Chieftaincy and Security in Nigeria… An Overview of Non-centralized East/West Niger Igbo

His Excellency Chimaroke Nnamani, Governor of Enugu State,
October 13, 2003

Contribution to the National Conference on Chieftaincy and Security in Nigeria; dedicated to the fortieth anniversary of the ascension to the throne of His Royal Highness the Emir of Kano, Alhaji (Dr.) Ado Bayero.
Murtala Muhammed Library Complex. Ahmadu Bello Way. Kano City


Pillars of National Social Order

“…one of the most interesting ways in which social disruption is prevented… in Igbo society is the belief … about the causes of death and disaster” — M. M. Green


Long before this time, I have had the beckoning to grace this great city of Kano, if only to once again behold the great historical significances upon which the vast culture of rulership and cohesion has taken place for well over a thousand years now.
Of course, Kano is a lure, an attraction and a compelling invitation to a trip in history. It is a reminder of the greatness of our country, both in vast material as well as abundant human resources. It is a pointer to the diffusion of entrepreneurial potentials of every part of Nigeria and indeed among every community of Nigerians.

Indeed, the cosmopolitan proficiency of Kano and the near polyglot status remain remarkable indexes to measure its possibilities vis-à-vis, the boisterousness of the people, who though are ruled by one of the longest monarchies in the land, continue to reveal a certain class of dynamism and growth in all spheres of life.

Of course, it cannot be treated lightly that Kano, as a vastly significant national territory remains one single international centre which has held attractions for centuries of inter-continental initiatives in commerce, diplomacy, territorial expansion, military enterprise and more. It therefore, cannot be surprising that the anniversary of the Kano Monarchy decided to pursue the course of honour through a broadening of knowledge as in this elaborate seminar to mark forty years on the saddle. If this is not the first of its kind, it is the first I have had the privilege of taking a part in. The gesture itself is suggestive of intention to pursue that which outlives generations and which will bring about an enhancement of the system.

Indeed, it is a commendable trip in statesmanship for the Monarchy in Kano to seek to broaden the knowledge of the citizenry on such knotty issue as chieftaincy and security. There is no contesting the fact that these are matters demanding resolution but which must be treated with utmost care and maturity. This is so because whereas it is easy to ascertain security roles for chieftaincies in centralized politics in Nigeria, it is not that easy in such diffuse polities where definite and irreversible class defining structures are absent and where rank is not permanent as it is open to all.

And whereas it is easy to view centrality of authorities as running in tandem with swift and more effective patterns of social coercion, the prevalence of traditional order of consensus compel consultation in the less central polities, revealing its own promises in presenting a local version of democracy which would aid our joining the more global arena of pluralism.

To that effect, I consider the topic assigned me to divest in two main dominant factors. One is chieftaincy while the other is security. And for the typical non-centralized polity, it can, arguably, be difficult to quickly situate the possibilities of a cohesive, non-coercive, social control mechanism at confirmation, which is completely diffused, non-centralized or even unknowingly democratic.

Postulations holding the possibilities of efficacy of single-source authority as replicable scenarios in places as multifaceted as a majority of the Igbo areas of Nigeria can even be contested, if perceived as incongruous. And for the newcomer or visitor, it is certainly difficult to discern such factors of social relations upon which a semblance of central frame for security is built.

Indeed, such visitor may not have had the right mind penetration or sufficient observation to appreciate the dynamics, which keep the society running. He thus may be circumscribed to pursuing an interpretation of the patterns of the society on the outlines of centralized and charted incidences of statecraft. It is even more complex for an observer who may not have trained his mind in the observation of such evolutionary trends, some of which present diffusive tendencies manifest in political incidents tending to multiplicity and attenuation in potency. Consequently, a semblance of culture, to him erroneously stands as one and the same, but in fact, the trends are vigorously disparate.

But in reality, African societies have witnessed their own fair share of continuous changes, with each phase of development representing a temporary or transient movement in the historical and dialectical continuum.

Lately, it has become necessary to compare societies, with reference to some particular aspects or parts of the whole social system with reference, for example, to the economic system, the political system, or even kinship patterns. In most cases, sparing incidents or even accidents of history bring about very narrow interpretations by a vocal few who mount a voluble but erroneous claim of insight into the polity in question.

