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Nation of people who are mostly located in the Midwestern part of Nigeria, Western  Africa.


Politics and Prescriptions for Contemporary Nation Building in Nigeria: A Keynote Address




Dr. Sunday A. Ochoche



When I received the invitation to present this Keynote Address, I was puzzled as to the relationship between my position as Director General of an Institute whose mandate it is to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts, and the activities of the Institute for Benin Studies. I was, however, immediately struck by the realization that there are areas of convergence between the research conducted in my Institute and what you do here. The topic chosen by you calls for an examination of the role of traditional institutions in the organisation of contemporary society.

Traditional institutions are usually understood as the instruments of social organisation, which have been tested and chosen after sustained periods of social selection. They constitute the roots upon which social change occurs.

And, change itself being a continuum, newly introduced elements always coexist with the old ones in a harmonious blend that promotes social survival.

In no other area is the co-existence between the traditional and the modern more pronounced than in matters relating to political governance in traditional African societies and contemporary liberal democracies has been of great interest to social researchers in Africa. As a result of the onslaught of western liberalism, post-traditional African societies were at a precipitous crossroads.

The traditional African values of community, solidarity and the extended family are being eroded in preference for Western individualism. In order to ensure a peaceful society in today's conflict-ridden continent of Africa, there is an urgent need to preserve certain important aspects of traditional social institutions - especially mode of governance and ethics as they relate to modern liberal democratic institutions. Traditional social institutions in Africa, including those of the Benin Kingdom, operated based on the principle of division of labour. People performed duties and engaged in activities in which they were recognized as specialists. The rainmaker was known by all across the kingdom just as the orator and sculptor were known throughout the land.

Politically, African Kingdoms had representative structures with chiefs and elders of the constituent families participating in the decision making process of the community. Contrary to the general impression, that the systems were dictatorial, they were reasonably democratic in structure and role. In most places, family elders selected their own chiefs and sent them to the Oba or King. There was strict observance of the rule of law and the principle of natural justice. Indeed, the tradition in most African cultures was that reigning monarchs had to go on self-exile, abdicate or commit suicide when found guilty of serious offences against the community. Knowing that power tends to corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, traditional social institutions developed necessary in-built mechanisms that were needed to prevent the misuse of power.

No doubt, when considered in relation to the modern concept of democracy, there were some anti-democratic practices in the operation of traditional African beliefs and practices. For example, the belief which equated age with wisdom - the older a person was, the wiser - tended to entrench the principle of exclusion, which is considered undemocratic in liberal democracy. This aspect of African worldview led to the under-utilization of the productive capacities of a broad spectrum of the population. We have since known, of course, that age does not necessarily add to an individual's ability to reason. On the contrary, age could result in a diminished ability to reason.

Such limitations are common to all human institutions.

The earliest form of democracy practiced by the Athenians had its own limitations - Aristotle tells us in his Politics, that women and slaves were not citizens, and that they were properties of those who owned them! Plato tells us in his Republic, that rulers could use noble lies, as long as telling such lies would help them rule without crises. In spite of such limitations, democracy flourished in Athens gloriously accepted as government of the people, for the people and by the people.

How does the background we have just sketched fit into post-colonial political institutions in Africa? Modern liberal democratic culture is an importation from Europe and America and it is being applied in nearly all post-colonial African countries. In spite of the imposition of these modern institutions, certain elements of the traditional forms of governance have remained unchanged. In both the old and the new forms of political arrangements, the elements of social and political loyalty, participation and commitment remain central.

In most African societies, the traditional and the modern now play complementary roles in ensuring peace and social cohesion. In a number of cases, during the early post-colonial administrations in Africa, traditional rulers formed one of the houses of parliament. This is still the case in some countries today. In fact, in a number of other places there have been occasional calls for integrating traditional institutions such as the chieftaincy into modern constitution engineering.

An important element of traditional African political system, which constitutes a departure from the structure of Western democracy, is the application of consensus as a process of arriving at decision.

