Thursday, June 28, 2007

Igbo Traditional Rulers': Chieftaincy and the State in Southeastern Nigeria

This article has been published in Afrika Spectrum (Hamburg), Vol. 33, No. 1, 1998, pp. 57-70. An earlier version had been made available on the Net in May 1998. Thanks again to all who commented!


Igbo 'Traditional Rulers':
Chieftaincy and the State in Southeastern Nigeria


Since the 1970s, the institution of chieftaincy has gained much prominence in the social and political life of Nigeria. The growing importance of Traditional Rulers (sometimes even called 'natural rulers') in everyday affairs, in local and national politics in Nigeria has received comparatively little attention by social scientists - especially so for areas where no strong chieftaincy institutions existed in pre-colonial times.[2]

The expansion of the chieftaincy institution, in terms of influence and quantity of office-holders, and its increasing visibility are irritating facts, compared to the prognoses of social theory. Classical modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s assumed that the principles of 'modern' formalized bureaucratic office and of functional differentiation would become more important than 'traditional' leaders. In a parallel way, underdevelopment and dependency theory hardly foresaw a renewed boom for an institution which they thought to be rooted in a pre- or non-capitalist setting.
Such conceptual difficulties can, of course, easily be resolved if contemporary chieftaincy institutions in Nigeria are understood not only, and not even primarily, as belonging to a pre-modern, pre-capitalist past; but rather as institutions which have either (been) adapted to the contemporary socio-political setting, or even have been specifically created for or by it.

Obviously, the Nigerian experience provides numerous examples for the compatibility between chieftaincy institutions based on the principle of tradition on the one hand, and 'modernity' and capitalism (or, rather, Nigeria's peculiar version of it[3]) on the other. Throughout Nigeria, there are numerous well-educated holders of chieftaincy titles with strong business interests; conversely, virtually every successful businessman attempts to acquire such a title, this practice being so common that titles are nowadays widely perceived to be 'purchased' (rather than hereditary, or earned as a matter of honor). Important politicians accumulate several dozen titles.[4] Such honorary titles, however, are of a secondary nature, in so far as they are usually conferred by officially-recognized holders of traditional titles: the Traditional Rulers.

This article mainly focuses on this latter group, reserving the term 'Traditional Ruler' (capitalized) as the widely accepted designation for a government-recognized title-holder since the mid-1970s. In contrast, the more general terms 'chief' is used here to refer to all holders of leadership positions and honorary offices who carry titles which refer for their legitimacy to the principle of tradition.

Obviously, the chieftaincy institution in Nigeria is modern, to a high degree, and well adapted to capitalism. At the same time, chieftaincy is always understood and legitimized as being founded on the principle of tradition; chieftaincy without reference to tradition seems an unimaginable concept - a contradiction in itself. Numerous Nigerian societies in fact had elaborated chieftaincy institutions, whose holders individually and effectively ruled qua office, in the pre-colonial era. This was the case not only in the Islamic core areas of the North (Sokoto Caliphate, Bornu) but also in the large-scale states of the South, like the Benin Empire and the Yoruba city-states. In these cases, the reference to tradition of chieftaincy makes some sense - if (as is widely done in Nigeria) the term 'tradition' is understood to refer to a continuity from some pre-colonial status quo, at least in the late 19th century if not at some much earlier period in history. Even then the fact may frequently and conveniently be overlooked that the functions and meanings of the institution might have drastically changed, transformed, and possibly even perverted, during the last century, and increasingly so in recent decades.

However, there are many areas of the country where chieftaincy institutions did not exist in pre-colonial times, or, at least, were much less significant than in the above-mentioned cases. The largest single ethnic group of this kind (with certain exceptions, see below) are the Igbo; there are many others in Southeastern Nigeria as well as in much of the so-called 'Middle Belt'. In these societies, chiefs as rulers emerged only during the colonial period. Among the Igbo, colonial chiefs were at times strongly resented by the population; and it will be shown in this article that neither the colonial state nor the governments of independent Nigeria did always provide a guarantee for their continued existence. Igbo chieftaincy has few pre-colonial roots, and even its colonial foundation is comparatively weak. If the term 'tradition' is applied to Igbo Traditional Rulers, one has to be aware that it does not refer to pre-colonial historical facts, but primarily constitutes a strategy of gaining legitimacy for a rather contemporary phenomenon.

Since the late 1970s, the chieftaincy institution in Igboland has flourished remarkably. By the late 1980s, there were 820 government-recognized Igbo Traditional Rulers - 'kings' (Inyama 1993:216) carrying the titles eze in Imo State, and eze, igwe or obi, officially addressed as 'His Royal Highness' ('HRH'), in Anambra State. Most of these Traditional Rulers are not 'traditional' in that their position has no direct pre-colonial pendant; if any, their office is based on a tradition created rather recently. Nor do they 'rule' in a formal sense. Nonetheless, as Ebere Nwaubani (1994) in one of the very few long-range historical analyses of the institution, has put it, in contemporary Igbo society, Traditional Rulers have become permanent and influential 'guest[s] on the center-stage'.

This article, firstly, sketches the emergence of the Igbo chieftaincy institution in the 20th century. Overall, the institution was created, supported, and decisively shaped by the colonial and post-colonial state, even though there were periods when government policies diminished the role of chiefs in favor of more participatory forms of local administration. Secondly, the article analyzes in a more detailed way the development of Igbo Traditional Rulers since the late 1970s. It studies the legal and political framework in which they have emerged, their social background, their relationship with government, their roles in the local setting and the symbolism they employ. It turns out that contemporary Igbo Traditional Rulers form a heterogeneous group of local leaders which forms an interface between the locality they 'rule' and the modern state. Still, ongoing debates about the legitimacy of Igbo Traditional Rulers show that their role remains contested.