In African Political Systems, (1940), edited by M. Fortes and E.E. Evans-Pritchard, two broad categories of polities are identified. One is the institutionalized (centralized) political structure in which cleavages of wealth, privilege and status correspond to the distribution of power and authority. The other is the segmentary lineage system which lacks centralized authority but, of course, wherein there are such systems where there are no sharp or marked divisions of rank, status or wealth. The latter model has been variously characterized as stateless or acephalous societies. But instead of considering such non-centralized politics as anarchical, we sometimes view them as chaotic and therefore ungovernable. In a way, since such societies are not narrowed into a straight rulership pattern, permitting unquestioning exploitation, they are termed ungovernable. But, perhaps to avoid running away with the charge of being impolitic, the conveners of this seminar, politely tagged such a societal non-centralized.

In dealing with political systems, we are inevitably dealing with the structures and processes of the maintenance or establishment of social order within a territorial unit. Centralized political systems had had to deal with the issue of a centrally imposed social order through the instrumentality of organized exercise of coercive authority by means of the use, threat or the possibility of use, of physical force.

Thus, the centralized traditional African political systems present little, difticulty in this regard. The problematic, however, is in dealing with such multiplicity of societies as the so-“stateless”, “anarchic”, or “acephalous” polities, which obviously lack the capacity to impose social order by means of pretension to the exercise of coercive authority, including threat or possibility of use of physical force. This is especially so, considering that the absence of coercive authority did not in any case eliminate altogether the overwhelming potential for conflicts and disputes or the resolutions of these, even in non-centralized polities.

In order to put the issues in clear perspective, we have to establish here that the challenge of the basic subject here is in matters of chieftaincy and security while conceptual puzzles arise from issues of context associated with stereotypes. These are “stateless”, “acephalous”, “anarchical”, etc.

In the words of Walter Rodney (1980), “… the word stateless is carelessly or even abrasively used: but it does describe those peoples who had no machinery of government coercion and no concept of a political unit wider than … the village. After all, if there is no class stratification in a society, it follows that there is no state because the state arose as an instrument to be used by a particular class to control the rest of society in its own interests. Generally speaking, one can consider the stateless societies as among the older forms of socio-political organization in Africa, while the large states represented an evolution away from communualism (non-centrality) – sometimes to the point of feudalism (centralized monarchy).”

Elsewhere, ‘acephalous,” may be employed, in describing the political structure in a simple society, such as a territorial community, which is united by the rule of law, but lacking a distinct head, without a leader. It can also be societies in which the largest political unit embraces a group of people, all of whom are united to one another by kinship, in such a manner that political relations are conterminous with kinship relations and the political structure and kinship organization are completely fused.

There are societies in which a lineage structure is the framework of the political system thereby being a precise co-ordination between two, in such a way that they are consistent with each other, though each remains distinct and autonomous in its own sphere.

Harold Barclay (1982) characterizes “anarchical” or “anarchic” in the sense of societies, which do not accept the idea of authority as natural. In fact, it does not quite appear to occur to them. To that effect, “Anarchy is the condition of society in which there is no ruler; a society without government and without the state… it is interesting to note here the similarity between anarchism and the segmentary lineage system characterized of many anarchic polities, especially here in Africa. In both cases, the sum is composed of segments and each segment of sub-segment. In both cases, the most effective authority is in the smallest unit, decreasing directly as one ascends to broader levels of integration”.

Although anthropologists have, over the past several decades documented, through their ethnographic research, innumerable stateless or acephalous societies throughout the world and throughout time, this paper is not oblivious nevertheless of the considerable reluctance to define these societies as pure anarchies. Even amongst anthropologists, there are those so imbued with their own cultural traditions that they will go to any length to avoid recognizing these systems for what they. Since they contend that social order can exist only in a situation of existence of state, government and law, they stretch the meaning, nay significance of these terms to cover what is clearly not government or state at all.

