As a child in the primary school, many years ago, it was my wish to have a glimpse of the Ogieneni of Uzairue (our traditional ruler). In those days, it was difficult to see traditional rulers. To see them was like seeing the ancestors. The traditional rulers were treated like deities such that in Etsako, Edo State of Nigeria, there was a saying that "Ogie na gbelamhi ga, oyi'sera" (the king who the hunters venerate with animals does not go into the bush hunting).
It is obvious that this reverence is disappearing into an abysmal void and oblivion. Is there any explanation as to what has happened to our traditional institutions? I would like to know where the young ones now have found the audacity to attack a traditional ruler.
Oma Djebah, Collins Edomaruse, Lanre Issa-Onilu, Agaju Madugba and Oke Epia in an article "Royal Fathers: Their Power, Influence, Relevance..." published in August 31, 2003 and retrieved by BNW News 3 September 2010 affirms that "Nigerian traditional rulers often derive their titles from the rulers of independent states or communities that existed before the formation of modern Nigeria. Although they do not have formal political power, in many cases they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence".
Before the advent of democracy, the traditional institutions were points of reference in the sustenance and maintenance of peace in their communities. Even after independence, cases of quarrels, theft and all sorts of crimes which were traditionally referred to as "abomination" were referred to the community head (chief) and the council of elders. Very serious matters were referred to the king (the royal father). It was abomination to bring into the community the police to arrest an accused person without any reference to the chief. Even when a case is reported to the police, no police enters the community to arrest an accused without first reporting to the traditional ruler.
Unfortunately, traditional rulers today can be arrested by the subjects. This defies the royal reverence that was the norm in our early days which, I would refer to as civilized time.
When we were studying Nigeria history in the secondary school, I still remember that we were thought that the Edo, Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Nupe, Boni, Igala etc where highly monarchical and the words of the traditional rulers simply meant "command". The Igbos' "umunna" was sacred and was capable of maintaining peace and harmony in the community.
Before the late 19th century, Oyo, Kanem-Bornu, Sokoto, Benin etc had no political structures like we have today but each empire had a recognized structure and a head/ruler. For instance, Sokoto caliphate had emirates who may be independent but with due allegiance to the Sultan of Sokoto. From records, the emirates had traditional norms and regulations that kept the people together in peace and harmony.
Perhaps we may still identify these traditional norms before the advent of Christianity and Islam in the various parts of Africa. These norms ought to have made the Christian and Islamic commandments more relevant to our people. I do not believe that a well cultured African would insult his or her elders talk less of making an attempt to kill an Emir or an Oba. What has modern civilization with its Christian and Islamic outfit done to our African royal reverence?
Some have cautioned that some traditional rulers have betrayed the royal crown by selling chieftaincy titles to those who do not deserve the honours from the traditional institutions. Some alleged that some traditional rulers have modernized the royal decorum to such an extent that the difference between them and the subjects is hardly noticed especially when they bow to the rich for their daily bread.
This betrayal of the royal throne could be traced back to the colonial era when the Europeans traded with our ancestral royal fathers who exchanged for cotton, guns and whisky, their subjects' children as slaves in Calabar, Bonny and Lagos. The Niger Coast Protectorate of 1891 and the 1879-1900 the Royal Niger Company and the eventual sale of some part of Africa to the British government in 1900 with the emergence of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate that were merged in 1914 into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria is also a root to our problems.
If what the Europeans brought were good values, the values should blend with ours because "good plus good" would remain good. We need not forget European history that they called themselves barbarians as they fought with each other before they came to Africa. It is sad that we cannot really extricate ourselves from our indoctrination by tracing our traditional roots that have been eroded by colonialism and religion.
The 1999 Constitution even with the amendments in 2010 was silent about the specific roles of the traditional rulers. This discussion of the place of traditional rulers in the mainstream of partisan politics has been attended with positive and negative reactions. Those in support have based their arguments on the fact that the traditional rulers are close to the grassroots in such a way that they can assist government in ensuring peace, security and social progress. Those against argue that the global societies play a different tune from the original concept of traditional leadership. The atomic age operates on the philosophy of "everyone for himself and God for us all".
Before the 2011 elections the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria revealed in an interaction with Benue State traditional rulers, at the palace of the Tor Tiv in Gboko that "a constitutional framework had been established to ensure that traditional rulers across the country were given definite roles to play in the affairs of the country". Some people have suggested the creation of a Council of Traditional Rulers at the federal level and the reintroduction of the House of Chiefs which existed in the First Republic at the state level.
These discussions suggest that the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria needs a contextual approach that will guarantee the safety of the royal fathers and their royal reverence. Long live our Kings!
Father (Prof) Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja, and Consultor for the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM), Vatican City