Traditional Authority and National Development


Marcus Amudipe

Decades before the advent of the colonial rule in Nigeria, traditional administration formed the nucleus of governance in many part of what is regarded as the present day Nigeria as  Politics in Nigeria was greatly influenced by the traditional system

Local administration generally centered on the traditional ruler who was considered the repository of religious, legislative, executive and judicial functions, with a few exceptions. They were responsible for the running and daily administration of their communities.

In our contemporary Nigerian society, the role of traditional leaders and its institution has undergone different numerous changes, as the once prominent and glorified institution has been in different wise as its significance as been relegated to ceremonial functions in the area of governance and politics in Nigeria

The introduction of the 1976 local government reforms made a different provision to the institution of our native system in terms of leadership and governance. It was recorded that over the years starting before the British rule in Nigeria, traditional rulers who were regarded as the custodian of the people’s culture and tradition. They were highly involved in the western government; even the British who later colonized Nigeria adopted the indirect system of administration ad governance where they made use of the native authority to rule the people. According to the records, it was recorded that some traditional rulers were members of the house of chiefs in the Northern part of the country during the period of 1944-1951.

Traditional Rulers also made laws alongside with the Regional Houses of Assembly. The situation however was altered after the nation’s independence and the enactment of the 1979, 1989 and the 1999 constitutions. These changes in the Nigeria constitution gave little relevance to the place of the traditional institution as the Nigerian constitution made little or no provision for them, they were not properly funded, the corruption among the traditional rulers had seen to a decline in their power and relevance, many of them were easily manipulated for cheap political gains and scores and lastly many of them only reigned and not rule

Traditional Authority in Nigeria

A traditional ruler is defined differently by many authors depending on time and circumstances. In the pre-colonial era a traditional ruler is defined as a person who by virtue of his   ancestral position occupies the throne or stool of an area and who has been appointed to it in accordance with the customs and traditions of the area and whose throne has been in existence before the advent of the British in Nigeria.

The traditional ruler as defined above has absolute executive, legislative as well as judicial powers. Examples of such rulers under this definition are Emirs in Northern Nigeria such as Emirs of Bauchi, Kano, Zaria, Adamawa, Ilorin, Gombe etc Etsu Nupe and Shehu of Borno. In Western Nigeria are the Alafins of Oyo, Oni of Ife, Oba of Benin. The Emirs and the Alafins had well-structured system of administration on how they governed their people. In Eastern Nigeria, the system of administration before the advent of the colonial rule was based on small communities being headed by a purely democratic process and not necessary by hereditary.

In another definition, a traditional ruler is the traditional head of an ethnic unit or clan who for the time being the holder of the highest traditional authority whose title is recognized as a traditional ruler’s title by the government of the state.

There function ranged from maintaining peace and order in their respective communities to upholding the sacred cultural values of their respective cultures. Some of their functions are listed below

Functions of Traditional Rulers

Traditional rulers often give advice to modern politicians in such questions as economic policy, security, culture and customs, and general well-being of the citizens. Because of long experience of the dynasties, the monarchs and kings often has the ability to give wise advice in many questions related to the ruling.

Every traditional leader builds his relationships with people on the basis of traditions that were developed for centuries. This experience sometimes is very helpful for modern politicians.

