Obasanjo And The Royals, -By Dr. Muiz Banire SAN

Sometimes ago, I wrote a piece titled ‘Long Live the King’ (See my column in the Daily Sun of 1th May 2023 https://sunnewsonline.com/long-live-the-king/.) In that column, I drew our attention to various plagues besieging the traditional institutions in Nigeria, particularly in the south western part of the country.  

In that publication, I alluded to the disrespect being meted to our traditional institutions stemming from several afflictions. While addressing the issue, little did I realize that the issue would soon surface in a controversial manner as this. 

Few days ago, there was a trending video in the social media to the effect that a Nigerian former president disrespected the Oyo State traditional rulers at an event. The incident was reported to have occurred at the commissioning of some infrastructures in Iseyin, Oyo state.  

At the event, the traditional rulers had sat awaiting the arrival of other dignitaries billed to grace the occasion. As expected, the Chief Host, the Governor of Oyo State, Engr Seyi Makinde, surfaced with his Special Guest, Ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo.

As later on revealed by the former President, at the commencement of his speech, the traditional rulers did not stand up to welcome the Governor upon arrival, an act the former President considered to be an act of insolence. In rebuking the traditional rulers for this act of disrespect, the former president ordered them to rise, which they did robotically while virtually simultaneously  directing them to sit. This again they did in obedience. 

The incident has generated so much controversy in the last few days with majority of the people of Yoruba extraction in the southwest demanding the head of the former president. It is not my intention to join the chorus by automatically condemning the former president nor is it my position that the act of the former president is dignifying. Whichever side of the divide one belongs to, the commentator certainly will find a reason to justify his position.

The Yoruba say that, ‘eni ti o pa iya re gan, ari eni kunra’. ‘A person that murders his mother, will still have a supporter.’ My take however is that rather than the commentators conducting an autopsy into the whole saga, they will rather be quick in condemnation. Nigerians are just used to addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. Would there be no need for us to inquire into the precipitating factors? I believe that is crucial, not only in situating the scenario but addressing the futuristic implication of the event and preventing its reoccurrence. This inquest is the crux of my intervention in this regard. Let me start by recalling historically that the traditional rulers used to be the sovereign in their various domains in the ancient days.

They issued orders and directives as they wished over their subjects and no member of the community dared confront nor disrespect them. However, with the advent of colonization, the absolute power hitherto wielded by the traditional rulers started waning. This was imminent as the colonial masters were not willing to tolerate resistance and challenge to their authority by any other person or institution. In order to therefore tame their influence, their activities and the exercise of any power by the traditional rulers started being subjected to the scrutiny and control of the administrative structures of the colonial regime. 

This trend continued till the independence of the country. Rather than the new indigenous administration to restore the dignity and powers of the traditional institutions as it used to be or even provide an abridged version of same, the administrations would rather prefer to embrace the model of the colonial masters, in which the subjugation of the traditional ruler’s authority continued to be subordinated to that of the political office holders.

Even, when the country became a Republic, the same established pattern continued. Since that time and till date, the authority and role of the traditional rulers continued to be circumscribed. In fact, as at date, the traditional rulers have no definite role in the polity. They seem to exist at the pleasure of the government and nothing more. Gone were those days that the traditional rulers used to be tolerated as peace makers in terms of conflict resolution but in contemporary times, the role is now largely played by the Customary, Area and Sharia Courts. How then do we command respect for a person or institution that technically serves no purpose in the society but is living as a parasite on the system? This, in my view, is the commencement of the woes of the traditional rulers. With the introduction of the Land Use Act in 1978, their troubles multiplied as the lands over which they used to exercise some authority in terms of allocation were radically taken off them and vested in the Governor of each State.

Through the land administration, they enjoyed some loyalty and patronage. With the demise of this control over land, their relevancy further diminished. This is how we have stripped them of the authority they maintained then. With all these gone, their materiality in the society becomes questionable. Even without any specific role to be played in the society, the struggle for the stools is still intense. It will be recalled that historically, the succession process used to be exclusively regulated by the customary laws of the people, premised largely on their customs and culture.

Again, part of the colonization process is the subjection of the appointment process to the State through the instrumentality of the laws. Since that colonial period and till date, the State played prominent role in the appointment of people onto the stools. The process is now statutorily regulated and subjected to the whims and caprices of the State. That probably explained the statement credited to the Oluwo of Iwo, Oba Abdul-Rasheed Akanbi, that the contemporary oracle that selects the king is now the Government. The import of this is that gone were the days that the Ifa oracle used to determine the appropriate person to occupy any traditional stool.  This, undoubtedly, is a contributory factor to the disregard of the traditional rulers.

