Abuse of Traditional Rulers: Why this Bullying Must Stop

Source: Matthew Ma.
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Matthew Ma.

“As responsible individuals, we must exercise mindfulness in our social media posts and written communications. Parents, educational institutions, and religious organizations must educate our youth on the significance of respectful and sensible communication. Using profanity and reckless behavior in public shows a lack of proper upbringing, civic values, and ethical standards. While it is acceptable to disagree with traditional leaders, it is crucial to do so in a more civilized manner.”

The role of traditional leadership in modern Africa is a contentious issue, with much at stake for those who benefit from this entrenched institution. Traditional rulers are at the heart of everchanging policies affecting their institutions, particularly in the post-colonial era. Their primary focus is on ensuring the survival of the institution that affords them status, power, and wealth. This concern takes two forms. The first is eliminating any institutional element that threatens their leadership capabilities. The second is supporting any measure that enhances their staying in power. While their motives may be self-serving, this behavior is not unusual, as any group of political actors in a similar situation would prioritize survival as their primary objective. The landscape for traditional leadership presents a formidable challenge, as the established principles and methods call into question the validity of this establishment. This entity resides in a governance that controls its leadership, regulating public policy and any opposition to it. As the traditional rulers function within this structure, their functions and participation in policymaking are subject to the government's discretion. Regrettably, this has led to restricted responsibilities for traditional rulers, limiting their involvement in cultural pursuits and impeding their capacity to contribute fully to the democratic process of the nation.

In several parts, traditional leaders hold a significant amount of influence. However, recent events have led people to question the role of traditional leaders in modern times. However, during a quarterly meeting in Port Harcourt, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State reprimanded traditional leaders within his jurisdiction. This altercation was in response to concerns the Chairman of the Rivers State traditional council raised about non-recognized monarchs. Mr. Wike harshly criticized those who call themselves Royal Majesties even though the government does not recognize them. He also expressed his displeasure at those who carry a walking stick meant for those the government does not recognize. The governor vowed to speak with the State Attorney General to propose a bill in the State House of Assembly. This bill would ensure that any person who is not a government-recognized traditional ruler cannot bear the title of Royal Highness. Despite cheers from the audience, Mr. Wike scolded them for being selfish and reminded them that his actions were to protect the institution, not to please the people. He even singled out one traditional ruler for shaking his head, saying he was causing problems. According to the governor, he will soon drag this particular monarch for his attire in the same manner they pulled the 17th-century founder of the Sokoto caliphate. The Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dakuku Peterside, expressed his disapproval of Governor Wike's behavior toward monarchs. Peterside, who ran against Wike in the Rivers governorship election, appealed to the monarchs to forgive the governor's disrespect, reminding them that as fathers, they should view Wike's remarks as those of an ill-mannered child. Peterside criticized Wike's pattern of humiliating traditional rulers, calling it both irresponsible and shameful. He stated that Nigeria has never had a governor who lacked respect for its monarchs. He cited Wike's tendency to remove, depose, and withdraw recognition from many royal fathers without regard for history, tradition, or culture during his tenure in office.

Recently, the Concerned Omo Yoruba Worldwide Association, a socio-cultural group, criticized former President Olusegun Obasanjo for his actions at an event where he ordered traditional rulers in Oyo State to stand up. The group stated that Obasanjo's actions insulted the long-established institutions of the Yoruba people and the rich Yoruba culture and tradition. They demanded a public apology from Obasanjo for his conduct. The incident occurred on 15 September 2023, during the official road commissioning ceremony organized by the Oyo State Government, where the government invited Obasanjo as the Chief Guest of Honor. The group expressed their disappointment and concern regarding this regrettable incident. They denounce Obasanjo's reprehensible conduct. They also insisted on a public apology to all affronted Obas and the Yoruba community. In addition, the group expresses their disappointment in the Obas who attended the event and acquiesced to the commands of someone considered their junior.