Igbo Chieftaincy in Historical Perspective
Most classical social anthropological and historical accounts of Igbo society have described it as prototypically 'stateless', 'acephalous', or 'segmentary' (Meek 1937, Green 1947, Forde/Jones 1950, Jones (1957), Uchendu 1965 - for a review see Goltzsche 1976; Isichei 1976, Ifemesia 1978), consisting of autonomous villages and village groups (obodo, 'town') ruled by 'diffused' authority without formalized, permanent, or hereditary leadership positions. Uchendu (1965) described the prototypical Igbo traditional local political organization as 'an exercise in direct democracy' (41) on the village level, with a 'representative assembly' (46) on the level of the village group. To be sure, there were exceptions to this general picture: Some Igbo communities, especially trading cities along the Niger like Onitsha and Oguta (Nzimiro 1972) and the 'holy city' of Nri (Afigbo 1981:31-68) had elaborated chieftaincy institutions in pre-colonial times. Especially the case of Nri has fuelled both academic and popular imagination, because the stirring archaeological findings at Igbo-Ukwu seem to suggest to some authors (especially Onwuejeogwu 1980, 1981; see also Hahn-Waanders 1985, Grau 1993) the existence of a one thousand year-old tradition of Nri sacral kingship and 'hegemony' over large parts of Igboland. This theory is welcome in current popular and political debates about Igbo chieftaincy, as it seems to be able to prove the traditional character of contemporary Igbo Traditional Rulers' titles. Nonetheless, even in current debates in Nigeria, most people continue to view Igbo society as being traditionally based on 'democratic principles' (Aguwa 1993:20), as expressed in the common proverb igbo enwe(ghi) eze, 'the Igbo have no king'.
However 'democratic', inner structures of pre-colonial Igbo communities were far from egalitarian. Igbo society had its 'slaves' (ohu) and 'cult-slaves' (osu) on the one hand, and it had leaders on the other. Depending on what sub-cultural area of Igboland we are talking about, there were lineage headships, influential age groups, and powerful titled and secret societies. There were also individuals carrying the title eze or obi, indicating a special degree of influence and power, though not independent of the person and, especially, the wealth it could mobilize. The majority of such leadership positions were held by men. However, there were also female assemblies and individual leaders, and female titles in some places, in what has been described as a 'dual-sex political system' with gendered complementary structures (Okonjo 1976; for a critique of the concept see Amadiume 1997:112-13). Some of the leadership positions were restricted to elders, often of certain lineages only; others were based on individually achieved status and purchasing power, especially the ozo-titles.

As regards these leadership positions, a common feature is their high degree of local diversity, in two ways: First, the rules by which an individual obtained a position differed from place to place. Second, while certain Igbo communities (especially Nri and Arochukwu) exerted a certain wide-range commercial or ritual influence, the leaders even of these communities did not exert direct power outside of their own community.

Colonial Chieftaincy
The story of how British colonialism introduced the so-called 'Warrant Chiefs' in Igboland is well known (Afigbo 1972), and will only be touched here briefly. In their occupation of Igboland (the 1890s to about 1917), the British instituted Native Courts and installed chiefs by warrant (hence the name) who controlled them. Frequently, Warrant Chiefs were installed arbitrarily: In some cases, personalities were installed who actually had been local leaders before, but more often than not it was an accidental affair. Sometimes, the villagers forwarded people of little standing in the community to the British; on the periphery of Igboland, sometimes even persons people of external origin were installed. The Warrant Chiefs of Igboland were installed without much recourse to local traditions of hierarchy and status, without taking into account the details of pre-colonial local political structures. However, this arbitrariness resulted mainly from the fact that the British knew very little about the pre-colonial organization of the communities which they had brought under control. The British believed that African people had to be governed by chiefs, somehow - it was a very crude version of indirect rule, but still believed to constitute indirect rule, at least in its early years.[5]
In effect, many Warrant Chiefs solely constituted colonially-backed usurpers of power and had little legitimacy beyond the fact of their being installed by the colonial state. Nonetheless, they held power and used it for their own gain. Their main source of power was the control of Native Courts and of labor, for example for colonial road and waterway construction (Ofonagoro 1982). Enugu Warrant Chief Onyeama, described as an 'African God' by his grandson (Onyeama 1982), controlled the flows of labor to the emerging coal mining industry and established himself as powerful ruler, combining wealth with terror and magical power over his people. By the 1920s, the Warrant Chief institution had, in many places, become synonymous with greed and corruption, and British administrative officers were increasingly aware of this. But the system did not break down before the famous 1929 Women's War which took place in large areas of Southern Igboland and of the Ibibio-speaking areas further Southeast. Thousands of women attacked Native Courts and besieged Warrant Chiefs ('sitting on a man', Van Allen 1972). The Women's War made unmistakably clear the little legitimacy of Warrant Chief rule, which since then has become paradigmatic for the errors about African societies and their traditions and rulers committed by British colonialism.[6]

After 1929, Warrant Chiefs were removed from their positions of power, although some of them remained local big men who themselves, or their descendants, even regained chieftaincy positions later on. The British began to reform local administration in order to create a 'proper' indirect rule. By means of writing Intelligence Reports, the colonial administration began a more systematic survey of what it believed were traditional local African political and judicial institutions. These reports revealed the existence of a considerable variety of pre-colonial local political institutions and jurisdiction.

Based to some extent on these reports, in the 1930s new local Native Authority Councils and Courts composed of elders and other members of the local elite were created (ishi ani). They were believed to resemble traditional structures of local government more closely. In reality, however, many of them hardly did so, not the least because the councils were based on large-scale 'clans', 'federations' and other units which were much larger than communal units in pre-colonial Igbo society. The councils soon received much local criticism, both for what was seen as their non-traditional character and, again, because of corruption (Afigbo 1981:322-23). Surviving female power roles and executive positions were not transformed into the new local administrative system which became an all-out male affair (Amadiume 1987:147-50). This fact was deplored already by Sylvia Leith-Ross, a British ethnographer who studied Igbo women in the 1930s and felt, by that time, 'too many vested interests' were operating against formal administrative roles for women. If such positions had been introduced earlier, she believed, Igbo men would not have resisted (Leith-Ross 1983:95).