Western democracy is run on the basis of the multi-;arty system in which number plays an important role. Access to political power is determined by elections in which the party that wins the highest votes forms the government.

The contrast, in traditional African society, is that the process of decision making takes the form of negotiations, discussions and deliberations at the end of which a consensus is reached. In the process the various individuals and group put forward their arguments and seek to persuade one another about the superiority of their position. The exercise could be rowdy sometimes, protracted and time-consuming but at the end the decision arrived at is accepted as binding on the entire community.

The aim of every community is to maintain the right atmosphere for the growth of understanding and the promotion of peaceful coexistence. Traditional African social institutions have achieved these objectives to a large extent. There is, therefore, the need for us to look inward for solutions to some of the problems plaguing the African society today. It would appear that the uncritical embrace of Western modes of life and the infrastructure of science and technology have endangered the very essence of our community life.

Permit me to say a few words about the area in which I am most familiar. In dispute resolution the methods adopted for conflict resolution in traditional African societies have been acknowledged under the general nomenclature of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Under this approach conflicts were resolved with a view to promoting continued relationship between adversaries.

In the history of Africa, the Benin Kingdom had one of the most highly developed structures of social administration. Its wealth of military experience, wars and internal conflicts conferred the kingdom with abundant managerial skills in the settlement of disputes.

Like other traditional African societies, the Benin social system has its foundation on a number of solid ethical principles, among which are absolute loyalty to the Monarch and therefore the system itself, respect for the various levels of traditional chiefs, respect for elders and commitment to all communal rules. In the resolution of conflicts, the various levels of leadership play an effective role and they are accorded respect and legitimacy. The traditional approaches to conflict resolution have been so successful that efforts are being made in most contemporary African societies to incorporate them into modern approaches.

Usually, in the organisation of traditional society and polity in Africa, there are different levels of decision making (political participation) and legitimacy. While the temperance and caution of the elderly come in handy in day to day administration and management of society to see to it that injustice is not, unwittingly, visited on members of society, in times of emergency, i.e., when the health and or sovereignty of the society itself is at stake, whether from internal or external sources, it is the conclave of all and sundry that take decision. At such conclaves, all members of society are entitled to speak, and once a decision is arrived at by popular acclamation, such decision remains binding on all and sundry, including the monarch.

Poverty has continued to cut deep into the African system and violent conflicts have been on the increase. The result has been a progressive decline in the values of humanity. In spite of our rich human and material resources, Africans continue to suffer political and economic dis-empowerment. The more powerful nations of the world continue to impose their institutions and social values on Africa.

Consequently, Africans have tended to devalue their own systems while over-valuing the imported ones.

Let me note that the African traditional political system, like any other human system, is not perfect.

To refuse to acknowledge that is to plan for political disaster in the modern state system. Our traditional political power structure, like any other part of our culture, must be dynamic and open to change. The truth is that we have with us today a mew political arrangement, in the form of the modern nation state. The truth too is that in the administration of the modern nation state system there have been a few conflicts between traditional institutions and institutions of the modern state.

There have been conflicts over jurisdiction in, for example, security and land management and control.

There have been conflicts over the bounds of traditional institutions with relation to the operation of political parties. There have been conflicts over the bounds over jurisdiction in the allocation and distribution of resources. Many of these conflicts are avoidable and only call for better understanding and partnership between the state and the traditional structure. Some of them, however, call for a careful assessment of roles, a better understanding of the new political, social, and economic demands made on the system by democratic governance, and informed response to the demand for change and adaptation which is necessary for the sustenance of life.

As Africanists and social researchers, we need a re-examination of the traditional institutions, beliefs and values of Africa so as to revive those that have been jettisoned without adequate evaluation.

A good number of traditional values and practices have proved themselves to be extremely functional in contemporary modern society. In the sciences, medicine, engineering etc., traditional African principles and models are now offering themselves as more viable options than orthodox forms. I have no doubt that in the areas of political governance, ethics and social institution, traditional African societies have a great deal to offer to contemporary society.

I thank you and God bless.   

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Last modified: December 20, 2008