After what appears to be an interlude, former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, returned to the news wave again. A few days ago, a video of the former president, also generally referred to as Ebora Owu, went viral. He was seen dressing down some Yoruba traditional rulers over what he regarded as their imprudence. He ordered them to stand up! They did like school children who had just been scolded by their class teacher. Then, almost immediately, he ordered to sit down. Again, they obeyed him.
In a short, but didactic speech, the former president was seen telling the traditional rulers that it was the protocol that whenever the president or a governor was ushered into the presence of an audience, everyone had to stand up in deference to their office. He said it was, therefore, a breach of protocol for the monarch not to have stood up for the governor when he came into the arena. The incident, it was learnt, happened in Iseyin, an agrarian town in the northern fringes of Oyo State. The governor that was so disrespected was Seyi Makinde.
The internet space exploded in the face of Obasanjo shortly after with many citizens, mostly Yoruba, upbraiding him for his disrespect to the traditional rulers. Ironically, the former president was accused of what he had accused the traditional rulers of. He would utilise an opportunity offered by an online news medium interview to clarify his action. “There is culture and there is the Constitution,” he told Premium Times, explaining that under the 1999 Constitution as altered, the president and governors are the heads of the government of the federation and the states. He argued that to that extent everyone, including himself must submit to the authority of the offices listed. He narrated to Premium Times, how the traditional rulers refused to defer to the governor of the state twice on that occasion, contending that was not only a breach of protocol, but also a disrespect to the person and office of the governor, pointing out that he himself followed the protocol, and thought he needed to correct the traditional rulers.
Without a doubt Obasanjo was correct. Under the Constitution, the order of precedence is clear. The president takes precedence at all federal functions followed by the vice-president, president of the Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives, and the chief justice of Nigeria. At the state level, the order is the governor, the deputy governor, the speaker of the House of Assembly, and the chief judge. Usually, the order of entry at events is reversed in such a way that the president or the governor arrives last in order that respect might be shown appropriately. And once the number one citizen steps in, the audience is told to rise in his honour.
Although traditional rulers are regarded as fathers of all, the order of precedence does not even recognise them as public officers even when the Constitution provides five per cent of local council funds for their upkeep without assigning them any formal role. Since the 1963 Republican Constitution that excludes them from the formal governance structure, the traditional rulers have made several requests for a mention in the Constitution without success.
However, presidents and governors have, over time indulged them, granting them lavish audiences and assigning them informal roles, particularly during social crises. They are urged to help to maintain religious harmony and peace in their domain. Some of the wealthy ones amongst them had used their financial power and influence to maintain some level of political relevance and reverence. Perhaps it was this indulgence that made some of them harbour the thought that adhering to protocol during state functions would amount to denigrating their traditional stool.
The fact of the matter is that Nigeria is a modern state governed by the Constitution and subsidiary statutes, which clearly place the president and the governors as the heads of the government at both federal and state levels, and grant them the executive powers that practically subordinate other arms and citizens, including traditional rulers to them.
It is against this background that Obasanjo would appear to be right in emphasising the supremacy of the Constitution that prescribes respect for political authorities over culture, which enjoins reverence for traditional stools. He is also correct that both have a meeting point if only everyone would recognise their boundary. Therefore, the expression of the former president’s perspective of the matter may have been brash as usual, but it is legally sound.
Anyone who is in doubt about the soundness of Obasanjo’s perspective needs to clear that doubt is to refer to the mode of appointment of traditional rulers which is vested in the governor without whose approval they could never ascend their throne. In actual fact, traditional rulers are under the authority of the local councils which recommend their appointment to their governors for approval. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for them not to defer to their appointor as the circumstances require.
So, it should be appropriate to say that those traditional rulers in Iseyin who refused to obey protocol procured the tongue-lashing they got from the former president. They had a choice not to be where they were even as refusing to honour an invitation to a function where they would be required to go through a protocol, they might consider condescending might also be considered insubordination.
Perhaps to avoid this type of situation, a couple of highly revered traditional rulers hardly stray out of their palace, preferring that dignitaries pay them visits rather than attending public functions, including state events. Until recently, the Oba of Benin, the Olubadan of Ibadan, the Ooni of Ife, and the Attah of Igala, to mention just a few, hardly attended public functions. It is the recent ones that started to break that tradition. Any wonder then that the older holders of those thrones got more reverence than the new ones?
Without a doubt, the traditional institutions are culturally relevant and need to be preserved, but that has to be within the context of the modern state system that has streamlined the roles of its own institutions and demands adherence to them. The monarchy must recognise its limitations within that mix and adjust to it accordingly to prevent a clash that could leave it worsted.
Adebiyi, the executive editor of Western Post, is also a member of the Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers