Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Sanusi: Nigerian traditional institutions are not in conflict with democracy 14 Apr 2020

The dethronement of the Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi II, by the Kano State government last month has elicited varied reactions. Those, including Islamic scholars, who support the emir's removal by the government, have contended that the Sarkin Kano had become disruptive to Islamic culture and tradition.
For instance, Umar Muhammad Labdo, a Professor of Islamic Political Thoughts at Yusuf Maitama Sule University in Kano, said Sanusi was advocating women's liberation. Among the reasons for his deposition, the government accused Sanusi of disrespect for constituted authority and subverting the custom of the Kano emirate. The government has also accused him of corruption.    

As Emir of Kano, Sanusi was a famous critic of the northern political establishment. He strongly advocated for girl's education as a solution to the country's rapid population growth and criticized the Almajiri system that he said economically disempowered young children.

Supporting girl-child education does not equate to feminism as Prof. Labdo, unfortunately, supposed, neither does pushing for educational access for disadvantaged children in the north a sacrilege.

Sanusi's other critics who are not religious traditionalists brought their modernist perception to the debate. In their reactions to the dethronement, they questioned the relevance of monarchs and traditional institutions in a democracy. The notion that monarchs and traditional rulers are incompatible with democracy is not new. However, research has found that there is no conflict between supporting traditional rule and being a democrat.   

Findings from a study by Michigan State University show that there is a strong connection between African traditional and political institutions. Contrary to the modernists' view that both institutions are in competition, the research found that “positive attitudes toward chiefs are not incompatible with democracy – and vice versa." The findings, published in a 2009 article in the Journal of Modern African Studies, titled "Traditional Leaders In Modern Africa: Can Democracy And The Chief Co-Exist?," also indicate that African societies have been able to integrate the two institutional structures and they exist side-by-side in harmony.

While Nigeria is not a monarchy, constitutional monarchies in some parts of Western Europe and Asia are far more advanced democracies than Nigeria currently is. While the monarchs remain as heads of state in those countries, they have no executive or political role. They have civic roles, and in some situations – like in the case of the Emir of Kano – they provide religious authority, stability and the continuity of tradition. According to Elliot Bulmer in a paper published by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the monarchs are non-partisan, unifying figures who reinforce democratic legitimacy.   

In many of those societies, their monarchies have existed for thousands of years. But despite the sociocultural evolution and democratisation that took place, the royals have remained a visible part of these societies and continue to provide stability and connection across different eras. The kings, queens and emperors have understood the need to navigate and address the demands of the 21st century society.

Nigerian monarchs have no constitutional authority; but they are custodians of traditional religions and cultures. Hence, it is a fallacy to think they are incompatible with modern values when, in fact, traditional rulers can contribute to sociocultural development and the economic advancement of the country.

Traditional rulers are the true representatives of the people, even to a greater extent, I will argue, than elected leaders. Our culture – which the chiefs are custodians of – is what shapes our identity. We also know that culture is an instrument used to achieve harmony among people.

The conflict and politics that played out between Sanusi and Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, suggests one thing: the co-existence of the political and traditional institutions depends on the latter agreeing to be only seen and not heard. Suffice to say, this suppression of the chiefs is not in the best interest of the political leaders.    

Presidents and state governments come and go. Traditional leaders often stay longer on the throne. Strengthening a partnership between politicians and chiefs is a better proposition for protecting our traditions and cultural institutions, enhancing a sense of identity, and deepening democratic ideals by not creating the impression the elected leaders are authoritarian.  

It is not uncommon for rulers to err sometimes. King John of England was such a bad king the Pope excommunicated him. Indeed, out of the 61 monarchs who have ruled England and Britain, at least eight have been deposed or forced to abdicate for various reasons, on some occasions it was political. But disciplinary actions must be taken transparently and with due process, which are important tenets of democracy.

The other reason a strong collaboration between elected and traditional leaders is important is for economic development of the country through cultural tourism. Monarchs must necessarily be part of the plan for developing cultural tourism as a key export sector and a source of employment. This is why the modernists' view that presents Nigerian monarchs as anachronistic is, ironically, backward.

A report by Statista shows that global tourism revenue in 2019 was estimated at $5.9 trillion. Cultural tourism accounts for 40 per cent of world tourism revenues, per UNESCO. The federal and state governments should as a matter of policy invest in the touristification of the country’s rich culture. Developing Nigeria's many cultural heritage sites will help in empowering local communities and strengthening local economies.  

Preserving cultural heritage zones will also support the achievement of a key target of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which calls for strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage (SDG 11.4).

From the Oba of Benin, to the Ooni of Ife and Tor Tiv, some monarchs have established their personal development initiatives. The Ayatutu Ka Se Foundation, a non-profit founded by His Royal Majesty, Prof. James Ayatse, aims to mobilise resources for the development of the Tiv nation.

Sanusi spoke truth to power, something that is very uncommon in a country where leaders demand unquestioned acquiescence. Speaking for the welfare of the downtrodden was his way of representing the people. But some of his actions were tantamount to insubordination. He also failed to stay above the political fray. Modern monarchs, as stated earlier, are to be unifying figures.