The incident continued to generate reactions among Nigerians, with many people criticizing the ex-president for violating the traditional institutions. Reacting to the issue, a former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, also criticized former President Olusegun Obasanjo for ordering the Oyo traditional rulers to stand at an event. The ex-minister described Obasanjo’s action as a grave insult to the Yoruba people and traditional institutions. The former President scolded the Obas in Oyo State for not standing to honor him. He consequently ordered them to stand and sit. But Fani-Kayode said it was saddening that Mr. Obasanjo, once known for respecting monarchs, degenerated into bullying them. Fani-Kayode wrote that he was saddened and utterly mortified by how former President Obasanjo lambasted the revered traditional rulers in Oyo State and ordered them to stand up and sit down as if they were children. According to him, OBJ, once upon a time, displayed his respect, humility, and greatness by bowing, kneeling, and prostrating before monarchs, even when he was President, yet today, he talks to them as if they are his garbage collectors and orders them to jump up and down like a taxi driver talking to his beleaguered passengers and a motor park tout talking to a bunch of jobless and worthless underlings. Many thought that the whole thing was some piece of joke. However, we must not take it lightly because by humiliating the monarch, Mr. Obasanjo spat on all our faces. Obasanjo’s words and behavior are a desecration of our values and a grave insult to the Yoruba people and our traditional institutions.

Mr. Olumide Akinrinlola, a chieftain of the People's Democratic Party in Ondo State, recently spoke out against former President Olusegun Obasanjo for reportedly insulting some monarchs in Oyo State. Akinrinlola stated that it was disrespectful to the monarchs and the entire Yoruba land for Obasanjo to demand that the royal fathers stand up and scold them for not doing so when the governor entered the arena. He believes the former president should issue a letter of apology to the traditional rulers. Akinrinlola emphasized that traditional thrones are sacred and revered worldwide and that the respect given to monarchs is for the throne and seats they occupy. He believes that being a governor or president does not make anyone older or greater than the royal fathers who are symbols of their communities. Akinrinlola suggested that if Obasanjo would not order the Oba of Benin to stand up for him, he should not ask the Yoruba monarchs to do so. The pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, has taken note of the matter and plans to discuss it at their upcoming general meeting.

In July of this year, I penned an open letter to Governor Hyacinth Alia, condemning the disrespectful treatment of our traditional rulers. Specifically, I addressed the removal and dethronement of the former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, by former Kano State Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje. I criticized the decision to dethrone Sanusi over allegations of disrespect towards legal institutions. Also, I highlighted a similar incident where former governors have dealt with traditional rulers harshly for holding opposing views. For instance, I mentioned how the Benue State government ousted or arrested traditional rulers in Konshisha, Ushongo, and Gwer East local government areas over land disputes, which many viewed as unhealthy for the State. Traditional rulers play a vital role as intermediaries between the government and the people, and constant abuse of this institution may eventually lead to the erosion of our traditional values.

The recent insult directed towards our paramount leader in Benue State has become of great concern. A young lady by the name of Hembafan Mbauhaar, who goes by the Facebook name mhiz Mayra Porsh, recently defended Venita Akpofure's fallacious statement about the Tiv nation, insulted the Paramount Ruler of Tiv, His Royal Majesty Begha U Tiv, Orchivirigh, Prof James Ayatse, and the entire Tiv nation. It was heart-wrenching to see one of our own, a daughter of the soil, deliver such a slap in the face to our people. However, a few days later, Ms. Mbauhaar was reportedly arrested by the Katsina-Ala police division, thanks to her biological parents. The continuous insults directed towards our traditional leaders by the Benue people are troubling. In contemporary times, it is disconcerting to observe that our traditional leaders are not accorded the respect they deserve, leading to a misguided perception of their role in society. The values of collaboration, amicability, friendliness, and esteem for communal perspectives, beliefs, ideologies, outlooks, and guidance have all dwindled considerably. Unfortunately, taking down one's brother or sister has become a recurring pattern among us. Benue State has been at a disadvantage since Nigeria's inception, but ironically, we have been our worst enemy, creating the most significant obstacles for ourselves. One ethical concern is that we lack a shared set of values to determine right and wrong. When raising concerns on social media, it is common for the issue to get lost in a sea of prejudice. Even if your facts and arguments are valid, people may accuse you of being a bigot. This attitude is where the intensity of our emotions becomes apparent. While the individual may not present a stronger argument than yours, they may resort to verbal acrobatics and personal attacks. We cannot spare anyone from this destructive drive.

