been collaborated by earlier scholars, researchers and seasoned Nigerian historians whose works the present writer has had the chance to carefully study.

Post-colonial era and present day

While a considerable amount of literature has been dedicated to examining the legal architecture post-colonial era, this article seeks to focus more on emerging thoughts as to what is obtainable in present day and why the legal architecture for Kingship in Nigeria (including codified native law and custom as well as the Nigerian Constitution) need to be revisited to accommodate a more dignifying role for our traditional rulers and indigenous institutions.

Useful to note that though a review of traditional offices and institutions post- colonial era would reveal that they suffered quite some relegation, with only few exceptions in the case of a few first-class Kings who were directly involved in administration and strategic advisory/leadership positions, closer look would revealed the laws enacted post-colonial era attempted to delineate nature of the power Kings hold as well as make provisions for the appointment and removal of Kings by a political office holder barely helped to restore whatever dignity is left from how the colonial powers battered our traditional institutions, subjugated them, and made them be at the mercies of political appointees.

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Capturing the pitiable state of our traditional institutions since the 1979 Constitution, Chief Oguche lamented that there is hardly any tangible role assigned to traditional rulers under the extant constitutional or legal dispensation, as what we currently have are traditional offices created and regulated by the Chieftaincy Laws of the different states, whose existence is subject to the whims and caprices of the Governor.

Indeed, it goes without saying that a situation where our traditional rulers exist at the pleasure of the Governor, who wields rather enormous powers over the appointment, discipline, and removal of traditional rulers is not the ideal for the dignity of our traditional institutions. One needs not look further for the reason some Kings have somewhat become political and daylight praise singers for their state governors – at whose mercies, survival of some of them remains. Perhaps, it was this realization that made the ‘’EBORA OF OWU” to tell the Yoruba Kings in Oyo, like I told my primary school students decades back in Osun State to “STAND UP!” and learn how to greet “elders” or “seniors” properly!!


Though not a prophet of doom, I dare say that for as long as our traditional rulers or institutions are treated as second fiddle to political “appointees” (careful to use the word “elected” as the legitimacy of some of those office holders are generally questioned amongst the populace) who enjoy “immunity” from even their impunity acts while occupying offices constitutionally protected as such, and for as long as we place precedence on the legal architecture created by colonial powers which has been given more force by people who ought to have known better than allow our traditional institutions be continuously subjugated by a borrowed foreign culture strange to our traditional norms, custom and practices, our traditional institutions will continue to subtly obliterated and our traditional rulers further humiliated by those who believe they can get away with such on account of the borrowed English law and codified native laws and customs providing for the appointment, discipline and removal of Indigenous Kings by the holder of the office a State Governor.

A better way to deal with this is to completely remove the power to appoint, discipline and remove our Indigenous Kings from the legislation enacted to reflect the legal precedence during the colonial era which now became the order of the day post-independence and leveraged by political office holders enjoying immunity to oppress Kings who did not do their biddings. Even in recent times, examples abound as to Governors who descended heavily on Kings, Emirs and Obis who failed to dance to their tune and this should never have been so in the first place. The present writer for one, can hardly blame a King who chooses to tow the governor’s positions, exhibit unquestionable loyalty to such governor as to do otherwise is to be prepared to lose the kingship positions or even be banished from the kingdom even for flimsy excuses as was witnessed in case of former Emir of Kano (Lamido Sanusi Lamido Sanusi) deposed by the former Kano Governor (Ganduje) on account of bad blood or irreconcilable differences between both. There was another case read of a particular Anambra State Governor dethroned three traditional rulers and withdrew their Certificates of Recognition for allegedly visiting an erstwhile President without the state government’s approval. Another case in point was the Kogi State Governor query a first class Kogi King for not showing up to visit an erstwhile President while there was an unfortunate bomb incident at the King’s Palace the very same day.

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The foregoing in mind, it is recommended that the issue of the appointment and removal of Kings be removed from the matters that a State Government can legislate on and that the Constitution be amended to recognise either the (traditional) Council of Chiefs as the authoritative body or a more legitimate body comprising of the custodians of the culture, norms, and traditions of each other Indigenous community where there is in existence a Kingship stool, to appoint seasoned representatives that are capable of making, enforcing and administering native laws and custom.


Onele is a lawyer and can be reached via [email protected]