Nigerian Monarchs Have Lost Their Reverence Who Will Save Nigerian Monarchs From Public Ridicule?

Nigerian monarchs have fallen off the ladder of deference in the current political arrangement. They have been stripped of their god-like status and today they are being subjected to public ridicule by public servants who possess real political power.

Pre-colonization, monarchs in Nigeria and other African nations enjoyed absolute powers: they superintended over the affairs of their people with the assistance of chief councils. Their powers were not constitutional but cultural, derived from the ancestral and spiritual authorities of the kingdoms they ruled over. In the Yoruba-dominated southwestern region of Nigeria, monarchs are referred to as ‘Igbákejì Òrìṣà’‘second only to the gods’. Today, it is mere praise; a traditional ruler is subservient not only to a state governor but even a local government chairman. 

In September 2023, many Nigerians were surprised by a viral video of former military head of state and two-term democratic president, Olusegun Obasanjo, dishing out orders to traditional rulers at a public function. ‘Stand up…sit down’, he roared at the monarchs who could only hide their obvious displeasure in their royal regalia as they obeyed him. They stood and sat while the former military leader nodded in satisfaction. 

What made the incident particularly surprising was that it occurred in a place many consider the political headquarters of Yorubaland, Oyo State, and Obasanjo is a renowned Yoruba leader as he holds the title of the Balogun of Owu Kingdom, amongst other chieftaincy titles. In fact, he is nicknamed Ebora Owua sorcerer in Owu Kingdom. 

Obasanjo’s action is considered a sacrilege, due to the god-like status of monarchs in the Yoruba culture: it is considered a betrayal of the gods of the land and many, including politicians, like Femi Fani Kayode and reverends are calling ‘for his head to be fed to the gods.’ Fani Kayode said: ‘We must not take it lightly and the truth is that by doing what he did he has spat on all our faces. His words and behaviour are a desecration of our values and a grave insult to the Yoruba people and our traditional institutions.’ But before we offer the sorcerer’s head to the gods, what really happened in the video in question? 

The incident occurred during the inauguration of various projects in Iseyin, Oyo State, where the former president was a special guest of honour. Obasanjo scolded the monarchs for breaching state protocol at the event when they did not stand to greet the state governor, Seyi Makinde. In a media interview, in which he responded to critics, the former president said: 

As far as I am concerned, there is constitution and there is culture. By our constitution, the governor is the leader of a state. Everyone must respect him no matter his or her status or age. He deserves respect no matter how young he is and protocols must be observed. That was why I spoke to them the way I did. I wanted them to realise that it is not part of Yoruba culture to disrespect authorities. Respect begets respect and they must learn to deal with their governor with respect if they want to be respected in return. 

Defenders and sympathizers of Nigeria’s deteriorating traditional institutions dressed the elder statesman in a tirade of insults and criticisms. Yoruba Council Worldwide, the apex Yoruba indigenous organisation wrote to all monarchs in Yorubaland, demanding that Obasanjo be stripped of all chieftaincy titles, including the title of Balogun of Owu Kingdom. Afenifere, another influential Yoruba socio-cultural group, demanded an apology from the former president.  

Yoruba monarchs also reacted. The Oluwo of Iwo, Abdulrosheed Akanbi expressed disappointment in both Obasanjo, for the military-style orders given to the monarchs, and the monarchs for obeying the former president’s orders. He demanded a public apology from Obasanjo. Olugbon of Orile Igbon, Oba Francis Alao, who was at the event, described the experience as unfortunate. He said: ‘We respect protocols. It is unfortunate what happened. Members of the Oyo State Council of Obas are law-abiding citizens and we respect constituted authority. We are also leaders; we will respond at a later time but not now.’ The former president, however, has shown no remorse for his actions and continues to ignore the criticism. 


This is not the first time the traditional institution has been subject to ridicule and disrespect, and likely not the last. Since the integration of traditional rulers into the contemporary political system, there have been countless incidents of tension between traditional rulers and politicians who possess real political power. A former governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, called a monarch ‘a small senseless boy’ to his face in 2020. Wike lampooned the monarch in a meeting in the government house. The governor had asked the traditional rulers in attendance who had their staff of office to stand up, saying it is disrespectful for them not to carry it around.  The monarch in question shook his head in agreement and in reaction, Wike verbally attacked him describing him as a young boy. He said: ‘I know him when I was in school, he was running around us, going on errands. Now he’s dressing like Usman Dan Fodio (founder of Sokoto caliphate). Then he begins to breach protocol. He thinks when he’s shaking his head like this, I’d be happy. That’s fake…that’s fake…’ 

Former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria {CBN}, Lamido Sanusi, was unceremoniously dethroned as emir of Kano by Governor Abdullahi Ganduje in 2020 for allegedly disrespecting the office of the governor and replaced him with the current emir, Aminu Ado Bayero. Ganduje did not stop there as he banished the former CBN to a remote town in Nasarawa State. Sanusi’s grandfather suffered a similar fate in 1963, when he was deposed by the then premier of the northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and banished to a small town in Bauchi State.  

