Obafemi Awolowo and Olusegun Obasanjo versus Yoruba Obas: The Conflict Between Culture and Protocol

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

In official and diplomatic outings, emphasis is generally placed on observance of protocol and etiquette, and hardly on traditional culture. Protocol and etiquette are normally observed, by following established order of precedence. In Nigeria, many masters of ceremonies in non-official outings say they ‘observe all protocols.’ It is wrong to claim any observation of all protocols because protocol is a convention. It is an agreement duly negotiated and done by the signatories. There are thousands of protocols in international relations. Consequently, it is ridiculous to claim an observation of all protocols.

Secondly, when protocol, as established in any given stratum of society, is observed, it is generally about the protocol of the host state or community as officially established. In other words, when discussing protocol in the context of order of precedence, it varies from one country to the other. Whenever an order of precedence is not duly followed, diplomatic rows can be easily kick-started. In fact, the training of fresh diplomats often underscores protocol at the beginning. Protocol is very critical as an instrument of diplomacy and must, therefore, be taken very seriously by teachers, lecturers, and professors of diplomatic studies.

The 1957 disagreement between Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the traditional rulers and chiefs in the old Western Region and the 2023 misunderstanding between Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and traditional rulers in Iseyin are similarly protocol related. They not only generate much animosity, they also raised the conflict between local cultural traditions and international best practices. And more concernedly, in Nigeria, protocol is embarrassingly respected in public outings. Imagine how an event hall is paid for, and for only two hours, and observance of protocol takes thirty minutes out of the two hours. Talking and talking to the extent that the cardinal purpose of the event is lost. Protocol and etiquette is what is required in conducting and managing a good and well-organised event. 

Most unfortunately, however, protocol and etiquette which is Western-oriented in definitional terms, is more often than not disregarded in diplomacy by the big powers. The disregard is not even in terms of who takes precedence, or who is senior, who should first be given the due honour, but in terms of utter disrespect to the local culture. This is the source of the conflict between culture and protocol in Nigeria.

The Awolowo and Obasanjo Experiences

It is useful to begin with the conflict between local culture and international protocol from the international perspective in order to show a clearer understanding of the attitudinal dispositions of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo at the national level. The two of them are both traditional chieftaincy title holders, meaning that they do not need any special lessons on cultural diplomacy. The visit of US President, Joe Biden, to Saudi Arabia is a good illustration at the international level of the flagrant disrespect for the Saudi tradition. 

Before going to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, President Biden first officially visited Israel where he, on arrival, broke the official protocol of ‘no-hand shake policy put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Probably because of the warm entente between the two countries, the protocolar breach was not taken seriously. In Saudi Arabia, the story is quite different. The report of Armstrong Williams, entitled, “Biden’s Middle East Trip Met with Controversy, Disrespect,” (nbcmontana.com, July 18th, 2022), tells the story beautifully. 

As Armstrong put it ‘upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, Biden and the White House congregation seemed to repeatedly breached protocol. It is generally deemed extremely inappropriate to schedule a meeting such as this on Friday, the day being a sacred day in the Muslim tradition. This created a crisis with Saudi Arabia, as white gowns are traditionally worn on Fridays, while the diplomatic protocol calls for wearing of black, formal robes for meetings with Heads of State. Since they felt their religious tradition to be more important, they wore white which is the utmost disrespect to the President and team.’

In this case, why was the Saudi-US meeting fixed for Friday? Can such a meeting be fixed without the collaboration of the Saudi government? If no, why was there disregard for the religious culture of the people? Apparently, the US President might have insisted on a Friday either because of very tight schedule especially that President Biden had two other countries to visit after Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

The United States might have also wanted to score some politico-diplomatic points: American hostility to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist by agents of the Saudi government on October 2, 2018 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey; Saudi’s rapprochement with the Russo-Chinese interests, especially within the context of the BRICS; disagreement over Saudi’s oil production cut, etc. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was very brutal as he was ambushed, strangled by a 15-member squad of Saudi operatives, with his body completely dismembered and disposed of.

