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Nigeria traditional rulers: Role in national unity, security & socio-economic advancement

By Prof Joseph U. Igietseme

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King Jaja of Opobo, the iconic traditional ruler.

The 2021 Kaleidoscope Business Group Conference is commemorating the 150 Years of Opobo Kingdom founded in 1869 by the legendary King Jaja of Opobo [full name: Jubo Jubogha, 1821 – 1891]. The story of King Jaja illustrates the checkered history of African interactions with colonizing Europeans, the slave trade and post-slave trade coercive or forced business dealings, and the sad fates of non-compliant traditional rulers in the exploitation crusade. The legacies of these events are evident in the underdevelopment and lack of a determined drive toward societal development in most African nations even after several decades of independence.

Jaja was a merchant prince, born in 1821 as Mbanaso Okwaraozurumba at Umuduruoha Amaigbo, Orlu , in the present day Imo State of Nigeria. He rose from being a slave in the Kingdom of Bonny [originally called Ibani, a segment of the Ijaw ethnic group] at 12 years of age, to become a free man and chieftain who founded the Opobo City-State located in Rivers State, Nigeria. King Jaja of Opobo reigned from 25 December 1870 to September 1887. According to the story: Mbanaso was enslaved in Bonny Island, and renamed Jubo Jubogha by his first master, Chief Iganipughuma Allison of Bonny; later, he was resold to Chief Madu [or Son, Alali] who was the head of the Anna Pepple Royal House. Here, the British re-named him as “Jaja” because they couldn’t pronounce Jubo Jobogha. While working for Chief Alali, Jaja ran businesses on the side, bought his own freedom, and integrated into the Ibani/Ijaw tradition and culture. Because of his enormous personal abilities and success, he succeeded Alali as the head of the Anna Pepple Royal house. He became a recognized and successful businessmen, and annexed several of the other Pepple Royal Houses. In due course, a power struggle with High Chief Oko Jumbo of the Manilla Pepple House led to the breakaway of a faction of the Pepple Royal Houses led by Jaja. He established a new settlement east of the Bonny kingdom in 1869, which he named Opobo [in memory of a prominent past Ibani King] where he became King Jaja of Opobo.

King Jaja of Opopo

Post-slavery, palm oil exportation was very lucrative. King Jaja dominated the business as a middleman, and also exporting directly to Europe. This prevented direct access of Europeans to the hinterland [Ngwa to the North, Annang/Ibibio to the East] and they didn’t like it. Following European colonization [via the infamous 1884 Berlin Conference], Opobo was designated as British territory. However, King Jaja refused to cease taxing the British traders, so Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British vice consul in charge of the territory, invited Jaja for negotiations with the Queen in 1887. Jaja was arrested on arrival aboard a British warship [Goshawk], tried in Accra in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), exiled first to London, and then Saint Vincent in the West Indies/Barbados. In 1891, King Jaja was granted permission to return to Opobo but died en route. The Kingdom of Opobo is situated in today’s Rivers State of Nigeria, presently headed by His Majesty king (Dr.) Dandeson Douglas Jaja JP, Jeki V, Treaty king, Amayanabo & Natural Ruler Of Opobo Kingdom, & Chairman Rivers State Council Of Traditional Rulers.

The historical role of traditional rulers in Nigeria. The over 200 distinct ethnic groups in pre-colonial Nigeria were administered by recognized political structures whereby each town or collection of towns had a recognized, people-empowered ruler, who might in turn be subordinate to the ruler of a larger polity, Clan, Kingdom or empire. For example, the Sokoto caliphate was divided into emirates, with the emirs loosely subordinate to the Sultan of Sokoto, although at times acting as independent rulers. The colonialists, especially the British, were very satisfied with the use of traditional rulers to administer the Northern and Southern protectorates that constitute the Nigerian nation today. In fact, where there were no traditional rulers, the British created them to facilitate their efficient administration and the effective reach to the people through only few channels. For example, 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 who were before then in diverse localities with independent town or village heads.

With independence in 1960, followed by alternating democratic and military governments, Nigerian traditional rulers lost considerable administrative authority. They not only acquire office through inheritance or through appointment by a council of elders, the government in power has also become involved in appointing and certifying them. This government role in legitimacy of traditional rulers makes them to remain highly respected in many communities, and have considerable political and economic influence. So in modern Nigeria, although traditional rulers do not have formal role in the democratic structure and therefore little or no political powers, they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence. This situation is often observed in the intense competition for royal seats amongst all over the country. The former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria [Alhaji Lamido Sanusi] once quipped that he would rather be Emir of Kano than be President of Nigeria!

