By a resolution of the Council of Obas and Chiefs of Oyo State meeting at Ibadan on Thursday, 9th August, 1984, I, Oba Olayiwola Adeyemi III, the Alaafin of Oyo, was mandated to present before this august assembly, a paper on the Role of Traditional Rulers in the Governance of Nigeria.
Accordingly, I feel highly honoured and delighted to accomplish the wishes of the members of the Council in presenting the paper before you all today.
You will pardon me for my inability to treat everything in details by time constraint. The purpose of this exercise, of course, is not to exhaust everything about traditional rulers in Nigeria, but most importantly create the awareness for scholars of history to conduct more researches in that direction.
Perhaps, it may be germane even from the out set to pose the above question. The Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa II, C. F. R., in a memorandum titled,
The Traditional Ruler in the Scheme of things, which he presented at a Conference of Traditional Rulers in 1982, attempted to examine the definition of a traditional ruler. He noted, embarrassingly, that even the suspended Nigerian Constitution degraded the traditional ruler by merely referring to him as a “Chief”.
The Oba observed further that the (defunct) Bendel State Traditional Rulers and Chiefs Law, 1979, defines a “Chief” as”a person whose chieftaincy title is associated with a community in the state and that includes a traditional chief and honorary Chief.
The same law was quoted as defining a “traditional ruler as the traditional head of an ethnic unit and or clan and whose title is recognised as a traditional ruler by the Government of the State”.
Since Nigeria, for the time being, comprises nineteen autonomous states (now thirty-six), there is a problem of having to do with perhaps nineteen different definitions as may be provided by their respective Traditional Rulers and Chiefs Laws. This cannot be ascertained due to time constraint stated earlier.
However, Oba Erediauwa, the Oba of Benin came out with his own definition thus: “Traditional Ruler means the traditional head of an ethnic community whose Stool conferred the highest traditional authority on the incumbent since the time before the beginning of British rule.”
The Oba supported his contention with the definition of “antiquity” as contained in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act, 1979, which states that, “an antiquity is any work of art or craft work, if such work of art or craft work is of indigenous origin and was fashioned before the year 1918 or has been at any time in the performance and for the purposes of any traditional ceremony.”
One will then ask: What is tradition? A standard dictionary defines the word ‘tradition’ as the handing down of stories, beliefs, custom from one generation to another, adding that such stories, beliefs, custom that are so handed down are regarded as traditional. Therefore, the Oba of Benin has actually made the point.
It is only very essential to base our discussion on a well defined institution, or more importantly, to get interested scholars really concerned with the efforts to establish proper definition of traditional rulers in Nigeria with a view to streamlining the affairs of this important heritage.
Traditional title holders can be categorised into
Those holding purely honorific titles - namely titles bestowed on them by superior traditional rulers in recognition and appreciation of service the recipients had rendered to the community.
The title holders in this category have no executive functions whatsoever, but are important and good for channel of communication with and mobilization of people whenever necessary.
The second category are holders of titles or positions created and recognized by law with specific functions.
The third category are those full time executive traditional title holders who were exercising the executive roles before Nigeria was born: these were referred to as Traditional Rulers.
Considering the context of this topic, one should have consigned oneself with the role of traditional rulers as from the time Nigeria came into existence following the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria and the Colony of Lagos on the 1st January, 1914.
However, for purposes of clear analysis of the role of traditional rulers in the governance of Nigeria up till the present day, one needs to go beyond the Colonial period since the latter period the Colonial administrators adopted the system of government based on traditional rulership.
It has been stated that the desire of man to live in the company of others necessitates the creation or provides the need for the existence of a state.
Alhaji Sheu Mallami, Sarkin Sudan of Wurno, delivering a lecture at the Army and Staff College, Jaji, on the 2nd August, 1978, made reference to various authors on this aspect. He quoted Plato (428BC -348BC) in his work, Republic, as follows: “A state, I said, arises, as I conceived, one of the needs of mankind. No one is self sufficient, but all of us have many wants.” This is the principle that belied the formation of human communities, ranging from small independent Kingdoms to great Empires which fuse into a great nation of Nigeria of today.
Alhaji Sheu Mallami referred to the Sultan of Sokoto, Mohammed Bello, in his book, Al Gaith al wable, published in AD 1816 was quoted that the real motive of the state is the rule of justice and truth; and secondly, it is the machinery of the state which sifts the good from the bad, virtue from vice, the sanctioned from the prohibited.”
He went further to quote Ibn Khaldoun (AD 1332-1408), that the basic concept recognised by political scientists is that the sovereignty in the state or of the state is the connecting force which binds the forces existing in the state.
This sovereignty may lie in one person or a number of persons and may be visible or invisible but it must exist somewhere, otherwise the state would disintegrate.
Thomas Hobbes, (1588 - 1679AD) in his book, Leviathan, was quoted thus: “Man has no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to over awe them all.
“It is manifested that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of everyman against every man.”
Quoting Ghazzali’s contribution in his book, Fatihalul mlum, Mallami stated that it is impossible to have a permanent organisation of worldly affairs without a ruler, adding that without ruler to whom the people should habitually be obedient, there would be, “continuous turmoil, a never ending clanging of the swords, a recurring state of femine, diseases, and an end to all industries and handcrafts.”
