SOKOTO, NIGERIA — Technically, Nigeria is a democracy and a federation of states. But many Nigerians say kings and clerics govern their daily lives, not elected officials. Nigerian royals say they are guardians of the common man, and lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would formalize their role in government.
In Sokoto, the home of Nigeria’s most famous traditional ruler, the Sultan of Sokoto, locals say their “natural leaders” are above politics.
At an outdoor roadside shop, bean cakes boil on an open fire. Abash, an education department worker, is eager to praise the “Royal Fathers.”
“They are very, very important. They play a lot of roles in their field toward the development of the community. In fact, we praise them and Insha'Allah [God willing] they are successful," said Abash. "People comply with them. They hear their voice and they comply with their directives.”
Praising traditional rulers
Abash said traditional rulers keep the peace by directing people not to fight, while political leaders stir up trouble as they compete for power.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the British took over Nigeria and, like many colonial powers in Africa, they used the governing structure already in place to control the country. Kings, chiefs and clerics were made in charge of lands they had controlled for as long as anyone could remember.
Sani Umar is from a long line of local rulers of a district called Gagi. He is the “Sarkinyekin Gagi,” which means the “Great Warrior of Gagi.” He said the colonial structure allowed Nigerians to hold on to their cultural values and traditions while being ruled by foreigners.
“The grassroots people respect traditional rulers. That is what [gave] an opportunity for traditional rulers to continue ruling people through their own cultural values and diversity,” he said.
Playing a role
Umar said the relationship between the Nigerian government and traditional rulers is much the same as it was in colonial times. Traditional rulers speak to the people on behalf of the government and they speak to the government on behalf of the people.
“I’m the custodian of the grass root people. I mobilize support for government programs through various ways of educating the populace for behavior change and communication at the grass roots,” said Umar.
Like other traditional rulers in Sokoto, Umar also has a government title and salary.
Sokoto State Information Commissioner Malam Nasiru Danladi Bako said traditional rulers have no formal role in government role, but parliament is currently reviewing a bill that would define their powers and duties constitutionally. He said traditional rulers are needed to implement policies and projects because people in the countryside trust them.
Pros, Cons of 'Royal Fathers'
For example, he said traditional rulers advocate for modern tools to prevent malaria, one of Nigeria’s biggest killers.
“They are made to campaign for the use of mosquito nets. They are made to campaign for fumigation of the area and the use insecticides,” said Bako.
However, not everyone is as confident in Nigeria’s traditional rulers. Critics say the fact that they technically work for the government and that they have the ability to manipulate popular opinion creates a conflict of interest. They say traditional rulers are perfectly poised to trade their influence for gifts.
But political endorsements from traditional rulers can be an enormous boon to a campaign. Such endorsements also draw criticism from Nigerians who believe traditional rulers should be above the political fray.