Between 1951 and 1966, when Nigeria practiced a parliamentary system of government, there were two houses of parliaments in the three – later four – regions. These were the Houses of Assembly, with the members elected, and the House of Chiefs, comprising of the traditional rulers in the region. The House of Chiefs acted in an advisory capacity, drawing from the wisdom of the traditional rulers.
These traditional rulers had been very involved in Nigeria’s colonial period, depending on the region they were in. For example, in the North where the British colonialists used the system of indirect rule, they used the established structures of the emirates, making the emirs act as their proxies. These expanded the powers of many emirs beyond the original boundaries of their emirates, as areas previously independent and without central leadership were annexed to their territory.
However, since the creation of a uniform local government system in 1976, the powers of traditional rulers, and to an extent, their influence, has been considerably whittled down. They presently exist merely as custodians of their cultures, and for which they are well-rewarded (a monthly salary of 5% of the allocation of their local government, in addition to other perks depending on their class, not to mention gifts from subjects).
It is against this backdrop that there have been agitations that traditional rulers be given constitutional roles in the constitution that will be produced at the end of this constitution review process. The traditional rulers and their supporters are of the opinion that since they are very close to the grassroots, they could play a vital role in speeding up development, and ensuring peace and security in their domains.
In addition, they are clamouring for a National Council for Traditional Rulers, a sort of reincarnation of the Houses of Chiefs of the First Republic that will also have an advisory capacity to the Federal Government.
While I admire the importance of our traditional rulers in preserving ancient cultures and history, I do not agree that giving them a constitutional role would speed up development and ensure peace and security.
For one, I am against any constitutional amendment that will add to our already overburdened bureaucracy. Admittedly, traditional rulers are very close to the grassroots, but so also are local governments. We cannot have two bodies performing parallel roles as it would be should the traditional rulers be given constitutional roles. This is because the traditional ruler would have to have a cabinet (composed of his chiefs or district heads) since he alone cannot fulfil that role. There would also be a budget and other costs, all adding to our already high cost of governance.
Also, the influence of traditional rulers differs from place to place. While some traditional rulers have titles that precede the coming of the British (e.g. the Northern emirates); some, on the other hand, are the creation of colonialists (e.g. the Tor Tiv) and hence, do not exert as much influence. This is because some ethnic groups have from time immemorial never operated under central leadership. To then assume the same for all traditional rulers is going to be counter-productive.
Furthermore, giving traditional rulers constitutional roles will allow them to be able to sue and be sued, as was brought up during Senate hearings on the issue. Traditional rulers tied up in litigation does more harm than good to the peace and development they are trying to bring if they are given constitutional roles.
Lastly, giving the traditional rulers constitutional roles is likely to drag them into partisan politics. In the end, where the traditional rulers are meant to be a healing balm for their communities, they could end up being the divisive factors.
Traditional rulers are actually clearly defined, albeit not written down in the constitution: preserve the cultural heritage of your people; use your influence to ensure there is peace in your domain by being the voice of reason and wisdom in times of trouble; and be able to advocate on the people’s behalf for the development of your communities.
You do not need a constitutional clause to empower you to do these.