Nigerian traditional rulers

West Africa in 1625 showing the main states at that time. Modern Nigeria covers the eastern part of this area, including Oyo, the Benin Empire (unrelated to current Republic of Benin), 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]

Though their bearers usually maintain the monarchical styles and titles of their sovereign ancestors, both their independent activities and their relations with the central and regional governments of Nigeria are closer in substance to those of the high nobility of old Europe than to those of actual reigning monarchs.

Pre-colonial period

Image of a 16th-century ruler (Oba) of the Benin Empire.

Modern Nigeria encompasses lands traditionally occupied by highly diverse ethnic groups with very different languages and traditions. In broad terms, the southeast including the Niger Delta was occupied mainly by Igbo 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 those of Oyo, Kanem-Bornu and Sokoto 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 collection of towns to have a recognized ruler, who might in turn be subordinate to the ruler of a larger polity. 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 at centers such as Calabar, Bonny and Lagos. 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 people, 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 evolved even further. In the north, the emirs finally lost power to the government administration, though said administration was often staffed by traditional notables. Where rulers had previously acquired office strictly 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, although he was subsequently 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 into a single one that was to be held by a ruler known as the Obong.[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.[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 amongst the finite pool of eligible dynasts. [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 mediating between the people and the state, enhancing national identity, resolving minor conflicts and providing an institutional safety-valve for often inadequate state 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 being 521 different languages native to Nigeria, there is an accountable number of titles for traditional rulers.

In the northern Muslim states, Emir is commonly used in the English language, but names in the local languages include Sarki, Shehu, Mai, Lamido, etc.

Oba is the title of the Edo paramount ruler, Enogie is ascribed to his dukes, while Okao and Odionwere are ascribed to his governors and senior elders respectively.

Oba is also used by the Yoruba peoples to refer to their various rulers, though other titles such as Ooni, Alake, Alaafin, Awujale, Olomu, Akarigbo, Orangun,Olu'wo, etc. are also used, specific to the people and/or place ruled.

In the southeast, Obi, Igwe and Eze are common titles among Igbo rulers, but again there are many local titles amongst their immediate neighbours such as Amanyanabo, Orodje, Obong, etc.[18]

See also


  1. 1 2 Oma Djebah, Collins Edomaruse, Lanre Issa-Onilu, Agaju Madugba and Oke Epia (31 August 2003). "Royal Fathers: Their Power, Influence, Relevance...". BNW News. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  2. "Background Note: Nigeria". U.S. State Department. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  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 0-19-215428-1.
  5. Thomas Pakenham (1991). The scramble for Africa, 1876–1912. Random House. ISBN 0-394-51576-5.
  6. Olayemi Akinwumi (2002). The colonial contest for the Nigerian region, 1884–1900: a history of the German participation. LIT Verlag Münster. ISBN 3-8258-6197-X.
  7. "A Country Study: Nigeria". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 25 March 2010.
  8. Billy J. Dudley (1968). Parties and politics in northern Nigeria. Routledge. p. 92. ISBN 0-7146-1658-3.
  9. Tony Orilade (3 April 2000). "Suleja Goes Up In Smoke Again". The News (Lagos). Retrieved 25 March 2010.
  10. "Traditional States of Nigeria". Retrieved 25 March 2010.
  11. "Culture & Society". Creek Town (Iboku Esit Edik) Foundation. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  12. Ola Amupitan (August 2002). "Potiskum's Challenge to Damaturu as Yobe Capital". Vanguard. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  13. "Saraki Approves Appointment Of 3 New Monarchs". Nigerian Observer. 19 August 2010. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  14. Chris Ewokor (1 August 2007). "Nigerians go crazy for a title". BBC News. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  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. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  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. 66: 304–307. doi:10.2307/1161326. JSTOR 1161326.
  17. "AKSG Recognises 116 Traditional Rulers In Three Years, Gives Out Cars and Certificates of Recognition". Akwa Ibom State Government. 9 Jul 2010. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  18. "Traditional States of Nigeria". World Statesmen. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
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