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Their queen, our kings – An introspection into our traditional institution, By Kazeem Akintunde

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Queen Elizabeth II

Since Thursday last week when she breathed her last, the entire world has been in a frenzy with many mourning the demise of Queen Elizabeth II, who passed on at the age of 96. Many of her citizens have been trooping to Buckingham Palace to pay their last respects to the late monarch. Aside from that, many world leaders have put pen to paper to eulogise Queen Elizabeth, while 96 guns have been fired in countries like the Netherland, Australia, and the United Kingdom among others to mourn the passage of a colossus.

Series of activities have been lined up in many commonwealth countries to mourn and at the same time, honour the late monarch. Days of mourning have been declared in Australia, India, and many other countries that are members of the Commonwealth. Nigeria’s flag is flying at half-mast in memory of the Queen.

Aside from the millions of people mourning her demise after spending seven decades on the throne, there are several thousands of others who saw no reason why they should mourn a woman that represented an institution they have come to despise. One of such persons is Professor Uju Anya, who took to Twitter to lambast the late monarch and wish her ‘excruciating pain’ even before her eventual death was announced.

Anya is not just anybody on the street or one of those that could be regarded as a ‘Twitter rat’, a social media parlance in Nigeria for those using the social media app to gain cheap popularity. She is a leading professor of Applied Linguistics and a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States of America. Her critical discourse primarily examines race, gender, sexual, and social class identities in new language learning through the experiences of African-American students.

Born on August 4, 1976, to a Nigerian father and a Trinidadian mother, Uju is an indigene of Enugu State with an American passport. Uju is also famous for her support of the LGBTQ community after she publicly declared that she is a lesbian after her divorce from her husband.

She incurred the wrath of many on that social media platform when she twitted: “If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star. I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping, genocidal empire is dying. May her pain be excruciating”.

The whole world was aghast by her comment. Her employer, Carnegie Mellon University, was forced to issue a disclaimer, distancing the institution from what she wrote. “We do not condone the offensive and objectionable messages posted by Uju Anya today on her personal social media account. Freedom of expression is core to the mission of higher education. However, the views she shared absolutely do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to foster.”

While Professor Anya is entitled to her opinion, I believe that as Africans, we do not speak ill of the dead, and wishing a fellow human being ‘excruciating pain’ while in the throes of death should be condemned by many right-thinking individuals.

The thrust of today’s discourse, however, is not on Prof Anya and her ilk but to use the demise of Queen Elizabeth II to scrutinise our traditional institution in Nigeria. Are they still relevant in the scheme of things in this 21st century or should they be consigned to history? While her children and grandchildren are still mourning her demise, many on the microblogging app (Twitter) have launched a campaign with the hashtag #AbolishTheMonarchy.  Even among her subjects, many are miffed by the royal family and the razzmatazz associated with it, and are openly calling for the scrapping of the institution.

In fact, a Twitter user with the handle @peaceOfMind wrote: ‘why should this unelected group of people have so much power, privilege and wealth? Too many people are blinded by tradition and pageantry. It’s time to abolish the monarchy. Another user by the name Josie @josiekearns wrote: ‘Now let’s abolish the monarchy, arrest Andrew and turn Buckingham palace into social housing.’ If citizens of the UK are openly calling for the scrapping of the institution, isn’t it time to examine its role and relevance in the 21th century?

The monarchy of the United Kingdom traces its origins from the petty kingdoms of Anglo-saxon England and early medieval Scotland, which consolidated into the kingdoms of England and Scotland by the 10th century. Anglo-Saxon England had an elective monarchy, but this was replaced by primogeniture after England was conquered by the Normans in 1066.

From 1602, the English and Scottish Kingdoms were ruled by a single sovereign in the Union of the crowns. From 1649 to 1660, the tradition of monarchy was broken by the republican Commonwealth of England, which followed the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In 1707, the Kingdom of England and Scotland were merged to create the Kingdom of Great Britain, and in 1801, the Kingdom of Ireland joined to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The British monarch was the nominal head of the vast British Empire, which covered a quarter of the world’s land area to its greatest extent in 1921.

