Over the weekend, there was a news story that the Lagos State Government had banned non-indigenous traditional titles over a video made by the Eze Igbo of Oshodi-Isolo, Fred Nwajagu, in response to the ethnic attacks on Igbo during the last election. It was reported that he was promptly arrested by the police and Department of State Services, both of which had feigned blindness when brazen ethnic incitement and attacks took place against the Igbo during the elections in Lagos. In other parts of the country where violence took place, these security agencies were nowhere to be found.
Even though I was disappointed that the Lagos State Government, the police and the DSS were clearly selective in their reaction, I was happy about the reported ban in Lagos with the hope that it could be the beginning of the end of the spread of such titles across Nigeria by the three largest ethnic groups: Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa.
Not surprising, the Lagos State Government came out shortly after with the announcement that it had not banned such positions. The announcement by the Lagos State Government was not surprising because the only two groups that benefit from the non-indigenous traditional positions are governors (politicians) and the holders of such positions.
Many people don’t understand why there is a multiplication of the positions of Eze Ndigbo, Oba Yoruba, Sarkin Hausawa, etc, in different towns and cities in Nigeria. The reason is simple: They are pliant characters used by politicians, especially governors of their respective states of residence, for political purposes. If you scan through the media or online stories about such positions, you will see that their existence gets its relevance and sustenance from the politicians, especially governors.
For example, Jubril A. Gawat, Senior Special Assistant to the Governor of Lagos State on New Media, using the Twitter handle @Mr_JAGs, tweeted in the past as follows: “Yesterday, His Imperial Majesty, Eze Fred Nwajagu, also the Eze Ndigbo of Oshodi/Isolo & Ajao Estate Kingdom came with his chiefs to the Campaign Office & promised that Igbo in Oshodi Isolo will vote massively for APC.”
Note the grandiose epithets used by the aide of the Governor of Lagos: “His Imperial Majesty” and “Kingdom.” By using such appellations, the aide of the governor was merely dressing the man in borrowed robes to boost his importance and make it appear that a critical influencer had endorsed Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
Similarly, on November 21, 2022, The Guardian published the story: “Yoruba community in Awka coronates new Oba, gets Soludo’s assurance.” The story read inter alia: “The Yoruba Community in Anambra State, at the weekend, coronated the third Oba of Awka, Alhaji Abdul Olahan, popularly called Ezechinedu, (Leader led by God) by his admirers.
“Before him were Oba Owolabi I and Oba Oseni II whose transition took place about a year ago. The new Oba, who has spent 68 years in Awka, was barely two years when he was brought to Awka by his late mother, Alhaja Afusat Olahan, to join his late father, who was a tailor, Hamzah Olahan, from Ede town, Ede North Council of Osun State.”
Likewise, a Daily Trust news story of August 22, 2014 had the headline: “Okorocha presents a car to Sarkin Hausawa in Imo.” That was obviously part of Okorocha’s way of watering the ground for his presidential ambition. Last year, he eventually contested the presidency in the ruling All Progressives Congress. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission chose that period to storm his home days after he bought the presidential form and whisk him away over allegations of corruption. He was eventually discharged by the court in February 2023.
In all cultures of Nigeria, the traditional rulers live within their domains and reign over all the people living within such domains. They emerge through clearly-defined methods and are crowned through specific rites performed by specific people. They are seen as fathers to all people within their domains and usually try to be non-partisan in political matters. When candidates of political parties visit them, they usually welcome them and wish them well, maintaining their neutrality as much as possible.
But this is completely different from the case of those who are called Eze Ndigbo or Oba Yoruba or Sarkin Hausawa. Most times, someone appoints himself to the position, with some of his handpicked friends and associates acting as those who “elected” or “chose” him. Such people eventually become “members of his cabinet.”
Unlike the true traditional rulers, these ones are never neutral on political issues. They make spirited efforts to prove their loyalty to the state governor. Whenever the state governor needs the votes of the non-indigenous community or is under attack that he is against a particular ethnic group, he gathers these so-called traditional rulers or sends word to them, and they issue statements or pay him a solidarity visit in the state house, urging all their people to support the governor as the best thing that happened since microwave oven. In return for this loyalty, they get regular freebies from the state government. Some of them also get contracts from the state government.
As a result of this political usefulness they serve, they are prime assets which cannot be dispensed with by the state governors. Therefore, deep down, even if state governors find them irritating, they cannot do anything to ban them. The worst state governors can do is to clip their wings if they become too overbearing. Beyond the opportunity to use them for political window-dressing, state governors will also not want to ban them and be tagged “tribalistic,” given that it will be used against them if they decide to run for any federal office like the presidency in future.
Among the Igbo, in particular, the title of Eze Ndigbo in different cities and states is seen as an aberration. Those who bear such titles are not seen as community leaders in their city or state of residence. A traditional ruler is not expected to live in “a foreign land.” Each traditional ruler heads a town. Each town has its own customs and traditions. Outside their state of origin, members of such a town have their town union which has elected officers with specific tenures. These are the people such members of the town see as their leaders outside their home community. When a member of such a group is ill, arrested or dies suddenly, the leadership and members of such a town union rally round the family quickly to ensure that their kinsfolk is not put to shame in “a foreign land.”
That was why in 2015 when Mr Jimi Agbaje of the Peoples Democratic Party was making waves in the Lagos governorship race, and the APC spread a false story that Agbaje had pledged to elevate the Eze Ndigbo in Lagos to the same level as the Oba of Lagos, with some Yoruba voters believing it, many Igbo people found it amusing that people could believe such a baseless story. As far as most Igbo people are concerned, the people who masquerade as Eze Ndigbo outside their state of origin are contractors and government agents who have no influence or control over the people. Nobody takes them seriously. They are seen the same way university students who are crowned as the traditional rulers of their hostels are seen: people engaged in drama tinged with private business.
If they can be banned, the people will be happy. But because they serve the needs of the state governors, it is almost certain that they will never be banned. That is the sad reason why the aberration will continue.