Functionally, as in pre-colonial times, traditional rulers play useful roles in mediating between the people and the state, promoting national cultural identity, resolving minor community and municipal conflicts, and providing an institutional safety-valve for the often inadequate state bureaucracies, as a brilliant scholar expressed it. Because traditional rulers are stable and reliable administrative systems nearest to the people and therefore maintain enormous influence over their subjects, they are involved in maintaining peace and safety within their domains and between ethnic groups; therefore, traditional rulers are highly courted and feted by most governments in power and cared for in different ways [e.g., periodic new cars, palaces, business and appointment favors, among other perks] by government officials or politicians who want their support to maintain or acquire formal authorities at different levels in the country. For example, some traditional rulers organize community vigilante and security for preventing robberies and kidnappings in their domains. At the same time, essentially all political office seekers pay homage to traditional rulers when campaigning anywhere in the country, both as a symbolism of reverence and the fact that they control at least 20-25% of the votes in their domains during any election session. As formidable power brokers in the country, traditional Rulers can do a lot MORE for Nigerian unity, security and socioeconomic advancement, SHIKIENA!

Vital lessons from the life of King Jaja of Opobo for us, and especially our traditional rulers, today. The critical review of the essential lessons from the life of King Jaja will show that traditional rulers should be doing more of the following in Nigeria: (a) Making bold and courageous moves to develop their domains through Government and community advocacies and deliberately designed programs and project initiatives; (b) Facilitation of adequate education of their people with 100% literacy being the goal, and vocational and professional training being strongly emphasized among those who have the abilities; and (c) Actively establish ambassadorial links with other kingdoms to build regional strength that are not easily weakened or broken by external forces with colonization or exploitation motives. Perhaps King Jaja could’ve saved himself and preserved a greater legacy for us if he had established greater diplomatic ties with other regional powers; establishing better and stronger neighboring cooperation could have built inter-ethnic/regional unity and prevented King Jaja from going alone in his resistance to the British or in his developments in Opobo Kingdom. Y’re more effective with multi-lateral approach than going alone into a fight against a superior power or in the magnitude of developments you can achieve in your territory. Unity is STRENGTH!

Lastly, there’s no doubt that most traditional Rulers are doing well on individual networking, establishing relationships that benefit them individually, in businesses, and securing or supporting appointments for family members, relatives and patrons. In addition, traditional rulers can do MUCH MORE in COMMUNITY-WIDE development, and in community-to-community relationship-building to enhance national unity, promote shared destiny, and foster mutual inter-ethnic trust. The SPECIAL place of traditional rulers in our society gives them the opportunity to pre-empt developmental agendas locally (by actively engaging their subjects within their domains and in the Diaspora), and nationally by working with one another to build inter-domain bridges, and recommend to Governments at all levels vital infrastructures that promote common interests, security and destiny for all Nigerians. Could you imagine what happens if all the first-Class traditional rulers in Nigeria come together to design and advocate cross-country road networks, inter-state mass transit systems, and ecological management to the Feds? And if the Council of traditional rulers in every State come together occasionally to design and advocate Statewide road networks, schools, public water, sewage and electricity supplies; and the same happen with traditional rulers at the villages, towns, Cities and municipals at Local Government levels. In fact, our traditional rulers should come up with a draft of comprehensive developmental programs that all incoming Govts should implement or consider in their developmental agendas. The Govt will LISTEN!

Also, our traditional rulers should set the standards for the moral-ethical compass for the country: quit giving recognition and chieftaincy titles to unverified achievers, greedy, selfish and under-performing public leaders and Govt officials.

Furthermore, a stronger inter-domain relations among traditional rulers may resolve the indigenization problem in Nigeria whereby an individual of a different ethnic group who has resided in another ethnic domain for several years is not still considered as an indigene of the host domain. In this respect, traditional rulers can establish the parameters for indigenization in their domains. In contemporary times, the Weppa and Wanno Clans in North Edo State of Nigeria have a traditional ceremony [called Okhe] that would allow a foreigner or person from another ruling house to acquire indigeneship of any ruling house in the Clans. King Jaja of Opobo did it and an Igbo man became a King in Ijaw-land with all the rights and privileges appertaining!

REFERENCES

Cookey, S.J.S (2005). King Jaja of the Niger Delta: His Life and Times 1821 – 1891. UGR publishing. ISBN 0-9549138-0-9

Oma Djebah, Collins Edomaruse, Lanre Issa-Onilu, Agaju Madugba, and Oke Epia (31 August 2003). “Royal Fathers: Their Power, Influence, Relevance…” BNW News.

Google searches, Wikipedia etc were other sources of information.


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