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An Historico-Legal Perspective To The Dethronement Of Traditional Rulers In Nigeria

By Bizibrains Okpeh


In similitude to the great epiphany of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in his much-publicised “personal” letter to the former Emir of Kano, many Nigerians woke up on the morning of March 9, 2020, to be greeted with the sordid news that Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, (Muhammadu Sanusi II), the 14th Emir of Kano, in the order of the Fulani dynasty has been deposed/dethroned as a result of what the government of Kano State, under the governorship of Ganduje described as “total disrespect to lawful instructions from the office of the governor and other lawful authorities, including persistent refusal to attend official meetings and programmes organised by the government without any lawful justification which amount to total insubordination.” This was the Governor’s final act in the over three years of continual confrontation between the number one citizen of and the most powerful man in Kano State on one hand, and the most ceremonious traditional ruler on the other hand that has also ensured the banishment of the latter from the state.

Since the news of Emir Sanusi’s dethronement, many have taken to various platforms to express divergent opinions. While to some, and these include official echoes from the Presidency, Emir Sanusi’s dethronement was (is) in order as every Governor is empowered by law to literally appoint and remove traditional rulers, to others, it was undeserved and illegal and a disrespect to the person of the former Emir, a fortiori, the traditional institution. Thus, many have described as mere cosmetics and eye-service the purported kind gestures Nigerian Governors make to traditional rulers in the name of homage and courtesy. This sanctimonious relationship between Government (Governors) and traditional rulers, which pre-dates the birth of Nigeria and has been continually oxygenated with the instrumentality of law has become the proverbial colonial gunboat in the hands of fourth republican politicians with which they cajole and shoot out of the throne any traditional ruler who patently refuses to come under their self-acclaimed good books and “protection.” The question may be asked; how did we get here?

This write-up generally presents an historico-legal view of the state of the relationship between Government and the traditional institution in Nigeria. It further argues that the formal politicisation of the traditional institution, the legal consolidation of colonial-traditional politics post-independence, and the consequent proliferation of traditional rulers constitute the three most important factors that undermined (and continue to undermine) the sanctity of the institution of kings and chiefs in Nigeria.

Finally, while this writer is inclined to the notion that the existing legal mechanism supports the dethronement of traditional rulers by Governors, if and only if proper procedures as laid down by law are followed, the consequential banishment of the dethroned ruler more or less presents real constitutional crisis.


In its most traditional and strictest sense, and according to a pre-colonial definition as offered by Bello-Imam, “a traditional ruler is defined as a person who by virtue of his ancestral position occupies the throne or stool of an area and who has been appointed to it in accordance with the customs and traditions of the area and whose throne has been in existence before the advent of the British in Nigeria.” This definition presupposes that a traditional ruler emerges out of the national consciousness, rooted in the customs and traditions of the area and/or people over whom he exercises authority, such authority being complete, total and conclusive and free from any external influence. Hence, the traditional stool must have been in existence before colonialism. This was traditional institution in its purest unadulterated form.

Before the British colonisation of the area now referred to as Nigeria, many autonomous rulers existed in various clans, chiefdoms, emirates and kingdoms. Although many of these rulers had considerable influence in their spheres of operation, some had complete and total control of the areas they administered. They were too powerful so much so that they could afford to embark on military expeditions, conquering smaller kingdoms and dethroning weaker kings and forming great alliances, caliphates and empires. And in the process, many established long-ruling dynasties (e.g the Dunama ruling dynasty, the Fulani ruling dynasty, etc) which survived them. Some of these 18th Century empires included the Kanem-Borno Empire, the Old/New Oyo Empire, the Benin Empire and the Sokoto Caliphate of Uthman Dan Fodio which became the forerunner and firmly established the ruling Fulani dynasty in the northern part of Nigeria till date.

It is important to note that these centralised “states,” kingdoms, emirates and empires operated generally in the northern part of Nigeria, except the case of the Oyo Empire which also comprised areas of the south west. They had well-defined structures and administrative strata with the “Mai,” “Emir,” “Alaafin” or “Caliph,” as the case may be, at the centre. It was this set-up, more than anything, that endeared the northern emirs to and gave them seats at the table of colonial administration; a bromance which also became the undoing of northern emirateship. The communities of the southern and central Nigeria were generally “stateless.” They operated a decentralised system that may be likened to a modern-day democracy. There was no one ultimate ruler or ruling dynasty as the people collectively chose their leaders as times and occasions demanded.