The system of the new Native Authority Councils remained in flux; the newly emerging educated elite increasingly exerted pressure to be represented in local politics. By the 1940s, the British administration followed what was called the 'Best Man Policy' (okacha mma), by not any more insisting on elders as representatives in the Councils, but encouraging communities to chose younger educated representatives. This fitted well into the early years of British West African decolonization policy after 1947, with its stress on local government reform and democracy as a first step towards self-government on higher levels (Pearce 1982). Thus, at the end of the period of direct British colonial influence in Nigeria in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for the first time, there was a conscious move in the field of local administration away from the legitimizing principle of 'tradition', towards the legitimizing principle of 'democracy'; both principles were perceived to be contradictory at the time. Chiefs played no formal role any more in this system. The democratic reality, however, seemed to have been little encouraging, as is, for example, shown by frequent regional government intervention into the system of elected local councils.

Chiefs in the Era of Decolonization
However, chieftaincy returned as an important political issue in the mid-1950s - this time as a result of African, not any more of British colonial initiative. This return cannot be understood without reference to the wider political framework of Nigeria. By the mid-1950s, the three Regions of Nigeria had more or less achieved internal self-government. Besides the elected parliaments, the Northern and Western Regions established 'Houses of Chiefs' (on the Westminster model) as second parliamentary chambers. In the Eastern Region strong demands emerged to establish an Eastern House of Chiefs as well, because, it was argued, otherwise one would forego an opportunity to stand equally with the other Regions. Furthermore, the regionally dominant party (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons - NCNC) saw an opportunity to increase its local standing by allying itself with local power elites (Sklar 1963:445-46).
An official inquiry was held by the former district officer and by then Cambridge anthropologist, G.I. Jones (1957). He was not to recommend whether a House of Chiefs should be established or not - this was a political decision taken by the regional government, not the least to gain sympathy of some Southeastern minority ethnic groups (Sklar 1963:137-8) which actually had distinct chieftaincy traditions dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Jones was to make proposals on how to integrate traditional institutions into a modern, Western-style political and judicial system. With his wide ethnographic knowledge of the area, Jones was well aware of the changing character of chieftaincy institutions, especially with regard to the claims made on them by the educated elite. He recommended a limited inclusion of chiefs as ex officio-members in the local councils, a procedure for their official recognition (and its withdrawal) by government, and salaries (to be paid for by the respective territorial unit) for those of them serving on higher (county and district) administrative levels. Out of Jones' recommendation for the practical implementation of a House of Chiefs, a system of grading of chiefs emerged. Accordingly, a number of 'first class' and 'second class' chiefs were officially recognized in the following years.

The Eastern House of Chiefs was dissolved, along with all parliamentary institutions in Nigeria, after the military coup of January 15, 1966. During the Civil War years (1967-70), holders of chieftaincy titles played little role politically. The post-Civil War administration of the East-Central State (comprising the Igbo-speaking areas of the old Eastern Region) under Ukpabi Asika (1970-75) followed a program of mobilization for reconstruction and development - as did the federal military government under General Yakubu Gowon at that time. Local participation in development was understood purely in 'modern' terms: it was believed to mean mobilization partly by a strong state, partly through self-help by Town (Development) Unions and other communal associations (Harneit-Sievers 1994). This concept left little room for a formal inclusion of holders of chieftaincy titles in local government, and customary courts disappeared. Thus, during the post-colonial 'developmentalist' military regime of the early 1970s, for a second time the principle of 'tradition' was driven to the background in local administration, this time not against the competing principle of 'democracy', but of 'development'. And again, as in the early 1950s, the results were not encouraging, as a political scientist who studied the local situation noted: 'The masses of the people were convinced that those who went into council work as councilors did so for purely mercenary purposes.' (Awa 1992:89)

Igbo Traditional Rulers Since the 1970s
Official recognition of and political backing for chieftaincy institutions returned in the course of the Nigeria-wide local government reform of 1976 that created structures still existing today. This reform wanted to 'bring government closer to the people', and to strengthen the role of the local level as a third tier of government, besides the Federal and State levels. 'Traditional rulers', as the Udoji Public Service Review Commission had put it in 1974, were believed to be important, even 'in the context of a development-oriented society', to act as 'the impartial fathers of their communities and embodiment of local custom' (quoted in Anambra State of Nigeria 1976:6). This policy was applied not only in the North and Southwest, with their strong traditions of chieftaincy, but in the Southeast as well. In the Igbo-speaking Anambra and Imo States (created in 1975 out of the former East-Central State), a fourth level, below that of the Local Government Areas, was subsequently introduced by the creation of 'autonomous communities'. It was on this level that Traditional Rulers were officially recognized, with only one Traditional Ruler in any single autonomous community, and standards for their recognition set up. These standards have provided a certain uniformity among Igbo Traditional Rulers, not only in the core Igbo areas - comprising Anambra, Imo, and the three States carved out of them later: Abia, Enugu (both 1991) and Ebonyi (1996) - but even extending into Igbo-speaking areas of neighboring Delta and Rivers States.
Legal Aspects and Government Policies
The establishment of autonomous communities and the installation of Traditional Rulers originated in recommendations made by a committee consisting of academics and civil servants in 1976 (Anambra State of Nigeria 1976; Anambra/Imo States of Nigeria 1976). Its chairman was the most prominent historian of Igbo society, Adiele E. Afigbo, then professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His writings have strongly influenced our understanding of pre-colonial Igbo social and political order. Very much like G.I. Jones two decades earlier, he did not expect to be able to re-install a traditional political order which he knew was lost to a wide extent. But in contrast to Jones who had made detailed proposals about specific local communities (though he had always argued not to force something upon them what they did not want), the 1976 committee came up with a rather formal proposal, designed to divide, to a certain extent, local and government spheres of action. This proposal was enacted into State legislation soon afterwards. Since then, governments of the Igbo-speaking States began to recognize (within certain formal restrictions as to personal qualification) Traditional Rulers proposed by autonomous communities; according to the law government should refrain from intervention into the details of the selection process, but it reserves the right of deposing a Traditional Ruler, for example, if 'necessary in the interest of peace, order and good government'. Only government-recognized Traditional Rulers are legally entitled to carry the titles of eze and igwe; they may confer honorary titles to others.
The legal procedures involved in order to obtain official recognition require a Traditional Ruler to prove 'popular support' by his formal, public presentation to the Governor. Furthermore, an autonomous community has to provide a written 'constitution' and a 'code of conduct' for the Traditional Ruler. However, the law makes little provision to define how, in detail, these documents emerge, and who writes them - except by a rather general reference to 'customary law'. Thus, this legal instrument in effect forces communities to put into a fixed, written form what they regard as their tradition. (Some communities even went beyond this and published book-size accounts of their local history and culture, see Harneit-Sievers 1997.) Different from the colonial era of Intelligence Report-writing, the state does not any more itself fix tradition by reducing it into writing; the post-colonial state is not any more interested to get involved into the meanings and contents of local tradition. Rather, the state leaves these frequently contested issues as much as possible to the local sphere, and contents itself with creating a formal framework within which Traditional Rulers emerge. From the government point of view, the specific contents of local tradition, as regards the election of its leaders, simply does not matter, as long as the community succeeds in writing the required documents.

