By Tunji Olaopa
Just some few days ago, a reception was put together by the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy in honour of the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe. The event was part of Achebe’s busy itinerary to Ibadan at the instance of the Alumni Association of the University of Ibadan. The reception for the Igwe at the ISGPP became seminal because it served as the unique platform for two simultaneously unfolding events.
I was recently invited to the Centre for Values in Leadership 33rd lecture in commemoration of the 75th birthday of the Obi of Onitsha. The theme of the occasion was tellingly apt as the status of the celebrator himself: Modern Traditional Rulers as Development Catalysts. This was not a discourse I am a stranger to. In fact, one of the flagship programmes at the ISGPP is anchored on the critical relevance of local governance in the entire architecture of development in Nigeria. My meeting with the Obi of Onitsha was therefore more providential than coincidental!
There is presently a glaring disequilibrium in Nigeria’s governance framework even with the ongoing dynamics of change. This imbalance speaks to the difficulty of sustaining a solid development paradigm that could backstop good governance in Nigeria. And the role of traditional rulers and institutions has been marginal in this regard, to say the least. This is for a reason. The status of traditional rulers in Nigeria’s political and development dynamics is at best precarious. Any talk about traditional rulers is met by a solid wall of disdain and disregard by most Nigerians. The feeling is that of pure irreverence deriving from a perception of irrelevance. Traditional rulers seem to become obsolete by the day; a relic of a time gone by. It is as if most people take Roberto Goizueta’s statement too serious, especially with regard to the status of traditional rulers: “It is extremely important that you show some insensitivity to your past in order to show the proper respect for the future.”
But Goizueta is only partly right about the status of the past in any consideration of the future. The conception of modernity was built on the false foundation of an acute disregard for the past; and that conception has failed by that fact. For instance, religion is considered by modernisation theorists as a feature of a primitive past that would essentially fade away with the onslaught of modernity. On the contrary, religion has not only resurged, but its fundamentalist dimension has constituted the most daunting challenge for the understanding of modernity. But there is another dimension of traditional dynamics which modernists would neglect to their own peril. The significance of the traditional constitutes a veritable tool for crafting a democratic governance framework that would effectively break down development imperatives to their grass roots’ dividends for the betterment of the people. If democracy needs the grass roots to survive, then there is a need to link traditional institutions to the viability and success of any local governance initiatives.
Why is this linkage important in the democratic experiment of the Nigerian state? Local governance is one of the most veritable sources of answering the social question of how the citizens can make sense of their lives through the infrastructural provisions of the state. And a critical plank in this local governance framework is a viable architecture of responsive traditional institutions that have been sufficiently reinvigorated, in a manner consistent with the strategy of the Obi of Onitsha, to carry the burden of modern development demands. Francis Fukuyama is right: “Modern liberal political and economic institutions not only coexist with religion and other traditional elements of culture, but many actually work better in conjunction with them.” To achieve this conjunction requires two significant rethinking of the status and roles of traditional institutions.
The first is that traditional institutions must be divorced conceptually from traditional rulers. While traditional rulers are noted as significant custodians of traditional institutions, there has been an unfolding evidence of how these institutions can function outside of their custody. In recent times, we are daily treated to terrible tales of royal absurdities, excesses, and criminalities. But the traditional institutions still stay intact despite the discordant behaviour of their custodians.
And their significance is essentially that they serve as a counterpoint to what Peter Ekeh calls the migrated structures; those institutions that crossed the Atlantic with colonialism but are essentially defective because they lack the originating ethos and values that ground them in their societies. A deliberate and developmental emphasis on traditional institutions therefore recognises their potential to mobilise the people around some governance objectives that elevate democracy and the betterment of the citizens especially at the local level. Ruth Benedict, the American anthropologist, provides the insight: “No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.”
Local governance and the traditional institutions that uphold it constitute a unique means by which democratic governance is delivered in profitable bits to the people.
And this leads to the second issue—how to harness the potential of traditional institutions for development purposes and local governance. Traditional institutions constitute the basis for a vibrant local self-help and service delivery dynamics which cater to people’s expectations far above the capacities and capabilities of the apparatuses of the state. Communities call upon the traditional institutional framework, values and processes to cater to their many legitimate needs: ground their security networks in the form of the vigilante and neighbourhood watch groups; organise their health delivery systems; manage road construction and maintenance efforts; and initiate economic empowerment. For instance, the esusu microfinance scheme has become a veritable feature of modern financial assistance. All these constitute definite means through which the people attend to the search for developmental meaning for themselves and others. The danger is that usually, especially within the context of the Nigerian state, this search for meaning is usually carried out outside of the reach of the state, as a concrete performance of the people’s collective rejection of the state. This is a dangerous incident the explosion of which is just waiting to happen. For instance, left this way, the Nigerian government can forget the possibility of ever achieving nationhood through national integration.
Outside of the continuing efforts at welding the various constituent parts of the Nigerian state together, one fundamental strategy is to leverage the traditional institutions as the fulcrum for answering the social infrastructural question. It is to this traditional dimension of democratic provision that scholars like Prof. Akin Mabogunje have dedicated their intellectual efforts for years. The OPTICOM project of Mabogunje still remains a defining paradigm of local governance, and unfortunately still closed to government collaboration.
Tunji Olaopa is a Public Affairs Analyst.