  1. Order and peace. – this is one of the primary function of traditional rulers as they were as the head of their respective communities were tasked with the basic responsibilities of ensuring that peace and order existed in their respective communities. Order and peace are the vital conditions for the economic development of any country. Government administration relies on local traditional leaders who can support order and peace in their those days they were actively involved in settling disputes between their subjects and also ensuring the sustenance of an harmonious relationship in their communities
  2. Religious sanctions. Traditional leaders still have the power to use religious sanctions in the cases of stealing, quarrels of married couples or neighbors, and land disputes. Only traditional leaders have the power to use local religion as an instrument to keep order and exclude the cases of misbehavior in local areas and communities.
  3. Cultural Preservation Another vital importance of traditional rules and the institution is that they were the custodian of the ancient values and norms of the native people. In a changing world that is fast adopting the western way of life, the traditional system is highly vested with the obligation to preserve the norms and way of life of their people and the traditional rulers were at the fore front of this responsibility.
  4. Social authorities.- The authority of traditional rulers often influence many essential social questions, for example, the rulers can influence government election process. Theit influence is significant almost in any social issue.
  5. Chair meetings of elders.- Such chair meetings of elders play a significant role for the well-being of a domain. This is the main method of regulation of the issues in the community.
  6. Taxes and civil duties.- Traditional rulers mobilize local citizens to pay taxes and not forget about their civil duties. This is a common responsibility of local government and traditional rulers. They educate people about civil duties. It is especially important function of rulers in rural areas.

The Local Government Reforms Of 1976 and the Changing roles of Traditional Authority

Reforms that have to do with traditional rulers in Nigeria did not start with the Local Government Reforms of 1976. Effort towards the modification of the colonial machinery  of Local Government as epitomized by the theory and practice of Indirect Rule were  begun by the British colonialists themselves as the years of self-government were fast approaching. In 1954 a new Native Authority law which abrogated the status of the Emirs and the paramount Chiefs was promulgated by the colonial Government. The Military Government of 1966 also declared its intention to reform the prevailing system of Local Government. In 1968 the promised reform was launched and by 1970 the federal military Government’s proposals were implemented. In the course of deliberations leading to the reforms many state Governments characterized the prevailing

Native Authority system with the following virtues:

(1) Native Authorities provided organization suitable for maintaining contact

With the general populace,

(2) They maintain law and order successfully,

(3) They provided such social services as education and dispensaries, among others, and

(4) They preserved the long standing traditions of the people from collapse and decay

However, in the same deliberations the Native Authorities were accused of the following flaws:

(I) Their procedures were often irreconcilable with democratic norms,

(2) They were frequently hostile to progressive measures and essential reforms,

(3) Several Native Authorities had not shown total responsibility in the management of public funds,

(4) With few exceptions they had failed to attract the qualified staff required for efficient cooperation and many were financially dependent on Government by shortage of funds and staff, and

(5) Some Native Authorities were sufficiently strong to defy the directives of Government.

Thus, there was the simultaneous abolition of the Native Authorities Police and Prison Departments, the Emirs’ Judicial Councils and judicial authorities, and the conversion of Native Authority Alkali Courts into Area Courts of the State Judiciary, an action which effectively curtailed the Emirs’ powers and deprived them of the most important outward manifestation of their authority. The objectives of the state governments were to enhance popular participation in local government and distribute amenities in the rural areas, so they replaced the Native Authorities with Local Government Areas.

With the dissolution of the Native Authorities, Emirate Councils were established, thus marking another stage in the gradual transformation of the Emirs from their 1933 status of Sole Native Authorities through the 1954 status of Emirs in-Council to the 1976 Emirate Councils in which they “enjoy” the status of being “observing fathers” of their “own” people. With these changes, therefore, it is clear that the Emirs and Chiefs have no power in matters relating to the police and the judiciary. Despite this, whenever there is one crisis or the other, they are conveniently called upon for assistance in its control and management.

Furthermore, adding to the aforementioned, the 1976 reforms was an attempt at a radical departure from what existed during the colonial and early independence period, yet the reform failed to address the role of traditional institutions in grass root governance. As a consolation, they were given only advisory roles that are not even enforceable. The fact that the Nigerian traditional institution has been placed under the administration of the state government which implies that no traditional ruler can be accepted as valid and officially recognized without them being given the staff of office by the state government further demoralized the significance and importance of the traditional institution and authority.

