Traditional rulers and the challenges of democratization in nigeria

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Olubusola Bosede Akinfenwa



his paper is designed to examine Traditional Rulers in Nigeria and the challenges of democratic dispensation. In pre-colonial era, Traditional Rulers governed various communities; these rulers were often founders of the communities, they therefore assumed positions of leadership and controlled every activity within their domain. In traditional African society, the Traditional Rulers are viewed as intermediaries of societal tradition, culture and religion. Their powers cover every sphere of their communities including social economic, military, political and religious activities.

In the Nigeria democratic dispensation, there are so many challenges facing the traditional rulers. Despite these challenge, their importance in the society cannot be over-emphasized. They are so significant to the extent that no community can survive without them. They are respected with awe and are believed to be divine. By virtue of the divine position they occupy in the society, the Yoruba know them as Igbakeji Orisa (next in rank with the divine). The traditional rulers become sacrosanct and any assault on their person is regarded as an act of sacrilege. They seldom appear physically in the society but ruled their people through the chiefs and officials. However their power was reduced to mere ceremonial headship during the colonial era. Their activities were monitored and they were relegated to the background. Their functions and, duties were also dictated by the ruling colonial government. This paper examines the position of the traditional rulers in pre-colonial and colonial eras, some of the challenges being faced by traditional rulers in the current democratic dispensation and how these affects their political power and authority. The paper concludes on the note that despite the challenges been faced daily by the traditional rulers in Nigeria, their contributions to national unity and development cannot be

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overlooked. Their significant position cannot be replaced in the society. The paper focuses mostly on Yorubaland where most of the examples are drawn from.

Traditional Rulers in Pre-colonial Era

A traditional ruler is a person who by virtue of his ancestry occupies the throne of an area and who has been appointed to it in accordance with the customs and traditions of the area, and whose throne has been in existence before the advent of colonialism in Nigeria. Traditional rulers were part of the natural environment of their societies. They assumed leadership position being the founders of the political communities. Most societies in Nigeria were governed through the monarchical system. The Yoruba, Edo (Benin), Hausa, Kanuri, Junkun, were among the societies governed through this method. These monarchs were referred to in various names and appellations such as Oba, Emir, Obi, Aku and Saki. They were seen as divine and have political and religious powers to back them up. They were seen as representatives of God, the supreme being on earth, they possessed great power and were assisted by priests in spiritual matters. Absolute political power was centralized in the traditional rulers in pre-colonial era.

The Yoruba, for example had a well organized political system of government right from the pre-colonial era. The political system was monarchical and process of succession was hereditary. The Oba (king) was the head of state and government. He was also seen as a divine ruler who had control over all the people and groups in his domain.

All established towns are ruled by Oba who is the political as well as the corporate personification of the town. He is regarded as sacred because it is believed that Olodumare gives the scepter to Orisanla who in turn gives it to every ruler. The Oba therefore ruled their subjects on behalf of Olodumare whom they represent.

According to Idowu, a paramount Yoruba clan-head is virtually a priest-king because he is regarded as divine in consequence of his scepter which derived from the divinity to whom he is vice-regent6. The administration of the town belongs to him, therefore he is called Oba. Thus the saying:

Traditional Rulers and the Challenges...

'Obato ba lori ohun gbogbo

King reigns over everything in his domain

This is to say that he is above every human being in his domain. He is charge of everything. The office of anOba among the Yoruba is hereditary and patrilineal. This is always restricted to particular lineages most especially lineages of the founders of the kingdoms. The laws governing the kingdom are always generated by the Oba and his council. These laws are enforced throughout the kingdom.

However in practice, there are checks and balances in the administration of Yoruba community in spite of being regarded as divine. Oba's power are constantly checked by the Council of Chiefs, but called different names in various part of Yorubaland. The Oyo Mesi that is, the council of state has the power to check Oba's excesses in Oyo Empire, while the Ogboniwere powerful among the Egba, the Imule and the Osugbo were also powerful among the Ijebus and Ife to checkmate the autocratic power of the Oba. The political structure prevented the Oba from exercising absolute power as everyone-young and old, men and women-took part in the affair of the state7. The king therefore is not a secular ruler but he is derivatively a divine ruler. He is regarded with religious awe and he links his people with the ancestors, the divinities and finally to the Supreme Being.