In practice, however, government set up not only the framework, but interfered in numerous cases. In Anambra State, the Chieftaincy Edict of September 2, 1976, (modified by the Traditional Rulers Law 1981) resulted in a rush for recognized positions as Traditional Rulers under control of the then military governor of the State. The first 124 Traditional Rulers were recognized already on December 14, 1976, another 84 chiefs in February and March 1977. Judging from the speed by which the recognition of this group took place, one may assume that these Traditional Rulers had been among the strongest supporters of the new legislation. At any rate, they were able to establish their position without serious local opposition, in contrast to the situation in other communities where the Chieftaincy Edict sparked off local disputes and litigation. In order to deal with these cases, the Anambra State government set up the Justice Agbakoba Commission, the decisions of which were not allowed to be challenged in the courts. By September 1979, when a civilian federal government under President Shehu Shagari took over from the military, altogether 405 Traditional Rulers had been recognized in Anambra State (Chieftaincy Institution in Anambra State 1980:17-18). However, a number of positions have for extended periods remained vacant, due to disputes.[7] In some cases, communities seceded in order to establish autonomous communities of their own.

Developments in Imo State (Nwaubani 1994:364-69) were similar, though delayed. A commission to inquire into contested claims was set up, too. In Imo, the civilian administration under Governor Sam Mbakwe seems to have played a more important role in shaping of institution (Chieftaincy Edict 1978, Chieftaincy and Autonomous Communities Law 1981) than in Anambra.

Even after the period of large-scale recognition of Traditional Rulers, relations between them and the State governments continue to be ambiguous. Legally and technically, government remains in control of their recognition and deposition. Traditional Rulers are not holding any executive offices in the locality, but are subordinated to the local government authorities; they are not even ex officio-members of local councils. During the Second Republic (1979-83), Traditional Rulers had to renounce their recognition if they personally wanted to enter party politics, though only one did so 1979 in Anambra (Chieftaincy Institution in Anambra State 1980:18). Active participation in party politics was regarded as contravening their role as an 'impartial father' of the community. Legally, the role of Traditional Rulers is defined as largely informal, and ceremonial. Their 'rule' is restricted to the community for which they are appointed; the law does not provide for a Traditional Ruler of a larger region or the whole of Igboland.

Nonetheless, in practice Traditional Rulers exert a considerable influence, most of it by informal means and within their community (see below), but also with regard to their relations to the Nigerian state, in spite of their dependence on government. The institution of the 'courtesy call' to the Traditional Ruler, paid by visiting military governors and civilian politicians, is especially noteworthy in this regard. While the term 'courtesy call' indicates some degree of informality, even of detachment from everyday political affairs, in practice such visits are highly formalized ways to meet 'informally', and they are strongly loaded politically. One of their purposes is to prove to the (local) public the popular foundation of government, and its proximity to the people; and sometimes Traditional Rulers may be able to use such an occasion to voice criticism of government policy which few others might be able to do (for an example see Nwaubani 1994:347-48).

The military regime under General Muhammadu Buhari (1984-85), after having alienated many other interest groups by its autocratic and repressive political style, strengthened the position of Traditional Rulers, not the least as a counterweight against more radical political tendencies. Councils of Chiefs were created on the level of the States. Under General Ibrahim Babangida's rule (1985-93) ex-politicians and Traditional Rulers from the old Eastern Region even formed a lobby group to advance the 'eastern interest'. In contrast, the Political Bureau (1986-88), set up by Babangida to discuss a future political system, wanted to keep Traditional Rulers out of formal positions in local administration (Vaughan 1997: 418-27). In spite of this contrast, as Vaughan (1997:427-29) has argued, it would be misleading to construct an outright opposition between conservative 'neotraditionalists' supporting the military government of General Sani Abacha (1993-98), and liberal intellectuals and businessmen opposed to it. In practice, Traditional Rulers as well as considerable parts of the 'political class' have been manipulated into supporting the military regime.

Personal Profiles
Igbo Traditional Rulers do not belong to a separate aristocratic class, as Traditional Rulers in some other areas in Nigeria do. For want of serious empirical research, it is not easy to characterize Igbo Traditional Rulers in terms of social background; statements on this topic have to be based mainly on a small number of (rather incomplete) directories and a limited, through growing body of 'hagiographical'[8] literature, i.e. published biographies of Traditional Rulers, most of them probably sponsored by themselves.
The variety of local conditions of the chieftaincy institution went along with a considerable variation of wealth among Traditional Rulers, as became clear during the government recognition ceremonies of 1976: 'It was like a carnival occasion when the first batch of traditional rulers were presented with their certificates of recognition in Enugu by the then Military Governor, Col. John Atom Kpera. From 22 local government areas, the chiefs stormed the state capital with their paraphernalia of office and distinctive traditional gear. [...] The wealthy among the chiefs sought to outdo each other in pomp and pageantry, and the venue of the memorable occasion presented a riot of colors. Many of the chiefs brought a large [r]etinue of supporters who sang in their praises, while the not-so-affluent had to contend themselves with a couple of followers. There were also the lone chiefs who had to travel to the state capital by public transport to receive their certificates.' (Chieftaincy Institution in Anambra State 1980:17)