But most interestingly but also disturbingly, the Turkish government had secretly bugged the Khashoggi’s final moments in the Saudi Consulate, thus revealing the extent of involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince. How should the United States relate with the Saudi government and monarch? Condoning manifest brutality in order to protect US national interest? Even though the Biden administration gave a legal opinion on 18 November, 2022, about four years after the assassination, that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had immunity on his alleged role in the assassination, US policy attitude towards Saudi Arabia has been suspiciously cautious. This might have informed US disregard for Saudi’s cultural protocol. This might also explain why the Saudi Crown Prince might have accepted in an attempt to play down the killing of journalist Khashoggi.

When we also consider Saudi Arabia-BRICS’s Rapprochement, as well as Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut its oil production as requested by the United States, there is no way the United States would not be expected to take the bad end of the stick in its attitude towards Saudi Arabia. The victim of all these disagreements cannot but be the cultural protocol.

In fact, relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia deteriorated to the extent that the Washington government contemplated taking sanctions against Saudi Arabia.

Steve Holland, in his “Biden Vows Consequences for Saudi Arabia after OPEC-decision” (reuters.com), on October 22, 2022, reported that US officials had been quietly trying to persuade its biggest Arab partner to abandon the idea of a production cut, but Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was not swayed.’

And perhaps more interestingly, Armstrong William noted further that ‘to make matters worse, the Saudi sent a delegation led by a regional governor, as opposed to the King or Crown Prince. Indeed the White House seemed oblivious to this. In all, foreign policy commentators are calling the trip a huge failure.’ Failure or success, what is of essence here is that the people of Saudi Arabia completely disregarded the diplomatic protocol that required the wearing of formal black dresses and opted to place priority on their religious culture. Their wearing of white gowns contrary to wearing black dresses was considered the highest level of disrespect for the Americans. In this regard, in which way is the 1957 experience of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the recent Chief Olusegun Awolowo different? 

In 1957, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was Premier of the then Western Region. The traditional ruler, who confronted Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was Oba Ademuwagun Adesida II. He was not only installed as the Deji of Akure on 28th October, 1957 but also laterbecame a member of the Western House of Chiefs, There were five (5) Obas from Ondo Province who attended a meeting convened at the instance of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. They were Olowo of Owo, Osemawe of Ondo, Ewi of Ado, Elekole of Ikole and Deji of Akure, who attended such a meeting for the first time.

What happened on the day of the meeting again raised the issue of conflict between cultural and state protocols. As “@ Richard Afolayan of the University of Lagos has it, ‘at the meeting, all the Obas were already seated before Awolowo walked in majestically in his usual way. Immediately he arrived, all the Obas stood up except Oba Ademuagun, Ekun Oko Eyesorun.’ More interestingly, @Richard Afolayan says ‘the other Obas were surprised, seeing this new and young Oba from Akure seated when Awolowo came in. Awolowo himself was surprised and asked who he was and he replied, “I am the Deji of Akure land, Ademuagun Adesida II.”

Expectedly, Chief Awolowo queried him and Oba Adesida II also queried Premier Awolowo by asking him questions: was it polite seeing the likes of Kabiesi Adesoji Aderemi or Alaafin Ladigbolu who are older than us, standing up for you while you walk in, in London? Oba Adesida II queried further that ‘in London where we both studied law, have you ever heard that someone walked in and the Queen stood up? In fact, Queen will enter a venue last. Even if Nigerian system of government is different from theirs, respects must be given to whom it is due. We here, inherited our father’s stool and it is only death that can remove us, but you, your time on this seat will soon lapse. You got there by thumb and through thumb you shall be removed. Me, Ademuagun will never stand up for you.’ 

The aftermath of the altercation was noteworthy: Oba Ademuagun ‘had to remove his cap (Crown), handed it to Awolowo and dared him to put it on if he could so as to prove he deserves the respect he demanded from him. The other Obas took it from Awolowo and before they could turn back Oba Ademuagun had then left the venue… The feud between both of them was later settled here in Akure by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe after many years… Olori Asake Adebola Adesida, the then Eyesorun, witnessed this and Regent Adesida Adebusola Alice confirmed it.’ The declaration by Oba Ademuagun, as recalled by @Richard Afolayan, is therefore more than thought-provoking.

