PUNCH, May 08, 2005
Apologists of traditional institutions are often eager to sing its praise
and assert its relevance, even in a democracy. Such people have made much
fuss about natural rulers being custodians of the people’s culture, history
and traditions. Such defenders, most of whom are beneficiaries of the
arrangement, are also good at playing down the atrocities which the
institution often perpetrates. Only critical observers and those who have,
at one time or the other been at the receiving end of the unjust traditional
system seem to know better: that the institution is nothing but a vestige of
oppression that has survived about a century of colonial administration in
the country. Today, the so-called natural rulers are parasites and a burden
on their people.
At state and local levels, the nation’s paramount rulers are only interested
in amassing wealth. They liaise with political leaders to indulge their
insatiable taste. There are undeniable reports of how rulers often work
desperately, though surreptitiously, to deliver their domain to a political
party that will best serve their own selfish end, notwithstanding the wishes
of their communities. In this rat race, most of the rulers show less concern
for the socio-political needs of their people.
There is no need mentioning the notorious ones in this piece, but let the
natives of various localities in Nigeria examine critically what has been
the concrete contribution of their rulers to local development. While it is
no more news that the Northern emirs have done little to emancipate the
teeming Almajiris in their domain, the situation is not better in other
parts of the country. It is common knowledge that in the East, the
phenomenon is relatively new but now that it has been adopted, the
traditional rulership has become a cash-and-carry affair.
I want to zero in on the South West because it is where the negative
vestiges of traditional administration are most pronounced. Here, the Obas
are leeches. Some of them are even ruthless, particularly when it comes to
resisting real or imagined assault on their authority, believing only in
extra judicial means. Harold Smith, a former colonial officer, in his
memoir, could not help describing the Yoruba as having a “barbaric custom”
when it comes to traditional rulership.
There are stories, for instance, of how people mysteriously disappear during
the rituals that attend the installation of a new ruler. All these explain
why curfews are often imposed during the otherwise simple exercise of
burying a king. Can any one believe that there is a palace in Yorubaland
that harbours a talking drum made from the lining of the womb of a pregnant
woman? All these may sound strange, but this is the real cruelty going on in
the name of tradition. The Yoruba traditional political institution is, no
doubt, rooted in idolatry and backward myth.
It is regrettable that, despite the illuminating light of both Christianity
and Islam among the mainstream Yorubas, our cities, towns and villages are
still founded on imaginary deities and superstition. And of course, the
traditional rulers are the foremost agents of darkness and spiritually
speaking, they may be the unknown harbingers of bad luck to their various
If it is possible for some great people in history to champion the battle
against slavery, the killing of twins and other vices, why can’t we join
those calling for scrapping or at least, a relegation of the institution?
Edwin Madunagu, a journalist, voiced his frustration in a recent piece where
he described the rulers as “local tyrants, extortionists and economic
parasites;” stressing that they “have merely added a layer of burden on the
shoulders of the masses, especially the poorest of them…”
The ongoing political reform conference is provides an opportunity to review
the threats posed by the traditional institution, with a view to liberating
Nigeria from its age-long oppression.
Oluwatobi writes from Ibadan, Oyo State.