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Anambra: Interrogating legality of traditional rulers’ appointment

By Chekwube Nzomiwu

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The importance of traditional authority in Nigeria and other African countries cannot be over-emphasized. As the custodians of culture and tradition in the society, traditional rulers have continued to play a significant role in governance from the pre-independence era till date.

Although they do not have constitutional or legal backing to operate in Nigeria, many states have the council of traditional rulers’ as an advisory body to the state government. While not recognised constitutionally, the traditional rulers, as the custodians of traditional authority, are naturally situated under the local government administration. Under the local government, which is constitutionally the third tier of government, they perform functions relating to law and order, development and good governance, among others.

Regrettably, in some states, the traditional authority is confronted with a lot of challenges, including unwarranted and excessive political interference in its activities. For instance, early this year, the Chairman of Anambra State Council of Traditional Rulers, His Royal Majesty, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, Obi of Onitsha lamented that the Anambra State Government under Governor Charles Soludo has progressively dehumanized and deprecated the traditional institutions, as against what obtained with the Federal Government and other state governments where monarchs are accorded the dignity the stool deserves.

Achebe said this while reacting to the suspension of three traditional rulers in the state for conferring titles on a serving senator nursing governorship ambition. The First Class traditional ruler bared his mind in a letter he addressed to the State Commissioner for Local Government, Chieftaincy and Town Unions, Tony Collins Nwabunwanne.

In a swift response to Achebe’s letter, Soludo summoned a meeting with the traditional rulers at the Governor’s Lodge in Amawbia, where the issues relating to the suspension of the traditional rulers were resolved. Although the Governor reconciled with the traditional rulers and reinstated the ones suspended, he announced the dissolution of the Traditional Rulers Council, saying the council as presently constituted was unknown to the law.

Soludo said a committee made up of five traditional rulers would urgently meet to consider the amendment of the relevant sections and other Sections of the Anambra Traditional Rulers (Amended) Law, 2020, deemed pertinent for a review. He said as soon as the law is amended, there would be a meeting of the traditional rulers for him to formally inaugurate the council, so that it will function in strict compliance with the law.

Prior to the clash, the issue of political interference in traditional authority had remained a vexed issue in Anambra State. This political interference has been linked to preponderance of chieftaincy tussles in the State. Presently, many communities are being torn apart by such disputes. In many cases, the disputes have snowballed into several court cases. For example, the chieftaincy tussle in Alor in Idemili South LGA, resulted in about 52 court cases. Notable among other communities facing chieftaincy disputes include Ojoto, also in Idemili South LGA, Aguleri in Anambra East LGA, Azia in Ihiala LGA, Nawfia in Njikoka LGA and Oraukwu in Idemili North LGA

Most of these tussles have been linked to the imposition of unwanted candidates on the people, contrary to procedures contained in the constitutions of the communities and the Anambra State Traditional Rulers Law. The crises often engulfed the town unions and gave rise to grassroots autocracy and financial malfeasance in the communities. In some cases, they are trailed by communal violence, resulting in destruction of lives and property.

In a bid to restore sanity to the traditional institutions in Anambra State, an activist, Dr Ifeanyichukwu Okonkwo, recently initiated a suit before the Federal High Court, Awka Division, questioning the legality of the appointment of majority of the traditional rulers in the State. Okonkwo is seeking among other reliefs, an order, nullifying/setting aside all the purported directives, financial expenditures, presentment of “Igwe elects” by town unions to chairmen of transition councils, and issuance of certificates of recognition to them as His Royal Highnesses (H.R.H) for government recognition, purportedly made by the illegal and unconstitutionally constituted caretaker/transition committees with effect from September 26, 2006 by the 2nd to 8th defendants.”

The order, if granted by the court, would affect majority of the traditional rulers in Anambra State, most of whom were presented by the town unions to unelected chairmen of local government transition councils for government recognition. Presently, a total of 149 traditional rulers are recognised by the Anambra State Government. Majority of them may lose their seats if the court grants Okonkwo’s request in suit no. FHC/AWK/CS/90/2024.

The latest suit has eight defendants, including the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Governor of Anambra State, Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Anambra State and Anambra State House of Assembly. Others are three former governors, Dr. Chris Ngige, Mr. Peter Obi and Chief Willie Obiano, for themselves and on behalf of their transition chairmen and councilors, and Mr. Livinus Onyenwe for himself and on behalf of transition chairmen under the incumbent Governor, Professor Soludo.

The suit is premised on the interpretation of the previous judgment of the Federal High Court Enugu in suit no. FHC/EN//CS/2005. The judgment was delivered on September 26, 2006 by Justice A. L. Allagoa.

It will be recalled that in the wake of the clash between Soludo and Obi of Onitsha, Okonkwo accused the former (Governor) of not only usurping the powers of the High Court of Anambra State, but breaching Section 6 (2) of the Constitution by his pronouncement that the Anambra State Traditional Rulers Council was improperly constituted in violation of the provision of Section 2 (F) of the Anambra State Traditional Rulers (Amendment) Law, 2020.
The Federal High Court, Awka Division has slated May 22, 2024 for the hearing of Dr. Okonkwo’s case, challenging the appointment of traditional rulers in the State.

In sum, it is hoped that the case will go a long way in resolving the conundrum surrounding the traditional authority in the State for the enthronement of peace in the communities and betterment of the lives of the people.

Nzomiwu, a public policy analyst writes from Awka, Anambra State.

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