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Nigeria: 7 Roles of Traditional Rulers in Achieving Stable Democracy

Traditional institutions are formed to play a vital role in society, this examined the roles of traditional rulers in accomplishing stable democracy in Nigerian.

In the olden days, traditional rulers are believing to be royal fathers in their various domain, and they perform better in accomplishing firm democracy, but with coming of colonialist and democracy, the role of the traditional rulers became less recognized in the democratic system.

The role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria is advisory and not political or administrative.

Before, traditional rulers were heads of government of their respective domains. They were the law and jury and governed with maximum force.

Naturally they would look back at their former status with nostalgia and feel unhappy with the new way of government, but they have no choice other than to give their support to the democratic system of government.

Our task in this article is to expand the role of traditional rulers and show how they support democracy in Nigeria. At the end, you will see that traditional rulers supported democracy to stay relevant in the political affairs of the country.

Allow me to begin this piece by going into Nigeria history …

Pre-colonial Times

In pre-colonial times, Traditional system of government was not democratic as it was hereditary and autocratic. They ruled with total authority, and did not answer to their subjects.

Arrival of the Colonial Masters

When the colonial masters arrived, they needed traditional rulers initially to administer the different ethnic groups.

However, as they gained firm control of the people who make-up the northern and southern protectorates, which they later amalgamated for ease of governance to form Nigeria, traditional rulers became figure heads.

Through constitutional reforms they adopted parliamentary system of government and created the House of Chiefs to give traditional rulers a facade of authority, but they only dealt with chieftainship matters and promote culture.

The traditional rulers that were in government were mere ceremonial heads as privileged politicians governed the country with the colonialists. These kings, chiefs and emirs were merely tools for mobilizing their subjects and persuading unruly members to conform to the dictates of the colonial masters.

Post-colonial Era

After the country’s independence and many military governments, constitutional development weakened the power of traditional rulers who held sway in the House of chiefs.

At the start of presidential system of government in Nigeria in 1979, traditional rulers lost the little constitutional powers they enjoyed in the parliamentary system, because the 1979 constitution had no provision for House of Chiefs.

In the new system of government, the role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria is merely to advice politicians.

Politicians respected the royal fathers because they were custodians of the customs of the people and go to them when they need their advice.

Traditional rulers kept their positions at the mercy of Governors who could appoint and depose a king or chief in their states.

In addition, traditional rulers have lost the right to sign consent to title of land. The constitution gave this power to sign certificate of occupancy for perfection of title of land to governors.

During military era, the government had set aside five percent for the upkeep of traditional rulers from the revenue allocated to local council which is the third tier of government, and the 1999 constitution did not stop it.

The politicians control traditional rulers in a subtle way. As you know, “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”.

Now that you are clear about the exact role of traditional rulers in the present political system, let us expatiate it for more clarity.

Role of Traditional Rulers

The role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria is broken into the following parts to help us explain how they help in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria. They are:

  • general advice
  • settlement of land disputes
  • maintaining peace and order
  • religious sanctions
  • recognition of outstanding members of society
  • custom or culture
  • social authority

Since you have seen the role of traditional rulers in the present political system, let us see how their support gives political stability to democracy in the country.

How Traditional Rulers Support Democracy in the Country

To find out the role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria, we shall look at the functions we have listed above and analyze them.

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1) General Advice

Traditional rulers give advice to politicians in diverse areas such as security, economic policy, just distribution of infrastructure, customs and culture, nomination of candidates for appointment to serve the country, appeal for good governance and general wellbeing of the citizenry.

Apart from giving general advice to politicians, they also settle land disputes.

2) Land Disputes

Traditional rulers in communities, makes sure they settle land disputes before they escalate into open hostilities where brothers kill each other.

As you are aware, land disputes are the major causes of conflicts in these rural communities where land serves as the primary source for creating wealth and earning a living through subsistence farming.

Government relies on these rulers to make sure hostilities between villages in each local council do not escalate into ethnic wars.

3) Peace and Order

Keeping peace and order in the country is key and every citizen’s responsibility and this forms part of the role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria.

Peace and order is vital for any economic activity to take place in a locality and in the country as a whole; therefore the government relies on the traditional rulers to keep the peace in their domains.

For instance, in any area, people know themselves and they could fish out any criminal in their midst easily and hand over the culprit to the palace or the police for prosecution and punishment by using communal policing and vigilante group.

4) Religious Sanctions

These days although adherents to the local traditional religions are few, traditional rulers still use religious sanctions to resolve and deal with quarrels between married couples, land disputes, stealing, and disputes between neighbors in their areas.

The use of traditional gods and swearing oaths is another way for preventing social irresponsibility and misbehavior in the villages.

The fear of what traditional gods could do kept some politicians in check from misappropriating public funds in the past. Presently, this fear has waned but it is still a way to keep public servants focused on service to the nation than on selfish interests.

5) Recognition of Outstanding Members of Society

In analyzing the role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria, recognition of outstanding members of the society is essential.

Award of chieftainship titles to recognize outstanding members of the society helps to keep the moral compass of the society up. People get chieftainship titles when they distinguish themselves in their fields of enterprise and serve as role models for creating a better society.

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This social recognition makes people aspire to become better citizens, be the best in their chosen careers or businesses and live as good citizens. This keeps the peace and healthy rivalry of citizens in the polity and in extension the country.

6) Custom or Culture

Custom or Culture is the way of life and shared beliefs of people of a particular area that distinguishes them. Over 200 ethnic groups make up Nigeria and give the country its peculiar nature of ethnic rivalries.

Suspicions are rife between these ethnic groups that make up the Country. However, traditional rulers help to unite the people by preaching strength in diversity than division.

7) Social Authority

The use of social authority is one reason to consider in the role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria.

Traditional rulers have influence over citizens of their domains.

They influence the choice of who stands for electoral offices to represent the people in the House of Assembly, State Assembly and local councils, and how the citizens vote in general, state and local elections.

Many of these traditional rulers were once top leaders in the military, public service, judiciary, and successful private business owners, and so they command a lot of power in the country.

Traditional rulers are major stakeholders in the present day Nigeria and Politicians consult them for suggestions of notable people to appoint as Ministers, and into top positions of service in the country.


The role of traditional rulers in achieving stable democracy in Nigeria is crucial for the peace and progress of the country because, traditional rulers hold sway in the rural areas and help government to show real dividends of democracy to their subjects.

However, Democracy can only thrive when you nurture and sustain its foundation, which is the development of infrastructure and economic wellbeing of the rural areas and the nation.

In view of traditional rulers’ value to the peace and progress of the country, government should preserve traditional institutions.


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