Traditional rulers should stay out of partisan politics, writes Bukar Usman
Since independence, Nigeria has conducted elections under different scenarios with the hope of improving on past electoral processes and procedures. We have had elections conducted under parliamentary and presidential systems of government and under military rule. We have had it conducted by a government which was unseated by an opposition party which itself has also conducted elections. Our elections have increasingly come under the focus of observers, both local and foreign, with pivotal roles being played by senior academics and members of the National Youth Service Corps.
In spite of appreciable progress, electoral contests remain generally ferocious and acrimonious. Foul means are still being employed by some contestants in their bid to retain or seize power. Such desperation and sharp practices thwart the yearnings of the majority of citizens for routinely-conducted free and fair elections in Nigeria.
During the campaigns leading up to the 2019 general elections, some traditional rulers shoved their conventional neutrality aside and openly endorsed some candidates in utter disregard for the feelings of Nigerians living in their politically plural domains. While not an entirely new phenomenon, open endorsement of candidates by some traditional rulers and traditional institutions during the last general elections was very widespread and unprecedented. Why this development should be deemed unhealthy and totally discouraged is the focus of this article.
Traditional rulers are seen, across the country, as the custodians of our culture and, as such, are expected to be neutral father figures in their respective domains. Some of them are so highly regarded in their areas of influence that they are also accorded spiritual authority as well. Because their authority is rooted in tradition and culture, they readily command the respect of all their subjects. Traditional rulers, ideally, reciprocate this reverence by not taking sides in contestable matters, such as politics or lawsuits. Because of this, many of them are seen as pillars of stability not only in their various communities but in their states and, in some cases, in the whole country.
Traditional rulers should remain politically neutral. They are the ones the citizens, in spite of their political stance or affiliation, should look up to for succour in all manner of circumstances. In spite of the existence of formal courts, many of our rural folks still resort to the intervention of traditional rulers for the settlement of their petty socio-cultural and even criminal matters. This is because traditional mediation is usually cheaper and more accessible. Justice is dispensed swiftly and, in customary terms, fairly. The enviable positions our traditional rulers occupy do not obtain in the countries we borrowed our electoral practices from and it is imperative that, to maintain the stability of our polity, we should strive to preserve and guard jealously the sanctity of our traditional institutions.
Vision 2010 Committee (1997), First Presidential Retreat of National Security (2001), Presidential Panel on National Security (2002), and the Panel on 2011 Electoral Violence (2011), among other ad hoc bodies set up by government to study matters concerning security and welfare of Nigerians, have all given due attention to the role of traditional rulers in governance in Nigeria. Findings reveal that the partisanship of some traditional rulers was one of the major factors that provoked communal violence in the past. It was also one of the reasons why traditional institutions in such communities were unable to contain or nip such violence in the bud.
Although the existence of traditional rulers is statutorily inconsistent with the republican system of governance practised in Nigeria, it has been generally appreciated that the traditional institution has become an integral part of the Nigerian society. Indeed, government, in manifest recognition of the interwoven nature of the functions of traditional rulers, has so far refrained from prescribing a constitutional role for them or stipulating their responsibilities by law. Such a law, it is felt, would circumscribe their powers and offer the citizen the temptation to challenge them when they go outside it. For now, traditional rulers seem to be protected by the old-fashioned but usually uncontested saying, ‘The king can do no wrong.’
This saying may soon be openly challenged unless traditional rulers quickly refrain from acts that portray political bias and partiality. The open manner of endorsement of candidates exhibited in the glare of the media by some traditional rulers, during the 2019 electoral campaigns, has obvious implications. What if the candidate endorsed did not win? How comfortable will members of other political persuasions feel relating with such a traditional ruler who goes out of the way to compromise not only himself but other members of the traditional council who may hold contrary political views?
What is strongly being advocated here is that Nigeria being a country of great diversity, traditional rulers and traditional institutions should be pillars of stability. This should be consciously nurtured to insulate them from political partisanship, especially in the face of increasingly unbridled contest for power among our politicians. Traditional institutions should be like other pillars of stability in the country, such as the judiciary, the security services and religious bodies, which are expected to be politically neutral.
Traditional institutions, as custodians of tradition and culture, should preoccupy themselves with maintenance of peace and security at the state and grassroots levels. They should also seize upon their closeness to their subjects to articulate their interests and put them across as shopping lists to any candidate who, out of respect, may pay homage to them during their political campaigns. They must be seen to demonstrate, by their actions and utterances, political neutrality in that regard. It is only then that they would continue to maintain their dignity, occupy moral high ground, safeguard their offices and independence, command the respect of all, and be in a position to play mediatory roles in the event of disputes.
As it takes two to tango, it is equally advisable to call on politicians to make every effort to refrain from dragging the royal fathers into partisan politics. In the interest of national stability, peace and progress, the public should be very critical of any politician who tries to do so in the future. There must be some social institutions that thrive above sectarian and political divides in any stable polity. The nobility and neutrality of our traditional institution should be preserved to ensure that it continues to function as one of the credible pillars of our communities, states and the nation.
Usman, former Permanent Secretary in the Presidency, wrote from Abuja