Creeping back to Indirect Rule?

Ropo Sekoni


SINCE the acknowledgement by President Muhammadu Buhari of the assistance from traditional rulers at recent meetings with Emirs, Obas, Obis, Obongs, in their capacity as stakeholders, new ideas are surfacing almost imperceptibly from individuals and groups lobbying for return of doses of Indirect Rule into the country’s nascent elective governance mode. Like many policies that come upon the country without proper study and debate between citizens and those they have elected to govern them, special care needs to be taken before lawmakers are pressured to change the character of Nigeria’s republicanism.

There is enough confusion or contradiction that Nigeria answers to the name of a republic while it also contains thousands of unelected rulers. There is no good reason to turn traditional rulers into constitutionalized local government or statewide chairmen or a new line of modern administrators.

Given the rise in mutual admiration between leaders of republican governance and traditional rulers since the meetings across the country over the federal government’s report to selected stakeholders about #EndSARS protest, there has been a resurgence of new energy about the need find additional space for the country’s traditional rulers. Of course, desire by traditional rulers for more authority has been around since the history of Nigeria, but nothing new has happened to the country’s experiment with elective government to warrant finding a new relevance for traditional rulers.

For example, many traditional rulers wanted departing British colonial administrators to hand Nigeria back to them, to enable such indirect rulers continue governing of the people they had assisted colonial rulers to govern under the Lugard and other colonial governors. Further, one of the highlights of demands at the Political Reform Conference organized by former President Obasanjo was about the desire of traditional rulers for more recognition in the 1999 Constitution. In 2014 at the National Conference convened by former President Goodluck Jonathan, similar demands for constitutional recognition of traditional rulers formed a significant part of the meeting’s deliberations. Since Jonathan’s exit from the presidency, whenever there were mentions by lawmakers to amend the constitution bequeathed to the country by the last military government, traditional rulers had not failed to remind lawmakers about the infinitesimal role given to them in the constitution.

What requires special attention now is the burst of energy in support of demand for new powers for traditional rulers in the republic, especially since the president has found reasons to compliment traditional rulers over the role they played during the recent #EndSARS protest. For example, a group called Peoples Movement for a New Nigeria (PMNN), recently demanded inclusion of new well-specified roles for traditional rulers in the ‘ongoing constitution amendment’ by the National Assembly.

The founder of Peoples Movement for a New Nigeria, Yahaya Ndu, made his demand more specific: “I, therefore, with all sense of history and patriotism, urge the National Assembly of our beloved country Nigeria to lead us back to the right track, to restore the glory, honour, and dignity of our traditional rulers; and to create and ensure specific roles for them in the constitution of Nigeria…They are solidly grounded in the culture and tradition of their communities and people. They are patriotic…Let us restore their glory, honour, and dignity; and by so doing, we shall inevitably engender a new lease of life for our nation Nigeria.”

The call on behalf of PMNN sounds for a demand for return of Indirect Rule to Nigeria. Many readers may recall that Frederick Lugard, the father of Nigeria, introduced a rare mode of colonization in Nigeria. Instead of spending British resources on the civilizing mission that brought him to the pre-Nigeria’s political space, Lugard transferred the baton of power to the feudal lords they met in the various communities in the space re-named Nigeria. It did not matter how distant the pre-colonial feudal cultures were from each other, Lugard and his men transferred governance of emirates and kingdoms to the rulers on seat before arrival of the colonial master.

Each of the different feudal ruling systems, be it emirate or kingdom was given the power to rule on behalf of the colonial government. Even in pre-colonial cultures that were more democratic in Eastern Nigeria and most of the Middle-Belt, the colonial master created Paramount Rulers to replace governance by debate in those communities, thus making the first step to homogenize Nigeria’s political systems. The struggle for self-government and independence and the many constitutional conferences stimulated differences in the intensity of feudalism across the regions. And the rest is now history.

Although the Federal Republic of Nigeria may not have reached the Jerusalem of democratic governance in the last 60 years for obvious reasons, Nigeria does not need to be thrown into a diarchy that combines a measure of elective government and non-elective government through amendment of a constitution that citizens have complained about for being too undemocratic ab initio.

If enthusiasts for democracy, federalism, and modernity pay inadequate attention to the ongoing amendment exercise in the National Assembly, the chances that lawmakers who rate cultural homogeneity ahead of  unity in diversity or diversity in unity, whichever is preferable, the country may be committed to making avoidable errors of political re-engineering. It needs to be remembered that many of our grandparents and parents looked away when military rulers replaced, with the assistance of civilian collaborators, a federal system with a unitary model over many decades.

So far, the major area of cultural diversity in the country’s political culture the realm of traditional rule. No two systems are identical, as the use of power of Emirs is starkly different from that of Obas, while the power of Obis is distinguishable from that of Obongs, etc. Although members of each of these traditional categories of power is likely to long for any amount of additional power bestowed on it, the country’s journey toward modern democracy is likely to drastically get slowed down, should democracy watchers fail to engage lawmakers actively in debates in the National Assembly about awarding new powers to traditional rulers.

Although the Inspector-General of Police had appointed traditional rulers as stakeholders for the federal government’s community policing initiative, it is not clear if there will be no conflict for traditional rulers as stakeholder in respect of customary police such as Hisbah or Amotekun. The federation’s political culture is already too complicated and cumbersome to nominate traditional rulers as indirect rulers on behalf of the federal government. To even give traditional rulers functions that go beyond their specific jurisdictions may be too problematic, since the traditional power of a Yoruba monarch, for example, does not go beyond the community over which he is crowned a traditional ruler.

The world in which Nigerians are to compete henceforth is different from the society traditional rulers managed during colonialism or under the supervision of colonial administrators during colonialism. Integrating traditional rulers  into modern democratic governance is likely to create confusion for generations that need further grooming in democratic governance, as there is nothing democratic about a ruler or part-ruler who is selected by divine forces of various dimensions.

Should there be enthusiasm on the part of sections of the country to give constitutional powers to traditional rulers, it will be important to leave such decision to a referendum at which each community is given the right to choose what kind of traditional ruler it can tolerate in a pro-democratic space. It is more advisable to let a sleeping dog lie in  a new search for what to do to boost the power or recognition of traditional rulers, beyond the cultural communities  traditionally allocated by divine forces.