Aare Afe Babalola SAN
Founder/President , ABUAD


Who are traditional rulers?

The concept of traditional rulership in Nigeria predates the nation’s colonial era, forming one of the very cores of governance and administration. Traditional institutions, perhaps being the oldest institution in Nigeria, is deeply rooted in the culture, history and traditions of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

In ordinary parlance, a traditional ruler is the custodian of the  traditions, history and customs of an ethnic group of individuals, and who is appointed by such individuals to rule, govern and administer justice in line with the laid down customs and traditions of the people. A traditional ruler has also been defined as a person who by virtue of his ancestral position occupies the throne or stool of an area and who has been appointed to it in accordance with the customs and traditions of the area and whose throne has been in existence before the advent of the British in Nigeria.

According to Erediauwa, the 39th Oba of Benin, a Traditional Ruler means the traditional head of an ethnic community whose Stool is conferred the highest traditional authority on the incumbent since the time before the beginning of British rule. On the other hand, he is defined as a person who, by reason of inheritance or lineage has been appointed to a chieftaincy position by those entitled to do so under customary law and whose appointment has been approved by the approving authorities.

From these definitions, and in practical terms, the pre-independent traditional ruler stands as the repository of all the executive, legislative and judicial powers of his domain. In some areas, particularly amongst the Yorubas, a traditional ruler is regard as a replica of God (mutatis mutandi), by virtue of which all their words become law, the infraction of which oftentimes attract corporeal and sometimes, capital punishments.

The Courts have, over the years, equally recognized the status of traditional rulers. In Adanji v. Hunwo (1908) 1 NLR 74, the Court pronounced as follows:

"I say without hesitation that it is a position of honour, of primacy among a particular section of the native community"

More often than not, traditional rulership is guided by the principle of legitimacy, stemming from the customs and tradition of the people: from the appointment of the traditional ruler by the recognized and acceptable appointing authority to his charismatic influence which is derived from a wide acceptance of his personality and leadership qualities.

Role of traditional rulers before Nigeria was created in 1884

A pin-point determination of the exact origin of traditional institutions in Nigeria remains an elusive quest. However, there is some certainty that most of the nation-states scattered along the then territory now named Nigeria had traditional institutions that played significant roles to their growth, influence, development and dominance, and all-together culminating into the culture-rich, diverse entity now known as Nigeria.

The pre-colonial era featured a well-structured system of traditional rulership that was basically centralized. At that period, access to rulership stool was hereditary while in some parts, traditional structures of rulership were more dispersed, or were acephalous.

By and large, traditional rulers occupied important positions among the peoples of pre-colonial Nigeria. As noted earlier, their positions were legitimized by the traditions, history and culture of their respective peoples who held them in high esteem and reverence (Amusa, 2010). In similar perspective, traditional rulers cater for the economic, social and political aspirations of their people, and today they have become part of individual cultural heritage. They occupy communal political leadership positions sanctified by cultural, moral and values and enjoying the legitimacy of particular community to direct their affairs. Traditional institutions constitute a body of polity and administration that are respected by the people of such community through their respect for culture heritage and the historical antecedent of the land.

The political institution of the pre-colonial societies included the paramount chiefs, the council of elders, age grade and religious organization. The Ibos at the pre-colonial period did not have a single political authority: even though they were a contingent. Since the Ibos shunned the idea of having a single leader at that time, they operated a lineage system as a basis for political organized in such a way that a man could only lead member of his lineage hence, there were many influential and powerful men, their influence was limited to hamlet, clan and village and at that time, they operated a lineage system as a basis for political organization.

This political system was fashioned in such a way that a man could only lead members of his lineage hence, there were many influential and powerful men, their influence was limited to hamlet, clan and village and at most the area in which they lived. In every village, hamlet or clan, there was always a village head who emerged by virtue of age and who in collaboration of other elders settled disputes in that particular village. If the disputes involved another village the elders, led by the oldest from both village came together and resolved the disputes, especially those bothering on elopement and land, which was common at that time.

Beyond the socio-economic cum political weight of the traditional rulers, they equally played a major role in matters of conflict resolution, dispute management and security. In pre-colonial Nigeria, the societies had series of mechanisms of controlling and managing conflicts, varying from one community to another. The traditional rulers in each pre-colonial society obtained their mandate from the society's customs and native laws. As a result, they based their security maintenance, crime prevention and general law enforcement on each society's historical circumstances and desires, and in response, most members of each society wilfully partake in programmes and activities to prevent and control crimes, deviants and conflicts. Members of the society, collectively and individually, play roles in the society's law enforcement efforts. They also generally accept the society's methods and procedures for security maintenance and conflict management.

One of the main reasons for the wide acceptance of the traditional methods and procedures is that the people tend to know their traditional rulers very well. They have the reasonable knowledge of each traditional title-holder's morals, values and ethics.

Traditional Rulers under the British Colonial Masters 1884 - 1954

The advent of colonial rule in Nigeria occasioned a major paradigm shift in traditional rulership as it was then known. Colonialism restructured the erstwhile well-organised traditional ruling system and incorporated an indigenous system to serve the interest of the colonial state and the metropolitan authority.

In the colonial era, the British system of colonial administration employed the system of indirect rule, generally in Northern and Western Nigeria. Indirect rule was a British system of ruling her colonies with the use of local chiefs or other approved intermediaries and traditional laws and customs with British officials merely supervising the administration. It has also been defined to mean the taking over of existing power structures, harmonising them and eliminating flagrant abuses of human rights, otherwise leaving many elements intact. It utilized the existing traditional system of administration and recognized the status of traditional rulers who served as the priests of indirect rule.

Colonialism ushered in a transformation in the role of traditional rulers. This change was necessitated by the desire to realize the objective of colonialism, which was to exploit the natural resources of Nigeria to meet the industrial needs of the capitalist metropoles. Traditional rulers were used to serve these objectives. The underlying logic of ruling through these traditional rulers was primarily cost and as well as the logistical difficulties of directly governing and administering so vast an area with so few officials. After the conquest of Bida and Ilorin, George Goldie declared ‘If the welfare of the Native races is to be considered, if dangerous revolts are to be obviated, the general policy of ruling on African principles through Native rulers must be followed for the present

The most important role for traditional rulers in the early colonial days was in the area of local administration within the sphere of the new administrative structure established by the colonials – the indirect rule. With the Governor General at the head of the administration. the chain of command continued through the Lieutenant Governors in the Provinces, the District Officers in the Divisions, and the Native Authorities in the Native Administration.

To be continued