Our fading traditional institution, by Kazeem Akintunde

Kazeem Akintunde
Kazeem Akintunde
Oba AbdulRasheed Adewale Akanbi,

In the part of Nigeria where I came from, an Oba is highly revered. In fact, he is addressed as Iku Baba yeye, Alase Ikeji Orisa (the one who has control over death and the second in command to the gods).

The King (Oba), is regarded as the representatives of the gods and fore-fathers here on Earth. In the days of yore, there were some traditional rulers that you could not directly look into their eyes. Before you can have a one-on-one meeting with such traditional rulers, there are several layers of screening you must undergo before you can stand in their presence. They do not eat in public, as they don’t attend frivolous occasions or owambe parties. You also cannot see their heads as it is always adorned with caps or their crown. They are, therefore, accorded great respect by their people, including those in Government as elected leaders.

In Northern Nigeria, there are several Emirs that are likewise revered by their people. They are the custodian of their people’s culture and traditions which no one can mess with.

It is the same in the South East and South south, where Ezes, Igwes and Obis are celebrated by their people. Read the history of King Jaja of Opobo (1821-1891). During the colonial era, there were several traditional rulers that resisted British rule and had to be subjugated by sheer force by the colonial masters. King Jaja of Opobo was one of those leaders. Another was Oba Ovoranmwen who had to be dethroned and deported to Calabar, where he lived and died in January 1914 after 16 years of British captivity.

Esugbayi Eleko, who was chosen by the Kingmakers of Lagos in 1901 was also involved in a running battle with William MacGregor, the then colonial Governor of the territory of Lagos and his successor, William Egerton, who later became Governor of the Southern Protectorate. Esugbayi Eleko was a thorn in the flesh of the British imperialist as the King displayed open opposition to a water levy imposed by the government on the people of Lagos. There were other clashes of authority with the government after the amalgamation of Nigeria. For his repeated show of disrespect to the Governor, Esugbayi was deposed and banished from Lagos in 1925. But Lagosians rose in defense of their King and mounted a legal battle which ended at the Privy Council in London. The Court, in its ruling, admonished the government to seek a political solution to the crisis. In the end, Esugbayi Eleko was restored to his throne at Iga Idunganran in 1931.

Between then and now, the traditional institution in Nigeria has lost its glory. A first-class traditional ruler can be deposed by a Governor without much of a whimper from their people.
In the last couple of years, the traditional institution has seen its influence and powers watered down from the height they occupied in the pre-independence era and early post-independence era.

The incursion of the military dealt the first blow to the influence of the traditional rulers in Nigeria. On January 15, 1966, when General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi took over power, there were five constitutions in the country. All five constitutions recognised the traditional institution in Nigeria and gave them certain powers and responsibilities. The 1963 constitution, the constitution of Northern Nigeria 1963, the constitution of Eastern Nigeria 1963, the constitution of Western Nigeria 1963, and the constitution of Mid Western Nigeria 1964, all had various roles assigned to traditional rulers.

General Ironsi, on assumption of power, suspended the five constitutions under Decree Number 1. He replaced them with a national government. At that time, the Emir of Gwandu, Alhaji Muhammadu Mera, was the President of the Northern House of Chiefs. The Osemawe of Ondo, Oba Rufus Adesokeji Aderele Tewogboye II, who reigned between 1942 and 1974, was the President of Western House of Chiefs. Chief Essien Uyo was the President of the Eastern House of Chiefs, while Oba Akenzua was the President of the Mid-Western House of Chiefs. But Ironsi and his unitary system of government relegated the role and functions of the traditional rulers to the background.

Then came the 1974 Local Government Reforms which further stripped traditional rulers of their constitutional roles, further eroding their power and influence. Again, the framers of the 1999 constitution did not include the institution in the document as they were mostly under the control of Local Government Councils.

However, the greatest obstacle to the traditional institution are the traditional rulers themselves, who have done all that should not be attributed to them. Starting with the selection process, many of those who should not be found near the institution are those calling the shots after buying their way to the throne.

An example that readily comes to mind is that of the Oluwo of Iwo, Oba AbdulRasheed Adewale Akanbi, who, in all honesty, should not have been let near a traditional stool as that of Iwo. Just recently, Akanbi was described by two British tabloids, The Sun and The Mail on Sunday as “a thief”, “a misfit”, “419 king” and “a Yahoo Kingpin” and “a jailbird”. The two tabloids described the Oluwo as “a convicted fraudster who was twice kicked out of the United States of America”. Oba Akanbi, The Sun stated, was allegedly first arrested in Boston in 1998 after he tried to cash a stolen cheque for 247,000 pounds from an aviation company, Boeing. Akanbi posed as a successful businessman called Joseph Pigott but Police were alerted by a suspicious bank teller at BankBoston. He was charged for forging a cheque for 59,000 pounds using the name Thomas Eyring. His 1,500 pounds fine was waived because of his inability to pay.

