During the recent Toyin Falola Interviews, His Imperial Majesty, the Osemawe of Ondo, Oba Dr. Victor Adesimbo Kiladejo, mentioned that maybe Nigeria should turn its attention again to the place of African kings in a Republic and modern democracy. The prominent political scientist, Professor Nuhu Yaqub, also revisited the possibility of restoring kings to the Nigerian political system. According to Oba Kiladejo, kings are the closest to the grassroots and have better ideas for solving community crises. I want to follow up on the exchanges between Professor Yaqub and Oba Kiladejo to review the status of kings in Nigeria’s changing politics.
From the beginning of the Fourth Republic with the 1999 constitution, there has been the depreciation of the roles of the king in Nigeria’s democracy. Kings and chiefs have been relegated to the back seat in our modern democracy and are now subjects of state governors. An instance of this was the dethronement of the former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido, by Governor Abdullahi Ganduje, the current serving governor of Kano State. The reason for the dethronement is complex and subject to various interpretations. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that a sitting governor for just eight years could dethrone a lifetime king.
Before the founding of modern Nigeria, kings within the geographical area took their titles from those who had ruled the separate states or communities before them. In pre-colonial Nigeria and probably Africa, they wielded enormous influence, possessed significant autonomy and power, and commanded respect from their communities. For instance, the enormous wealth and political influence of kings such as Mansa Musa of the 14th century are still considered a subject of debate.
According to Yoruba mythology, Oduduwa founded the Yoruba kingdom. Following this, his sons also left to establish their states, which are the origins of the present Yoruba kingdoms. The Ooni of Ilé-Ife, who was chosen from a branch of the ruling dynasty on a rotating basis, controlled the traditions of as many as 400 religious cults to gain political advantage. This model was also adopted in Oyo, and it eventually became a constitutional monarchy. In the old Oyo Empire, there were the likes of Alaafin Abiodun, who ruled well in their various domains. Their decisions were well-grounded in consensus. In the Benin Kingdom, the legendary Oba Ewuare restructured the kingdom’s political systems, considerably enlarged the territory, and encouraged arts and festivals. Thus, he gained enormous power that everyone in the kingdom was forced to reckon with.
The rulers and kings of the pre-colonial era were notable for their accomplishments and zeal for expansion. To the northeast of what is present-day Nigeria lay the great Kanem-Borno Empire. One of the great leaders was Mai Dunama Dibbalem, who expanded his kingdom further northeast. These kingdoms had a well-organized administrative system that provided and maintained law and social order. In pre-colonial Nigeria, kings and chiefs were involved in the governance and decision-making of the states. This was evident in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that portrays a “traditional” African society in which governing and political decisions were made by the chiefs and elders. However, Nigeria’s colonization altered this form of governance.
Oba Dr. Adesimbo Kiladejo recalled that even though there was a change in the pattern of governance during the colonial era, kings and traditional rulers were actively involved in the state’s governance. The British colonialists used indirect rule to maintain control over portions of their colonial empires by relying on pre-existing indigenous power structures. Traditional rulers were actively involved in the management of local administration during this period. With the governor at the helm, the administration was in good hands. This chain of command had the Lieutenant Governors in charge of the provinces, District Officers over the divisions, and the Native Authorities governed local communities. The Native Authorities were the local rulers, and they were solely responsible for local administration and government within their sphere of influence. They were the last link in the colonial administration’s chain of command, and all decisions made were carried out locally through them. The British set the general parameters but left much of the policy-making to the Native Authorities, subservient to the District Officer as a central government representative. The District Officer served as an advisor to the Native Authorities as long as they stayed within the set course.
However, as the colonial reign continued, the role of the kings began to diminish. This led to the formation of the different constitutions to balance the co-existence of native authorities and the national legislative council. With each of the new constitutions—Richards, Macpherson, Lyttleton, the 1960 Constitution of Independence, the Republican Constitution of 1963, and the 1979/1979 Constitution—the role of kings in governance gradually diminished till there is no longer a single position for traditional rulers in the Nigerian constitution of 1979 and 1999. By the turn of the 20th century, the kings’ role in political decision-making had ceased to exist. They are now compelled to seek ultimate power and survival from politicians and the government.
Monarchs’ powers have been eroded in contemporary democracy to the point that governors determine the date and funding of coronation ceremonies. In most cases, a governor can ridicule the king or dethrone him without suffering any consequence. A good illustration of this was when a traditional ruler in Rivers State was publicly mocked for shaking his head during a speech by Governor Nyesom Wike. In front of an assembly of traditional rulers, the governor ripped into the humiliated king, eliciting laughs from the audience. Also, in 2019, the Supreme Court of Nigeria dethroned another Oba in Oyo State, declaring his ascension to the throne as unconstitutional. The Eleruwa of Eruwa, Samuel Adebayo-Adegbola, had been on the throne for 21 years until he was forced to abdicate, following the court’s ruling that he was not a member of the two royal houses eligible to produce a successor.
In southwestern Ekiti State, traditional rulers were embroiled in a fight with the governor when he chose an Oba to lead the traditional council in March 2020. A group of sixteen local Obas was upset by the “intervention” and boycotted state ceremonies, earning them a scathing letter from the governor who accused them of “insubordination.” Similarly, in August 2017, the former governor of Oyo State, Abiola Ajimobi, installed 21 kings in one day. These were former chiefs elevated by the governor. This act displayed the power of the governor to enthrone new kings. The Olubadan of Ibadan, Oba Saliu Adetunji, denounced the governor’s action, stating that it was a dishonor to the monarchy. By November 2019, the new governor, Seyi Makinde, withdrew the crown from the 21 kings, further implying the supremacy of political leaders over kings and traditional rulers in this modern-day democracy.
During pre-colonial times, the kings governed their polities. However, this is no longer the case today. The role of kings has virtually disappeared from governance. Perhaps, in light of Nigeria’s current challenges, Nigerians may want to decide the appropriate role for their kings or to even consider the appropriateness of kingship in a republic. As His Imperial Majesty, Oba Dr. Victor Kiladejo reiterated, traditional rulers are closer to the people and would have better ideas for solving community crises, which may result in peace and unity in the country as a whole. His view on this is worth considering in light of the growing crisis of insecurity.
(This is the third report on the interview with His Imperial Majesty, Kabiyesi Alayeluwa of the Ondo Kingdom, Dr. Victor Adesimbo Kiladejo, on July 25, 2021. With the number of views now over 120,000 on eight platforms, there is a clear demonstration of city loyalty. For part of the transcript, see https://youtu.be/BpI0Oi6_zGM)