In the final analysis, the point being made here is that pre-colonial traditional institution was largely autonomous with its own judiciary, executive and legislature. It controlled its own finances and dealt with its property how it pleased. It commanded reverence and respect from its followers, including the kingmakers irrespective of the age, status and overall personality of the ruler. In fact, in some climes, the rulers were seen as gods, celestial and immortal, so that if deposed, they were required to voluntarily offer themselves to death (or exile/banishment) to perpetuate their immortality. Although this was abolished by the colonial Lords for being against human conscience, and rightly so, colonialism further robbed the traditional institution of its much cherished independence and reverential flavour, subjecting it to the facades and “goodwill” of the colonial State; a phenomenon which became the Coronavirus of the traditional institution to which no cure has been found till date.

And as the traditional institution continues to shiver from the cold of this “colonial virus,” a new definition has been found, one that evolved from the exigencies of political gluttons who continue to meat from whatever that is left of the traditional institution. Cookey succinctly captured who a traditional ruler is today thus; “a traditional ruler is the traditional head of an ethnic unit or clan who for the time being the holder of the highest traditional authority whose title is recognized as a traditional ruler’s title by the government of the state.” (underline mine for emphasis). In fact, the above definition is more or less of unrivalled statutory notoriety. This sums up the nature and character of a contemporary traditional ruler; a ruler chosen, recognised and installed by Government (Governors) as opposed to the convictions of the people. Several factors are responsible for this state of affairs and they include but not limited to:

Colonial-Traditional Politics and the Subjugation of Traditional Institution to the Powers of the Colonial State

Following the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 at the behest of Otto Bismarck, the plan was perfected by the Europeans for the partition of Africa. Every European colonial power was to take effective control of the areas of Africa where she held the greatest trade influence. It was to implement the outcome of this conference that Britain took effective control of Nigeria (or the area now so called), the Royal Niger company having prepared the ground with its numerous trade treaties and treaties of “protection” with influential traditional rulers in the coastal cities and the hinterland. Consequently, from 1879 up to 1900 when it handed over to the British Government, a vast area of the territory now referred to as Nigeria had been conquered. And so Nigeria became a colony of Britain under the “protection” of the Queen with Lord Frederick Lugard as the first High Commissioner of the Northern Protectorate. And in other to effectively administer the vast area of the North, he introduced the indirect rule system, whereby northern Emirs were brought into colonial administration as Paramount rulers under the Lordship of Lugard, as the representative of the Queen, the Head of Government. In the decentralised communities of the Southren Protectorate, Lugard appointed Warrant Chiefs who acted as Paramount rulers, thus distorting the original traditional structures in those communities.

In fact, in some communities in central Nigeria, which were also decentralised communities and hitherto had never had any form of effective central traditional institution, the colonial master created for and imposed one on them. One of such instances is the Tiv nation where the colonial State created the traditional stool of the Tor Tiv in 1947 and installed Makere Dzakpe as the first Tor Tiv (Dudly:1968). Needless to say that this traditional stool had little or no ancestral bearing to the Tiv nation before its creation. At the time independence was attained in 1960, following the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates, traditional rulers absolutely lost their power to the Government which became even more influential in traditional and chieftaincy affairs.

A traditional institution is supposed to be sacred and originate from the common national consciousness and convictions of the people and not an arbitrary creation of Government or the State. This would help strengthen the “national spirit” and the willingness to respect and subject to the authority of the traditional institution. This is what Carl Von Savigny referred to as the “Volkgeist.” According to the erudite historical jurist in his essay “Of the Vocation of Our Age for Legislation and Jurisprudence,” every community or nation has a common “spirit” or “folk-spirit” rooted in its customs and traditions, from where comes its strength and which is formed internally and instinctively. Hence, any institution, including a traditional institution, “grows with the growth and strengthens with the strength of the people.” While colonial politics co-opted traditional rulers in its administration, it ensured that they remained stooges to the colonial Lords. And those traditional rulers who refused to yield their communities and powers were deposed in favour of the rulers who were ready to do the bidding of the colonialists. Many traditional rulers were dethroned and exiled in this fashion.

