When the Igbos of Southeast Nigeria say ‘Igbo enwe eze’ which simply translates to ‘Igbos have no king’, they address an ancient grievance. The simple saying which packs a punch tells of a people`s aversion for centralized authority, their independent spirit and their sheer defiance.
At the peak of colonialism, while the centralization of power in the emirates of North fired the preferred indirect rule machine of the British, the colonialists ran into a brickwall in the Southeast where they were at a loss about where to find power. They ultimately settled on the use of warrant chiefs. But the highhandedness and haughtiness of the men chosen to be warrant chiefs evoked memories of the slave trade and aroused ancient resentment in the people. Eventually, the system crumbled like a pack of cards.
What happened in the Southeast has proven a historical blueprint as traditional institutions have failed to fully take root in the Southeast. Of course, many villages in the Southeast have traditional rulers in place but the degree of influence many of them wield is far inferior to what their counterparts in other parts of the country wield notably in the North and Southwest. In spite of the varying degrees of influence, many royal institutions in the Southeast are now fostering crises in many villages as power tussles careen out of control to send communities spiraling into violence.
Some villages in the Southeast have more than one traditional ruler with each of them claiming legitimacy. So, during the annual homecoming of Ndigbo in December, factions created by those laying claims to the kingship of their villages hire thugs and foment trouble.
There is another side to it. Some serving Nigerian politicians in Abuja have perfected the art of fomenting trouble in their hometowns and threatening all their opponents with federal might. As Nigeria continues to cascade into insecurity, the role of traditional rulers has come under ever intense scrutiny. The question is framed around what traditional rulers are doing and what they are supposed to be doing.
It is only unfortunate that in Nigeria`s highly volatile Northwest and Northeast regions, traditional rulers have themselves become subjects of vicious attacks from bandits and terrorists. Some have been attacked and abducted right from their palaces while others have received on behalf of their beleaguered communities all manner of epistles threatening chaos and destabilization if outrageous sums demanded as taxes and levies are not paid urgently.
So, in Nigeria, the traditional institution is coming under increasing pressure, whittled down by pressure from politicians increasingly desperate for political capital and terrorists pushing distorted ideologies and economic agendas. So, in Southeast Nigeria, many communities are in turmoil, riven apart by all manner of charlatans laying claim to the thrones of their forefathers. The only claim some of these charlatans have is the backing of some high-profile politicians who have lost credibility at home but are high ranking government officials elsewhere.
With the support of such men who have no scruples whatsoever over turning their communities upside down in a bid to reclaim long lost political relevance or simply to teach their opponents a lesson, the charlatans posing as traditional rulers proceed to hold their communities to ransom and unleash the horde of criminals they always have at their beck and call at the slightest provocation.
Such traditional rulers are the ones who would arm unknown gun men in the Southeast; they are the ones who would habour bandits in their domain in the Northwest; they are the ones who would turn to illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta.
It is unfortunate that in these days when the traditional institution is coming under increased pressure, many Nigerians do not really know whether to twist or turn when dealing with their traditional rulers.