Traditional rulers are still highly respected in most communities in Nigeria today, for wielding considerable political and economic influence. Although they have no formal role in the democratic structure and in the constitution, there is now a growing need to assign them some specific roles and in that way, harness the strategic position they occupy in the society.
The traditional institutions have suffered systematic annihilation since the military incursions into politics began in 1966. The argument has been that there is need to shield and isolate the traditional institutions from politics. One wonders why Nigerian leaders opt for this position while the colonial masters put the traditional rulers and traditional institutions to extensive use, to great results. And the institution cannot be said to be directly or indirectly responsible for the collapse of the first republic when it formed an arm of the bicameral legislative assemblies of the regions.
Apart from their potential for being lawmakers even at residual (LGA) levels as eligible dynasts, the traditional rulers can play useful roles in brokering peace and amity between the people and the state, enhancing national identity, resolving minor and major conflicts and providing an institutional safety-valve for often inadequate state bureaucracies. In the area of security for example, the Nigerian police have sometimes been overwhelmed and swamped by the sheer enormity of the work and new crimes, which now includes terrorist threats confronting them and the citizens alike.
In the area of peace, how the traditional institution can help can be revealed by a tour de force of Nigeria’s Peace Architecture, which starts with delineating the nature, dimensions and levels of threats that appear to be on the increase. To say that the Nigeria is now crisis-ridden will be stating the obvious. There is no part of Nigeria today that is not reaping bountifully from chaos and anarchic restiveness of citizens, resulting from challenges of governance and defective mechanisms in responding to the needs and aspirations of the citizenry. Thus, sometimes justifiably, citizens are forced to resort to self-help, violent acts and criminal activities to make ends meet if we really see criminality as the quality of being a criminal. Nigerians, like other people, prefer an honest existence if given the chance.
To be honest, the phenomenal growth in crimes and corruption suggests a new dimension that is pathological and demanding a different postulation in terms of etymology and sociology of crime. In the southern parts we have the only-now-abating Niger Delta militancy, which took the amnesty program initiated by the late president Yar’Adua to contain. Regrettably, it is now replaced by oil bunkering. Kidnapping is still rife in the south east and in some parts of the country as well, driving prominent sons of the east away and now hold their marriage and burial in Abuja, Lagos and abroad. The Jos crisis is far from being over and Fulani herdsmen still constantly fight around the country over grazing lands with their host communities.
Perhaps the most devastating is the coming of terrorism in Nigeria. The entire country is now under the propitious violence of the Boko Haram, an Islamic sect seeking to islamize the entire north and ultimately the country. The sheer impossibility of their mission and the violent and elusive manner with which the sect pursues their agenda is quite unique, potent and dangerous. Suicide bombing, which hitherto was alien to Nigeria, is now more than a Sunday-Sunday supplement and fully domesticated to the point that Nigeria has now fully met the standard legal requirements of a terrorist country.
Containing the scourge of the security challenges requires intelligence gathering at the grassroots, and this is where nobody in Nigeria is better positioned to track locals who do crime than the traditional rulers. We need to reverse the pattern of security from top – bottom to bottom-up approach, where intelligence gathering, peace and amity building starts from the grassroots where the traditional rulers and traditional institutions will play a critical role.
The ongoing constitutional review by the national assembly should consider also giving traditional rulers a direct power to anchor Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). This includes dispute resolution processes and techniques that act as a means for disagreeing parties to come to an agreement short of litigation. ADR basically is an alternative to a formal court hearing or litigation. Because its aim is reconciliation, traditional rulers are there naturally to anchor ADR. In fact, most jobs of the traditional ruler is dispute resolution, and that is why they sit in their courts daily listening to cases and taking far-reaching and binding decisions on their subjects. What needed to be added here is formalizing it in law and allowing the courts to refer cases to them or require litigants to first take certain matters to the traditional court first, and approach the formal court if not satisfied.
Despite historic resistance to ADR by many popular social publics and their advocates, ADR has gained widespread acceptance among both the general public and the legal profession in recent years. In fact, even in advanced countries, some courts now require some parties to resort to ADR of some type, usually mediation, before permitting the parties' cases to be tried. The rising popularity of ADR can be explained by the increasing caseload of normal courts, the perception that ADR imposes fewer costs than litigation and has a preference for confidentiality.
Traditional Rulers can also be used to attain restorative justice in Nigeria. Restorative Justice (also sometimes called "reparative justice") is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, to repair the harm they've done -by apologizing, returning stolen money, or doing community service.
The offender's obligation is to make amends with both the victim and the involved community to pave way for 'healing.' The new law should simply permit the Traditional Rulers/council to initiate and submit a compliance report to the court or police, ending their involvement in a particular case.
It is crystal clear that the traditional rulers and traditional institutions are grossly underutilized in Nigeria. It is also clear that the areas where the traditional rulers are most suited to make a difference in nation building are mostly in alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice, and intelligence gathering and so on. Though the traditional rulers in Nigeria may be said to be engaged in some of this already, it is still at rudimentary level and ought to be constitutionally assigned, defined and funded.
The proposed idea is to tap into the large reservoir of human resources lying almost fallow at the traditional institutions. The institutions are peopled by all professions; some are medical doctors, engineers, retired generals, professors, reverends, captains of industry, you name it. So, they are in a position to make quality contributions. Since the traditional rulers are the ones at the grassroots, positively engaging them is a straight way to bring government to the people, and a transition to a more peaceful and meaningful life in Nigeria.
Rather than sitting idly and marrying new wives, the traditional rulers can be co-opted in governance. There is no justification for their continued funding by the government at all levels; their upkeeps by government for doing nothing to add value is a drain on the nation’s resources and a waste of a strategic human resource. The role is naturally cut for them and the national assembly should please take note. The argument that they should be shielded from politics is warped and an unnecessary imitation of western models.
Law Mefor is an Author, Journalist and Forensic Psychologist. He is also the National Coordinator of the Transform Nigeria Movement (TNM),