Traditional authorities and security challenges in northern Nigeria

Northern rioters
During the 50th anniversary celebrations of Nigerian independence in 2010, the BBC aired some documentaries about Nigeria. One of the documentaries featured a report transmitted in 1960. The reporter of the programme finished with a statement which I think is relevant to our discussion today. He said the British came to Nigeria and found a different system (traditional system), they operated under a different system (indirect rule) and they left a different system (parliamentary system), and he wasn’t sure how that is going to work in the future.

For a political system to be successful, it has to integrate the cultural values, belief system and family structure of the people. For instance in the UK, despite the political apathy that is growing gradually, there is a strong linkage between the individual no matter how poor he is, or how distant he is from the city, and the Local Council. From the time a person is born, the Local Council or in Nigerian case the Local Government has an interest in him. The local hospital will immediately pass the information to the council, after which the parents will go and register the child.

The council through the healthcare authorities would look after the welfare of the child, providing some allowances to cater for the child for those who are citizens, attach a healthcare visitor who will be visiting the child at intervals. When the child reaches school age the council ensures that he goes to school. This process will continue until the child is 16 years old. As such once it is election time the people will decide which political party cares for their needs, if they are not happy they will simply oust it and bring another one. In fact some people when they go to vote, they don’t even care who the candidate is, they simply look for the logo of their party of interest and vote for it. The point here is the state had taken over the entire process of socialisation and economic well being, and that is why people have loyalty to the state, and when there is a problem in their local communities they will be the first to report it to the relevant authorities. Because the state has their loyalty even if they may occasionally disagree with it.

Now let us come to Northern Nigeria, and in this case I will use a bottom-top approach in my analysis. In our local communities, three people are the most respected. The village head, the Imam and the Attajiri, Maisukuni or Dan kasuwa, roughly translated as the businessman. The village head is the main symbol of authority; he oversees the resolution of dispute, ensures stability and is seen and accepted as the representative of the people. When you purchase a piece of land, he has to approve it. When somebody divorces his wife or refuse to look after her, the woman may choose to come to the house of the village head, because she knows he is the one who would look after her interest by reinstating the marriage or take punitive measures against the husband. The Imam is the spiritual head of the community. He leads everyone in prayer at least five times a day, does the marriage solemnisation, the naming ceremony, leads the funeral service and when the village head struggles to find solution to problems, the Imam will intervene by bringing scholarly opinion and useful references on how such disputes could be resolved from the perspective of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and actions of prophet Muhammad peace be upon him).

The businessman is the economic hub of the community; he provides loans, gives out the Zakkat (charity) and his businesses help in providing employment to the people. The loyalty of the people to these leaders is genuine and unquestionable. They do not see them as politicians who steal money and therefore they should go and get their own share of the cake. This structure which is available in every village has a hierarchy and is replicated at the district level with a district head (Hakimi), and the Emir (Sarki) at the state or provincial level. To date, once you go beyond the headquarters of local governments, the moment you move an inch to the village, you hardly notice the authority of the postcolonial state structure. The local structure that works for the people is the pre-colonial one. The beauty of this structure is that if a stranger comes to town, even if it is at the middle of the night, the village head or the ward head will know immediately, he will provide shelter and food for the guest until he leaves, if he decides to stay in town the village head will get a portion of the farms under his care and give it to the guest to use and look after himself. If the guest proves to be trustworthy he might be honoured with a girl in the village so that he can marry her thereby being co-opted as a full time member of the community. The village head knows the societal misfit in every household. It is this structure that can check who is competent to provide religious guidance. It is the one that can identify those who influence the youth. It is alleged that some of the governors who rigged the elections in 2011 in northern Nigeria actually used this structure to manipulate the polls in the villages.

Now let us be honest with ourselves, the traditional institution is not perfect, it has a lot of problems, particularly the deficit of trust because some of them have auctioned the dignity of the institution to money bag politicians. But the truth is, this is the system that works for the average person. Yet the village head and the Imam who have the loyalty of the people have no say in their affairs because we operate a cut and paste democracy that neglects our local values. So when the society faces security challenges as it does at the moment, I wonder how the postcolonial state structure will solve it when the loyalty of the people belongs to another structure. It is time for traditional rulers, opinion leaders, intellectuals and politicians in northern Nigeria to think critically and devise ways in which this structure can be revived, modernised and make it work for the people.


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