First, there is evidence of validity of the story. Second, there is truly a conflict between traditional protocol and state protocolar practice. Third, how do we reconcile the conflict between the two? Fourth, why have lessons not been learnt from the 1957 experience? Fifth, most importantly, how do we explain the 2023 renewal of the problem?

Traditional versus State Protocols

On Friday, 15th September 2023 Chief Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo attended a public event in Iseyin, Oyo State. The Governor of Oyo State, Seyi Makinde, played host to the event. On climbing the podium at the commissioning of the LAUTECH’s College of Agriculture, Science and Renewable Natural Resources in Iseyin, many Obas were seated and did not stand up to honour the former President of Nigeria and incumbent Governor of the State. Apparently angered by the perceived disrespect for him or them, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, in a manu militari fashion, ordered all the sitting Obas to ‘stand up,’ which they did immediately. He re-ordered them to ‘sit down.’ They again complied.

This ‘stand up and sit down’ command has, in the mania of the Awolowo-Ademuagun Adesida II, not only raised the conflict between culture and state protocol, but has also  raised the issue of condemnation by the Yoruba people in particular. The Oluwo of Iwo, Oba Abdulrasheed Akanbi, in a statement in Oshogbo said ‘respect should be earned, not demanded. Traditional rulers respect their subject too. There is a way respect is accorded to people of old age and position by monarchs. Kingship is an institution of God. As such, relating with kings requires a high sense of modesty, courtesy and respect.’

More important, the Oluwo of Iwo said that the scenario in Iseyin can never happen in his domain and therefore blamed the monarchs for accepting to stand up. In his words, ‘the display by the former president of Nigeria, General Obasanjo, was an affront, an intentional desecration and sacrilege against revered stools of Yorubaland… The show by the former General is condemnable. Yoruba traditional institution demand an apology for the open desecration to molest and bring down the institution.’

Apart from the condemnation by the Oluwo of Iwo, the Yoruba Council Worldwide has not only threatened to mobilise all market women, youths and leaders of thought to protest against Chief Obasanjo if he did not apologise within 72 hours but also made it clear that the Ebora Owu, that is, Chief Obasanjo himself, should be prepared to face ‘untold traditional and legal consequences not limited to filing action at a court of competent jurisdiction for defamation and scandalous libel, if he does not apologise.’ In fact, the Yoruba Council Worldwide has asked that Chief Obasanjo be stripped of all his chieftaincy titles. For instance, the Ebedi Frontliners Iseyin has declared Chief Obasanjo a persona non grata in any of the Oke-Ogun communities in the event Chief Obasanjo does not apologise unreservedly as quickly as possible. 

Many points are noteworthy from the statements of the Oluwo of Iwo and the Yoruba Council Worldwide. First, the Obas can be said to have respectfully complied with the command of Chief Obasanjo, regardless of their traditional status in the society. This in itself is very commendable in the context of due respect for the Yoruba culture. Chief Obasanjo appears to be older than many of the traditional rules that were gathered at the LAUTECH event.

 We believe, and strongly too, that both Chief Obasanjo and the traditional rulers are wrongly right. Many Obas have been compromised and can no longer stand up to the truth. Can the purchase of the throne be respected? Can an Oba-designate not truly chosen by Ifa tradition be respected? Has Chief Obasanjo not been endorsing Obas-designate before their eventual installation? There are more questions than answers in this case.

Yoruba culture is beautiful, very civilised and a major source of sweet inspirations when compared to any international culture. The respect for old age, especially by younger people, and particularly by the female kneeling down and the male prostrating, is quite commendable. Yoruba culture does not allow for speaking ill of the dead, regardless of what the deceased might have done while living. This is an expression of protocolar respect. An old man is never considered at fault in mediation or reconciliation processes. The aged is always right. A young person cannot be sitting down while an elderly person or old man is standing. Perhaps most importantly, even if an Oba is very young, all his elders and old people still bow or prostrate for the king, not for him or her as a person, but for the crown that is worn.