From the few data available it seems that a large number, probably a majority, of Igbo Traditional Rulers belong to the class of more or less educated businessmen (as common stereotypes hold, anyway). However, some differentiation is necessary. In 1980, the Anambra State Broadcasting Corporation produced a booklet ('Chieftaincy Institution in Anambra State') which contained a non-representative sample of 44 short biographies of Traditional Rulers, i.e. about one tenth of all recognized office holders in the State.[9] The Traditional Rulers were not necessarily 'elders': Less than one third of them was older than 60 years. 21, i.e. nearly half of them mentioned an own business, 10 others had made a career as civil servants (with several of them having been educated abroad).[10] 9 Traditional Rulers had been installed for the first time already before 1960; 7 of them mentioned to have been involved in local administration before the 1950s, for example Edward Nnaji of Nike, Enugu, who since the late 1930s has made a life-time career out of acting as a traditional leader, and about whom a remarkable body of hagiographic literature has been published (Nnamani (1985); Okoye 1993; Chidobi 1996). 10 Traditional Rulers described their positions as being based on rights devolving from their family descent, referring to a 'royal lineage' or similar background; several of them had succeeded their fathers in office. Many Traditional Rulers mentioned in the booklet describe themselves as supporters of local development projects, sometimes in connection with Town Unions. Only a few Traditional Rulers mentioned Christian connections (and only one of them was an ex-pastor), although one may safely assume that nearly every one of them belonged to one or the other Christian denomination.

Another directory with data for Imo State compiled in the mid-1980s (Osuji 1984/85) shows a similar structure: a majority group of men with own businesses or in management positions of multinational companies; a strong group of civil servants; and a number of elderly Traditional Rulers who made their career as local councilors or court members. Here as in Anambra, very few Traditional Rulers describe themselves in terms of a truly traditional rural leader: the 'successful farmer'.[11] Again, the Traditional Ruler's role in development projects and their educational careers are given in much detail - only 3 cases mention 'no formal education'. Nearly one-third of Traditional Rulers claim some tradition of office in their family background, but this does not necessarily mean that they inherited their position. Again, in a number of cases a direct succession from father or brother to the current Traditional Ruler is documented (Osuji 1984/85). On the background of what we know about Igbo pre-colonial political structures, such claims have to be viewed with much skepticism, of course. However, the claims may indicate certain familial continuities in local positions of power existing for at least parts of the 20th century, in some cases directly starting from the Warrant Chiefs of the first decades of the colonial period. In this more recent sense, Igbo chieftaincy traditions might, on a closer look, be stronger than often assumed.

Published 'hagiographies' and studies about individual Traditional Rulers provide examples for both types of legitimacy on which the position of Traditional Ruler may be based: either on descent and tradition, or on popular consent.

Both Eze (Dr.) Onu Egwunwoke, Oha I of Ihitaoha Uratta, Owerri, Imo (Offonry 1993), and Eze Patrick I. Acholonu, Igwe X of Orlu, Imo (Okemezie 1990) are sons of colonial Warrant Chiefs, received a good education and (at least judging from their biographies) seem to have been able to take over the titles from their fathers without serious challenges. Unsurprisingly, they claim a hereditary character of their titles, as is otherwise common only among communities like Onitsha, Neni and Awka in Anambra. Also, their hagiographies argue most consistently that the Igbo used to have chieftaincy institutions in the pre-colonial period. Furthermore, Ekwunwoke's hagiography indicates tensions between him and the local Town Union (Offonry 1993: 33, 37, see also Inyama 1993:228).

A markedly different picture emerges from the cases of Nathaniel Ogbonna, Obi I of Nkpologwu, Anambra (Hahn-Waanders 1985), Eze Justus O. Ugochukwu, Eshi II of Nkwerre, Imo (Ozurumba/Uzoechi 1990), Igwe Edward Nnaji, Odezuligbo II of Nike, Enugu (Nnamani (1985), Chidobi 1996), and Lawrence N. Ukah, Ohaire I of Mgbowo, Enugu (Akpa 1996). Whereas Ugochukwu is a son of a lower colonial chief and went to school, Ogbonna, Nnaji and Ukah do not claim any 'royal' background. The latter two have little education. Ukah's life-story is that of a successful businessman making his career from a very poor family background. Ogbonna stems from an early Christian convert family and received university education abroad. All these Traditional Rulers acknowledge their communities' active support, especially by their respective Town Unions, in their gaining the title. With such support, Ukah even succeeded against a competitor who was a descendant of a Warrant Chief. All of these Traditional Rulers characterize their titles as consensual and non-hereditary. Thus, contemporary Igbo chieftaincy allows for considerable variations, as regards forms of legitimacy and resulting political styles.

Local Roles, Borrowed Symbols, Public Criticisms
Most functions of Igbo Traditional Ruler lie within the autonomous community. For example, the role of the 'impartial father' involves peace-making functions within the community and in conflicts with neighbors. A Traditional Ruler should also promote local development, and achievements in this field play a major role in most documents where Traditional Rulers present themselves publicly. A Traditional Ruler should organize local consensus, by consultation with his 'cabinet', a council of local representatives and elders.
At the same time Traditional Rulers act as instruments of state control on the local level: They are frequently (though not ex officio) members of the customary courts re-constituted since the late 1970s.[12] They should not only 'co-operate with the local government council', but also 'assist [...] in the collection of taxes' (Anambra State Traditional Rulers Law 1981, para 15). In Anambra State, those Traditional Rulers who successfully manage the tax collection effort, receive a commission on the proceeds (Anene & Akus 1985:2-3). Governments like to see Traditional Rulers as transmission belts for promoting their policies, for example the 'War Against Indiscipline' of the Buhari years, into the local sphere (ibid.: 3).