Quite frankly, Alhaji Sheu Mallami’s lecture has raised fundamental issues regarding the need for man to live together; the existence and sustenance of the state; and justification for existence of a ruler.
Having spent inevitably this much time on a preamble which is very fundamental for clear presentation, I will now proceed to treat the relevant topic of the lecture titled, Role of Traditional Ruler in the Governance of Nigeria.
We really cannot understand the present without knowing a little of the past. Therefore we need to look into a bit of history. The reason for this is that well organised communities which either by cohesion or persuation developed into autonomous states must have passed through the historical process already explained above.
They operated their own system of Government, had their separate social structures and evolved particular traditions and customs.
Significant among them were the Oyo Empire, Benin Empire, Bornu Empire and what could be rightly called Fulani Empire. Also existing simultaneously were small kingdoms operating alone or as a Federation.
The British came, took over, and grouped the various Empires and Kingdoms into Northern and Southern protectorates and Colony of Lagos.
In January, 1914, the two protectorates known as group of Provinces and the Colony of Lagos were amalgamated into one country known today as Nigeria.
When the British assumed the control of Administration, they simply adopted the existing system of government and this they styled as “Indirect Rule.”
This step became necessary because they met an excellent system of Administration. Further more, they had no knowledge of the country; had no personnel and resources to establish an alternative system. Therefore, they decided to use the available local resources in manpower to govern.
The system of Indirect Rule was just like the utilization of the traditional rulers – their age-long and well-tested apparatus of Administration to govern the country – in a system which had been tried in India.
The system remained in operation until we took over progressively the control of the administration in the country from early 1950s and finally in 1960, when we achieved our Independence.
We can now see the need to examine the subject matter a bit beyond its scope.
I will treat the subject briefly on regional basis taking first, with your indulgence, the Yoruba States.
This paper is not concerned with the establishment of the Empire, its growth, dwindling, and reconstruction. Suffice to state that Oyo Empire was founded by Oranmiyam, the direct descendant of Oduduwa.
He assumed the title of Alaafin. The first capital of the Empire was sited at Old Oyo. The Empire was threatened by internal strifes and external aggression. Subsequently, the capital moved to the present Oyo, the seat of my reign today by Alaafin Atiba, the first ruler in the new capital.
The roles of governing were performed by the traditional title holders in the capital and yet others in the provincial towns and villages within the Empire.
The structural opposition, central to Oyo politics, lay in a division of roles. On the one side, the Alaafin was head of the administrative and the executive arms of government, entrusted with the implementation of external policy by diplomacy or war, the management of markets, trade, the investigation and punishment of crimes, and the celebration of the principal annual rites in the State Cults of the Yoruba gods and ancestors.
On the other side, the Oyomesi, on the order of the Alaafin, raised the citizens army of Oyo, and the Bashorun commanded it. The Cults were in the hands of free Oyo, and their titled priests ranked among subordinate officials of the Oyomesi who were themselves civil lords of the non-royal wards and who severally had some judicial control in them, adjudicating disputes between the component lineages and generally in matter where arbitration rather than punishment was the aim. The Oyomesi could dissuade the Alaafin from embarking upon rash adventures.
These title holders and palace officials are divided into two major groups, each group consisting of various classes and order of importance.
They are the Royal Title holders and the Nobility. The most important in the Royal group are the “Fathers of the King” - Onashokun, Ona-Aka, and Omo-Nla. These are heads of the three Principal Branches of the royal lineages barred from putting forward successors to the throne. They are heads of town wards and have the responsibility to nominate the candidates to fill vacancy of Alaafin when it becomes necessary.
Next to them, in that group are those referred to as the “brothers of the King”; namely: the Baba Iyaji, Olusami, Arole Oba, Atingisi, Agunpopo and Arole Iya-Oba.
Others are the palace officials consisting of (a) titled officers, (b) the Eunuchs and (c) the Ilaris. Significant among this group are the Eunuchs also called Iwefa. The three leading members - Ona-Efa (eunuch of the middle), Otunefa (eunuch of the right), Osiefa (eunuch of the left), head the judicial, religion and executive divisions of the royal government respectively.
The Oyomesi are the most important among the nobility. They are Bashorun, Agbaakin, Shamu, Alapinni, Lagunna, Akinniku, Ashipa and the Onamodeke. They are followed by the Eso (Military Officers) whose superior was the Aare-Ona-Kakanfo, the generallisimo of Yoruba Armed Forces. He resided outside the capital. There were seventy (70) captains - ten each under a member of the Oyomesi - superintending a unit of guards. However, none was attached to the Onamodeke.
Other notable class in the Nobility are the Ogbonis -Cult of the earth - whose members are drawn from the titled priests of other lineages. All members of Oyomesi are ex-officio members of the Cult though they cannot be Ogboni priests. The head of Ogboni Cult and Chief diviner had access to the Alaafin through a woman official and the Osiefa. In particular, their unanimous sanction was necessary in the case of Oyomesi rejecting the rule of the Alaafin who would be consequently be expected to go to sleep. This was the process of checks and balances which made the rule of Alaafin a pure democracy, at the time before the British occupation between 1894-1898.
Like in the capital, the Provincial administration followed the same in pattern with the Provincial Kings or Baale at the head of affairs and held themselves responsible to the Alaafin of Oyo and carrying out his orders. They had advisers as well.