The 2015 presidential election has come and gone; but the image of a group of traditional rulers at Ile-Ife, Osun State, in the South-West, pointing their decorative walking sticks towards President Goodluck Jonathan’s upper torso, will remain for a long time in our memory and live forever in the cyberspace. The monarchs stood in a semi-circle, while the President sat in the centre, head slightly drooped, eyes closed, and the fingers of both hands interlocked in a clenched fist and placed on his lap. It was a makeshift ritual prayer session, wishing the President good luck in the presidential election for which he had come to seek the monarchs’ support.
The ritual is doubly symbolic. First, it demonstrates the confluence of traditional and modern political systems, by juxtaposing the monarchical and republican systems. True, both power structures are anchored on the people, they operate on parallel trajectories, with the modern political structure superimposed on the traditional one. As a result, the traditional system is given no role whatsoever in the constitution.
The subjugation of the traditional system under the modern political structure began during the colonial period and was perfected on the attainment of independence, when the first generation of Nigerian politicians were anxious to maintain the distinction between the two. Indeed, during the first and second republics, many Yoruba Obas were humiliated by the politicians in power, often for supporting opposing candidates. In the attempt to put them in their place, some had their salaries reduced, while others were deposed and banished from their kingdoms.
Today, the traditional political system is normally confined to local traditional practices while the modern political system exerts influence on the state at large. A vestige of the superior powers of the modern political system over the traditional one is evident in the appointment and installation of monarchs: No one becomes a king or emir until the staff of office is given to him by the appropriate state authority.
This leads to the second symbolism of the ritual prayer session: It provides a temporary shift in the balance of power in favour of the traditional rulers. Not only were they standing over the President, who came a-begging for votes, they were pointing their walking sticks at him, more or less as property owners would do to a captured thief. At least, for that moment, the traditional rulers were one up on the President.
Many Yoruba observers found the ritual prayer session somewhat strange. I was reminded by a friend, and a prince in his own right, Andrew Aroloye, that, in classic Yoruba royal tradition, walking sticks would never have been used on such an occasion. Rather, the royal fathers would have waved their irukere at the target of the ritual. The introduction of walking sticks to such a ritual is a corruption of the tradition, which makes the entire ritual a corruption of the monarchy.
The implications of the ritual prayer session are far-reaching for the participants. On the one hand, it shows the President as a willing subject for a local ritual, all in the name of an electoral campaign. That in itself is not a bad thing. Politicians often willingly adopt the strategy of condescension in order to get votes. What is distasteful about the ritual session is the monetary exchange for it and for the royal fathers’ electoral support. Many newspapers reported a “dollar rain” during the President’s encounter with the royal fathers.
It is unfortunate that this was going on as the naira was taking a nosedive, which led the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, to decry the mopping up of dollars by politicians. It is doubly unfortunate that the President of the country, who should be defending the naira, indulged in spending foreign currency during the campaign, thus contributing to the deplorable state of the naira.
On the other hand, the readiness with which the royal fathers engaged in such a ritual further confirms the general perception that they had sold out their dignity to politicians in exchange for some reward. The publicised monetary reward that followed the ritual encounter buttresses this perception and reinforces the AGIP (Any-Government-in-Power) philosophy associated with the royal fathers.
True, the Yoruba monarchs had their subjects in mind when they demanded more attention to the South-West in President Jonathan’s future appointments and development programmes, their demand had the unexpected effect of sensitising Yoruba voters to the marginalisation of their ethnic group. It quickly became a campaign talking point for the opposition.
It is unclear how much faith Jonathan’s campaign organisation placed in the South-West royal fathers’ support. It is clear, however, that Jonathan lost in five of the six South-West states. This should send a strong message to future politicians that hobnobbing with royal fathers is no guarantee for electoral success. Rather, politicians will do better with the youth, artisans, and market women, who jointly account for over 70 per cent of the voting population nationwide. Jonathan’s efforts with such groups in Lagos yielded better electoral reward than his encounter with the royal fathers in the state.
There was at least one royal father, who was willing to be blunt about his role in politics: The Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona, looked Jonathan in the eye and told him that it is not the business of royal fathers to assist any candidate in canvassing votes: “… it is not possible for any Oba, not even only in Ijebu, in Yorubaland, to go out and say vote for this, vote for that … But give them the opportunity to present their programmes so that people can make up their minds on what to do. I think this is a very sound democratic principle and that is what I have decided to do, to give you the opportunity of meeting with the people” (The PUNCH, March 13, 2015).
It was a different story in Lagos, where Oba Rilwan Akiolu caused nationwide uproar when he carried his partisan support rather too far, by warning the Igbo community in the state that they would perish in the lagoon if they failed to vote for his candidate in the governorship election, namely, Akinwunmi Ambode. His over-enthusiasm nearly ruined his candidate’s bright chances.
Thus, in Yorubaland alone, we find two extremes. The Awujale stands on one side, defending the sanctity of the throne, while Oba Akiolu stands on the other side, fuelling the politicisation of the throne. The Osun monarchs who converged at Ife stand in the middle, with some of them belonging to either of the two extremes. What this means is that the hitherto enviable values associated with the monarchy are fast disappearing as they dovetail more and more with the decadent values associated with politicians. The traditional political system is not only subsumed under the modern republican system, it is being consumed by it.
As indicated earlier, this has a long history in Yorubaland. The symbiotic relationship between the two systems is evident today in the struggle for power in both systems. For example, the struggle for the throne among competitors is as fierce and corrupt as the struggle for political office. Financial inducement and rigging are known to both processes.
The problem with the traditional political system is the lack of appropriate regulatory bodies, which the modern political system has in abundance. This puts the burden of reform on the traditional rulers themselves. That’s why it is important for the paramount rulers among them to begin a process of self-examination and sanitisation of the monarchy. This should begin with maintaining a safe distance from politicians.
At the same time, politicians should desist from inducing the participation of the traditional rulers in partisan politics. Rather, efforts should be made to enhance the integrity and relative independence of both systems.