The time has come for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which has the most monarchies in the world, to abolish its dated system of tribal kings. Nigerian citizens should not have their loyalties divided by anachronistic and irrelevant kings created by colonisers for the benefit of colonialism.
Recently, I took issue with a Facebook feed of an image of a begoggled man hidden in layers of overflowing gowns, and a head crowned by a white turban. Nigerian women swooned over the handsome man whose covered up face they could not see in the photo. They basked in the aura of his stature and power because he was flanked on either side by obsequious looking black men garbed in western attire—in suits and fedora hats in northern Nigeria’s sweltering heat. The Facebook groupies in adoration expressed their desire to be the polygamist’s umpteenth wife without shame. The women with their apparent display of ersatz admiration were all university graduates.
The object of their dubious adulation was the 14th Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II (Sanusi Lamido Sanusi), whom I once sat before while a student at Columbia University in the City of New York, when the erstwhile Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria had presented a speech. I was impressed by his gift of gab and his refined manners. It was a bonus that he is an alumnus of my alma mater, King’s College Lagos. He sounded like a progressive and at the time, I had wondered why we did not have men like Sanusi as our president. But his station in life soon changed. After he was eased out as the Governor of Nigeria’s apex bank, he was crowned, as Emir of Kano. I was disappointed that he accepted this role.
Some of his subsequent actions as a monarch would evince a character more reactionary—even primitive—than progressive or modern. For instance, the new Emir when he was 54, would add to his harem of wives, an 18-year-old girl. This is hardly what a modern sophisticated and progressive man would do, if he would be an advocate of equal rights for women. Had the 18-year-old barely post-pubescent girl had a choice of a lover, it would not be someone who could be the age of her grandmother—Sanusi being 3 times the 18-year-old girl’s age. An 18-year-old although legal, is too young to marry. Marriage is about sacrifices. Sacrificing without living. Let the 18-year-old girl live a life, learn, develop and grow into her own independent woman. Let her not be stymied by a culture, system or autocrat that dictates to her.
Traditionalists came to his defence that polygamy is part of our culture and attacks on an institution that I argue devalues women, were said to be from those allegedly suffering from “colonial mentality.” Supposedly, folks who suffer from colonial mentality have a foreign worldview and believe Western culture is superior to indigenous African culture, which Sanusi was supposedly exhibiting in his polygamous home. However, these traditionalists appear to be uninformed about the origins of some of our customs, which they regard as indigenous African culture, including our monarchies. I will proceed to lay these bare and argue that the time has come to end the “foreign” monarchies that serve no useful purpose in our goal to build a united modern Nigeria. The monarchies un-meritoriously elevate some Nigerians over others and its surplus presence in Nigeria is inimical to meritocracy, which must be the basis of Nigeria’s economic development.
A recent article in a cutting edge American news magazine, OZY, describes Nigerian-Americans as the most successful ethnic group in America. A few years ago, the US census bureau captured Nigerian-Americans as the most educated ethnic group in America. Thus, we find an enabling environment allows Nigerians to thrive and excel at the top of world-class standards. However, perhaps the ubiquity of the lack of meritocracy in Nigerian society prevents Nigerians from achieving greatness in Nigeria. Consequently, there is the pressing need to end those institutions in Nigeria that bar merit—such as the tribal monarchies.
Starting with the institution of polygamy, which is the foundation of Yoruba monarchies, I argue that most Nigerian monarchical kingdoms are wedded to polygamy, which does not promote but impugns women’s rights and progress towards equality. Indeed, there was once a place for polygamy in our ancient burgeoning kingdoms with limited resources and knowledge. Baale is an equivalent title for the traditional Yoruba king, Oba. Baale means head of a household. The basic organisational unit of the agglomeration that came to be known as the Yoruba empire, is the household of a husband and his several wives. A wife and her children call the husband by his title—Baale. The husband or Baale is like a king in his own household. His wives are his administrators. They not only run the household and assign domestic chores, but they also represent and enhance his influence in the market square.
Traditionally, after marrying the Yoruba husband provides his new wife funding to start a trade. Traditional Yoruba wives were not stay at home wives. Indeed, conducting the domestic activities was among their tasks, but more importantly trading in the market square and exercising some sort of political sway in the community were important functions of the traditional Yoruba wife. This she did in collaboration with her co-wives (the other wives of her husband.) Together the wives formed some sort of a power bloc wielding economic, political and organisational power within the community and as a bulwark supporting their husband, who was their Baale or their king.