As colonial politics reigned supreme at the fall of the 19th Century, one of the traditional rulers who was vehemently opposed to British rule was King Jaja of Opobo, Jubo Jubogha. However, using “gunboat diplomacy” he was dethroned in 1887 and exiled to St. Vincent, West Indies. Another of such traditional ruler was King Dosunmu of Lagos who was also dethroned but later became the Oba of Lagos. Nigerian politicians have since followed in the footsteps of their colonial mentor to dethrone traditional rulers who they perceive are opposed to them. According to the Nation Newspaper(, the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Adeniran Adeyemi, was deposed by the old Western Regional Government headed by Chief Awolowo in 1953 following a dispute between him and Bode Thomas. Upon the death of the latter, he was banished to Oshogbo and ended up in Ijora, Lagos. Also, the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Muhammadu Sanusi I (the grandfather of Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi) was dethroned in 1963, and banished to Azare in the present day Bauchi State.

Again, Alhaji Ibrahim Attah, the Attah of Ebiraland, was deposed in the sixties and banished, never to regain his throne. Also, Oba Olateru Olagbegi, at Olowo of Owo, was suspended, and later, deposed by the military government of Western State. Oba Raji Adebowale, the Aseyin of Iseyin, was deposed by the Akintola government because of his sympathy for Action Group. Likewise, For travelling out of the country to Israel without permission, the late Ooni of Ife Oba Okunade Sijuwade and the late Emir of Kano Alhaji Ado Bayero were restricted to their respective palaces for six months by the Buhari/Idiagbon military regime, without recourse their right to freedom of movement and such other associated rights. In the same vein, The Emir of Gwandu, Major Mustafa Jokolo, was deposed by the Kebbi State government in 2005 and banished to Loko, a Fulani town in Nasarawa State. Oba Adepoju Adesina, the Deji of Akure was dethroned by the Ondo State government following his alleged unruly behaviour which ridiculed the throne. Records also show that the Sarkin of Suleja, Awwal Ibrahim was deposed by the late military ruler, General Sanni Abacha. And the latest of it all, the dethronement of Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (Muhammadu Sanusi II), the Emir of Kano by the Kano State government.

Still, the dethronement virus continues to spread, as it was reported on March 12, 2020, by Rasaq Ibrahim of the Nation that Oba Rufus Adejugbe, the Ewi of Ado-Ekiti alongside ten other traditional rulers might be dethroned by Fayemi, the Governor of Ekiti State.

Legal Consolidation of Colonial-Traditional Politics Post-independence
The case has hitherto been made that questions of traditional institutions are essentially questions of customary law. This is because traditional rulers derive their powers from customs and traditions, in which lies the consciousness and convictions of the people, their behaviour and habits from time immemorial. Thus, the import of the case of Lewis v Bankole (1908)1 NLR 81 is that one of the fundamental characteristics of customary law is its unwritten nature. This is because it is flexible and dynamic and continues to grow. It comprises the actual behaviour and tenets of the people as against statutes or Legislation. Eugene Ehrlich described it as “the living law.” In his book “Fundamental Principles of the Sociology of Law” Ehrlich buttressed the importance of custom found in actual societal behaviour thus, “The centre of gravity of legal [or indeed institutional] development lies not in legislation nor in juristic science, nor in judicial decision, but in society itself.” The colonial Judges, including native Judges trained in colonial Britain, in undertaking their judicial and interpretative functions, subjected the validity and enforceability of customary law (which is the bedrock of the traditional institution) to the English law, rightly or wrongly.