Traditional Rulers have to be men of considerable own means, as government 'stipends' have not been consistent; only some well-connected Traditional Rulers seem to receive government funds on a larger scale.[13] In contrast to many areas in Africa, for example among the Akan in Ghana (Hammer 1998), Igbo Traditional Rulers do not receive a regular income from land rents; in fact, the federal Land Use Decree of 1978, by which control over land was vested in the government, deprived Traditional Rulers of a potential source of income (Nwaubani 1994:365).[14] One important and much-deplored source is the income which Traditional Rulers realize from the conferment of honorary chieftaincy titles. This is a phenomenon common throughout Nigeria, and it may fit, as Afigbo (1997) has argued, into the Igbo tradition of taking honorary praise-names. However, many people perceive this practice as a process of 'bastardization' of chieftaincy titles that seem to have become easily purchasable.

Igbo Traditional Rulers' role as 'embodiment of local custom' - an important aspect of their ceremonial role - is highly ambiguous. Much of what might be regarded as a genuine local tradition in Igbo society is connected with traditional religion - its shrines, practices and rituals. However, already many Warrant Chiefs of the early colonial period supported Christianity, even if the alliance with the missions remained shaky (Omenka 1993:248). Among contemporary Igbo Traditional Rulers, there is hardly anybody not professing to be a Christian. However, contradictions between the Christian precept of monogamy and the polygyny generally expected from a chief are sometimes obvious.[15] Under these conditions, Igbo Traditional Rulers regard themselves as ceremonial overseers and keepers of culture, as represented by specific local festivals, masquerades and other customs, though without too much public reference to the religious meaning of these practices.

Igbo Traditional Rulers present themselves to the public with symbols borrowed from various sources. For example, Nike Traditional Ruler Edward Nnaji's 'chamber' in his 'multi-million naira ultra-modern palace' (photographs in Nnamani (1985):48; Chidobi 1996:56) contains an assortment of throne, tables and chairs, the decoration of which reminds of 18th century French absolutist court interiors. At the same time, he surrounds himself with (possibly artificial, see Cole/Aniakor 1984:49) elephant tusks, a symbol of power in pre-colonial Igboland as well as in Benin. At the same time, Christian imagery is present as well. Furthermore, the idea of the chieftaincy 'stool' (throne) as embodiment of local history and tradition, perceived to some degree as independent of the particular office-holder, seems to gain currency in Igboland, similar to the symbolism employed in Ashanti (Ghana) or Bamum (Cameroon Grassland).[16] Thus, Igbo Traditional Rulers self-confidently borrow cultural elements derived from European, African, and Christian origins. They appropriate local and alien symbols of power by means of bricolage, and thus prove their potency as representatives of a culture which is, despite all public references to tradition, far from purely locally-based.

Igbo Traditional Rulers remain contentious, among intellectuals as well as among the general populace. For intellectuals, Traditional Rulers are frequently objects of ridicule and harsh critique. Already during the period of civilian rule in the Second republic, Chinua Achebe, arguably the most famous Southeastern Nigerian writer, mocked at Igbo Traditional Rulers as 'traders in their stall by day and monarchs at night; city dwellers five days a week and traditional village rulers on Saturdays and Sundays. They adopt "traditional" robes from every land, including, I am told, the ceremonial regalia of the Lord Mayor of London.' (Achebe 1983:48). Arthur Nwankwo, a prominent pro-democracy activist, recently criticized the 'wanton prostitution of Igbo republican, cultural and political heritage by new apostles of pseudo-traditionalism' (Nwankwo 1996:16) which, in effect, helped to stabilize military rule. Igbo intellectuals who used to take for granted the 'democratic' character of Igbo tradition, in recent years find themselves engaged in debates about the 'republican' vs. the 'monarchical' principle in Igbo culture and society.

Critical views like that of Achebe and Nwankwo may not be representative for the majority of the population. But even to people not belonging to the intellectual elite, Igbo Traditional Rulers hardly appear as 'natural' superiors - a marked contrast to the situation in some other areas of Nigeria. This is reflected in the consensual character of many chieftaincy positions, already mentioned. At the same time, Traditional Rulers are widely perceived as belonging to an elite which, often enough, is corrupt and does not fulfil the functions expected from it. This explains outbursts of public violence directed against Traditional Rulers in recent years. When in September 1996 riots erupted in Owerri after cases of ritual murder had become public, the 'outstanding' palace[17] of Eze Onu Egwunwoke, chairman of the Imo State Council of Ndi Eze (pl. of eze) and 'a close ally of the ruling military junta', was among the many buildings attacked in town.[18] In July 1997, traders rioted in Aba after the police had turned out unable or unwilling to protect them against a series of armed robberies, and burned the palace of Eze Isaac Ajuonu Ikonne, Enyi I of Aba, also a member of the Imo State Council of Ndi Eze.[19]

'Eze Igbo': Chieftaincy Beyond the Autonomous Community
Legally, the roles of Igbo Traditional Rulers are largely restricted to the local sphere. Law and government policy want them to be a symbolic embodiment of the locality they 'rule'. However, there are concepts of chieftaincy going beyond the autonomous communities, referring to the various Igbo diasporas outside of the Nigerian Southeast, or even attempting to represent the entire Igbo ethnic group.
One of these concepts of chieftaincy beyond the autonomous community is what Osaghae (1994:23) has termed 'migrant ethnic empire building'. A considerable part of the Igbo population spends the major part of their lives as migrants 'abroad', i.e. outside their communities of origin (to which they continue to keep strong ties). Igbo migrants, like migrants from of other ethnic groups, have begun to create own chieftaincy institutions 'abroad' in order to forward their interests at the places where they live and work. In Kano, an Eze Igbo was installed in 1986, and other Northern Nigerian cities have followed. These chiefs represent migrants not from one particular Igbo community, but of Igbo origin in general, in some cases even including migrants from neighboring Southeastern Nigerian ethnic groups. The influence of the Eze Igbo at Kano depends largely on the consent of the local Igbo ethnic associations (which are, again, organized on the basis of communities of origin, but federated into an Igbo Community Association). His area of influence is strictly limited to Kano. He does not possess any comparable status in the Igbo ethnic home area.