Peter Hammond (1964) had remarked in this regard: “Even when the population is large, relatively dense, and somewhat diversified, the absence of government does not necessarily imply the presence of anarchy”. By the same token, it has been observed that, among students and historians alike, about the most firmly held myth is the one that no society can exist, least of all function, without government. Its mythical corollary is that every society must have a head, an identifiable and visible one at that is also pandemic among the aforesaid group. Thus, the myth of the necessity of the state and government continues to hold decisively true for many. While this might seem inevitable in today’s modern world, there is no disputing the fact that the states and governments have not always existed in such sense of pursuing absolute and definable centrality. In most cases, there are many states that are, strictly speaking, products of recent political history or results of colonial political engineering or tradeoff.

Prof. M.A. Onwuejogwu, the renowned Nigerian anthropologist, has questioned the classification of certain traditional African societies as stateless, a position he shares with scholars like Prof. Lambert Ejiofor and Ikenna Nzimiro.

Stoutly, they contend, “suffice it to say at this juncture that there is a general recognition in anthropological surveys of a complex web of social organizations that fall short of states, and more particularly that were lacking in centralized political authority patterns, pronounced attend the criteria for the classification of these models but this in no way vitiate the substantive defining characteristics of the system of social organization that these represent.”

They cannot be faulted in the ensuing truism of such defining characteristics which include communal solidarity, collective action, horizontal political structures placing premium on leadership instead of authority, absence of role specialization or class differentiation, etc. It is our contention here that all of these features or combination of same constitute a representative pattern depicting organization and direction even as it never presented a scenario of coercion or forcible pursuit of a one-sided view of governance.

Scattered throughout the continent south of the Sahara, Harold Barclay (1982) argues, “are dozens of anarchic societies, some of which are the most populous of all anarchic communities”. Among these are a variety of segmentary lineage systems that are autonomous and self managing. Social order is imposed and maintained by means of equivalence and opposition; a template of diffusion of power that thrives on regulatory framework of diffuse sanctions.

An outline of a survey of these polities yields the Anuak, Mandari, Dinka and Neur (in southern Sudan), the Konkomba (northern Togo), the Lugbara (parts of Uganda and Congo DR), Shona (Zimbabwe), the Tonga (Zambia), the Tallensi (Ghana), the Igbo, Tiv (Nigeria), etc. The list is by no means exhaustive. And at the same time, anarchical.

The character of traditional Igbo social organization (west or east Niger) is a highly contentious topic, and it will probably remain so for a long time to come. Characterized variously as a model of “stateless” or “acephalous” society, and at other times as a quintessential republican polity, the structure of the Igbo political economy, in its intrinsic manifestation, is, increasingly, being refracted as “anarchic” by social scientists. Not a few historians and a sprinkle of anthropologists have continued to insist that there, in fact, existed kingdoms in Igbo traditional setting.

The village – a commune of sorts – provides the fulcrum of social existence and so underlines the context of Igbo characteristic diffusion. Yes, the village delicately shapes the Igbo worldview, interaction patterns and social relationships. The Igbo village setting evinces a complex web of ties and bonds, of roles and responsibilities, of complementarities and asymmetries, and of equivalence and opposition. It is usually a tapestry of views, group and individual aspirations bending to the yearnings of the community assembly – Oha na Eze. In this way, the society continually strives towards ,equilibrium and consensus.

Lest we forget, the Igbo traditional society was, at all material times, a living organism consisting of individuals and groups, of segments of the extended family and the lineage. Therefore, the diffuse way of living which we refer to here can actually be located in the concrete realm: in the people’s pronounced sense of social equality; in the prevalence of horizontal political organization that emphasized leadership in contradistinction to a vertical, hierarchical and centralized political structure which emphasized authority; in the unstructured, bonding together of the village, the lineage and the extended family which spontaneously expresses itself in collective action, solidarity and diffusion of social sanctions, etc.

But whereas this formed the socio-political configuration of a great bulk of the Igbo world, centrality of administration was a reality and indeed prevalent in some noted Igbo kingdoms.