This means that for any rule of customary law to be valid and enforceable “it must not be repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience, nor incompatible either directly or by implication with any (written) law for the time being in force, nor contrary to public policy.” (see Laoye v Oyetunde (1944) AC 170; Esbughagi Eleko v Officer Administering the Government of Nigeria; Re Adadevoh (1951)13 WACA 304). Again, by virtue of section 36(8) of the Constitution, no act or omission is a crime except, prior to the commission of the act, it was written down to constitute such a crime and punishment provided therefor. Also, in the case of Tofi v Uba (1987) 3 NWLR (Pt. 62) 707 the court held that adultery was not a crime in Benue State because at the time it was not so find in the customary statute (that is the Tiv Declaration of Native Law and Custom) of the state. The above, coupled with the difficulty in proving oral evidence and the tendency of confusion that may arise from multiplication of rules of custom, means that customary law has largely lost its unwritten nature and is now (largely) subject of legislation, except in few cases where the opinions of experts may be admissible in evidence to help the court form its opinion on any question of customary law. Hence, he who alleges any rule of custom must prove that the custom actually exists, most times, not in the regular habits of the people, however prevalent or far back in time, but in a statute, except the court has taken judicial notice of the existence of such custom (see Sections 16, 17, 18 and 122(2)(L) of the Evidence Act, 2011).

Therefore, all the states of the federation now have there customary laws legislated upon and enacted into the declaration of native law and custom of the various states. In the same vein rules of custom relating to kingship, emirship and chieftaincy are enacted into laws by the various states. To underscore the point being made above, perhaps it is most desirable and pertinent to quote the words of one of the foremost and perspicacious leaders of the defunct Western Region of Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo thus; “I had to reckon with the Obas and Chiefs who were very jealous of and extremely sensitive about their traditional rights and privileges. To make a frontal attack on this rights and privileges would be the surest way of bringing a host of hornet’s nests about our ears. To compromise with them on the other hand, would mean death to our new party [the Action Group]. The problem which faced me, therefore was that whilst I must strive to harness the influence of the Obas and Chiefs for our purposes, I must, at the same time, take the earliest possible steps to modify their rights and abrogate such of their privileges as were considered repugnant…” (see the Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, p.264). This became the sacrilegious spring bed on which the western region’s traditional institution was violently raped and its primordial virginity eternally destroyed. For it was upon this premise that the various Obas and chieftaincy laws of the former western region, which increasingly interfered with the rights, privileges, duties and powers of the western traditional rulers, were either enacted or reinforced, constructively or destructively, leaving them with only vestigial or residual powers as minute or remote as possible.

The real danger here is the tendency of state Governors, who usually control the State Houses of Assembly, to introduce articles into the customary statutes that make it easier for them to manipulate traditional institutions. For instance, this was exactly the case in Kano State, where the Kano Emirates Council Law, 2019 was quickly amended by the Kano State House of Assembly at the behest of Governor Ganduje to make for the creation of four new emirates just to settle scores with and mitigate the overall influence of Emir Sanusi (since dethroned).

In the final analysis, the British colonialist, having weakened the traditional institution, imported their laws and justice system to Nigeria and subjected our customary law to them. This further consolidated the deterioration of the traditional institution. And this colonial sentiment against the traditional institution, and the customary law upon which it stands and finds meaning, has been sustained even after independence. It has now become more or less our national sentiment.

The Proliferation Of Traditional Rulers

God forbid that one day we would wake up to the reality of a more traditional Nigeria; the one where there would be a traditional ruler to every family. Of course, this might sound outrageously hyperbolic. But unlike Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” it is the road already taken by our Governors, where they are sprinting in full and outright overdo vis-à-vis their colonial counterparts. At the height of colonial rule in the 19th century and in a bid to tighten their hold on power and exercise much more control on their new found tenants (albeit tenants in their own land), the colonial Landlord, apart from using Emirs already in power in the North, created traditional rulers as it pleased them. The traditional stool of the Tor Tiv was (is) one of such stool created out of colonial administrative necessity and/or expediency in 1947. Likewise, Paramount rulers were appointed in the South in the form of Warrant Chiefs.

Fast-forward to post-independence and many traditional rulers have been created by successive Governors in Nigeria. According to Wikipedia ( retrieved 11 March, 2020), Yobe State was created with just four emirates, but in early 2000 it was increased to 13 at the behest of Bukar Abba Ibrahim, who was then the Governor. Also, in August 2010, Bukola Saraki, the then Governor of Kwara state appointed three new monarchs. It has also been reported that by June 2010, Akwa Ibom State had 116 traditional rulers with official certificates from the state. And fairly recently, in a move that literally dismantled one of the oldest and strongest traditional stool in Nigeria, the government of Kano State created four new Emirs in the state in addition to the Emir of Kano, an act that quaked the Kano emirateship to its founding ancestors.