The primary functions of the monarch in the UK now are to appoint the Prime Minister and other ministers, to open new sessions of Parliament; and to give royal assent to bills passed by Parliament, thereby making them laws. Aside the above, all other functions are ceremonial.

In spite of the ceremonial role attached to the monarchy, the British Royal Family in the UK expenditure breakdown for 2021/22 amasses to a total of 102.4 million British pounds, with property maintenance and payroll costs accounting for 63.9 million and 23.7 million pounds respectively. Many in the UK are however comfortable with the royal family and see no reason why it should be abolished.

Coming back home, the traditional institution has been part of us, even before we gained independence. From the pre-colonial era, the traditional institutions have been strengthened and weakened, elevated and humiliated, empowered and disempowered by emergent political/ruling class, depending on the agenda of those in power. Before the coming of the Europeans, the traditional rulers held sway not only as the recognised political rulers of the states and kingdoms in Nigeria, but also as the custodians of the people’s history, culture, religions, and economy.

The traditional institutions in the pre-colonial Yoruba land as it was in other parts of the country, had all elements of modern governmental systems and they perfectly suited the social, political, and economic situations of the era with the overall goal of the welfare of the generality of the people.

In modern Nigeria, the categories of traditional rulers include the Mai/Shehu of Borno, the Habe and Emirs, rulers in Hausa land, the Oba in Yoruba land, the Attah in Igala land, the Etsu in Nupe land, the Obi and Eze in Igbo land, among others. These traditional rulers occupied and still occupy important positions among the people of pre-colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. Their positions were/are sanctioned by the traditions, history, and culture of their respective peoples who hold them in high esteem and reverence.

The advent of colonial rule and the imposition of Western styles of government not only reduced the powers and relevance of the traditional rulers but also made them subservient to their subjects – the educated elite. Since independence in 1960, the political status of traditional rulers have gone from bad to worse, with far-reaching consequences for governance and administration in the country.

They began to lose relevance when they started dabbling into politics and when those that should be regarded as ‘undesirables’ found their way into the institution and when it became mandatory for political leaders to give final approval to those clamouring to rule their people. In Yoruba land, it used to be the people’s representatives, the Afobajes, with the aid of deities most especially Ifa, in selecting a King or Oba, but all that has given way to modernity. What is obtainable now is for the Afobajes (Kingmakers) to forward three names to either a State Governor or a Council Chairman as the case may be, who has the final say on who becomes the King.

Due to the fact that they have also been relegated to the third tier of government, (the Local Government Areas) through which their salaries and emoluments are paid, they have actually lost their voice as they could be fired at any given time by those with political authority. Many first-class traditional rulers have been fired by Governors with no consequences.

Be that as it may, the role of the traditional institution as custodian of the people’s culture and history, among others, cannot be discountenanced and their relevance cannot be over-emphasised.

The constitution, at the minimum, should recognise the role of the traditional institution in communal life, such as mobilising the community for enlightenment, education, economic empowerment, peace building, safety and security, and custodianship of, and leadership in advancing our culture. It is also necessary for the constitution to guarantee funding for community development activities over the existing provision of five per cent of the gross statutory allocation to the local governments, which is not even guaranteed, and is haphazardly implemented.

The constitution should enshrine the non-involvement of traditional rulers in partisan politics as recommended by the National Council of Traditional Rulers of Nigeria (NCTRN) to the National Assembly. On the other hand, the constitution should also adequately protect the traditional institution from undue meddling and interference by the political elite and the moneyed class.

Though it has lost its relevance over time, the traditional institution should be accorded the much-needed respect and recognition by the government while their welfare should be improved.

Whilst wishing Queen Elizabeth II a peaceful rest, we wish King Charles III a peaceful and glorious reign. He has promised to rule with the fear of God and love, and those are the standards he will be judged by in the years to come.

See you next week.

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