The role of Traditional institution in contemporary Governance in Nigeria

It is no gainsaying that the highly exalted place of the traditional authority in Nigeria has been relegated and they do not enjoy their once exalted position as it was during the pre-colonial and colonial days. However the place and the position of the traditional authority in Nigeria cannot be totally erased or completely undermined as they still hold some of its relevance which cannot be taken over by any other body.

Traditional institution is still very much relevant in the contemporary Nigerian society as its only agitation is it clamors and demands for a constitutional recognition. What is happening to the Nigerian traditional authority is just a testament that the current national government to put in place a structure that can fully accommodates our traditional institution and also bring out its best.

However against the failure of our system to fashion out a suitable political system that will reflect our social, economic, traditional and political realities as against the colonial and military imposed political structures of the colonial era  and post-independence period respectively.   The traditional chieftaincy institution and traditional ruler have continued to exercise considerable influence and active role in the political administration at all levels in the nation.

This can be seen in the election of new political leaders during election period. It is a common feature for political figures who are contesting various political post to always seek the blessings of traditional leaders in a bid to get their support which will go a long way in ensuring that they get the popular support of its respective people. This has given them a considerable amount of power to be actively involved in politics in Nigeria. This is not limited to just the grassroots level politics in Nigeria, even at the federal level they hold their relevance as they are often regarded as royal fathers of the nation.

By implication, if the traditional authority can be so instrumental in the issues of national electioneering process which is regarded as the hallmark of the nation’s political play, then it is safe to say that the role and relevance of the traditional authority has not been completely erased

Factors mitigating against the relevance of traditional authority in Nigeria   

The major factor mitigating against the authority and relevance of our traditional system in politics is the inability of the Nigerian constitution to make a formal and legal provision that will protect and recognize the authority of our traditional institution. The current arrangement which sees that the traditional authority is made subject to the authority of the government has been deemed insulting against the importance and significance of the office of our traditional rulers.  The traditional rulers in Nigeria now depend on the government to fund their activities and pay their salaries; this arrangement has placed the traditional rulers under the authority of the politicians in power.

Most of these traditional leaders who have no other source to gaining finance and acquire wealth especially at the local level now have to resort to trading the dignity of their office for crumbs by doing the biddings of politicians who uses them for political purposes.

Another factor mitigating against the relevance of the traditional system is the politicization of the traditional system. In our present realities, the process whereby a new traditional ruler is chosen has now being hijacked from the usual native system whereby it is the duty of the king makers or the oracle to pick a new king, however the process in many part of the country has now been influenced by politicians who now ensure that their candidates are elected as king so that they can exploit the opportunity to acquire political power. The constant use of the traditional stool to politically influence the nation’s election process has created a new trend in the traditional set-up which has reduced the relevance once revered institution. Adding to this the constant cases of greed, corruption associated with some traditional rulers has made people think less of them. However a few of them has managed to stay off partisan politics, corrupt activities hereby retaining the dignity attached to their office.


For the once highly revered place of the traditional institution and its authority in Nigeria to be restored, there need to be a national revamp in its national structure which will see to the creation of a system that can fully accommodate and bring out the full beauty of the traditional institution and its rulers in Nigeria. The traditional rulers exist in the grass root which implies that they are more closer to the people and local administration, thus as a result of this the constitution must be changed to empower them legally to administer their localities without undue interference or influence by the government. The traditional rulers are seen more of a ceremonial figure head which undermine their importance and that of their office. While the virtue of accountability must be encouraged, however there must be a distinct separation between traditional authority and politics.


In the pre-colonial and colonial period, the institution of the traditional authority was of more benefit as it proved effective in the area of governance. While our current political structure does not allow us utilize the potency of our traditional institution for national development, there is a need for us as a nation to address this and for once use and utilize the traditional authority in the area of governance in Nigeria. If any meaningful contribution must be recorded in Nigeria, it will start at the grass root, the traditional rulers are closer than any other institution to the grass root, and they must be fully utilized and not sidelined

July 28, 2020

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