As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. While this saying may have become a cliché, it has never lost its truism. It is axiomatic that the obsession of Government (Governors) with creation of titular kings, chiefs and traditional ministers, sometimes as sheer political settlements and at other times as arbitrary manifestations of their grip on power, has somewhat crippled the effectiveness of the traditional institution as the bearer of the collective conscience of the people. There are now so many traditional rulers all over the federation that one may be forced to lament that the essence, beauty and importance of many of them lie only in their colourful regalia (with utmost respect to them). Yet, this is not entirely their making. Is it then the making of their creators? Permit me to kindly adopt your guess as mine.

The Emir Sanusi Question

The Emir Sanusi question is a million Naira question not because his deposition as the Emir of Kano was too difficulty an algorithm to draw, given his frosty relationship with Governor Ganduje, but because any attempt at enquiring into why the widely celebrated bank expert and economist would venture into traditional politics sends one into infinite imagination. Lost in such ocean of wonder and imagination, Olusegun Adeniyi, writing for Thisday on March 12, 2020 could not help but reveal his helplessness; “This is somebody that has all the attributes of a president. He has the clout and capacity to reinvent Nigeria if he had jumped into the political fray. It is very difficult for me to discern how blue bloods think.” Mallam Sanusi did jump into the political fray; the traditional political fray.

The rift between Governor Ganduje and the former Emir of Kano, HRH Sanusi Lamido Sanusi survived over three years amidst irregular manifest and public intervention by some prominent Nigerians, not including President Buhary. The happenstances between the two from 2017 was well chronicled by Raymond Mordi, the Deputy Editor of the Nation ( Why the public is still absorbing the shock of Emir Sanusi’s dethronement, it is his detention and banishment to Loko (he ended up in Awe) town of Nassarawa state that presents real constitutional conflicts. It must be said that in respect of the detention, he has since been released in the interim pending the determination of the case against his banishment. Now, I take great care not to overreach or pre-empt the possible decision of the court as this matter is currently sub judis before a Federal High Court in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

However, apart from the fact that this practice was hallowed in pre-colonial and colonial States, as the Constitution stands, it is unconstitutional to detain, confine, restrain or forcibly eject or otherwise exile or banish a citizen of Nigeria from any part of the country. This is because by virtue of Sections 35, 40, and 41 of the Constitution, every citizen of Nigeria has the right to personal liberty, peaceful assembly and association and freedom of movement respectively. And except as provided under the Constitution, these rights cannot be derogated from. This are the purports of Sections 35(1), 40(2) and 45 of the Constitution. The above position of the law was given judicial enforcement by the Court of Appeal in the case of AG Kebbi State v HRH Alhaji Al Mustapha Jakolo (2013) LPELR 22349.

Thus, notwithstanding that Emir Muhammadu Sanusi I, the grandfather of the deposed Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II, was exiled to Azare (in present day Bauchi State) where he remained for some time before returning to Kano where he died in 2002, it is highly unlikely, given the circumstances already stated above, that the banishment of the latter by the Kano State Government would legally stand.


To draw the curtain to a close, the insincere relationship between Government and traditional rulers and the incessant meddlesome interloping of Governors in traditional affairs are rooted in history, backed and perpetuated by law and the Constitution, which inter alia, vests in the Governor of a State the sole/chief executive power (see Section 176(2) of the Constitution). Perhaps the Constitutional framers did not envisage the intractable politics of the fourth republican politicians. Perhaps they should have known that there is something called the “Nigerian factor.” Whether we know or claim not to know, wanton dethronement of and disregard to traditional rulers in Nigeria are positive symptoms of “colonial (dethronement) virus.” It has permeated our politics; it is part of our laws; in fact, it may survive for generations to come. We can only hope for saner politicians or genuinely retrace our very existence as a political unit.

Okpeh is a public commentator, a disability rights advocate and a legal practitioner.

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