Among these were the Umuezechima group of clans of western 1gbo or what Ejiofor dubbed “Umuezechima Kingdoms”, in addition to the so-called “four Niger States” elaborated in Prof. lkenna Nzimiro’s Studies in Igbo Political Systems (1972). The nine village kingdoms of the Umuezechima clan include “Onicha Ugbo, Onicha Ukwu, Onicha Olona, Obior, Obomkpa, Ezi, Issele-Ukwu, Issele-Azagba, and Issele-Mkpituime. Nzimiro’s four Niger States consisted of Oguta, Onitsha, Ossomari and Aboh. Other parts of the traditional Igbo society that established the equivalent of “village kingdoms” were Nri, Arochukwu (East Niger) and Asaba and Agbor (West Niger).

Ejiofor therefore argued, “The traditional Igbo systems may be divided into two major types, namely, the democratic and monarchical”, He continued: “west of the Niger, village kingdoms are the rule rather than the exception in Igbo communities”. Furthermore, he observed that even the democratic model did have chiefs, but quickly added, “they were at best symbolic heads of village groups … and their primacy was honorific rather than jurisdictional”. Of this class of chiefs, G. I. Jones noted (in 1950) thus:

“…chiefs of the type envisaged … as “strong chiefs” (except) with a few exceptions (did) not exist in this region. The people who are usually referred to as chiefs, and there can be any number of them today, have no executive, judicial or legislative powers vested solely in their office”.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo similarly observed that “save in very few places there were no natural rulers in Eastern Nigeria of the stature and jurisdiction of those in the North, West, or Midwest” (Benin areas).

But Lugard “manufactured” them as wealthy and influential persons were made “natural rulers” by warrant. On his appointment, a warrant chief became the paramount for a specified area, enjoying the same authority and privileges subject to the same limitations as a natural ruler in the North or West or Midwest. Even this daring innovation succeeded for well over a decade.

For the purposes of a holistic perspective to the contending issues, I wish to call attention at this juncture to Prof, Onwuejogwu’s seminal thoughts in this regard which led him to classify the political system of the Igbo Culture Area into three broad categories, namely, the centralized, gerontocratic and consensus or non-centralized models.

According to this classification, the centralized model is characterized by segmentary lineages, theocratic or secular kingship, less differentiated Ozo or Eze title system and age grades and associations, which could be located in Nri, Onitsha, Aboh, Ogwashi-Uku, Issele-Uku, Oguta, Agbor and Arochukwu.

The characteristics of the gerontocratic model include segmentary lineages, chiefship or headship and sometimes, hyper-gerontocracy, less differentiated Ozo or Eze title system, hyper-age grades with key examples as Ibagwani, Ibusa, Illa, Okpanam, Asaba etc. The non-centralized model with Owerri, Mbaise and Ngwa as classical examples contains features such as segmentary lineages, age-grades, undifferentiated Ozo or Eze title system, councils and associations. These wield sound social muscles which when applied can exert maximum weight and compel alteration or proper conditioning of the individual and group.

Complex and dynamic as the evolutionary trend of Igbo social control mechanism is, the archetypal political system retains a strong element of the segmentary lineage system, which is known as “Umunna”, which in extension is as politically potent as it is corrective of deviance.

The principal elements in the comparative differentiation of political systems in traditional societies arc the degree of specialization in roles that enter into the political and administrative spheres, the number of structural levels at which authority is exercised in addition to the context and changing patterns of the social relationship between those who exercise authority -be it horizontal or vertical -and the rest over whom authority is exercised.

It is by appreciating that social diffusion with its inherent non-centrality of features, that we can begin to come to terms with the fact that although some Igbo communities had managed to construct centralized, monarchical systems prior to the earliest contact with the white man, on the aggregate, such communities constituted a minority, albeit a significant one at that.

Invariably, not one of these communities or kingdoms managed to make the vital transition from communalism to full-blown centrality. We speak of centrality in this sense as a specific mode of statecraft, as well as a system of social organization, including the control of deviant behaviours.

The point can hardly be overstated that the period of transition from diffuse social system to a level of centrality in those African societies that managed to advance beyond non-centrality was one of state formation.

