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Traditional institutions and constitutional democracy: A model for coexistence

Recent incidents in some of the emirates of northern Nigeria highlight the historical tension between state governors’ constitutional powers and traditional institutions. The actions of…

Recent incidents in some of the emirates of northern Nigeria highlight the historical tension between state governors’ constitutional powers and traditional institutions. The actions of some governors in dethroning emirs or refusing to appoint the chosen heirs to a vacant throne in disregard to recommendations of traditional kingmakers, not only challenge established norms but also threaten cultural heritage and community stability. This is exemplified by the incidents in the Zazzau Emirate in Kaduna State in 2020 and the recent one in Kano Emirate in Kano State.

Following the death of the Emir of Zazzau in 2020, the kingmakers recommended three candidates to Governor Nasir El-Rufai. Disregarding their choices, the governor appointed his own preferred candidate as the new Emir. This decision sparked significant disillusion and dissatisfaction among the local population, who felt their traditional processes and autonomy were undermined. The imposition disrupted the long-established cultural and social order, eroding trust in both the traditional and state authorities and pitching the governor’s appointee against some of the most revered and highly honoured aristocrats in the emirate. Not only that, but it also led to series of litigations against the emirate council and state government, some of which are still ongoing.

In 2020, the Kano State Government, under Governor Abdullahi Ganduje, and the State Assembly swiftly passed a law that led to the dethronement of Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II. Sunusi II himself was appointed earlier by a previous Kano state Governor Rabi’u Kwankwanso in circumstances that were no less incongruous and politically motivated than those in which he was dethroned. This action not only destabilised the Kano Emirate but also highlighted the potential for executive overreach, threatening the emirate’s cultural heritage and further straining the social fabric. Few days ago we were to witness yet another incident of executive overreach when the Kano state Governor, Abba Kabir Yusuf, in collaboration with the state assembly dethroned Emir Aminu Ado Bayero and reinstated Emir Sunusi II in circumstances that are now subject of litigations.

Traditional leaders uphold centuries-old customs and practices. State interference in their appointment and removal disrupts these traditions, leading to a loss of cultural identity and historical continuity. Kingmakers ensure leaders’ legitimacy, but state bypasses undermine credibility and trust. Arbitrary state decisions cause unrest and division, disregarding norms and causing conflicts that break down social cohesion.

Nigeria’s dual heritage of traditional institutions and modern democracy should blend like the British constitutional monarchy, ensuring harmonious coexistence and leveraging the strengths of both systems.

Nigeria’s traditional institutions, led by emirs, kings, and chiefs, have long influenced governance, conflict resolution, and culture. These pre-colonial structures coexist with a federal constitutional democracy established post-independence. Despite their influence, tensions exist regarding their role in democracy. A coexistence model, respecting and integrating both systems, akin to the British arrangement, could address these challenges.

This model can ensure the preservation and promotion of Nigeria’s diverse cultural heritage and can enhance governance at the local level through the combined strengths of traditional authority and democratic institutions. Conflict resolution can be improved through leveraging traditional methods that have historically maintained peace in communities.

Nigeria can adopt a model like the British constitutional monarchy to synergise traditional institutions and democracy. This honours cultural heritage, strengthens democracy, and fosters inclusivity. Formal recognition, constitutionally defined roles, and collaborative framework between traditional leaders and elected officials will drive development and unity.

To address the tension between traditional institutions and state authorities in Nigeria, a constitutional reform inspired by the British model to harmonise traditional institutions and state authorities, ensuring balanced coexistence can be adopted.

Traditional institutions should be explicitly recognised in Nigeria’s Constitution, outlining roles, powers of kingmakers, and appointment/removal processes to respect cultural heritage. Amendments should restrict state governors’ unilateral powers over traditional institutions. Governors should facilitate rather than decide on appointments/removals, adhering to kingmakers’ recommendations, ensuring a clear legal framework.

A judicial oversight mechanism should be established to review and approve decisions related to the appointment and removal of traditional leadership. Any action to appoint or dethrone an emir, or, a chief, or any subordinate authority in the traditional leadership hierarchy, should be subject to judicial scrutiny to ensure it follows due process and respects traditional customs. Ensuring the autonomy of traditional institutions by protecting them from political interference is crucial. Traditional leaders should operate independently within their communities, like the British monarchy, free from political manipulation. Limiting state governors’ powers over traditional institutions ensures respect for customs. Inspired by the British model, Nigeria can balance modern governance with tradition, fostering unity, cultural preservation, and inclusive governance.

Umar is with the Department of Business Administration and Management, Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic Zaria


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