An offshoot of the ancient enterprising character of the traditional Yoruba woman, is that today, I argue Yoruba women are about the most enterprising women in the world and certainly the most enterprising women in Africa. I do not know of a Yoruba woman who is not engaged in several business activities in addition to her other roles, as wife, mother or even professional. Examples of enterprising Yoruba women we know are: the billionaires Folorunsho Alakija, once the richest black woman in the world; Mo Abudu who produced the highest-grossing movie ever in Nollywood. Every Yoruba woman is enterprising. What is true of the Igbo man, is true of the Yoruba woman—they are adept traders/business people. The traditional positioning of Yoruba women in society and in the household, prepared them for this.
Thus, the important Oba in Yorubaland is really a Baale among many Baales. Because each household was traditionally constituted to be like a mini-kingdom, Yoruba cities have historically been the most densely populated urban centres in Africa. Lagos, a Yoruba city with over 20 million people today, is the most populated city in Africa.
However, there are new roles that Nigerian women are prepared for that do not make them the appendage of their husbands as the traditional Yoruba woman was to her Baale. Polygamy is the bedrock of Yoruba kingdoms. It would be hard to conceive of a Yoruba kingdom or monarchy without polygamy. Thus, one reason to end the institution of monarchies in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which I have argued in the preceding paragraphs is a concomitant termination of institutions supporting polygamy. This is not a treatise on polygamy but an argument to end monarchies in Nigeria. And now to the substance of my argument.
Nigeria is a republic in which every man and woman is an equal citizen. Our old monarchies have the kings wielding power over subjects—who are contradistinctively meant to be citizens of Nigeria. A conflict exists for the Nigerian citizen since his loyalty is divided: he is at once a subject of his monarch, whether he is an Oba or he is an Emir or an Obi, while supposed to be a free citizen unequivocally loyal to Nigeria, which protects his fundamental human rights. The existence of extant kingdoms with suzerainty over Nigerian citizens is antithetical to the definition of a republic, which is a collection of free and equal citizens who possess the ultimate power of their organised government executed through their elected representatives. Most republics have an elected president as the head of the government and as the representation of the political will of the people.
Imbued in the philosophy underscoring the Yoruba kingdom, the Oba is superior to his subject. Obas are ascribed semi deity-like status in Yorubaland. Similarly, the Sultan of Sokoto is considered superior to his northern subjects in his caliphate. Again, the notion of a competing monarch with suzerainty over a Nigerian citizen is in diametrical opposition to the notion of Nigeria being a republic of free citizens with unequivocal loyalty to Nigeria. No wonder after nearly 60 years of independence, the Nigerian identity is still undefined. A key obstacle lies with the du jour monarchs delimiting the identities of their subjects and precluding their identity as loyal Nigerians.
Some may raise a meretricious argument by claiming that these monarchs represent our indigenous cultures and eradicating the institutions of tribal monarchs smacks of colonial mentality. The argument is patently false. In fact, what was left of the tribal monarchies was reengineered by the British to be exploited as a tool of colonialism in indirect rule administration. Most of the Nigerian terrain (and thanks to malaria, too) was not conducive to European settlement. Consequently, the British did not set up shop directly in Nigeria in order to establish a government that facilitated their exploitation of the region’s resources.
In part due to Lord Lugard’s philosophy of not creating indigenous black Western-educated elite to administer their new colonies on behalf of the British Crown, Nigeria’s tribal monarchs remained and were not wiped out like the Spanish conquistadores did in the New World – the Americas. Lugard who created Nigeria with the amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914, becoming its first governor-general was suspicious of black intellectuals growing in numbers in Yorubaland. He believed allowing native rulers to act as middle managers between the colonial rulers and the indigenous subjects would preclude revolts from the populace, because they were likely to be more amenable to people who looked like them and spoke their languages. Indeed, indirect rule was more successful in northern Nigeria than in the south.
Furthermore, Lugard had a racist philosophy behind his unmitigated support of the Sokoto Caliphate and the emirs of the north: Because of the presence of Islam in the north, Lugard believed Hausas and Fulanis were mixed with Aryan and Hamitic blood from Arabs. Thus, he considered the rulers of the north superior to the black natives in the south. When the British were formally exiting Nigeria in 1960, they managed to massage the polity enough to leave power in the clutches of the Sokoto and northern aristocracy whom they believed had mixed (white) ancestry. The Sokoto Caliphate had been conquered by the British, who did not extirpate the monarchy in order to use them in governing the region. The moth-eaten emirates that remain today in northern Nigeria are the remaining vestiges of British colonial power.
In Yorubaland, the British by simply using gunboat diplomacy changed obas, and installed the new obas that bowed to British rule and majesty. For instance, the slave-trading Oba Kosoko was deposed in 1851 and replaced by an anti-slave trade activist Oba Akitoye, who became a vassal of the British sovereign after he was installed by the British.