Several years back, Murphy Idahosa, a Nigerian living in Germany, was exiled from Edo state for criticizing the Oba of Benin in a Facebook video. In the video, Mr. Idahosa attributed the high rate of human trafficking among girls in the kingdom to the Oba. Upon his return home, the palace guards took him away, declared him an enemy of the Oba, and banished him from the kingdom. Videos of the incident showed the guards blowing trumpets and people chanting "enemy of the palace" as they escorted him out. This incident occurred only a few months after Dr. Oguigo, a Benin chief, was humiliated and labeled an enemy of the land for not paying homage to the Oba. According to Chuks Mgborie-Chukwu, who shared the video on Facebook, the Oba's chiefs brought Dr. Oguigo to the Oba's palace and later ostracized him from the community. There has been a debate over the appropriateness of speech and actions, with some arguing that banishing someone for insulting the Oba is excessively harsh. Hence, to ensure that traditional rulers are respected and given the authority they deserve as leaders and custodians of our cultural heritage, the National Assembly must enact laws that caution people instead of banishing them. The idea would be to make laws that protect traditional rulers and institutions from such dishonorable treatment by individuals. Today, it appears that there is no constitutional power to safeguard traditional rulers, given how easily people insult and disrespect them. We call on all Nigerians to refrain from insulting our traditional rulers. We want to respect our traditional leaders but hold them accountable when they fail us. Perhaps we could consider imposing lesser penalties on "irresponsible" individuals who insult our monarchs.

Around the world, people view insults as disrespect and abuse towards others. In response, many countries have implemented laws against insults. For example, the Malaysian government has cautioned its citizens that tweeting malicious content about the royal family can lead to imprisonment. The law against criticizing the monarchy aims to penalize expressions or actions deemed offensive, defamatory, or disrespectful towards traditional rulers and can result in public censure, fines, or detention. While I believe everyone deserves dignity and respect, regardless of their beliefs, I also recognize the need for laws against insults, which are becoming increasingly common. This idea is necessary because every action we take, no matter how small, has consequences. It could be as minor as an upset stomach from overeating or as severe as a parent struggling to pay bail for their child caught stealing. Sometimes, what may seem like an insignificant decision can have a tremendous impact. For instance, a student skipping a high school course may not appear significant at the time, but it could return to haunt them when pursuing a college degree that requires knowledge from that former class. This notion can lead to successive harmful events, ultimately affecting one's mental health and happiness. Therefore, although it is understandable to speak up against punishing individuals who disrespect our elders, it is critical to establish legislation that safeguards against such behavior. This issue brings to mind the hypothesis of the butterfly effect, which illustrates how even the slightest action can have substantial and far-reaching consequences. Therefore, it is crucial to exercise caution in the words we utter against each other and to whom we direct them.

It is important to remember that our words and actions hold weight and can have lasting effects. Before making a decision, it is wise to consider the potential outcomes of our behavior. Taking the time to weigh the pros and cons and consider the reactions of others can lead to better decision-making. It is not wise to act impulsively or without careful consideration. One should look at all angles of a situation and then think about the social and political implications of their actions. Only if the potential benefits outweigh the drawbacks should one move forward. It is important to remember that harmful actions can have negative consequences. It is best to avoid behavior that could lead to harm or punishment. In short, every step has repercussions. Therefore, it is up to us to make responsible choices that lead to positive outcomes.

To sum up, words possess immense power, capable of both inspiring and causing harm. However, as responsible individuals, we must exercise mindfulness in our social media posts and written communications. Parents, educational institutions, and religious organizations must educate our youth on the significance of respectful and sensible communication. Using profanity and reckless behavior in public shows a lack of proper upbringing, civic values, and ethical standards. While it is acceptable to disagree with traditional leaders, it is crucial to do so in a more civilized manner. I cannot imagine how painful it would be if someone insulted my parents just as we insultedthe Tor Tiv on social media. Saint Paul's words in Ephesians 4:29 remind us to speak words that uplift and encourage those around us to refrain from uttering harmful words.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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