Letter from Africa: What’s the point of Nigeria’s traditional kings?

Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi
Image caption The new Ooni of Ife, a property magnate, will be one of the youngest traditional rulers in Nigeria

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos considers what makes one of Nigeria's many kings so special.

For the last week there has been great excitement in Ile-Ife, the centuries-old city in south-west Nigeria that ethnic Yoruba people regard as their spiritual home.

Residents have been celebrating the appointment of a successor to the throne of Ooni of Ife, which became vacant in July on the death of the incumbent, Oba Okunade Sijuwade.

Political, religious and social leaders from across the country have been sending congratulatory messages to Ile-Ife on this new epoch.

And on 28 October the people of Ile-Ife turned out in their hundreds of thousands to receive their son Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, who left home for Lagos several years ago in pursuit of economic opportunities.

He returned not only as a real estate tycoon but also as Ooni of Ife - their paramount ruler and the spiritual leader of all Yoruba people at home and in the diaspora.

The Yoruba are the second largest ethnic group in Nigeria.

As I watched that event on TV I found the communal joy infectious and I swayed in my seat to the beat of gangan drums and, especially, the voices of old women chanting the praise of the forebears of the king-elect and the founders of Ile-Ife.

I was happy for them and, as we say in Yorubaland, for myself.

Ooni of Ife:

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The late Oba Okunade Sijuwade is believed to have been the 50th Ooni of Ife
  • The Ooni of Ife's kingdom is in present-day Osun state in south-west Nigeria
  • The monarch should be a direct descendant of Oduduwa, who is a Yoruba god
  • Practice of burying someone alive with a king who dies has long been abolished

But for the Ooni-elect the public fanfare has now ended.

He is in total seclusion, being attended to and spiritually strengthened by traditional priests.

When, after 21 days, he emerges, after meekly following secret religious rites, he will be another being - the Ooni proper, second in rank to the Yoruba deities.

State employees

But I can only hope that the obeisance being paid to him as Ooni Ogunwusi by Nigeria's high and mighty will not lead him to really believe all he might hear about his "highness".

Indeed the Ooni of the 21st Century is not comparable in power and majesty to the Ooni of the days of yore.

Today the Ooni and other traditional rulers nationwide are, when push comes to shove, senior employees and under the authority of state governments.

They are paid salaries and allowances from the public purse.

Country of kings:

Image copyright George Osodi
Image caption It is not known how many local kings there are in Nigeria; they were stripped of constitutional powers in 1963...
Image copyright George Osodi
Image caption But they have not lost any of their pomp and grandeur, as George Osodi's photos show
  • They vary in hierarchy and importance; some like the Ooni of Ife and the northern emirs rule large areas, others are traditional rulers of a village or town

If in doubt about the traditional king's place in the modern scheme of things in Nigeria, drive down to Onitsha in the south-east and talk to the Obi, who was a close friend and confidant of his own predecessor Ooni Oba Okunade Sijuwade.

The late Ooni and his two friends - the Obi and the then-Emir of Kano in the north - took a holiday to Israel at their own expense; when they returned for their trip they were suspended from office for travelling without obtaining government permission.

They were lucky - they could have been sacked from their gilded thrones.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The current Emir of Kano (C), an influential position, used to be Nigeria's central bank governor

Up to a few decades ago an Oba, the Yoruba word for a king, could send his servants or chiefs to summon any woman - young or married - and when that woman reported to the palace, the king would pronounce her one of his wives and that would be the end of the matter.

These days hardly any of Nigeria's hundreds of kings would attempt that.

These monarchs do perform useful functions.

They hold court in their palaces daily, settling matrimonial issues, land matters, minor chieftaincy disputes and other not-too-serious matters among their people.

They are also very useful for the vanity of their subjects and friends as they award chieftaincy titles at their discretion - though at times these are given on inducement, meaning such honorary titles perhaps do not garner the respect they once did.