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Nigerian traditional rulers

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West Africa in 1625 showing the main states at that time. Modern Nigeria covers the eastern part of this area, including Oyo, the Igbo states to the east and the Hausa / Fulani states such as Katsina and Kano to the north.

Nigerian traditional rulers often derive their titles from the rulers of independent states or communities that existed before the formation of modern Nigeria. Although they do not have formal political power, in many cases they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence.[1]


Pre-colonial period

Head of a 16th century ruler of the Benin Empire.

Modern Nigeria encompasses lands traditionally occupied by highly diverse ethnics groups with very different languages and traditions. In broad terms, the southeast including the Niger Delta was occupied mainly by Igbos and related peoples, the southwest by Yoruba and related peoples and the north by Hausa and Fulani people, with a complex intermingling of different ethnic groups in the Middle Belt between north and south. In total there were (and are) more than 200 distinct ethnic groups.[2]

Before the arrival of the British in the late 19th century, the history of the area was turbulent, with periods when empires such as the Oyo empire, Bornu Empire and Sokoto Caliphate gained control over large areas, and other periods when the states were more fragmented.[3] Although political structures differed widely between different ethnic groups, it was common for each town or community to have a recognized ruler, who might in turn be subordinate to the ruler of a larger region. Thus the Sokoto caliphate was divided into emirates, with the emirs loosely subordinate to the Sultan of Sokoto, although at times acting as independent rulers.[4]

Colonial era

Europeans had long traded with the coastal states, primarily exchanging cotton and other manufactured goods for slaves and palm oil products. The Niger Coast Protectorate was established in 1891 holding a small area along the coast. During the period 1879-1900 the Royal Niger Company made a concerted effort to take control of the interior, using disciplined troops armed with the Maxim gun, and making treaties of "protection" with the local rulers. The company's territory was sold to the British government in 1900, with the southern region merged with the Niger Coast Protectorate to become the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate remaining separate. In 1914 the two were merged into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, with roughly the same boundaries as the modern state of Nigeria.[5][6]

The first British High Commissioner for Northern Nigeria, Frederick Lugard, tried to rule through the traditional rulers, and this approach was later extended to the south. Lugard's successor Hugh Clifford left this system in place in the north, where the emirate system had long traditions, but introduced a legislative council with some elected members in the south, relegating the traditional rulers to mainly symbolic roles.[7] Over time, the relationship between the colonial administration and the traditional rulers evolved. For example, the Tiv, the fourth largest ethnic group, had always been extremely decentralized with no single ruler. The British created the office of "Tor Tiv" in 1947, appointing Makere Dzakpe as the first holder of this title, in order to have a "traditional ruler" to speak for the Tiv people.[8]

Independent Nigeria

The Oba of Lagos with a delegation of Naval Officers in June 2006

With independence in 1960, followed by alternating democratic and military governments, the status of the traditional rulers continued to evolve. In the north, the emirs lost power to the government administration. Where rulers had previously acquired office through inheritance or through appointment by a council of elders, the government now increasingly became involved in the succession. Thus in May 1994 the military ruler General Sani Abacha deposed Awwal Ibrahim, Sarkin Zazzau of the Suleja Emirate, although he was reinstated in January 2000.[9][10]

In some cases, the government has merged or split traditional domains. For example, there had been two rulers of the Efik people in the area around Calabar, but in December 1970 it was agreed to combine the office in a single ruler.[11] When Yobe State was created there were just four emirates, but in January 2000 the state governor Bukar Abba Ibrahim restructured the state into 13 Emirates.[12] The government has maintained colonial classifications. Thus when Kwara State governor Bukola Saraki appointed three new monarchs in August 2010, the new Emir of Kaiama was designated a first class traditional ruler while the Onigosun of Igosun and Alaran of Aran-Orin were designated Third Class monarchs.[13]

Traditional rulers today are still highly respected in many communities, and have considerable political and economic influence. Although they have no formal role in the democratic structure, there is intense competition for royal seats.[1] The rulers can also award honorary titles for positions in their "administrations", and wealthy businessmen or politicians often place great value on acquiring such titles.[14]

