Measuring Crowns for New Nigeria

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Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

We live in a time where the tight bonds of society and tradition are being loosened, and in many cases replaced on a daily basis. From gender roles, to democratic demands, and even the ongoing dance between religion and culture – many pillars of society are now being questioned and those questions are reshaping our lives in ways previously unimagined. One of these, is the engagement between traditional authorities and constitutionally elected powers, as reflected in the recent dethronement of Muhammadu Sanusi II as the Emir of Kano by the Kano State Governor Umar Ganduje. 

Politics aside, and there is a lot of it, this act should be seen less for its immediate impact and more for the long-term implications, and the precedent which it sets. The facts, regardless of who you support, are that a traditional ruler whose stool predates the state and the chief executive of said state were at odds. This then brings up the question of the balance between both roles – one for traditional preservation and the other for political and executive administration. But in a world, and a nation, that is seeing an increasing interaction between society and culture, it is naïve to assume that these roles are distinct from each other.

Historically, the thrones of the many kingdoms that make up contemporary Nigeria were the source of unchecked power and unbridled ambition. Our history textbooks tell stories of rulers who led their territories to incredible victories in wars of conquest. We hear of monarchs who defied the British occupation, to great personal cost – such as King Jaja of Opobo and the deposed Oba Akitoye of Lagos. And, in time, we see how administrators’ imposed restrictions that put power in the hands of civilian administrators. This was not without external precedent – the Magna Carta in the United Kingdom put a hold on many of the King’s powers and created the beginning of the modern parliament of freeholders and title owners – and around the world, we’ve seen examples of people moving towards more egalitarian forms of government. 

But change does not come easy, and there is often a price. In Ghana, when at the peak of his powers, Kwame Nkrumah moved against the Asantehene – the ancient throne of the Ashanti people. His actions led to an increased fear of his powers, and that in turn led to his eventual removal from power. Likewise in Uganda, many leaders have found their powers limited by the ancient Buganda Kingdom and its influence in the kingdom. The balance between old and new power has long been a delicate act for administrators to engage in. But this is because change is not always easy, and in a generational transition it is still easy to see how wedded a people are to the symbols that hold them together. And, in an especially partisan period, people vested and trained in the art of being symbols first are key in helping unite people in this time. 

As such the influence of old power is still alive and important. Take for example the British Monarchy and the careful wording of the Queen’s statements on the eve of both the Scottish and Brexit referenda. This is in response to her expected impartiality and neutrality – her devotion to service as a servant of her people and their unity. And that doesn’t hurt in economic and diplomatic terms. Royal weddings are always a boon to the local economy and trade, and especially for Brexit Britain, the royals are a very convincing proposition when utilised for diplomatic functions. Japan too recently saw the abdication of Emperor Hirohito for his son, and that pageantry was also key to an increase in tourist and diplomatic travel to Japan. 

But now, more than ever before, we are seeing a case of the tail beginning to wag the dog. The people are changing, and in order to maintain that hold or position, monarchs are also making necessary changes to reflect those they govern. The British monarchy changed the law to allow female children who are firstborns to assume the throne, and removing the primacy of male children. And with this responsibility to serve as the conscience and voice of the people, monarchs are either speaking through influence or directly. 

This brings us back to the now former Emir. A lot has been, and will be, written about his progressive stances, his denunciation of some Northern conservative actions and his radical ability to speak as much as he is seen. But the issue is less about the politics, and more about the people. It would appear that the Emir has tried to change the Emirate from the top, a position that is no longer exclusive preserve of the monarch, being shared with elected officials among others. This is where the issue lies. Traditional rulers are meant to be above partisan politics and their interventions are meant to carry weight. Politicians on the other hand rely on reading the mood of the populace and acting accordingly. Few elected officials make such moves without believing they can ride out the aftermath and survive unscathed. Several questions abound here – was the Emir trying too much too soon? Was the Governor simply responding to a check and counter on his authority? Is Kano too small for two powerful institutions, and must one remain subservient to the other? 

Many will attempt to answer those in analysing what has happened, but I will attempt the last one. This is indeed a question of institutions. The constitution places the state government on a paramount level in a state – with powers to remove and appoint a traditional ruler. This removes the power of the monarch to be an executive. The constitution also places judicial responsibility in the hands of the judiciary. Likewise, we see the removal of most arbitration powers from the ruler as well. It is therefore time to have an objective decision on the kind of voices we need on such thrones. This is because society has also begun taking away the role of cultural protector. Films, songs and artworks tell stories of our history. Historians, researchers and elders continue to share these tales. If we are going to empower monarchs, and cater to their lifestyle with state funds, then we need to utilise a feasible role to justify this. If they are to remain the conscience of the nation, we need to offer a means to ensure this conscience is heard – especially if it is inconvenient. It is no longer enough for monarchs to preside over rituals and live in palaces – it is time for them do what we expect they have been groomed to do, which is to lead and speak truth in power. Especially since their enthronement, usually for life, means they need not base much on public sentiment.

Having traditional leaders sit in the formal constitutional structure could also better empower and incorporate them into the Nigeria we are headed towards. We previously had a House of Chiefs that could serve this purpose, and our bloated and costly legislature could also do with a trim. It could also be helpful for strengthening their influence and activity through collective engagement and constitutional recognition and protection. And the nature of recent appointments means we will always have a flexible range of more old and experienced monarchs that might lean conservative, and more young, new ones that often tend to go liberal. What this can also help remove is the unilateral power of an elected official to remove a traditional ruler because of disagreements – because more so now, we need these dissenting voices to force the nation into a more robust conversation. 

Whether Ganduje or Sanusi was right is a question this article will not answer, because frankly, it is unimportant. What is important is that this action has implications on more than just the political makeup of Kano state. It rightly affects the protection of dissenting voices, especially cultural leaders, in a nation that is increasingly becoming adept at silencing them. It also affects how effective political leaders can be if a rival power is present in their state. It is more important that we have a robust conversation on how we want to keep our cultural institutions, and how our monarchs fit in a world far removed from when their thrones were created. 

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a freelance writer. He has degrees in International Relations and African Politics. His current research focus is on statehood and Nigeria.