Despite being banned from re-entering the US, he was again caught attempting to cross the border in March 2011, alongside his wife, Rakiya Saidu and young son, and claimed that they were going to New York to shop. Facing the prospect of a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a £197,000 fine, Akanbi pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to time served, deported and banned from the US for life a second time. He came back to Nigeria and he was the one ‘chosen’ by the gods for the throne of Iwo. Yet, Oba Akanbi, a man whose dressing, utterances and general comportment have raised concerns within and outside his Kingdom as to whether Ifa was consulted before making him its choice, has been, anything but royal. I have my doubts.

He has also come to say that the days of Ifa’s intervention in the choice of Obas were long gone and even challenged those who felt otherwise to name an Oba who is a product of Ifa divination. According to him, Governors have taken the place of Ifa in the appointment of Obas in Yorubaland because their word in the matter is law, and not even Ifa can object the moment a Governor approves a candidate as Oba. Hear him: “You may be a Prince and have the money, if you have the approval of Ifa and refuse to appease the Governors, you have lost”.

His stand speaks to the show of shame that is presently going on in Kano State where the state has been embroiled in crisis with the emergence of two traditional rulers both claiming to be the rightful owner of the throne. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who was selected as the 14th Emir of Kano was deposed by the former Governor of the state, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, for acts bordering on insubordination.

He split the emirate into five and appointed five emirs for Bichi, Karaye, Gaya and Rano, in addition to the now substantially reduced Kano Emirate. That was done in 2019, when Ganduje was in power and in charge as Governor in Kano State. But his tenure of office came to an end in 2023 after he served for the mandatory eight years and had to relinquish power to another person.

That other person was Abba Yusuf, who came into power through another political party, the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). Yusuf felt that what Ganduje did in 2019 was wrong. He got the Kano State House of Assembly to revoke the law splitting the Kano Emirate into five and returned Sanusi to the throne after dethroning the five appointed Emirs for the five emirates in Kano.

Since then, Kano has known no peace and there are now several cases in court to determine who should be the rightful owner of the throne in Kano. I do not intend to dabble into the Kano emirship quagmire, as there are several cases in court and the judiciary should be allowed to do its job without any influence from any quarters.

What is however glaring is that the much-respected traditional institution has lost its glamour and respect. Governors and even Local Government Chairmen can issue a query to any erring Oba, Emir, or Obi, and it must be respected. Few months ago, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, openly embarrassed a group of traditional rulers in the South west, commanding them to stand up and to sit down for not honouring him and the Governor of Oyo State, Seyi Makinde.

In the South south recently, a King in the southern state of Rivers was publicly ridiculed for shaking his head while the then Governor, Nyesom Wike, was speaking. The Governor ripped into the mortified King in a gathering of traditional rulers, provoking laughter from those in the room. “You just (go) and wear something that is bigger than you (sic) to breach protocol”, the then Governor mocked the monarch’s traditional robe and elaborate crown while his colleagues laughed. How sad!

Many would argue that the traditional title holders are the architects of their own misfortune. Instead of projecting and safeguarding the culture and traditions of their people, the same traditional rulers have all abandoned their cultural practices, describing them as ‘fetish’ and ‘idol worship’. The mandatory Ipebi, where they are fortified with real African power have all been abandoned as Pastors and Islamic clerics are now vying to become Kings in Yoruba land. It is therefore not surprising when some of them are killed like chickens on the streets by bandits and kidnappers.

Chief Niyi Akintọla, SAN, shares my sentiment as he squarely put the blame at the feet of traditional rulers who fraternise with politicians and encourage Governors to mess with them for the sake of money. “Obas have turned themselves into puns in the hands of Governors. If they respect themselves, nobody will dare mess them up”, he stated, while arguing that a situation where dollars are flying here and there because somebody wants to be a King, he will get the type of insults that are being heaped on traditional stools. “We should allow tradition to take its course.

Every town has its own tradition that is peculiar to it; we should allow it to work. But when we are tampering with the traditions, that is when we run into trouble”. Some younger folks are now calling for the scrapping of the institution, as, in their view, it has lost relevance in modern day governance. That is however, a debate for another day. For now, the traditional institution has lost its glamour as Governors enthrone and dethrone whoever they wish. It is now an institution that is gradually fading and if care is not taken, it will become history in no distant future.

See you next week.

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