Traditional Rulers and Democracy


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Traditional Rulers and Democracy




Jide Oluwatobi




culled from 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 peoples.

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.



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