In a move that has generated widespread controversy, Governor Ajimobi of Oyo State, aka The Constituted Authority, recently embarked on a “judicial review” of the 1957 “Ibadan Chieftaincy Declaration”. In this new arrangement, 11 high chiefs of the Olubadan-in-Council, along with 21 others previously known as Baales, have now been vested with the so-called “beaded crowns’. The high chiefs are now to be addressed as “Royal Majesties”, while the Baales have been elevated to the status of “Royal Highnesses”. The Olubadan- who by the way reportedly snubbed the mass coronation ceremony- is now to be addressed as His Imperial Majesty.
On one level, the latest development highlights the uneasy, often controversial relationships between traditional (royal) institutions and political institutions in Oyo state, and by extension, in Yorubaland. Historically, kings were the focal points of political organisations of Yoruba states and towns. While there were checks and balances in the political system, it was kings who exercised ultimate control, and delegated powers to chiefs and Baales, including army chiefs. In colonial and post-colonial Nigeria, following the collapse of the only one empire historically, associated with the Yorubas, successive governments in Western Nigeria have struggled with where and how to position traditional rulers in the modern democratic system. In principle, the general consensus appears to be that traditional rulers are now to be custodians of culture, unencumbered and untainted by muddy waters of political power. In practice, a tense struggle for political control ensued between traditional rulers and modern politicians, exemplified by the forced of Alaafin Adeyemi the second, by the then Action Group government in 1954.
So much for a bit of historical context. The key point, for the purpose of the present reflection, is that Ajimobi’s latest move is a manifestation of this perennial struggle. He has made a statement of intent to the effect that the political power vested in him as the self-styled “constituted authority” in the state is all encompassing, unrestricted by the boundaries of traditions and cultures. In effect, he is saying that he is the one – alright, his government, technically- who has the power to give and take away traditional privileges and honours. He is the manager, not just of public affairs, but traditional ones, too. He cites the “relevant” laws, for good measure.
In fairness to Ajimobi, the truth is that traditional rulers have struggled to stay within the culture-tradition lane assigned to them in the modern political system. The desire for relevance, or perhaps the sheer struggle for survival, has driven many to the murky waters of politics, usually the partisan variety. We have seen, for example, how traditional rulers often hit the election campaign train on behalf of their patron politicians and political parties, sometimes using threats to “get out the votes”. Worse still, we have seen how many of them have become big-time government contractors, and how they lobby for their candidates to fill appointive posts. Far from keeping themselves from the murky waters of partisan politics, they have fully embraced it, usually at the expense of their dignity and self-respect. For some, personal dignity is overrated, and sanctity of traditions is of no use, as long as they achieve and maintain political relevance.
Furthermore, the constant meddling and near obsession of politicians like Ajimobi with traditional institutions underlines the poorly developed state of our civics. In an age where majority of ordinary citizens still depend on traditional rulers to determine their electoral choices, it is little wonder that politicians are keen to recruit traditional rulers as their electoral “garrison commanders”. These politicians are well aware that, in the Nigerian realpolitik, ordinary citizens carry little or no weight commensurate with their otherwise decisive numerical majority. Most are not aware of their political rights, and others are too afraid to exercise them, or too poor to be bothered. It makes practical sense, then, to cultivate the favours of “gate keeper” traditional rulers, who wield enormous influences within their communities. The flip side is that these traditional rulers are increasingly adept at the dirty arts of modern Nigerian politics. Among other things, they want more and more for the political support they give. Ajimobi’s response to this is, in effect, to weaken the power of the big traditional political behemoths, by multiplying kings in the land. The new kings are his beneficiaries, and arguably owe him something going to the next election in which he would be seeking to get his anointed candidate elected as governor. As for the traditional political behemoths, we have not heard the last of them in this unfolding game of thrones.
Of course, the masses of the people would be sold the usual dummies. This is necessary for the development of Ibadan land, which is the biggest city in Yoruba land, and a history dating hundreds of years. And so on, and so forth. Sadly, this unsophisticated form of identity politics works like magic in the Nigerian terrain, even among otherwise educated folks. You hear many citizens of Ibadan extraction now joining the refrain: “This is for the development of Ibadan land. Only traitors would see differently”. In one fell swoop, these ordinary citizens have forgotten about the high levels of unemployment, about unpaid salaries, about the dire state of education in the state. Employment, income and human capital do not feature in their new construct of “development”. Chieftaincy titles do.
On a final note, the elaborate, high sounding reference to “imperial majesty” in Olubadan’s new title is curious, comical. I just did a quick check to confirm that even the Queen of Great Britain- the country that once held one of the largest empires in world history, is no longer addressed as her “imperial majesty”. Just her “Royal Majesty”. It doesn’t deny the history of the old empire, for whatever it is worth. But trust Nigerian politicians. They are specialists in the preposterous.