A second concept of Igbo chieftaincy beyond the limits of the autonomous community uses the same title - Eze Igbo - but with a very different meaning. On May 4, 1996, the former Biafran Head of State Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who returned from exile in 1982, received this title from a Nri chief (the Eze Nri himself was not prepared to confer such a title). Therewith, he laid claim to the status of a 'king of the Igbo' in their very homeland. This act, widely perceived as presumptuous, aroused a major conflict between Ojukwu and other influential Igbo political leaders, especially those within the powerful conservative lobby group Ohaneze[20] which later split about this issue.[21] It remains doubtful whether Ojukwu's ambitious attempt to overcome the factional conflicts in Igbo politics, by once again establishing a singular leadership position for himself, will succeed. Besides power politics, much of the conflict is about the true meaning of Igbo tradition, with those believing Igbo society to be 'republican' by tradition - they certainly still form a majority - standing against a growing public presence of the 'monarchical' principle, as represented by Nri.

This article has sketched the history of chieftaincy institutions in Southeastern Nigerian Igbo society in the 20th century - a society frequently perceived to be 'democratic' by tradition, where chieftaincy institutions played little role in the pre-colonial era. To a large extent, chiefs in Igboland were created by the colonial and post-colonial states, but their history was more complex and changing than is often assumed. It was the state as well which defined their role in local administration and politics. However, government policies were not always consistently in favor of chieftaincy as a core institution of the local state: It has been shown that twice - in the early 1950s and again in the early 1970s - the state pushed the chieftaincy institution to the background of local affairs. However, in both cases chiefs re-appeared soon afterwards on the political scene, because of pressures from local elite groups, and because of the governments' interest to have loyal local representatives.
Since the mid-1970s, the presence of the chieftaincy institution in public life of the Igbo society has considerably expanded. Traditional Rulers are officially recognized, in a somewhat standardized form. They are regarded as embodiment of local custom in administratively-defined autonomous communities; they act as patrons and mediators within the community and serve as transmission belt for government policies into the local sphere. This article has shown a considerable variance in the social reality behind the term 'Traditional Ruler' in Igboland: Among them there are numerous wealthy businessmen with excellent official connections, but also a few Traditional Rulers who describe themselves just as 'successful farmers'. There are descendants of colonial Warrant Chiefs claiming a hereditary character for their position; but there also are numerous Traditional Rulers whose selection was based on support by Town Unions, and who seem to view their office in more humble terms, as a honor given by the community. This article has also looked at the roles of Igbo Traditional Rulers in local society, at the symbolism employed by them, and at current debates about the character of traditional Igbo society, increasingly developing along the opposition between 'republican' and 'monarchical' principles.

In order to understand contemporary Igbo Traditional Rulers, it is of little help to trust the rhetoric of 'tradition' - in the sense of historical roots from pre-colonial days - which they employ in order to legitimize their titles. Most Igbo Traditional Rulers have few such credentials, even if a more thorough historical study of local pre-colonial political institutions might reveal that there was more to Igbo pre-colonial chieftaincy institutions than functionalist social anthropology (which has dominated Igbo Studies for a long time) has been ready to accept in the past. Most Igbo Traditional Rulers can base their claims to office to a rather recent tradition, if any at all. Igbo Traditional Rulers are usually firmly based in private business or in the civil service; they have received formal school or even university education and are adherents of the Christian religion. They creatively combine local legitimacy, local and foreign symbolism, and modern business spirit in order to assert their positions. Without doubt, they are first and foremost dwellers of a contemporary, modern, and not of any traditional world. Their 'rule' has, in most cases, no 'traditional' (in the sense of 'pre-colonial') roots. However, they may be said to rule a sphere called 'tradition', in so far as they preside over some of the cultural symbols and events which are widely perceived today as constituting 'local custom' or 'local culture'.

On the regional and national level, Nigerian governments since the 1970s have increasingly used Traditional Rulers in order to legitimize their power. Under the military regime of General Abacha, this trend expanded into outright manipulation. Igbo Traditional Rulers have not been left out. In early 1998, Traditional Rulers from all over the country were carried to the capital, Abuja. Here they watched videos which allegedly proved the involvement of a number of senior military officers in a coup attempt against the incumbent government. After being shown the videos, and before any tribunal had taken place, they publicly declared that the officers detained were indeed guilty of the alleged offence.[22] Among them was Igwe Emeka Nnaji, the Atakata Abusie of Amagunze, chairman of the Enugu State Council of Traditional Rulers, described to have 'elevated political jobbery to higher arts'.[23] Shortly afterwards, on Tuesday, January 27, 1998, he died while on a 'courtesy call' to the presidency, in a suite of the Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel in Abuja, Nigeria's most prestigious hotel.[24] Which place could have been more appropriate for him to join his ancestors?


[1] The author is a member of the research group 'Locality and the State: The Construction of Spatial and Social Order in Modern African and Asian History' at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin. He wishes to express his gratitude for the funding provided for the research by the German Research Council and the Senate of the City of Berlin. Special thanks for comments on an earlier draft (which has been put for discussion on the igbo--net Internet mailing list) go to Kevin Ani, Maurice O. Ene, Chima J. Korieh, Marion Pape, and Ute Röschenthaler.
[2] Much of the information about contemporary chieftaincy and Traditional Rulers in Nigeria can be found within literature on local government in Nigeria, for example Aborisade (1985) and Orewa (1991). Vaughan (1997) looks at contemporary relations between Traditional Rulers and national politics; Barnes (1996) studies the symbolic dimension of public performances of chieftaincy. All the works mentioned focus on the North and the West and contain hardly any information about the post-civil war development of the chieftaincy institution in Igboland; for aspects of this see Hahn-Waanders (1985), Awa (1992), Inyama (1993) and Nwaubani (1994).

