Towards a Greater Role for Traditional Rulers

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The hosting of a dinner for the country’s traditional rulers by President Muhammadu Buhari during the Ramadan was symbolic of their unforgettable role in present-day Nigeria. The president should move for a more formal recognition of this role in line with the mood of the country. Vincent Obia writes

President Muhammadu Buhari hosted a dinner for traditional rulers from across the country penultimate Wednesday in Abuja. The banquet, where the president broke his fast with the traditional rulers in the last days of the Ramadan, was a symbolic gesture of recognition for their role in the quest for a better Nigeria. But Buhari needs to further this recognition by pushing for a more active statutory role for the custodians of the time-honoured communal values, which the citizens need to be exposed to in high doses today.

Nigeria is in dire need of reorientation and return to the social mores of yore that generally guaranteed stability and communal harmony. Under the current social and political circumstances, a more active reengagement of the traditional institutions, the custodians of traditional values, is essential in the effort to reorient people away from the decadent social climate threatening the very fabric of society. The country needs to return to the lofty ideals that accorded respect to hard work, honesty, and achievement, and ensured political and economic progress.

Naturally, though, Nigerians have always appreciated the role of their traditional rulers and institutions. All over the country, whenever there is a problem, the natural rulers’ palaces are usually the first port of call for those wishing to know what went wrong. Government and private citizens alike recognise the place of the traditional institutions in the attempt to solve societal problems.

The recent security problems in the country have seemed to further galvanise Nigerians into a greater appreciation of the role of traditional rulers. The emphasis on community policing, which seems to increase in tempo with every new Inspector General of Police, all point to a rising appreciation of the place of traditional institutions in the search for peace and order.

But Nigeria needs to pep up the latent role of the traditional rulers by adding more vigorous statutory enablement to their powers. The problem of disappearing values cannot be solved by merely verbalising the problem and the role of traditional institutions. Government must move to more actively engage these natural rulers of the people. There should be more effective and regular channels of communication between government at the various levels and the traditional institutions.

Traditional rulers in the country used to have a robust constitutional role. Under the 1960 and 1963 constitutions, the Council of Chiefs was established for them in the regions and some of the traditional rulers even rose to become regional governors. In the 1979 Constitution, traditional rulers were represented in the National Council of State. But the role of traditional rulers was virtually expunged in the 1999 Constitution, an indication of the declining status of the traditional institutions in the scheme of things.

The declining prestige of traditional rulers has manifested in the continuous rejection of a constitutional role for them by the politicians, who tend to see the natural rulers as rivals. Such was the case during the inconclusive constitution amendment process by the seventh National Assembly. Despite overwhelming agreement on the crucial role of traditional rulers in the maintenance of peace and unity in society, there seems to be an equally overwhelming sense of fear about the implication of strengthening their role statutorily, particularly, among the politicians. Many politicians appear to be comfortable with traditional rulers being no more than mere appendages deriving their powers just from their subjects, rather than from the constitution of the country or the laws of the respective states.

But the prevailing social and political conditions in the country dictate that the hands of the traditional rulers should be strengthened to do more of what they know how to do best: preserving the mores that guarantee orderliness and progress. They need a more proactive statutory backing to acquit themselves effectively in such role.

Without attempting to further diminish Nigeria’s already eroded federal system, there should be provisions in the constitution that would enable traditional rulers exert greater leverage over their communities and domains. The states of the federation should make laws that empower traditional rulers and institutions to play a more active role in the maintenance of law and order.

There have been a few attempts to make traditional rulers relevant at the state and federal levels. The states have their council of traditional rulers, in addition to the existence of the ministries of local government and chieftaincy affairs. Traditional rulers have also been given ceremonial functions as heads of governmental and non-governmental institutions, such as Chancellors of universities and other institutions of learning.
There is also the seemingly unwritten practice in many states of devoting five per cent of local government allocations to the upkeep of the traditional institutions.

But there is need to move beyond these ritualistic acts of recognition. The traditional rulers should be made more active in the protection of not only the values of their people, but also the lives and property of persons within their domains.