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Who will save our traditional institutions?

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It is not unusual at certain times of uncertain developments, for people to throw up their arms and with a good measure of despondency, exclaim, ‘how time changes’! That speaks volumes. You may take that as resignation to fate or an expression of helplessness. But it goes more than that. It speaks to the realities of the day.

Growing up, we saw the traditional institutions or rather, the traditional rulers in the images of gods. The monarchs rarely spoke. But their silence was loud. When they spoke, their words were louder and carried the weight of the law. They hardly left their courts, except on compelling reasons. When they did, their appearances had a testament of candour.

Greeting the traditional ruler, ‘Onye Eze’, as they were called in many parts of Igbo land, was ritualistic in a way and had a tinge of blessing. “Eze ga-adi ndu ruo mgbe ebighi ebi” (Your Highness will live forever), captured the prayers and wishes that the monarch will not and does not die. That was why, when he eventually passed on, it was not openly admitted but discussed in hushed tones. He was rather, said to have fallen asleep. Onye Eze had aura and garb of immortality around him, then.

Nobody, of course, looked at the king at the face while greeting him. Everyone coming before him, bowed in respect and deference. The monarch never bowed before any man, hence in some settings, tradition forbade one from mounting the throne if his father was alive. The weight of the office was indeed, heavy, even in the so-called acephalous or stateless settings without pronounced history of kingship until the institution of warrant chief arrangement by the British colonial masters.

In other parts of the country with defined structures of kingship, the system had a touch of mystique. There were tales of human heads or even living aides buried alongside the monarch to accompany him or continue serving him in the other world.

Such was the awe with which the traditional rulers were held. But that was then. The monarchs are now, shadows of themselves. They are currently vulnerable and in fact, endangered. To continue hanging on the fading glory of the stool, the occupants will be ready to play the role of house boys, literally, to the governors or in some humiliating instances, chairmen of local government councils. It is that bad!

Make no mistake about it. I am not a fan of the anachronistic side of the traditional institutions. There had been Ezes, Obas, Emirs or whatever their designations, who had constituted obstacles to administration of justice in their domains. Some had manifested unmitigated corruption, wickedness, oppression and greed in their worst form, appropriating wives and properties of their subjects. During the era of indirect rule, the monarchs served as the links between the colonial masters and the people. They collected levies and taxes and remitted some to the government coffers. Such latitude and unfettered powers, bred corruption among them.

Since the country’s independence, they have been around, essentially lurking in the wings, waiting on the various governments for roles and patronages, since the constitutions have not assigned any duties to them. Notwithstanding, some had displayed commendable regal carriages and commanded respect of their people and the government.

In Imo state of old, the late Igwe of Orlu, Eze Patrick Ibeakanma Acholonu (Igwe Didikaadi), Eshi of Nkwerre, Eze Justus Obinali Ugochukwu, Ezeudo Mbaise, Eze Desmond Oguguo, Eze Sylvester Onu Egwunwoke Eze Oha of Ihitaoha Uratta, Eze Silver Ibenye Ugalla of Okporo, distinguished themselves in honour and panache. And the government accorded them deserving respect. Their counterparts elsewhere were equally adored, hence when in 1984, the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari suspended and slammed travel ban on the then 13th Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero and Ooni of Ife, Okunade Sijuade (Olubuse 11) for travelling to Israel without government’s clearance, it looked as if the unthinkable had happened.

It took the dethronement of Ibrahim Dasuki, the 18th Sultan of Sokoto, in 1996 by the military government of Sani Abacha, for the current onslaught on the traditional institutions to become widespread. To be sure, before then, there were instances of assault, deposition, banishment of monarchs in other parts of the country. But that particular episode, exposed the vulnerability of the occupants of the positions. Shortly after, in 2005, the Emir of Gwandu, Mustapha Jokolo, was kicked out by the Kebbi state government of Adamu Aliero. The case is still lingering at the Supreme Court.

10 years ago, on June 8, 2014, Lamido Sanusi Lamido, the 14th Emir of Kano, was enthroned by the administration of Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso. In 2020, he was removed by former Governor Abdullahi Ganduje and the emirate split into five. Sanusi was replaced by Aminu Ado Bayero. In May this year, Sanusi was reinstated by Governor Abba Yusuf, and the five emirates created by Ganduje collapsed into one. Sanusi and Bayero are currently laying claims to the throne.

In Sokoto, there are suggestions that without the veiled warning by the Vice President, Kashim Shettima to the governor, Ahmed Aliyu, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar 111, was already programmed for removal by the state government. Governor Aliyu has debunked the insinuation, though. But the fact remains that with each interference on the stool, its powers get whittled.

The story replicates in other sections of the country. In some entities as Imo, Abia and Enugu, the operate the so-called autonomous community arrangements resulting in fragmentation of hitherto homogeneous communities, the institution gets weakened the more. With over 600 communities, each flaunting a traditional ruler in Imo, the institution has lost the clout it commanded in the past.

What more, recruitment of occupants to the thrones has even been watered down with enthronement of fleeting characters, in some instances. The question therefore, is who will save the traditional institutions?

Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, got it right that the institutions must be protected from the arbitrariness of state governments. There is need for constitutional reform to recognise and define the responsibilities of the monarchs and their offices.

Despite the lack of constitutional recognition, traditional institutions perform vital roles in the economic life and security of their domains. While traditional rulership falls under state government purview, these institutions play a crucial role in governance and community stability. They must be respected.

Doing so will commence with the processes leading to their ascension. The traditional stool should not be reduced to job for the boys or patronage to cronies of political office holders. The monarchs are supposed to be the custodians of their people’s mores and cultural heritage. Those aspiring for or occupying the offices must, like the axiomatic Caesar’s wife, be clean and above board.


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