The place of traditional rulers in modern Nigeria
By Femi Olugbile
Traditional rulers, especially in the Southwestern part of Nigeria, have been much in the news in the past few days for a variety of reasons. First there was the ascendancy of the prominent pastor of the Redeemed Church, Ghandi Olaoye, to the exalted throne of Soun of Ogbomosho, which caused some ripples among traditional purists. And then came the bombshell video of former President Olusegun Obasanjo barking out a command to a group of seated Obas in the town of Iseyin.
‘Get up -all of you’ he shouted in Yoruba.
The Obas, one and all, rose to their feet.
‘Sit down’ he barked.
And they sat.
As a show of power by a man who no longer held office, Obasanjo’s peremptory command was rude and crude. Just as disturbing, for many people, was the spontaneous obedience by the Oyo Obas, giving them the air of timid and subservient schoolchildren.
The issue of where exactly to place Obas and other traditional rulers in the scheme of things is one that government and society at large started grappling with long before Nigeria became a nation. Every so often, an incident occurs somewhere, reminding people that it is unfinished business.
Examples abound to demonstrate the troubled relationship.
William MacGregor was the Governor of the colonial territory of Lagos when Esugbayi Eleko was chosen by the kingmakers of Lagos in 1901. Then, as at now, the assent of the Governor was required in the final choice of a traditional monarch, even one supposedly shorn of real power as the Eleko was under the colonial rule of a British government that believed Lagos had been ceded to it by treaty, and that it ‘owned’ the land and the people. The litmus test for a suitable Lagos monarch, as far as the British were concerned at the time, was that the candidate must not be a Muslim. Prince Esugbayi, in the relaxed manner of the Yoruba, had taken up Islam, but he did not flaunt his faith. Thus, he was able to pass under the radar of the colonial government. But as soon as he became King, he began to practise his religion openly. The sky did not fall.
It was the beginning of many run-ins with the Governor MacGregor, and his successor William Egerton, who later became Governor of the Southern Protectorate. The points at issue included the King’s decision to authorise the choice of a Bey – a religious title holder, in the Central Mosque, without consulting the Governor, and the King’s opposition to a water levy imposed by the government. Other clashes of authority followed with the government after the amalgamation of Nigeria, culminating in the Chief Amodu Tijani land case that was decided by the Privy Council in favour of the land rights of the people of Lagos. Associated with the drama of that embarrassment for the government was the King’s refusal to condemn Herbert Macaulay, who travelled to London with the King’s opa ase, and gave a widely reported interview to the London Daily Telegraph criticising the government.
For his repeated show of disrespect to the Governor, Esugbayi was deposed and banished from Lagos in 1925.
It was not the end of the story however – trust Lagosians. The legal battle was joined all the way to the Privy Council in London. The Court, finally, admonished the government to seek a ‘political’ solution.
In 1931, Eleko Esugbayi was restored to his throne at Iga Iduganran.
A thoroughly miffed Governor Thomson was left to reflect on who actually held the power in Lagos – the Governor of Nigeria or the Oba of Lagos?
More recent incidents include the travails of the Odemo of Isara, whose salary was reduced to one penny a year because he was associated with an opposition party.
And then there was the famous run-in between Bode Thomas – a fast-rising star in the ruling Action Group, and the Alaafin of Oyo, reportedly over the failure of the Alaafin to rise to his feet when Mr Thomas entered the room. That the Alaafin instructed Bode Thomas to continue ‘barking like a dog’, and that he did so till his death soon after, may be understood literally or apocryphally, but it shows the ‘spiritual’ dimension of the authority ascribed to traditional rulers.
Even more lately, a recorded interview showed the late Governor Abubakar Rimi of Kano State speaking disparagingly about the Emir of Kano, saying that he was just another public servant who was subservient to him as Governor, and who could be disciplined or dismissed at will.
The case of Chief Obafemi Awolowo as Premier of Western Region and his face off with the Deji of Akure over whether the Oba was supposed to stand up for the Premier, in which the example of the British Royal family was cited, was one incident that was eventually resolved with considerably more finesse and sensitivity by the Premier than the Ebora of Owu has ever been known to display on any issue. Nobody is holding their breath waiting for regrets from Chief Obasanjo.
To talk about Protocols defining the relationship between Governors and traditional rulers is begging the issue. Protocols are made by men, and can be changed, improved, or customised, depending on the will of the people.
What is the will of Nigerian people concerning their traditional institution? Should the entire institution be abolished? Or should the country eliminate its redundant ‘Senate’ and replace it with a House of Chiefs? Could that be a step on the route towards domesticating ‘Western Democracy’, to make it work in Africa? True, the utterances and comportment of some monarchs give cause for worry. How may their recruitment process be continually strengthened to guarantee quality?
And – the big question, how could Monarchs be insulated from partisan politics, so that they could be truly ‘father of all’, and beholden to none?
There are many questions, and the country had better start to find answers to them.