The core issue, and central theme of our deliberations today I believe, is the allocation of constitutional roles to traditional rulers. A question therefore arises on whether these agitations are purely in the national interest (for country), in the interests of the subjects (the citizens) or just in the ‘selfish’ interest of His Highnesses (for Kingdom). Life teaches us that it is always advisable to give people the benefit of the doubt, in that sense I would want to think that the clamour and agitation by the traditional rulers for constitutional recognition is purely in the national interest (for country).

By Uche Nworah (November 2007)

Introduction

I bring you greetings from fellow Nigerians living in the diaspora, I believe that I speak the mind of every Nigerian living in the diaspora who would wish that the outcome of the deliberations today will contribute positively towards a new Nigerian constitution, a constitution that not only recognises the invaluable role our royal fathers and traditional rulers can play in national development, but most importantly a constitution that truly guarantees equity, freedom, prosperity and justice to all Nigerians.

It is on this note that I will like to inform us all that the millions of Nigerians living in the diaspora have not abandoned ship. We are all equally involved and as passionate and committed to the Nigerian project, and in the collective quest to see our beloved country, Nigeria, a potentially world economic power begin to take her rightful place in the global community of prosperous nations.

This I believe is the essence of this gathering today, to share ideas and views as part of an ongoing debate and dialogue amongst various stakeholders in the Nigerian project, which would ultimately culminate in making submissions to the Senate as they deliberate on aspects of the 1999 Nigerian constitution with a view to reviewing it.

In Whose Interest? For Kingdom or Country?

The core issue, and central theme of our deliberations today I believe, is the allocation of constitutional roles to traditional rulers. A question therefore arises on whether these agitations are purely in the national interest (for country), in the interests of the subjects (the citizens) or just in the ‘selfish’ interest of His Highnesses (for Kingdom).

Life teaches us that it is always advisable to give people the benefit of the doubt, in that sense I would want to think that the clamour and agitation by the traditional rulers for constitutional recognition is purely in the national interest (for country).

Anyone who has had the opportunity of interacting closely with our traditional rulers will readily agree that some of them are sound and first class individuals. Recently, I had the opportunity of sharing a space with the Alafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi. It was at the 2007 edition of the Gathering of Africa’s Best (GAB) award in London. It was my first time of meeting the Alafin, and must say that he held me and the audience spell-bound that night with his masterful speech.

The Alafin was called out to make an impromptu speech and he did not disappoint, without any prompts, papers or prepared notes, he reeled out history, names and dates like what one will normally watch in a movie. His speech which bothered on the place of the African in world history was not only motivating, but also eye opening. I still think that the standing ovation he received afterwards may not be enough to thank him for showing some of us the other side of traditional rulers. An intelligent side, a side that shows that traditional rulers can also be men of great intelligence and sound minds.

Another traditional ruler that comes to mind here is a man that has been hailed as one of the last true monarchs in Africa. I am talking about no other person than my traditional ruler, Igwe Osita Agwuna, Igwe of Umunri and Eze Enugwu-Ukwu. Those who have been privileged to interact with him on a one to one basis, or have witnessed his annual Igu Aro festival liken such encounters as one drinking from a fountain of knowledge.

But I keep asking myself, could the Alafin and Igwe Agwuna, and many more like them, probably idling away in their palaces and kingdoms not be made to be part of the Nigerian renaissance? And should specific roles be assigned to many others like them in the constitution?

There is no doubt that this debate has produced many contentious arguments which possess merits and demerits. The common questions arising from these various views on traditional rulers and the proposed review of the 1999 constitution could be summed up as follows:

  1. What should be the role of traditional rulers in an emergent democratic Nigeria?

  2. Should such roles and the additional ‘powers’ be specifically assigned and allocated by the constitution or should the traditional rulers continue to derive their ‘powers’ and roles from their people – members of their community and all those within their spheres of influence?

  3. Assuming the traditional rulers are assigned specific roles in the constitution, how would that affect the present 3 –tier government structure? Would that mean creating a fourth tier? What about functionality, responsibility and funding?

To contextualise my argument, I would like to quote from two sources. I will quote Abba Mahmood first, who in an opinion piece published in the Leadership newspaper titled: Traditional Rulers and Contemporary Challenges asserts that;

“Traditional rulers used to have a constitutional role. The 1960 and 1963 constitutions created a Council of Chiefs for them in the regions and some of them were even regional governors. The 1979 Constitution gave them representation in the National Council of State. The current 1999 Constitution did not even mention the traditional institution. Is this not enough indicator of their plight and dwindling prestige?”

Perhaps picking up from Mahmood’s cue, Nigeria’s Senate president, Senator David Mark, during a condolence visit at the palace of the Shehu of Borno, Mustapha Umaru El Kanemi on the passing away of the Waziri of Borno Alhaji Ahmed, was quoted in the Guardian newspaper of July 17th 2007 to have remarked thus;

"We will continue to assist our traditional rulers and leaders who are responsible for unity, peace in order to further strengthen their roles. We shall find specific roles for them in the constitution when we finally review the 1999 Constitution".

These two views best capture contemporary thinking on the issue; an acknowledgement that, yes, there is a problem and a situation involving our Royal fathers, and that something needs to be done. The dilemma however remains finding the best way forward in order not to compromise the ancient institutions that the traditional rulers represent, which is that of acting as custodians of native customs, culture, tradition, and as spiritual fathers of members of their immediate communities.

  1. Should we go back to the pre-independence era and enshrine roles for the traditional rulers in the constitution?

  2. Should we create alternative models in line with recent developments in our socio-economic history, which adequately accommodates the traditional rulers in governance, and in the general the scheme of things?

  3. Is it possible for us to have the best of both options?

Factors Responsible for the Waning Influence of Traditional Rulers in Nigeria

There is no doubt that traditional rulers in Nigeria have gradually witnessed the erosion of their powers, from depending upon British colonial administration to dependence upon elected politicians. As their roles narrowed, that of the political parties increased. Perhaps it may be necessary at this point to identify the key issues that have contributed to the waning influence of the traditional rulers:

  1. Self-inflicted (partisanship in politics, defecation of traditional values, lack of integrity by some, money-for-chieftaincy policies, in-fighting and ‘Igweship’/’Ezeship’/’Obaship’/’Emirship’ tussles)

  2. Military dictatorship ( clipping of wings and enthronement of subservient culture)

  3. Social malaise ( moral decay in the society, lack of respect for elders and constituted authority – including traditional institutions)

  4. Dwindling sphere of influence (creation of new states and local governments areas have further balkanized the ‘kingdom’ overseen by the traditional rulers)

  5. The Young, Bold and Restless and their brash manners (The appointment of the likes of late Igwe John Nebolisa as the Igwe of Awkuzu further eroded the public’s confidence in traditional institutions)

  6. Conflict of interest between local government authorities and traditional rulers, and a need to clarify who should do what in local community matters

  7. Globalisation (waning influence and interest in monarchies, and traditional institutions worldwide)

  8. Politics (Party politics have been played in a manner to undermine the influence of traditional rulers over local voters)


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