In pre-colonial era, the Oba was assisted by council and other institutions established for specific purposes. These institutions had considerable powers to check the authority of the Oba and indeed the council could depose the Oba by pronouncing his rejection by gods and the people. Such Oba on whom this kind of pronouncement was made upon usually commit suicide. Clearly, the traditional government was monarchical in nature; the Oba shared power with the institutions mentioned. There was no separation of powers as the same bodies set in different capacities to perform the legislative, executive and judicial functions8.

Colonial Rule and Traditional Governance

The imposition of colonial rule on Yorubaland in the early years of the twentieth century affected the traditional governance and the rulers significantly. The Oba who was the head of politics in pre-

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colonial era were placed under the colonia! leaders in the colonial era. The British came and introduced or adopted Indirect Rule system of government to administer Yorubaland as they did elsewhere in Nigeria. The system of indirect Rule meant that the British would rule through the existing traditional apparatus of government. To do this successfully, the power and prestige of the Yoruba Oba was enhanced through reform which reduced the authority of chiefs. For example, the power of the Oyomesi was reduced.

The colonial government divided Yorubaland into provinces. Each province was sub-divided into divisions and were further broken into districts. TheAlaafin of Oyo, theAlake of Egbaland, the Ooni of Ife, the Awujale of Ijebu-Ode were made first class chiefs and also regarded as paramount rulers. This indicated that the traditional rulers could make laws on any matter in their domain, although the resident colonial officer must approve such law9. Colonial rule in Nigeria reduced the power of the Traditional Rulers drastically. They were made to be mere titular heads of their domain or land during the period.

Traditional Rulers and the Challenges of Democratic Dispensation

Since Nigeria gained independence in 1960, things have never been the same for the Traditional rulers. The government finds it difficult to restore their lost glory. Instead, their powers are gradually eroded by political governance.

The appointment and promotion of the Traditional Rulers now is the responsibilities of the state governments. Traditional Rulers are ranked and classified into 1" and 5 class grade depending on the size of their communities and power. The staff of office which symbolizes their political authority is been handed over to them by the state governors. Their salaries and allowances are also been determined by the state governors. The fact that the Traditional Rulers are been controlled by the governors turn them to ordinary citizens. They now reign but no longer rule.

In most cases, the government exercises her veto power over the Traditional Rulers and their communities. Although there are

Traditional Rulers and the Challenges...

traditional council of chiefs and the kingmakers to take decision for the communities. They are been rendered powerless sometimes after careful selections of candidates for the throne, the government can still turn everything upside down and choose another candidate among those who are heir to the throne. In some occasions, kingmakers replace candidates overnight. For example, during the Military regime of Ibrahim Babangida, he exercised his veto power over the choice of traditional council of chiefs and elders in Sokoto Caliphate. Alhaji Abubakar Maccido was replaced with Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki. When later Gen. Sanni Abacha became the Head of State, he dethroned Alhaji Ibrhaim Dasuki and enthroned Alhaji Abubakar Maccido.

The traditional rulers in Ekiti State became subjects of ridicule and embarrassment during the reign of Governor Ayodele Fayose. He was disrespectful to the Ekiti State Traditional Council and specifically targeted the Wei of Ado-Ekiti to dethrone him for not supporting his administration10. Likewise, Governor Adewolu Ladoja of Oyo State had problems with Traditional Rulers in the state during his tenure. He took the chairmanship of the Traditional Rulers away from the Alaafin of Oyo and dissolved the state council of obas without due consultation. The Governor later zoned the Chairmanship of the body by creating five additional zones namely Ibadan, Ogbomoso, Oke-Ogun, Oyo and Ibarapa. Between 2003 and early 2007 when the case lasted (4 years), the salaries and allowances of the affected Obas and Chiefs were not paid. Those affected were the Alaafin of Oyo and other Traditional Rulers who were against the creation of additional zones and refused to recognize them. They also refused to attend Traditional Council Meetings. The case was dragged to court and the Traditional rulers won, the court ordered that the obas should be remunerated. But, the Governor refused to implement the court order before the end of his tenure in May 2007".

