Eyewitnesses to the recent attempt on the life of the Emir of Fika, Alhaji Muhammed Abali Ibn Mohammed Idrisa, narrated how the emir, who is also the Chairman, Yobe State Council of Chiefs, scampered away from the scene of the attempted assassination, falling down, stumbling over his traditional robes, his turban flailing behind him as he fled for safety.

The assassination attempt happened as the emir, who had just finished his Friday prayers at the Potiskum Central Mosque, was standing, when a young man with explosives strapped to his body inched close to him, but was stopped by the emir’s police orderly. Realising that his mission to blow up the traditional ruler had failed, the suspected assassin brought out a gun and tried to shoot the emir instead, when the explosives on him detonated.

Although the emir escaped unhurt, his police orderly and the suicide bomber were reportedly killed in the blast while several people were injured. The attack came barely a month after the Shehu of Borno, Alhaji Abubakar Umar Garbai El-Kanemi, also narrowly escaped death when a suicide bomber targeted him after Friday prayers at the Maiduguri Central Mosque.

This year, for the first time in over 200 years, the traditional Sallah Durbar celebrations were cancelled in Kano and most parts of the North. The excuse was that the emir – for whom the occasion was an opportunity for district heads and the nobility to pay homage and pledge allegiance – was ill. However, many suspected that Boko Haram had planned to use the occasion to cause carnage among the royalty. Even the calamity of the British occupation of Kano in 1903 did not stop the Durbar that year.

Last year, in the aftermath of the bitterly divisive presidential election, angry mobs attacked the palaces of several prominent traditional rulers, burning and looting. Their grouse was the suspicion that the traditional rulers connived with, and were bribed by, the ruling party to facilitate the process that many saw as systematic rigging of the election.

To put these events in context, not too long ago, refusal to remove your shoes in the presence of district heads, not to talk of an emir, could be interpreted as a rebellion, and in some places, punishable. Today, it is with glee that people describe the speed with which emirs scamper away from danger. Many now guffaw when revered traditional symbols of authority – the staff of office and the turban – are discarded at the slightest hint of danger.

All over the North, the inbred respect for ward and district heads, as well as emirs, is fast diminishing and, consequently, the authority and the myths behind the traditional institutions they head. For those who feared the institutions, a new boldness is in place; for those who had high regards for them, a subtle disdain has emerged and for members of the ruling clans, the rewards of being part of the royal classes are fast ebbing.
This is not to say that the North’s emirs have lost their powers: they remain largely powerful and able to influence economic and social policy. But events of the last few years have eaten away the basis of their legitimacy. And that precisely is the challenge facing the Emirate System in the North and the traditions they represent.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is common perception that emirs were given huge sums of money to support a government seen as inimical to the interests of the ordinary citizen. How can those emirs retain public respect? When traditional rulers watch while local schools and hospitals decay simply because they can educate their children abroad and travel overseas for medical treatment, how can they be seen as responsible and responsive by their people?

A case in point: a strategic federal government agency recently advertised job vacancies. While qualified candidates without powerful contacts applied and prayed for miracles to have even the faintest hope of getting employment, a highly respected traditional ruler reportedly sent a delegation to the head of the agency, along with gift items… and a list of candidates. Actually, this is not class, but crass opportunism.

In that, and other similar instances, how can traditional rulers who use their positions and influence to muscle out ordinary folks to secure positions in the public sector, military and the corporate world for their offspring and anyone connected to the ruling class, possibly hope to command respect as unbiased leaders of all?

In another scenario, how can traditional rulers jostle for contracts and, like typical Nigerian contractors, refuse to execute the contracts after collecting mobilisation fees? Worse is when the contracts happen to be a road, school, hospital or water projects located within their domains….

The British occupation of Northern Nigeria may have begun the decline of the influence of traditional institutions; however, unless they embark on deep-reaching and wide-ranging reforms, they may vanish altogether in the not too distant future. And the best way to reform is simply to be on the side of the people. It is not an accident that the monarchical systems in the Middle East – on which we modeled our institutions – are also scrambling to reform and promote more freedoms and opportunities for their people. It is time to open an aperture into the 21st century.

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