Constitutional Review: A Touch of Inclusion for Traditional Institutions

The Emir of Bauchi, Alhaji Rilwanu Adamu, recently urged the Conference of Speakers of the State Houses of Assembly to support the call for constitutional roles to be given to traditional rulers in the Nigerian Constitution.

Adamu, who spoke when the speakers paid him a courtesy visit in Bauchi, said traditional leaders do not belong to any political party, pointing out that they enjoy a good working relationship with the executive and the legislative arms of government.

Centuries before the advent of British rule, governance in different parts of present-day Nigeria was synonymous with traditional institutions and their rulers. Traditional rulers were considered the storehouse of all religious, legislative, executive and judicial functions. There were few exceptions such as the Southeast Igbo communities, where collective leadership by age grades and elders held sway.

Although the pre-eminence of traditional rulers was undone by colonial rule, local chiefs still served as important adjuncts in the colonial administration across Africa. Incidentally, most post-colonial constitutions gradually eroded the relevance of traditional institutions.

For instance, the 1979 and 1999 constitutions of Nigeria never mentioned any role for traditional institutions. It is probably a good number of citizens who must have noticed the gap in this trend that has consistently called for key and specific roles to be given to traditional rulers and institutions in the country.

Eminent Nigerians, including top politicians and traditional rulers have been making this call, especially now that the National Assembly is making concrete efforts to review the constitution.

Clearly, it seems the goal of modernisation, especially in Nigeria, is to generate a rapid increase in social wealth and its driving force is economic development; and where traditional institutions are able to contribute positively to this goal, their input should be gradually but consistently jettisoned.

In Northern Nigeria, for example, it was the chief-in-council that was saddled with the responsibility of driving the economy, except in certain pagan areas where chiefs were not in place. Emirs and chiefs were in charge of the treasury, the first was in Kano in 1910. Chiefs were collecting taxes and using them.

Police, prisons, courts, and other services had to be paid for. Since colonial administration would not bring resources from England, what the chiefs were collecting were the resources used in running the state and providing basic services, and the chiefs themselves were placed on a salary structure. Chiefs were judges in their own courts. The courts and prison and the police were their jurisdictions, so, powers at a reasonable level were exercised by chiefs up till the time of Nigeria’s independence.

Afterwards, when the politicians came in 1960, the Federal Government took over the native courts, police, and prisons. Since then, the hands of the chiefs became clipped. There was law and order under colonial authority because every leader at every level could account for everyone. That channel has since been broken.

Analysts say because of that act by the Federal Government, people were left on their own and that marked the end to the type of cohesion that provided maximum security in every clan in post-colonial and colonial times. Eventually, the 1999 constitution removed the chiefs totally from every documented role.

From that period till now, the battle has been how to bring traditional institutions back and get them involved in their primary role which is ensuring law and order. Unless the constitution makes the chief important as an authority the community looks up to, there will always be conflicts. Sadly, it is when law and order break down that politicians always look for the traditional rulers.

Many commentators feel there is nothing wrong with bringing the chiefs back into constitutional governance. The question from one analyst was; is Britain not still maintaining the monarchy? The Queen’s signature makes the law to be the law.

Also, to amplify the call for roles for traditional rulers in the constitution, a group called Peoples Movement for a New Nigeria, PMNN, recently demanded the inclusion of specified traditional rulers’ roles in the constitution amendment by the National Assembly for a new and effective approach to address many challenges facing governance at the grassroots.

He recalled that traditional rulers had constitutional roles under the 1960 and the 1963 constitutions, and under those constitutions, the Council of Chiefs was established in the regions; and some of the traditional rulers even rose to become regional governors.

A critical look at the present 1999 constitution and the 1979 constitution would reveal that no role was allocated for traditional rulers. The country tries to pretend that they don’t exist yet when there is a crisis be it a religious, ethnic, communal, land, or political crisis, government-run to them for help.

Read Also: Reps to Review 1999 Constitution

Some commentators opine that one of the defects of the 1979 and 1999 constitutions is the deliberate denial of any role whatsoever for the traditional rulers.

While making his position on whether the traditional institutions and their rulers will go into extinction or not in the face of modern-day challenges, Oba Adebiyi Adegboye Adesida, Afunbiowo II, (1950-2013), the Deji of Akure said, “Never, never. We survived the colonialists, we survived the politicians in the first republic, we survived the military; we are going to be around for a long time to come.”

No doubt, the institution of traditional rulers should be with us for long as it is our link with the past. As Justice Oliver Wendel Holness (1841-1935) once said, “Historic continuity with the past is not just a duty, it is also a necessity.” It is left for Nigeria to use the current window of the ongoing constitutional amendment to give the traditional rulers some important roles in governance if the country wants to maximise her relevance.

Godwin Anyebe