Traditional Rulers: Beyond Political Appointments – Debunking Obasanjo’s Directive

By Psychologist John Egbeazien Oshodi

In a recent statement in Daily Trust of August 15, 2023, with the title “Obasanjo: When I Was President, Kings Prostrated Before Me,” made by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a profound truth emerges; traditional rulers, often referred to as kings and queens, occupy a unique and enduring role in society.


In a recent public event, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made headlines when he issued a directive to Oyo monarchs, instructing them to stand and greet him in the Yoruba language. This interaction has sparked discussions about the intricate relationship between traditional respect and political authority in Nigerian society.

Obasanjo’s directive highlights a long-standing cultural practice in Yoruba land, where individuals are expected to show respect to their elders and authority figures by standing in their presence. However, the context of this directive, coming from a former president, raises questions about the dynamics between traditional customs and modern political authority.

Traditionally, kings and queens hold revered positions in Yoruba culture, seen as custodians of tradition, spirituality, and communal values. Their roles extend beyond political power, as they are considered the living embodiment of cultural continuity. In Yoruba land, the respect accorded to traditional rulers is deeply ingrained in the societal fabric.

On the other hand, political authority in Nigeria, including the presidency, is a product of modern governance structures. Political leaders are elected or appointed to their positions and often hold power for limited terms. Their authority is defined by laws, constitutions, and the will of the people expressed through democratic processes.

When a former president like Obasanjo issues a directive to traditional rulers, it blurs the lines between these two spheres of influence. While he may have held the highest political office in the country, traditional rulers in Yoruba land derive their authority from centuries-old customs and cultural norms.

The question arises: should traditional rulers, who are considered custodians of tradition and spirituality, prostrate before political appointees or political leaders, even if they held the highest office in the land? This dilemma highlights the complex interplay between tradition, culture, and modern governance in Nigeria.

Their significance, deeply rooted in tradition, culture, and spirituality, remains unwavering even in the face of political shifts and modern governance structures. This article delves into the multifaceted nature of traditional rulers in Nigeria and their steadfast position as symbols of cultural continuity and spiritual guidance, tracing their importance through time in human history, including references to the Old Testament, notable African kings, and the legacy of Yoruba kings from the Oyo Kingdom, the Benin Kingdom, and the Esan Kingdom, including Agba N’Ojie of Uromi.

Throughout human history, traditional rulers have played multifarious roles transcending mere political leadership. They have been guardians of ancient traditions, preserving cultural heritage, mediators in community matters, and spiritual guides. Even in ancient societies, their positions were revered for their spiritual significance.

In many cultures, kings and traditional rulers are regarded as not merely political leaders but as embodiments of tradition, culture, and spirituality. They are often seen as the custodians of a people’s identity and the living link to their ancestors.

The perception of kings and traditional rulers as being akin to “small gods” is a common sentiment in many cultures with strong monarchic or traditional systems. In such societies, kings are often viewed with deep reverence and are seen as divine or semi-divine figures. This perspective is rooted in historical, cultural, and religious traditions.

In many cultures, kings and monarchs have played pivotal roles in shaping the history of their societies. They have been leaders in times of peace and war, and their leadership has often been associated with the prosperity and well-being of their people.

Some societies have religious or spiritual beliefs that attribute a divine or sacred status to their kings. They may believe that the king is chosen by the gods or has a special connection to the divine realm.

Symbolism: Kings are often seen as symbols of unity and continuity. They can represent the traditions and values of a culture, and their authority is a unifying force for their people.

Many cultures place a strong emphasis on respecting authority figures and elders. Kings, as the highest-ranking authorities in their societies, are naturally given a high level of respect.

Kings often play central roles in important ceremonies and rituals, which can further enhance their status as revered figures.

It’s important to note that the perception of kings as “small gods” is not universal, and the level of reverence and divine association can vary significantly from one culture to another. Additionally, the role and significance of kings have evolved over time, especially in modern democracies where political power is typically vested in elected officials rather than hereditary monarchs.

Looking back through history, numerous examples illustrate the deep connection between kings and spirituality:

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were not only political leaders but also considered divine rulers. They were believed to be the intermediaries between the gods and the people, exemplifying the fusion of political and spiritual authority.

The Old Testament provides several examples of kings and rulers who held not only political but also spiritual significance, such as King Solomon, King David, and King Melchizedek.

Africa boasts a rich tapestry of traditional rulers who left an indelible mark on their societies:

Mansa Musa I: The ruler of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, Mansa Musa I, is renowned not only for his vast wealth but also for his pilgrimage to Mecca, which showcased his devotion to Islam.

In the 19th century, Shaka Zulu, a legendary warrior king, established a powerful Zulu kingdom through military conquest, leaving a lasting impact on Zulu culture.