Sometime ago, the palace of Owa Obokun of Ijesaland was gutted by fire. All the artifacts and the traditional heritage and the first crown worn by Owa Ajibogun were destroyed by the fire. The incident was linked to political crisis that engulfed Osun State during the April 2007 Governorship election. Although, the new Governor,

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Olagunsoye Oyinlola promised to rebuild the palace, will he replace the burnt items of traditional values?12.

The fact that the world is now technological and the society is not left behind is posing another challenge on the Traditional rulers. Education is now a criteria to the throne. An illiterate candidate cannot get to the throne, even when the oracle and the traditional Council of elders confirmed and approved him as the candidates. The tradition and customs of the people are now been set aside and traditional rulers and regulations are ignored in order to be current in the democratic dispensation. Most of the kings who are illiterate find it difficult to adjust to the new trend. They also feel inferior and their communities feel they cannot contribute meaningfully to their development.

The corruption in the society is having a great effect on the traditional institution in Nigeria. Traditional Rulers cannot be distinguished from the politicians due to their conduct in the society. Majority of them are bought over by the politicians, which has reduced their respect and prestige in the society. They are partial in their judgment and abhor criminals and thugs in their domains. For example, during the April 2007 elections, some Traditional Rulers in the Eastern part of Nigeria were accused of abhorring political thugs and allowing their palaces to be used to rig elections. Most of them are used to collecting money from the politicians; thereby they are indirectly selling their authority to them13.

The respect that surround the Traditional Rulers are fading out day by day. They now run errands for those in political office and they can be called upon at any time to attend one function or another either relevant or not. Traditional Rulers who are supposed not to be seen everywhere according to custom and tradition, now parade themselves in government offices looking for one favour or another. They feature prominently in political rallies and become politicians themselves, in order to find favourfrom those in government. Failure to obey and rally round the politicians often attract penalty and other forms of punishment that affect the physical development of their communities.

Traditional Rulers and the Challenges...

Relevance of Traditional Rulers in Democratic Dispensation

Despite the challenges been faced by the Traditional Rulers in Nigeria, their importance to the societal development cannot be overlooked. Traditional Rulers are enthroned for the progress and development of the entire society. Therefore nothing can hinder them from performing their roles in the society. Though their roles have been drastically changed due to so many factors, their relevance to the democratic dispensation cannot be over emphasized. We shall highlight a few of their roles below.

Traditional Rulers are agents of cohesion

According to Awolalu and Dopamu, Traditional Rulers are parts of human agents God is using to sustain cohesion and stabilities in Africa. Every institution in African society is religiously oriented, and religion permeates the whole of man. Every activity is also seen as religious activity. Traditional Rulers were enthroned to serve their various communities and their existence is for the well being of their subjects. They are to bring unity, peace and harmony into their communities. Traditional Rulers are still relevant in this capacity despite the challenges of the democratic dispensation14.

Traditional Rulers as Peace Makers

They are ordained by God to bring peace and cohesion to their various communities. They are sill playing the role of peacemaker in various capacities in the democratic dispensation. For example, after the 2007 general election, Traditional rulers from different communities in Nigeria rose to the challenges and made appeal to the aggrieved parties and person to accept the election results in good faith, to let peace reign in the nation as a whole. This is because, if they continue to drag themselves to court and attack each other, peace will never reign and no society can develop without peace15.

Traditional Rulers and Dispute Management

Traditional Rulers are always called upon when there is land dispute in their communities. Government cannot settle any dispute amicably without the intervention of the Traditional Rulers, since they are the custodians of their people's traditions. The land dispute

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between Osun and Ekiti States was settled by Traditional rulers and representatives of both state governments.