[3] Post-Civil War Nigerian capitalism and the relationship between economy and the state has been conceptualized in various ways, most of them starting off from the 'rentier state' concept: as 'prebendal politics' (Joseph 1987), 'pirate capitalism' (Schatz 1984), or 'predatory rule' (Lewis 1997). In a variation of this theme, Forrest (1995: 255-6) judges at least some groups of private capital owners to be more independent of the state.

[4] Chukwuemeka Odugmegwu-Ojukwu, the former leader of the Biafran secession, was reported in 1996 to have just acquired his 90th title, see 'Igbo Debate: Whose King?', The Week Magazine, June 12, 1996 (reproduced on igbo--net, June 14, 1996).

[5] This is stressed by Afigbo (1967) - in contrast to the colonial discourse of the 1920-30s which, at hindsight, deplored the Warrant Chief as system of direct rule against which a more acceptable indirect rule would have to be constructed.

[6] The reasons behind the riots were more multifaceted: the immediate critical issue was the rumour that, after the introduction of direct tax on men in 1928, women would also be taxed; at the same time, the fall in palm produce prices due to the world-wide recession aroused much anger and was attributed to manipulations by the European trading firms, the premises of which were also attacked in several places. But overall, attacks on Native Courts and sieges on Warrant Chiefs constituted the most important aspects of the women's war.

[7] See Okeke (1994:12-13); his (rather incomplete) list of 171 autonomous communities noted 31 positions of Traditional Rulers as vacant, only some of them explicitly because of the death of the former office-holder. Anambra State (1988) listed 46 vacant positions in 410 communities.

[8] I owe this term, which originally referred to Christian saints' biographies, to Toyin Falola.

[9] Another directory, published a few years later (Anene/Akus 1985), largely confirms the data presented here. The information compiled in these directories seems to have been provided by the Traditional Rulers themselves.

[10] In practice, the distinction between businessmen and civil servants is often blurred, because many Traditional Rulers have been active in both fields at different times of their lives. However, the self-description given in this directory is taken here to indicate the more important aspect of their career.

[11] The composition of the Imo State Council of Ndi Eze, comprising the politically most influential Traditional Rulers, does not differ much, though there possibly is a larger share of former civil servants and teachers and school principals among the Council's members (data in Osuji 1984/85:122-160).

[12] Customary courts were abolished by the post-Civil War Asika administration (Awa 1992:47) but reconstituted in the late 1970s, see Anambra State Customary Courts Edict 1977, Imo State Customary Courts Law 1981.

[13] In its 1976 chieftaincy legislation, Anambra State had originally provided a government stipend for Traditional Rulers on the state level, but the military governor soon rescinded this for lack of funds, so that Traditional Rulers were depending only on the local government level for financial support (Chieftaincy Institution in Anambra State 1980:20-21). The Obi of Nkpologwu studied by Hahn-Waanders (1985:187-189) up to the early 1980s had himself absolved from the duty of residence at his hometown, but lived in Enugu (where his company was based) because the autonomous community would not have been able to provide him with sufficient income. Later on, new sources of finance from government were introduced, but direct government funding (on whatever level) up till today, in general, does not seem to play a major role in the finance of Igbo Traditional Rulers. In April 1997, however, the Abacha regime decided that Traditional Rulers throughout Nigeria should receive five per cent of local governments' allocations ('Monarchs to Retain 5% of Council Allocation', The Guardian (Lagos), April 6, 1997), a decision confirmed in the 1998 federal budget (NNJ, January 16, 1998). However, the politically well-connected chairman of the Enugu State Council of Traditional Rulers, in early 1998, had received official cars and personnel at his disposal and received a monthly salary of N 50,000 ('Death of a Royal in Politics', Tell Magazine, February 16, 1998, 22).

[14] However, this restriction was more important in other parts of Nigeria, especially in the emirates in the North where Traditional Rulers (as different from the Igbo case) had in fact received income from land.

[15] With regard to polygyny, the public self-representation of Igbo Traditional Rulers (in the published directories) is not consistent. Some Traditional Rulers freely provide information on this topic, while others seem to hide their marriage status behind terms like 'married with children'.

[16] Nnamani [1985] presents a photograph of the 'stool' (without the holder) on the front page; Okoye (1993) titles his book 'Chieftaincy Stool in Igboland'. Jones (1984:116-18) notes that decorated stools for members of the ozo titled society existed in pre-colonial times, though they lacked the symbolism present in the Ashanti case..

[17] The palace was formally dedicated in 1985. A whole chapter of Egwunwoke's 'hagiography' is dedicated to its description, according to which it contained, among others, a 'Red Room' for special visitors, an obi meeting hall 'capable of sitting 1000 people at a time', a chapel, a banquet hall, a 'mini-stadium' with flood-light tennis court with a 'Royal Box', used also 'as the venue for gala nights, cocktail parties, chieftaincy installations, receptions and ceremonies of all kinds'. Furthermore, outside the main buildings there were 'The Thatched House' (intended to be a museum) and various effigies and clay works, among them 'an unknown soldier' and 'river goddesses' (Offonry 1993:11-20).

[18] 'War of the Headless Bodies', Tell Magazine, October 7, 1997, 21.

[19] 'Extra-Judicial Killings in Aba, Abia State', CLO Human Rights Update, August 18, 1997. Details on Ikonnu in Osuji (1984/84:136).

[20] 'Igbo Debate: Whose King?', The Week Magazine, June 12, 1996; 'Ojukwu - The Unmaking of a Myth', The Week Magazine, January 12, 1997; reproduced on igbo--net, June 14, 1996 and February 4, 1997, respectively.

[21] 'Who Will Save Ohaneze?', Tell Magazine, March 2, 1998, 22.

[22] As most of the coup suspects were of Yoruba ethnic origin, especially the Yoruba Traditional Rulers were strongly criticized for this statement ('Royalty for Sale', Tell Magazine, January 19, 1998, 12-22).

[23] 'Death of a Royal in Politics'; Tell Magazine, February 16, 1998, 21-22.

[24] NNJ, October 25, 1997; January 5 and 29, 1998.


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