The rulers play useful roles in brokering between the people and the state, enhancing national identity, resolving minor conflicts and providing an institutional safety-valve for inadequate bureaucracies.[15] One reason for their influence may be that the people of many ethnic groups have limited ability to communicate in the official English language, so the traditional ruler serves as an interpreter and spokesperson.[16] By June 2010, Akwa Ibom State had 116 traditional rulers with official certificates from the state. They had received new cars on their appointment among other perks. The chairman of the Akwa Ibom council of Chiefs said that in return the traditional fathers were responsible for preventing robberies and kidnappings in their domains.[17]


There are as many titles for traditional rulers as there are languages in Nigeria, perhaps more. In the northern Moslem states, Emir is commonly used in the English language, but names in the local language include Sarkin, Shehu, Moi, Lamido and so on. Oba is a common title of Edo and Yoruba rulers, but other titles such as Alake, Alaafin or Olu'wo are also used, specific to the people or place ruled. In the southeast, Obi is a common title among Igbo rulers, but again there are many local titles such as Amanyanabo, Orodje, Obong, Edidem and so on.[18]

See also


  1. ^ a b Oma Djebah, Collins Edomaruse, Lanre Issa-Onilu, Agaju Madugba and Oke Epia (2003 August 31). "Royal Fathers: Their Power, Influence, Relevance...". BNW News. http://news.biafranigeriaworld.com/archive/2003/aug/31/028.html. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  2. ^ "Background Note: Nigeria". U.S. State Department. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2836.htm. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  3. ^ Thornton, John K. (1999). Warfare in Atlantic Africa 1500-1800. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 1-85728-393-7. 
  4. ^ Johnston, Hugh A.S. (1967). Fulani Empire of Sokoto. Oxford University Press. ISBN 019-215428-1. 
  5. ^ Thomas Pakenham (1991). The scramble for Africa, 1876-1912. Random House. ISBN 0394515765. 
  6. ^ Olayemi Akinwumi (2002). The colonial contest for the Nigerian region, 1884-1900: a history of the German participation. LIT Verlag Münster. ISBN 382586197X. 
  7. ^ "A Country Study: Nigeria". The Library of Congress. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ngtoc.html. Retrieved 2010-03-25. 
  8. ^ Billy J. Dudley (1968). Parties and politics in northern Nigeria. Routledge. p. 92. ISBN 0714616583. 
  9. ^ Tony Orilade (3 April 2000). "Suleja Goes Up In Smoke Again". The News (Lagos). http://allafrica.com/stories/200004030261.html. Retrieved 2010-03-25. 
  10. ^ "Traditional States of Nigeria". http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Nigeria_native.html. Retrieved 2010-03-25. 
  11. ^ "Culture & Society". Creek Town (Iboku Esit Edik) Foundation. http://creektownfoundation.org/culture.html. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  12. ^ Ola Amupitan (August 2002). "Potiskum's Challenge to Damaturu as Yobe Capital". Vanguard. http://fikatoday.com/Articles/Articles.html. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  13. ^ "Saraki Approves Appointment Of 3 New Monarchs". Nigerian Observer. 2010-08-19. http://nigerianobservernews.com/19082010/businessservices/index.html. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  14. ^ Chris Ewokor (1 August 2007). "Nigerians go crazy for a title". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6924870.stm. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  15. ^ William F. S. Miles (Fall 1993). "Traditional rulers and development administration: Chieftaincy in Niger, Nigeria, and Vanuatu". STUDIES IN COMPARATIVE INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT (SCID), Volume 28, Number 3, 31-50. http://www.springerlink.com/content/c0h122841575j654/. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  16. ^ Louis Brenner. "Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town by Robert Launay". Journal of the International African Institute Vol. 66, No. 2 (1996), pp. 304-307. Edinburgh University Press. http://www.jstor.org/pss/1161326. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  17. ^ "AKSG Recognises 116 Traditional Rulers In Three Years, Gives Out Cars and Certificates of Recognition". Akwa Ibom State Government. 09 Jul 2010. http://www.aksgonline.com/articlePage.aspx?qrID=794. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  18. ^ "Traditional States of Nigeria". World Statesmen. http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Nigeria_native.html. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 

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