Nigerian monarchs and progressive constitutional reform

Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III and Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi

The hypothesis of an inherent tension between monarchies and democracies is ideologically incontestable. Because monarchies, in the original sense, create a superior class of elites who, it is asserted, are born to rule.
A monarch is defined as one who rules over a people with a sole, supreme, and usually hereditary authority, according to Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus.

The inference in that statement is that the former is an absolute monarch, like King Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; whereas the latter is a constitutional monarch, like King Charles III of United Kingdom; with circumscribed powers, pursuant to the 1689 Bill of Rights; which established the rights and liberties of subjects and settling of succession to the Crown.

On the flipside, democracy is an egalitarian philosophy, where political leadership is determined by popular legitimacy in that the person with the largest number of votes is elected to political office. Unsurprisingly, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), characterised it as the government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Evidently, the dynamic tension between monarchies and democracies is not far-fetched because the former is purely determined by the asymmetric circumstances of one’s birth; whereas the latter is determined by widespread support.

According to the 2023 Economist Democracy Index, out of 167 nations globally, 108 (64.6 per cent) countries are either full, flawed or hybrid democratic regimes; and 59 (35.4 per cent) nations are authoritarian regimes. Such regimes thrive where political pluralism is rejected or extremely constrained and are often absolute monarchies or dictatorships, often characterised by state media control, censorship, sham elections, overawed judicial systems and variable applications of the rule of law.
So, roughly two-thirds of nations execute some form of democratic governance however imperfectly formed and approximately one-third are authoritarian in some fashion.

Notwithstanding the dynamic tension intersecting both models, Nigerian history affords seminal perspectives. Because, monarchies pre-existed colonialism, and provided an important stabilising influence for societal law and order, and cultural preservation, with in-built political checks and balances.

Take the Old Oyo Kingdom, in Yorubaland (present-day Oyo-State, Nigeria); ruled by various monarchs “Alaafins” from inception circa 11th Century; under Alaafin Oranmiyan; to Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi III (1970-2022). Although powerful in their own right, the Alaafin’s powers were circumscribed by an effective system of checks and balances evidenced by the Oyo Mesi and the Ogboni Cult.

The Oyo Mesi was a council of seven eminent persons, headed by the Bashorun, de facto voice of the people, with the overriding interest of safeguarding the common weal. Each Alaafin was duty-bound to consult the Oyo Mesi on matters of policy and execution. The Bashorun was de facto Prime Minister, given the enormous powers and influence which he wielded including a pivotal voice in the selection of an Alaafin. If an Alaafin became tyrannical, it was the Bashorun’s prerogative to seek the monarch’s rejection, the corollary of which was suicide for the Alaafin!
Strategically, the Oyo Empire’s political hierarchy recognised the enormous risks embedded with the Bashorun’s commanding role within the Oyomesi, and circumscribed his powers via the Ogboni Cult; which comprised 100 members including the Oyo Mesi. The Ogboni Cult exercised a veto to ratify or reject the death sentence of an Alaafin thereby checkmating either the
Bashorun’s or Oyo Mesi’s excesses.

Nonetheless, the Oyo kingdom at its pinnacle, dominated Egba, Ekiti, Ife, Igbomina, Ijesha, Ondo, Sabe and Owu provinces (in present-day South-Western Nigerian States). It also extended to Dahomey (now Benin Republic) and Togo. The key point being that the Alaafin provided a stabilising effect for societal order with constraining powers.

The Benin Kingdom (Edo State, Nigeria) flourished for centuries and continues to do so with its established monarchical system. The historian, Adekunle Ojelabi, opined in West African History (1970), that the first Benin ‘Ogiso’ dynasty was established by ‘Obagodo’ in the 10th Century. The Ogiso dynasty produced 15 Ogiso monarchs and two republican leaders through 900 and 1170 A.D.

Interestingly, amongst the Ogiso monarchs were two women ‘Omose’ and ‘Orhorho’, thus establishing patrilineal and matrilineal succession models, long before other kingdoms globally. The Bini Kingdom thrives till this day under the constitutional monarchy of Oba Ewuare II, who assumed the throne in 2016.

