By Obi Nwakanma
The spate of new monarchical regimes and celebrations in the last decade or so does reflect the deep contradictions of the Nigerian state and the ambiguity of Nigeria’s national character as a modern republic. A great roll of drums was just heard all over the conservative press on the recent installation of an Ooni in Ife, Ooni Ogunwusi. The drama did not stop there. The new Ooni declared that his new “regime” was “a new era for the Yoruba” and was intended on “unifying the Yoruba.”
Ogunwusi quickly embarked on a tour, visiting the Alaafin, the Alake, and the Ala-whatever else was in between. In one of the most dramatic pictures yet of his rise, former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, a man given to public histrionics, was captured in camera prostrating in all manners of indignity on the floor for the young Ooni, who seemed quite startled by this gesture. And he should have been rightly startled because what the former president of Nigeria did was an insult to his former office as President of the Republic.
The picture quite truly harasses the sensibility of every thoughtful Nigerian because, in spite of himself, former President Obasanjo who has occupied the highest political office of the republic,though still another citizen of the republic, carries symbolic weight: for as long as he lives, he must be seen to dignify that office. In falling down in prostration to a “king,” Obasanjo might have added theatre to the comedy of “king making” in Nigeria, but it also ridicules the highest office of the land quite symbolically. It is imperative for the senate of the republic to urgently write to this former president and seek his public disavowal of his action, and render some apology to the people of the Republic of Nigeria, failing which he must be stripped of the privileges pertaining to his title for debasing the meaning of his position as a former president of Nigeria in prostrating to the new Ooni of Ife. This has most certainly not ended there. Following the installation of the Ooni, the Alake of the Egba began to create a hierarchy of Yoruba kings.
On his table, the Ooni was first, the Alaafin was second, the Oba of Benin was third, and so on and so forth. Of course, the “palace spokesman” in Benin, Edebiri, quickly refuted the claim: the Oba of Benin is no Yoruba king, he said, and if anything, his account of the “Benin Kingdom” places the Yoruba kings as the “sons of the Benin kingdom.” This is all very interesting, and even quite entertaining.
The question we ask is, how does this help in nation-building? I was personally outraged at the report of last week’s installation of Ooni Ogunwusi as the Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka – not in his personal capacity as a known contributor to the idea of a university and of institutional building, but as the Ooni of Ife. This move insults the founding vision of Nsukka by the great Zik: “to restore the dignity of man.” Installing a monarch, and one with no known history of intellection, or grounding in the liberal intellectual tradition and heritage that undergirds the university’s mission, insults the legacy and vision of Nsukka’s founding ideas. Then again, one looks, and we find that monarchs have been imposed on Nigeria’s universities as Chancellors – Nnameka Achebe at ABU, the Saa’ad Abubakar of Sokoto in Ibadan, and so on and so forth. This is an outrage.
Nnaemeka Achebe is by all means a well-educated man, Government College, Owerri, Stanford University, and all that, and so is Abubakar, a former Brigadier in the Nigerian Army, but in their positions as “traditional rulers” or monarchs, they bring contradictions to the image of the university – the epicenter of all liberal and democratic striving. Besides, these phantom “kingdoms” and hollow “Empires” these men claim to rule are all fiction, prodded up by a Mafiosi of power whose goals have always been to create and sustain a devious oligarchy intent on denying Nigerians their full rights of citizenship.Let me quickly alert Nigerians that the founding agreement that created the modern nation of Nigeria collapsed every other claimant to authority into a unified and modern nation called the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Nigeria is the product of the unification, and some might prefer the use of the word, “amalgamation,” of the former kingdoms, principalities, city states, and traditional federations that once made up its fragmented and distinct parts. With the Independence constitution, the independent federation of Igbo city states and village republics ceased to exist as sovereign governments, the Oyo empire was abolished, the Caliphate of Sokoto became extinct, the Emirates of the Hausa states, the Benin kingdom, the Kwararafa, the city states of the delta, and so on, all became legally defunct, and melded into a new sovereign nation known as the Federation of Nigeria.
On November 16, 1963, the exact birthday of the founding President of the Republic, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a new charter of the republic came into being. It removed Nigeria from the dominion of the British Commonwealth and her Queen, declaring it a sovereign republic to be governed by the President and a parliament as a modern democracy. By declaring itself a republic, and free of the British commonwealth, the parliament of Nigeria gave notice that the new nation was no longer under the sovereign dominion of her majesty, and that the new nation would no longer be governed under the thumbs of a constitutional monarch; but under the charter of a republic with its established and elected parliament. That gave new status to Nigerians as “citizens” of a Federal Republic, rather than “subjects” of a constitutional monarch.
The Republican constitution guaranteed the principle of the equality of citizenship, and the absolute freedom of the citizen under the rule of law. No Nigerian citizen was thus legally “subject” to any king or monarch, but all are free under the protection of the constitution of the republic. These particulars are quite vital in understanding the formation of Nigeria as a modern nation, and does amplify the contradictions inherent in the continued circulation and claims of certain individuals as “Kings” and “Emirs” and “Obis” and “Igwes” and “Obas.”
These are illegalities that challenge the absolute sovereignty of the Nigerian state and its elected governments. There can be no two captains in a ship. Whereas the republic exists, the monarchies cease to exist.
The republic confers “citizenship” on the individual, irrespective of status, gender, belief, and so on. A monarch has subjects – those whose lives very literally exist on his whims and caprice. No Nigerian is by law “subject” to any king, until the Republic is overthrown and a monarchy installed in its stead. The movement of history has for long abrogated that relationship between ordinary men, and conferred upon the individual the rights of individual freedom and autonomy. Those who fought for the independence of the modern nation of Nigeria fought for these freedoms, and encoded as the guiding principles of the Nigerian union, the principle of the equality of all Nigerians under the republic. Secondly, aside from contending power with the federal republic, these monarchies are a distraction in the evolution of a free, open and liberal society. Nigeria was conceived as a secular republic. The idea of an individual as embodying the meaning of a people ought to harass the sensibility of any well educated person because it reduces the question of an equal humanity to a merely academic assumption.
One of the reasons why Nigeria continues to be politically and economically underdeveloped is the continued reliance on the myth of “tradition.” Right wing defenders of this aberration call it “our culture” and that the “traditional rulers” defend and embody our “traditions.” That is simply not true. But even if it were true, not all traditions are worth preserving, or useful. The monarchies and the monarchists are a distraction. We have a modern national culture evolving from a mix of a modern generation of people, many of them products of an urban culture that is profoundly dynamic and hybrid. There is no gain in maintaining these fossil institutions. They belong to a distant past. The leaders of Nigeria are its constitutionally elected citizens who embody their democratic will, not some pseudo-monarch acting on some presumptuous claim of “tradition.”
It is more so laughable in Igbo land, which had no history of monarchical traditional leadership, but where a thousand monarchies, majesties, and ancient kingdoms have since emerged only in the last forty years at most. The Senate of Nigeria must very urgently, in the interest of nation-building enact a legislation abolishing the institution of the monarchies once and for all, and without exception, and turn their palaces into museums for tourists, as have happened with the cathedrals and castles of Europe, and just like the Indians, with longer history of Rajas and more opulent “traditional rulers” did in 1975, in order to forge a united nation. For as long as self-invested Nigerian leaders continue to illegally maintain and tolerate these “traditional rulers,” Nigeria will be incapable of creating national consciousness; there will be competing narratives of power that will continue to create centrifugal loyalties, and so long shall Nigeria be ethnically-riven and unstable.