 In evaluating the Iseyin incident, both Chief Obasanjo and the Obas are rightly wrong. Chief Obasanjo tried to enforce international practice to the detriment of traditional culture, which varies from one country to the other. For instance, Asian countries, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan in particular, always take a bow to show respect, to show gratitude and to greet. Eating with the right hand in India is an appreciated expression of due respect. Language wise, the French use ‘vous’ to show respect, rather than the use of ‘tu’ both of which mean ‘you.’ ‘Vous’ is for the elderly and official use. ‘Tu’ is for familiarity and younger people. 

Chief Obasanjo is a traditional chieftaincy title holder. The title is conferred by traditional rulers. With the title, he owes the Oba allegiance in various ways. This means that President Obasanjo, as a subject of the king, cannot be superior to the Oba. Accepting a chieftaincy title is admission of the superiority of the Oba in whatever ramification. Chief Obasanjo is on record to have been respecting the Obas the traditional way. People have insinuated that Chief Obasanjo’s action was vindictive or that he purposefully did so to bastardise Yoruba culture. We do not share this view point at all because Chief Obasanjo might have unreservedly considered that he and the governor were superior to the Obas when it is an official meeting and no one can fault that. Asking traditional rulers to stand up is not in honour of their persons but the office occupied. Official meeting should not be confused with unofficial meeting, working meeting, and an officious meeting. The meeting or event in Iseyin was lato sensu very official. 

In the same vein, every Oba in Yoruba land is given a Staff of Office by the relevant Governor. This again is a reflection of the superiority of the Governor to the Oba. In other words, the extent to which Chief Obasanjo can be faulted is quite limited. His command was consistent in part with international best practices. However, this is the source of the conflict between traditional and state protocol. The mere fact of compliance by the Obas is good. It justifies the need for respect for the Governor, Seyi Makinde. Consequently, in this case, there is only the need for mutual apology. Seeking to sanction Chief Obasanjo, who removed his military titles in favour of that of a traditional chieftaincy title, clearly suggests non-animosity for the traditional institution.

Additionally, the imported foreign culture under the pretext of presidential, semi-presidential, parliamentary, or whatever system of government have only served as an impediment to the growth and development of traditional cultural diplomacy in Nigeria. Since every elected president, every elected member of the National Assembly, owes his or her allegiance or position to the delegating authority of the people through the electorate, there is no way an elected public official should be superior to the people that elected him or her. This partly explains the truism that power belongs to the people. 

In many countries of the world, the State and Religion are often separated. In fact, the monarchical system is jettisoned. This is not true in the case of Nigeria. We therefore need to sit down and reflect more seriously on why countries, like the United Kingdom, sustain their own kingship system, but preaching against Africa’s monarchical and traditional culture. Why should a traditional ruler take permission from a Local Government Chairman in Nigeria before travelling out of his domain? Even at the level of the Obas, why should they be seeking involvement in national political governance or state governance? Why should someone elected for a tenure of four years be more important than a traditional ruler permanently on the throne until he dies? It is only in Nigeria that a retired public official is given a political appointment for four years after his retirement and he is still entitled to another retirement benefit for serving a term of four years. This is why Nigeria’s political system is not only fantastically corrupt but also very criminally.

Traditional rulers are leaders of leaders. The Constitution should be reviewed to reflect the appropriate status of traditional rulers in Nigeria as a whole. Chief Obasanjo should be assigned the responsibility of ensuring the status elevation of the traditional rulers. In this regard, the Achievers University, Owo, should be specially commended and encouraged for newly establishing an Institute of International Diplomatic Studies and Practice, with emphasis on international protocols, etiquettes, and development of traditional and cultural diplomacy in its 2023-2024 academic session. Such an institution has now become a desideratum not only in light of the relationship between political leaders and traditional rulers in Nigeria, but also in the conduct and management of global peace and security.

In essence, if we also admit that kingship has a divine character or as a Godly institution, diplomatic and official protocol cannot be superior to traditional protocol, making the development of ‘tradocracy’ necessary on the same pedestal as democracy in order to promote African traditions. 

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