When the appointment of a person to the stool is devoid of local content, and the appointee is alien to the community he is to preside upon, no loyalty or respect is commanded. In several States today, the disputes over the traditional stools are second in number to land litigation, due to the wrongful imposition of persons to occupy the stools.

As characteristic of the political class, the moment they identified the potency of the power as a political tool, they have been wielding it without restraint. They have simply hijacked the process of appointment of the traditional rulers, manipulating always to suit their political purpose. What has then emerged is the politicization of the appointment and desecration of the institution. You can only now become appointed if you are politically favoured. The pattern now is that people unconnected and with no royalty in their blood are often appointed as traditional rulers of the communities. This certainly impairs the loyalty that ought ordinarily to be commanded by such traditional rulers. Once the communal members do not see the appointee as one of them, obeisance becomes a problem. Charity begins at home is the aphorism that best denotes this.

Once your own immediate constituency does not regard you, how would the outsiders do? Beyond this issue of irregularity and impropriety in the appointment of the traditional rulers, the proliferation of the stools is another issue. It is often said the fewer the greater share of honour. As the state continues to create more and more stools, the sacredness or sanctity of the stool is diluted. As at the time we had limited number of stools, there was value in them. The more we populate the stools, the less the quality accruable to them. It is a demystification process.  

Now the institution of kingship exists virtually every nook and corner of the country with all manner of characters parading themselves as occupants. The worst thing is that these traditional rulers do not have any credible source of income and have to wait for the peanut payable to them from the local government and the donations or gifts from men of good will. Because there is no such livable income for them, they gradually turned into executive beggars. In fact, most of them have become land grabbers in their various communities while a sizeable number is now contractors, abandoning their palaces and queuing at government offices for contracts. How does the society now regard these sorts of people?

It is the scenario above that depicted the observation of Festus Adedayo in his recent column when he rightly opined that “…Many of the traditional rulers on parade in Nigeria today wear such disreputable robes that no one in their true senses should pay them any regard. Nyesom WIke, as Governor of Rivers State, publicly dressed down one of them. Today, Yoruba do not venerate their kings any longer and do not see them as embodying their sovereignty. Rather than regulating peace and order in their domains, they are disruptors of the peace therein. The palace has become a den of thieves and fraudsters with many of them kings only to maximize pecuniary interests.

No esoteric rituals are performed in palaces any longer but cryptic deals of fraudulent initiates, with the sacredness of traditional institutions grossly destroyed. So, if Obasanjo talked down on them, he must have known that they were reverses of the natural rulers who deserved anyone’s respect.” It is when a traditional ruler, as much as possible, restricts himself to his palace that he enjoys the primacy of place and respect in the society. But by the time such traditional ruler becomes ‘Mr. available’, no respect will be accorded him. Nobody comes to the palace and disrespects any traditional ruler. It is only when they turn themselves into object of ridicule that they suffer the disregard.  

Again, I must not forget the issue of tenure of the traditional rulers. Historically, except they commit some heist, and are banished or forced to commit suicide, they enjoyed the occupation of the stool for life. In modern times, if I may loosely describe it as such, they more or less enjoy their tenure at the pleasure of the state, the local government for that matter now.

This is how much we have debased them now.  

The import of all that I have said above is that the society, and by extension, the government would seem to have chosen to relegate the traditional rulers to the position they are in today. This is coupled with the fact that the traditional rulers often fail to dignify themselves. Respect, it is said, begets respect. 

As the Yoruba adage says, ‘Agbalagba to so agbado mo idi, o so ra re di alawada adie ni’ (an elder that ties a corn grains around his waist, has invited fowls to a playful feast). If therefore we want to restore the dignity of our royal fathers, there is urgent need to address all the factors highlighted above, particularly from the angle of the government.

The legislative shackles around royalty need to be freed while the rulers too start dignifying themselves. This is my perspective of the issue, leaving us with the reality that the royal fathers are still beneath the political office holders and must be accordingly accorded the respect.

This must not be misconstrued to mean the way and manner the former president applied the excoriating speech is right. There are better ways of addressing such situation in future.