The Benin Kingdom, known for its intricate artistry and administration, had rulers like Oba Ewuare I (1440-1473), celebrated as one of the most influential monarchs who transformed the kingdom’s administration, arts, and culture.

In the Esan Kingdom, Agba N’Ojie of Uromi, originally called Agba, ruled from 1483 AD until 1507 AD. His leadership and legacy are a testament to the enduring importance of traditional rulers in the Esan culture.

The Alaafin of Oyo, deeply connected to Yoruba culture and spirituality, has a long history of leadership within the Yoruba community. Notable rulers like Alaafin Ajaka, Alaafin Abiodun, and the current ruler, Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi III, continue to uphold Yoruba traditions.

While political appointees occupy transient roles, often subjected to elections and institutional appointments, traditional rulers inherit their positions based on hereditary succession or cultural significance. Their authority transcends the political sphere, deeply grounded in cultural traditions and a profound connection to the spiritual world.

The customs and norms that govern interactions between political leaders and traditional rulers in Nigeria and other cultures are steeped in respect for tradition and a recognition of the enduring cultural and spiritual importance of these figures. These customs emphasize the unique status of traditional rulers and their role as custodians of cultural values.

In some cultures, political appointees may offer payments or tributes to traditional rulers. However, these acts are not about elevating the political appointees but rather about acknowledging the traditional rulers’ cultural and spiritual responsibilities. These offerings symbolize respect for the traditions upheld by these revered figures.

In the context of Nigeria’s transition to modern governance structures, such as democracy, the roles of traditional rulers have evolved but not diminished. They continue to play pivotal roles in ceremonies, rituals, and community matters, underscoring their enduring spiritual connection and cultural significance.

Amid the ebb and flow of political leadership, traditional rulers in Nigeria, including those from the kingdoms of Oyo, Benin, Esan, and beyond, stand resolute as living embodiments of cultural continuity and spiritual guidance. Their roles extend beyond politics and institutions, affirming that, in the face of change, traditions stand as enduring pillars of Nigerian society and beyond, echoing the timeless significance of traditional rulers throughout history and across cultures.

It is in this context that the recent trend of some traditional rulers becoming involved in politics should be considered. Notably, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has shared his experiences, should reflect on these points. In recent times, there has been a noticeable trend where some traditional rulers have become involved in politics and aligned themselves with specific political figures or parties. While it’s essential to recognize that individuals, including traditional rulers, have the right to engage in political activities as citizens, there is a valid concern that such involvement can potentially compromise the reverence and mystique associated with their traditional roles.

Traditional rulers, often seen as custodians of culture and spirituality, hold a unique position in society. Their primary role is to uphold and preserve cultural traditions, mediate in community matters, and provide spiritual guidance to their people. These roles are deeply rooted in history and carry significant cultural and symbolic weight.

When traditional rulers actively engage in partisan politics, it can raise questions about their impartiality and neutrality, which are vital for maintaining the integrity of their traditional roles. Their involvement may also introduce divisions within their communities, as political affiliations can be divisive.

To keep their revered and mystical traditional personas intact, many argue that traditional rulers should maintain a certain distance from overt political activities. Instead, they can focus on their core responsibilities of cultural preservation, mediation, and spiritual guidance.

However, it’s essential to approach this issue with nuance and respect for individuals’ rights and choices. Not all traditional rulers engage in politics, and those who do may have their reasons, including a desire to advocate for the interests of their communities. Striking a balance between their traditional roles and participation in politics can be a complex challenge, and the decision ultimately rests with the traditional rulers themselves and their communities.

In conclusion, while some traditional rulers may choose to engage in politics, there is a valid argument that they should prioritize preserving their revered and mystical traditional roles. This approach helps maintain the cultural continuity and spiritual guidance they provide to their communities while avoiding potential conflicts and divisions that can arise from overt political involvement. It is a delicate balance that calls for careful consideration of their enduring legacy and the timeless importance of their cultural and spiritual roles.

Professor John Egbeazien Oshodi, who was born in Uromi, Edo State, Nigeria, to a father who served in the Nigeria police for 37 years, is an American-based police and prison scientist and forensic, clinical, and legal psychologist. A sex offender evaluation and treatment Psychologist. A government consultant on matters of forensic-clinical psychological services in the USA; and a former interim associate dean and assistant professor at Broward College, Florida. The Founder of the Dr. John Egbeazien Oshodi Foundation, Center for Psychological Health and Behavioral Change in African Settings. A former Secretary-General of the Nigeria Psychological Association. In 2011, he introduced state-of-the-art forensic psychology into Nigeria through N.U.C. and Nasarawa State University, where he served in the Department of Psychology as an Associate Professor. He has taught at various universities and colleges including Florida memorial University, Florida International University, Broward college, Lynn University, and a contributing faculty member at the Weldios university in Benin Republic, Nexus International University, Uganda, Nova Southeastern University and Walden University in USA.

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