In 2005, former governor of Kebbi State, Adamu Aliero, deposed the emir of Gwandu, Mustapha Jokolo, for allegedly making ‘reckless statements’ capable of threatening national security. He was only reinstated by a court in 2014. In 1996, the late Ibrahim Dasuki was deposed as sultan of Sokoto by the military regime of General Sanni Abacha. His dethronement was orally communicated to him by the military administrator of Sokoto State, Yakubu Muazu. 

In 1984, two foremost traditional rulers, the former Ooni of Ife, the late Okunade Sijuade and a former Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, were suspended for six months by General Muhammadu Buhari when he was military head of state. Their offence was travelling to Israel, then a diplomatically unfriendly country, without the permission of his regime. Applying the same script, former governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, in 2016, suspended the Onojie of Uromi, Anslem Aidonojie, for travelling abroad without his permission. Oshiomole would later dethrone the monarch as his ‘parting gift’ to the people of Uromi. The Onojie was only reinstated by Governor Godwin Obaseki in 2017.  

The list is exhaustively long. As it was in the old regions in the early years after Nigeria’s independence, so it was under the military regimes, and so it is now in our growing democracy. Nigerian monarchs wallow in ill-treatment at the hands of politicians. But there was a time when they were invincible, unquestionable, and almost worshipped. It was colonialism and exploitation by the British that snatched their exalted status from them. They became subservient to the British administrators in the indirect rule system of administration that rendered the monarchs powerless but preserved the traditional institutions. In a 2021 journal article titled ‘Imperial Incarceration: Detention without Trial in the Making of British Colonial Africa’, historian, Michael Lobban, noted that the monarchs who rejected or revoked the exploitative treaties of the British or who totally opposed the expansion of the British empire into their kingdoms were violently deposed and exiled.  

Chief Afe Babalola noted that monarchs were disgracefully deposed by the British colonialists mostly for economic and expansion reasons. For example, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi ruled the rich Benin Empire until his punitive expedition in 1897 by the British; Akarigbo Oyebajo was deposed as the paramount ruler of Ijebu-Remo in 1915; and Awujale Adenuga was deposed and exiled to Ilorin in 1929. Jaja of Opobo was dethroned for his insistence on controlling the rivers in his kingdom and trading freely.  

African monarchs were conquered by those who came to colonize the region, and the educated elite who took over from the colonial master preferred to uphold the subjugation of the traditional stools, which now exist only as symbols of cultures and instruments of social mobilization. After independence, the traditional institution stayed almost afloat the country’s legal political structure; only acknowledged with chieftaincy laws in regions, until it was subsumed under the local government in the 1979 local government reform. 


Many Nigerians still attach reverence to the traditional authorities in their indigenous communities, so they do not take public disrespect of their monarchs lightly. But what can be done to salvage their reputation? Nigerian monarchs are demanding constitutional roles that could confer substantial political powers on them, and their requests are backed by some political stakeholders in the country. 

In 2020, Hon. Onofiok Luke, a member of the Federal House of Representatives, sponsored a bill to provide for a ‘Traditional Rulers Council’ both at the state and national level to serve as advisers to the president and governors on the culture and tradition of their people and to help in maintaining law and order in the country. The bill which aimed to alter the 1999 constitution and confer constitutional roles on traditional rulers, managed to pass a second reading in the green chamber but it is stuck there. 

The former vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, also once lent his voice in support of the demand. In a visit in March 2022, to the Ovie of Uvwle Kingdom; His Majesty Dr Emmanuel Sidesohe, Osinbajo argued that traditional rulers were more in touch with the grassroots and ‘in view of this there is need for the National Assembly to give them constitutional roles.’ Monarchs have been making this demand for years, but have only received promises from the legislative arm.  

Truly, despite its usurpation by political authority, monarchy maintains strong relevance in contemporary public administration in Nigeria, especially at the grassroots. Because the source of their authority is rooted in the ancestry of their people, traditional rulers still wield strong influence in their indigenous kingdoms, and the people look up to them for guidance and leadership. Even politicians, despite their political powers, seek the validation of these monarchs when seeking and serving in public offices. Also, while they remain dispossessed of political powers, their roles in community development, social mobilization, conflict resolution and the preservation of cultural heritage, among others, cannot be underestimated. For instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission always involve traditional rulers in the conduct of general elections. They often prevail on their people to register to vote and be peaceful during elections. Also, committees set up to resolve communal clashes or farmers-herders clashes in parts of the country always involve traditional rulers.  

Despite their enduring relevance especially in local administration, it is doubtful that they would be extended the political powers they seek. The political leaders have upheld the subjugation of these monarchs which started through colonialism, and on top of that, many of them, like Obasanjo, former governor Wike (now minister of the Federal Capital Territory), former governor, Ganduje (current chairman of the ruling party), among others do not see anything wrong in publicly ridiculing these revered monarchs. This is aptly summed up by a professor of history, Biodun Adediran: ‘From the pre-colonial era, the traditional institutions have been strengthened and weakened, elevated and humiliated, empowered and disempowered by emergent political/ruling class.’

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