Traditional Rulers as Instruments of Reconciliation

Traditional Rulers always reconciled people back to theirfamilies and warring communities in the society. They at times stand in-between the government and the people and appeal or plead with government to tender justice with mercy in time of crisis. For example, notable Traditional Rulers from Northern Nigerian namely the Sultan of Sokoto, Emirs of Kano, Bauchi, Gwandu and llorin and Sheu of Borno met and planned to appeal for the release of Major Hamza AI-Mustapha, the former Chief Security Officer to the then Head of State, Late Sani Abacha. Perhaps, they wanted to emulate their counterparts from the Southwest who appealed for the release of Gani Adams and Chief Fredrick Fasheun and Traditional rulers from the South-South who recently secured the release of Asari Dokubo. Muhammed Abacha was handed over to the Emir of Kano when he was released from detention some years back. Also in 2007, the Oyo State Traditional Council of Obas intervened and settled the problems between Governor Alao Akala and workers in the State16.

Traditional Rulers as Agents of Religious Tolerance

Traditional rulers are in close contact with their people. They actively protect the interest of all the Religious groups and constantly seek their involvement and effort at enduring economic, social and political order and development in their domain through prayer, sacrifice and fasting. Traditional rulers most of the time, participate actively in the worship of God Almighty in the shrine, in the mosque and in the church. They balance everything in their domain to confirm the believe that Traditional rulers have no religion of their own. They enhance interreligious dialogue by promoting religious harmony, freedom and tolerance in Nigerian society.

Traditional Rulers also sanitize their subjects to support Government Programmes. For instance, during the National population Census and the Death and Birth Registration programmes been organized by National Population Commission, Traditional rulers were called upon to educate their subjects on the

Traditional Rulers and the Challenges...

need to participate in programmes. Their participation will help- the Government to plan for the well-being and future of the Citizenry and also reduce maintenance cost in the country.


Traditional rulers occupied an important position in pre-colonial era in Nigeria. They ere seen as representatives of God in their immediate domain even though with some checks and balances. The paper has examined some of the challenges facing Traditional Rulers in the democratic dispensation. Factors such as, lack of formal education on the part of the Traditional Rulers, corruption, Government intervention and lack of respect for the Traditional Rulers and the custom of the people were discussed. Despite the challenges been faced daily the Traditional Rulers need to be given constitutional roles that will enable them perform better under the democratic system of government.

Notes and References

1. J. Omisade Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites.

Longman Group Ltd., 1981, p. 110

2. Rotimi Omotoye, "An Examination of the Attitude of Traditional

Rulers to the Introduction of Christianity in the Pre-Colonial Era in Yorubaland" in Center Point. Humanity Edition, University of llorin, Nigeria 2002/2003 Vol. 11, No. 1 p. 2

3. A. R. Ogunleye, "An Assessment of the Roles of Indigenous

Religious leaders in Nigeria" in Journal of Religion and African Culture, Dept. of Philosophy and Religious Studies, A. A. U, Akungba Akoko, Vol. 2, Number 1 & 2,2006; p.177

4. Nike Lawal Matthew, N. O. Sadiku & Ade Dopamu (eds);

Understanding Yoruba Life and Culture. Africa World Press INC, 2004, p. 259

  1. Rotimi Omotoye, p. 5

  2. Idowu E. B, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, Longman Nigeria

Ltd., 1995, p. 132

7. Nike Lawal, (ed) et. al.: Understanding Yoruba Life and Culture.

p. 261

8. Ibid

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  1. Ibid, p. 265

  2. TELL Magazine, No. 20th 2006, p.26

  3. Punch Newspaper, Oct. 3rd 2007

  4. Nigerian Tribune, August 4th 2007

  5. Ibid, July 5th2007

  6. J. Omisade Awolalu & P. Adelumo Dopamu, West African

Traditional Religion. Macmillan Nigeria Publisher Ltd., 2005, p.231.

  1. Punch Newspaper, June 24" 2007, p. 12

  2. Nigerian Tribune, July 20th 2007, p.5

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