In Northern Nigeria, the Sokoto Caliphate was founded by the Islamic scholar, Sheikh Usman dan Fodio in 1804, following Fulani jihads against the Hausa Kingdoms. The genesis of the religious war was a major schism, arising from Dan Fodio’s growing popularity, which prompted the monarch, King Yunfa of Gobir, to force Dan Fodio, (Yunfa’s former tutor) into exile.
Dan Fodio’s forces captured Gobir in 1808 and executed Yunfa! The former’s success prompted other jihads in West Africa and a significant expansion of the Sokoto Caliphate to present-day Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso.

Ultimately, the Sokoto Caliphate was conquered by Anglo-French and German forces in 1903. Nevertheless, the lasting impacts of the original foundations of the Caliphate, with the spread of Islam in Northern Nigeria, and further afield, persists till today.

The current Sultan of Sokoto, (Rtd) Brigadier-General Muhammadu Saadu Abubakar, heads the: Qadriyyasufi order, the most important Islamic position in Nigeria; Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs; ditto Jama’atu Nasril Islam (“JNI”), Society for the Support of Islam.

Likewise, the current Etsu Nupe (King) of Bida, (Rtd) Brigadier-General Yahaya Abubakar, is the Chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the National Council of Traditional Rulers of Nigeria, a strategically important role, which enables him interface with the federal, state and local government on matters pertaining to national security, peaceful co-existence and good governance.

And aside from the aforementioned first-class monarchs within the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Nigerian nation of 220 million people, other sovereigns in that league include the Ooni of Ife, the Oba of Lagos, the Awujale of Ijebu, the Emir of Kano, the Olu of Warri, the Dein of Agbor, the Tor Tiv, the Obi of Onitsha inter alia.

The deduction from the foregoing is that Nigerian monarchs have, over several centuries, played, and still perform, an important role in the preservation of social order, administrative continuity, custodians of heritage, dispute resolution and national integration.
But even so, the really interesting question is whether and to what extent first-class monarchs are accorded defined roles in the evolution of the country’s constitutional architecture beyond the 1999 Constitution, given the socio-political challenges and volatilities which go to the heart of Nigeria’s corporate existence.

For emphasis, monarchs, do not exist in vacuo. They subsist within the wider context of traditional institutions, which embraces Olus, Emirs, Chiefs, Kingmakers, Regents, Council heads and religious leaders. Other stakeholders in Nigeria’s monarchies and traditional institutions are citizens, monarchists, republicans, democratically elected politicians and of course, the extant Constitutional architecture.

The 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) for instance, defines and delineates the powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria within section 4 (1), (2), therein as legislative powers; exercisable by the National Assembly (the Senate/House of Representatives) within the Exclusive Legislative List; and section 4 (6), (7), vest legislative powers at state level with the respective Houses of Assembly.

Sections 5 and 6, of the Constitution, respectively, vests executive and judicial powers with the President and State Governors, or their agents in respect of the former; whilst the latter applies to the relevant courts at federal or state level. In short, there are no defined roles for monarchs in Nigeria’s 1999 constitution!
Noteworthy too, is section 42 (2) of the Constitution. It establishes that “no citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth.” The provision safeguards, from an egalitarian perspective, the rights of every Nigerian citizen irrespective of the unique circumstances of their birth.

Philosophically, it is problematic squaring this provision with Nigerian monarchies in so far as it impinges the equal rights of every citizen; because an essential ingredient of monarchies is ‘superiority’ in the circumstances of birth.

And according to Dr Jare Oladosun, an associate professor of history at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University, “there is no way you can reconcile the feudal gathering of traditional kingship with the application of a modern republican constitution.”

Nevertheless, it is recommended that the roles of leading monarchs across the geopolitical zones be critically examined in Nigeria’s on-going constitutional review to explore opportunities to formalise their important advisory, and strictly apolitical roles, in promoting peace, reconciliation, integration and good governance; without undermining the country’s progressive democratic order.

Ojumu is the Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal practitioners and strategy consultants in Lagos, Nigeria, and the author of The Dynamic Intersections of Economics, Foreign Relations, Jurisprudence and National Development.

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