While most of Igboland had functioned in an egalitarian political structure without a monarch, the kingdom of Nri, which at its height controlled a quarter of Igboland, had a priest-king, Eze Nri. However, the Igbo monarchy of Eze Nri was terminated by British troops in 1911. Subsequently, when the colonial rulers saw the efficacy of indirect rule in northern Nigeria, in using the emirs in the north as administrators of their own people within the British empire, the British created warrant chiefs who became Igbo kings to rule their indigenous people and collect taxes, etc. on behalf of the British crown. Thus, the various monarchs that existed and were newly created during colonialism were agents of British authorities.
Furthermore, most of the powerful monarchies in fact represent foreign conquest and overthrow of indigenous sub-Saharan African culture. The titles of emir and sultan and Islamic customs came with the Arabisation of northern Nigeria following its conquest by foreign Muslim clerics about 1,000 years ago and then again about 200 years ago. Islam and its organisational structure are not indigenous to northern Nigeria. They were imposed from the Middle East and northern Africa. The turban, the flowing gowns and other garb donned by Emir Sanusi, are relics of Arabian cultural colonisation. So, really the Sokoto caliphate represents a dual foreign colonisation of northern Nigerians: first by the Arabs and second by the British who reinforced their suzerainty in using them for indirect rule during colonisation.
Additionally, the Sokoto caliphate is the source of a lot of controversy, discord and pain for many Yoruba Nigerians. Most Yorubas know the story of Afonja of Ilorin the Are-Ona Kakanfo or war general of the Oyo empire, who colluded with the Fulani cleric, Mallam Alimi to break away from the authority of the Alafin of Oyo (emperor of Yorubaland), to create his own independent state in Ilorin in the 19th century. Afonja was later killed by the Fulani cleric’s descendants who brought the Yoruba city of Ilorin under the Fulanis’ Sokoto caliphate. However, the once powerful Sokoto caliphate has been devalued even in the eyes of the military. In 1996, Ibrahim Dasuki, the Sultan of Sokoto was deposed by the regime of military dictator, General Sani Abacha. Dasuki was replaced by Muhammadu Maccido, as the new Sultan of Sokoto. Why should Nigerians valorise a moth-eaten monarchy degraded by the Nigerian military?
As Usman Dan Fodio and his fellow Fulani clerics spread Islam and expanded the Sokoto caliphate pushing it further down south and making incursions in Yorubaland, Fulani marauders took non-Muslim captives as slaves and were sold via the transatlantic slave trade. Before the transatlantic slave trade, Muslim and Arab clerics had taken captives in northern Nigeria to be transported in the trans-Saharan slave trade to the Middle East and North Africa.
Indeed, all the major tribes’ reigning political powers, mostly represented by their monarchs except among the Igbos, participated actively in the slave trade and used it to expand their territories and influence. Recently, some Yoruba kings have acknowledged and apologised for the role Yoruba monarchs played in the slave-trade. In Igboland, the Arochukwu communities grew with the slave-trade as their economic base. It is estimated that about 1.4 million Igbo people alone were transported from the shores of West Africa to the Americas as slaves. The Oyo king was a large exporter of slaves and Yoruba kings warred against each other in what is called the Yoruba 100-year war, which further led to the decline of Yoruba city-states and made Yorubaland vulnerable to British colonisation in the 20th century.
The image of the Emir of Kano that the Nigerian women swooned over was a photo in which Emir Sanusi was attending a polo tournament. Someone even tried to make another false claim that emirs attending polo tournaments is part of the regal culture of ancient Nigerian kings and emirs, because of the traditional presence of horses in Yorubaland and in northern Nigeria. I believe polo, an eastern sport from either China, Iran or Pakistan was introduced to Nigeria by the British colonisers to complete the elitist accoutrements of its newly installed puppet kings or subalterns in its vast colonial empire.
The tribal monarchs are not a thing of pride for the Nigerian citizen. They have been a constant source of the enslavement and siege on the Nigerian. The elitist and showy regalia they wear – from their turbans to their flowing gowns – are simply the paraphernalia signifying foreign imperial power and the subjugation of Africans. There is a place for these moth-eaten monarchs to reside in: in museums and in history books. If the majestic Tsars of Russia, and even the Sultans of the exalted Ottoman empire (representing the pinnacle of Islamic power and civilisation) can contently reside in history books and in museums, so can our monarchs who represent moribund cultures propped by defunct colonial empires.
* Olurotimi Osha is Doctor of Law candidate at the George Washington University Law School, in Washington, DC.