Traditional Authority: Its Limits and Powers

In Government by Tobi Solebo

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” It’s hard to disagree. When I compare democracy to other forms of government that I understand, this sentiment rings true to me. Worldwide, non-democratic governments are revered as illegitimate and primordial, while Democratic pursuits are funded by the United Nations and the World Bank based on that same belief.  Yet the people governed by other systems, some that  existed for centuries  and others that  still do, believe that other structures work.

I began to look into pre-colonial monarchs and sovereigns, interested in the varied ways Africans governed themselves prior to contact with Europe. I was also curious to understand how these institutions began to shift during the colonial era, and what they look like right now. 

How was it possible to govern in the ways they did, and what struggles did they face? How was it that we had a world full of monarchs, and how did the shift to democracy happen? Before exploring the shift, I was interested to understand how these traditional means of governing worked. 

I am Nigerian. But, similar to many members of the African Diaspora, have never received formal education on my country’s history. So I decided to focus on my Heritage, trying to understand the role of the Oba in Bini and Yoruba Traditions. In Yoruba and Bini West African tradition, Oba means ruler. These Monarchs of Yorubaland oversaw various city-states such as Oyo, Ijebu and Lagos.

The title of Oba was granted by Kingmakers and priests. King Makers were usually prime ministers of the court, elders or those respected. Succession and royal bloodlines were always considered but Kingmakers had the power to choose who they desire and thought would be best for the territory. For example, the Eletu Odibo of Lagos, the principal kingmaker of the Oba of Lagos, would travel to the royal palace, Iga Idunganran, once he was notified of a vacancy. He would then return to his sanctuary to consult the Ifa Oracle, a representative of Yoruba divinity, with a list of all eligible men from Lagos’ ruling houses. After receiving a decision from the Oracle, a meeting would be called to announce the Oba candidate. 

Inherent to this system of selection must have been a belief in the divinity of the Ifa Oracle and a trust in the Eletu Odibo to decipher and share that message. Like in any system there were likely moments where its efficacy was called into question. However, for this process to have existed at all, there would need to exist a strength of faith, not so common in current -ay systems, more similar to modern-day religions than political systems.

The Oba governed with a council of Oloyes, similar to members of parliament, congressman and senators in modern-day government. But also with advisory roles, similar to a cabinet. Oloyes were fellow noblemen appointed based on stature or lineage, made up of traditional chieftains from smaller territories as well as honorary ones. However, the power of one Oba could differ from the power of another Oba depending on each ruler’s approach. For example, more autocratic leaders may have reduced use for their Oloyes and no process forming mandatory engagement.

So while some cities governed as autocracies and others as democracies, all Obas were held accountable by a similar oath, sworn to their people. The oath was simple. If the Oba was seen as unfit whether due to incompetence or dictatorial tendencies, they would be notified by a message, for example, parrot eggs in a calabash bowl. The Oba, due to their understanding of that message, would step down from their post and in most cases, take their own life, as bound by their oath. For example, Oba Idewu Olujari, who reigned as the Oba of Lagos from 1829 – 1834, was forced to step down due to greed and an economic downturn in the slave trade. The chiefs shared their displeasure with the Oba of Benin, who presented him with a skull and sword. The skull represented the suggestion to take poison and the sword represented his only other alternative.

I told my dad I was writing a piece on Obas and he got very excited, as I guess any parent would when their child is exploring their Heritage. Without hesitation, he told me to look into Oba Kosoko’s story .  As the brother of Oba Idewu, the next clear ruler was snuffed passed over due to his marriage to a woman originally betrothed to the Kingmaker. Due to the feud, the Kingmaker invited his formerly banished uncle to take the throne. The feud grew leading to the banishment of Kosoko and his family, a failed armed uprising and the desecration of his mother’s remains. Years later, in a reconciliatory effort, his uncle invited him back to Lagos and offered him a title. But with the feud still apparent, the ELetu Odibo created a conflict between Kosoko and his uncle resulting in a 3-week siege named the Salt Water War. When the dust settled his uncle escaped and Kosoko became Oba. Only to have to fight the British six years later in the Bombardment of Lagos, and be forced to flee.

The role of the Oba changed through colonization. The British a new governance system to exert control over their colonies called “indirect rule”, establishing pro-colonial administrators to oversee Obas leaving the Obas with control of their territories while simultaneously creating legislative bodies. While governing was left to the traditional rulers, the British inserted their value system on the people of Yorubaland and Benin. This led to the abolishment of human sacrifice and the slave trade, but also to the creation of territories ignoring borders that predated them by centuries. This also resulted in Oba’s governing people that they ethnically do not represent in multiethnic cities like Lagos. It’s easy to understand how this laid the groundwork for the classist and triabalist conflicts for generations to come.  The role of the Oba continued to shrink as the British brought Nigeria together to be ruled as a single territory in 1914.

Nigerian Kings still exist, often held as positions of status for the rich and famous. An ex-central Bank Chief, Ambassador While Nigerian Kings have no constitutional power they are seen to some as custodians of tradition and culture, which in itself possesses a form of soft power and influence.

That same power and influence have led to conflicts between the traditional and democratic governance systems. Monarchs are too powerful to be ignored by governors and current democratic institutions even though, constitutionally Governors have been given the ability to remove traditional leaders. This creates complicated but crucial relationships between the traditional and modern day governance structures. Due to their influence, during election time, a Nigerian monarch can be a governor’s best friend, but during their term, that same influence can lead to the end of a monarchy if not used wisely. 

The Emir in the northern Muslim state of Kano, Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi,  considered a reformist by many was critical of government policies leading to adversarial relationships with politicians such as Governor Ganduji of Kano. It was well documented that there had been no love lost between them prior to the election or after. In fact, once elected Governor Ganduji split the Kano emirate into five and appointed four more Emirs, hoping to weaken Sanusi. And earlier this year Emir Sanusi found himself dragged out of his palace by local authorities. Looking widely at leading monarchs with long reins, many seem to prioritize survival over governance and activism.

This has led to a lack of uniformity and functionality in the role of the Oba today. Some use the role to represent their territory to the government, acting as pseudo MPs. Some use that same power to promote a Nigerian Identity they believe cannot be forgotten.  In rural communities, Obas and chieftains are vital players in solving problems created at the domestic level, which falls outside of the scope of federal and state-level governments. Others to show 21st-century kings have swag too.

Leonard Cohen, a Canadian poet and singer-writer once said. “Democracy is the great religion of the West – probably the greatest religion because it affirms other religions; probably the greatest culture because it affirms other cultures. But it’s based on faith, it’s based on the appetite for fraternity, it’s based on love, and therefore it shares the characteristics of a religious movement. It’s also like a religion in that it’s never really been tried.” And I think this must be true when trying to understand how people lived under such radically different governance systems throughout human history. In order for it to work, the people it served needed to believe that it would work, even though it had never been tried before. Similar to Winston Churchill. It begs the question, if a “better” or “improved” form of government came along, whatever that would look like, what would it take for us to create a new belief system. What is more important, democracy working or government working?

Amongst Nigerians, there is not clarity around the roles of Obas, Emirs, Akus, Obis and the many other traditional rulers like them. Some see them as wastes of public funding and a system Nigeria must leave behind and outgrow. Others, as a reminder of an undisturbed Nigeria, and an ode to a culture that must be preserved as it is part of our history.

It is hard to say who is right. With no constitutional power, what does a monarch truly represent in modern-day Nigeria?. Our democratic experience to date has been no perfect science, and with the current expectations of our government rising with a new generation how does a monarch stay relevant.  That decision will be made, whether over the next hundred years or in a fell swoop.