Traditional Rulers: Beyond Political Appointments – Debunking Obasanjo’s Directive -By John Egbeazien Oshodi

In a recent statement in Daily Trust of August 15, 2023, with the title “Obasanjo: When I Was President, Kings Prostrated Before Me,” made by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a profound truth emerges; traditional rulers, often referred to as kings and queens, occupy a unique and enduring role in society.

In a recent public event, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made headlines when he issued a directive to Oyo monarchs, instructing them to stand and greet him in the Yoruba language. This interaction has sparked discussions about the intricate relationship between traditional respect and political authority in Nigerian society.

Obasanjo’s directive highlights a long-standing cultural practice in Yoruba land, where individuals are expected to show respect to their elders and authority figures by standing in their presence. However, the context of this directive, coming from a former president, raises questions about the dynamics between traditional customs and modern political authority.

Traditionally, kings and queens hold revered positions in Yoruba culture, seen as custodians of tradition, spirituality, and communal values. Their roles extend beyond political power, as they are considered the living embodiment of cultural continuity. In Yoruba land, the respect accorded to traditional rulers is deeply ingrained in the societal fabric.

On the other hand, political authority in Nigeria, including the presidency, is a product of modern governance structures. Political leaders are elected or appointed to their positions and often hold power for limited terms. Their authority is defined by laws, constitutions, and the will of the people expressed through democratic processes.

When a former president like Obasanjo issues a directive to traditional rulers, it blurs the lines between these two spheres of influence. While he may have held the highest political office in the country, traditional rulers in Yoruba land derive their authority from centuries-old customs and cultural norms.

The question arises: should traditional rulers, who are considered custodians of tradition and spirituality, prostrate before political appointees or political leaders, even if they held the highest office in the land? This dilemma highlights the complex interplay between tradition, culture, and modern governance in Nigeria.

Their significance, deeply rooted in tradition, culture, and spirituality, remains unwavering even in the face of political shifts and modern governance structures. This article delves into the multifaceted nature of traditional rulers in Nigeria and their steadfast position as symbols of cultural continuity and spiritual guidance, tracing their importance through time in human history, including references to the Old Testament, notable African kings, and the legacy of Yoruba kings from the Oyo Kingdom, the Benin Kingdom, and the Esan Kingdom, including Agba N’Ojie of Uromi.

Throughout human history, traditional rulers have played multifarious roles transcending mere political leadership. They have been guardians of ancient traditions, preserving cultural heritage, mediators in community matters, and spiritual guides. Even in ancient societies, their positions were revered for their spiritual significance.

In many cultures, kings and traditional rulers are regarded as not merely political leaders but as embodiments of tradition, culture, and spirituality. They are often seen as the custodians of a people’s identity and the living link to their ancestors.

The perception of kings and traditional rulers as being akin to “small gods” is a common sentiment in many cultures with strong monarchic or traditional systems. In such societies, kings are often viewed with deep reverence and are seen as divine or semi-divine figures. This perspective is rooted in historical, cultural, and religious traditions.

In many cultures, kings and monarchs have played pivotal roles in shaping the history of their societies. They have been leaders in times of peace and war, and their leadership has often been associated with the prosperity and well-being of their people.

Some societies have religious or spiritual beliefs that attribute a divine or sacred status to their kings. They may believe that the king is chosen by the gods or has a special connection to the divine realm.

Symbolism: Kings are often seen as symbols of unity and continuity. They can represent the traditions and values of a culture, and their authority is a unifying force for their people.

Many cultures place a strong emphasis on respecting authority figures and elders. Kings, as the highest-ranking authorities in their societies, are naturally given a high level of respect.

Kings often play central roles in important ceremonies and rituals, which can further enhance their status as revered figures.

It’s important to note that the perception of kings as “small gods” is not universal, and the level of reverence and divine association can vary significantly from one culture to another. Additionally, the role and significance of kings have evolved over time, especially in modern democracies where political power is typically vested in elected officials rather than hereditary monarchs.

Looking back through history, numerous examples illustrate the deep connection between kings and spirituality:

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were not only political leaders but also considered divine rulers. They were believed to be the intermediaries between the gods and the people, exemplifying the fusion of political and spiritual authority.

The Old Testament provides several examples of kings and rulers who held not only political but also spiritual significance, such as King Solomon, King David, and King Melchizedek.

Africa boasts a rich tapestry of traditional rulers who left an indelible mark on their societies:

Mansa Musa I: The ruler of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, Mansa Musa I, is renowned not only for his vast wealth but also for his pilgrimage to Mecca, which showcased his devotion to Islam.

In the 19th century, Shaka Zulu, a legendary warrior king, established a powerful Zulu kingdom through military conquest, leaving a lasting impact on Zulu culture.

The Benin Kingdom, known for its intricate artistry and administration, had rulers like Oba Ewuare I (1440-1473), celebrated as one of the most influential monarchs who transformed the kingdom’s administration, arts, and culture.

In the Esan Kingdom, Agba N’Ojie of Uromi, originally called Agba, ruled from 1483 AD until 1507 AD. His leadership and legacy are a testament to the enduring importance of traditional rulers in the Esan culture.

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