The roles of institutions such as the village general assembly, with the village square (Obodo) as chambers, the age grade society, coupled with those of the daughters’ assembly (Umuada), the masquerade society, the secret society and the Ozo title society were intertwined, complementary and inevitably mutually reinforced each other. Their essence and vitality lay in their functionality, reverence and sheer effectiveness in achieving social cohesion and broad consensus. In many cases, they served the diplomatic roles and effectively broke deadlocks for the society to move forward. In some other cases, they interpret the norms of the society and cry for enforcement of social control to terminate deviancy. In fact, security in the typical Igbo setting is matter for social control and reordering.

In each case of course, each village was autonomous and managed its own affairs in spheres as diverse as religion, festivals, medicare, administration of justice, exercise of sanctions, etc. Inter-village relations were characterized by the formation of federations of two or more villages especially in times of war. The extended family system provided a second-tier thread that held component units of the village together, enabling them to share and fend for one another in both good and difficult times.

The question now is this: In the event that it was largely democratic, it was completely consensus, it was never centered on any powerful monarch, how would such threatening social conducts such as crime and other deviant acts be tackled?

According to Prof. Richard Okafor, social control can hardly ever come to fruition in Igboland if it is a business of an individual. It comes from established elements of culture, which “protect precious tenets of the social environment from erosion or degradation.” And paradoxically, though every Igbo community possesses highly individualized citizenry, the aggregate life is fully shaped according to the cherished traditions, hallowed secrets and revered institutions that usually ensure that any member who violate any of them is severely punished. The yam thief is a yam thief, it does not matter who his kith and kin are, he must be exiled. The murderer has murdered a life and must, as determined by the degree of crime, face death or be exiled.

The most potent of Igbo social control systems, which also underlined appropriate security measures, is the age-old pattern of stigmatizing crime or any other deviant behaviour. In the sub-cultures along the Anambra River, Ojebeogene, Ugwunye and Ezedike clans in northern Igboland, it is common to stigmatize crime by smear public parade (inya ncha or ire unvi) forced on culprits. In the case of a thief, he is hoisted with the stolen item and paraded through the village square where every person, in passing or on invitation, inflicts his/her own form of insult to the culprit.

For such deviant behaviours as immorality, infidelity of the wife (mind you, never of the husband), abortion, adultery, etc, it is usually made public by specialist minstrels who mock by mimicking such obscene conduct in socially reprehensible ways.

In the various okumkpo festival scenes in Afikpo, they move in a conscious, planned, exaggerated manner, saying unorthodox things; acting differently than they do, and lampooning miscreants and other deviants. That way, such culprits are thoroughly discredited and stigmatized to the extent that they may even leave the community for a long period of time. In some cases as in some northern Igboland, these are never said directly but insinuated in ways that stigmatize families and kindred. Such may compel a family or kindred to force or arrange safe passage of the culprit into exile.

Indeed, the potency of social stigma is such in Igbo world that families and kindred can pledge away any item, including precious land, to stave off the stigma, if possible.

Where there is any semblance of central authority, its job is made easier by this but such personages who are of elevated social ranks in the land also pass through the same beam of the searchlight of probity and are brought through the same trial if found wanting.

The fact of Igbo justice system being a leveler rides the belief that laws are derived from God (divine) and before God, all men are equal. As pointed out by Okafor, F .U., such belief formed the bases for consolidation of the diffuse system, which prevented an undertaking of such phenomenal structuring of the society for the benefit of some privileged persons. Perhaps, such supremacy of divine laws over man-made laws actually sustained long adherence to what is adjudged right for the benefit of long-held traditions.

In reality, attendant upon the fact of Igbo laws being effective instrument of social harmony, moral rectitude and political order, natural laws, some of which are considered divine injunctions, form the most potent foundation for well being as they further underline the elements of characteristics of man-made laws such as reasonableness, common good, sufficiency, legitimacy and harmony with traditions.

This foundation consolidates the security of the society where the rules arc made and known and where deviance is interpreted as a burden of family and kindred. And although the societal assembly (Oha Obodo), in the case of the whole community or ama/ogbe in the case of village wards) may represent a variegation of interests and competitive factors, the possibility of positions running counter to divine laws stands as checks or restraints to would-be dominators. This prevents the emergence of a one-sided pursuit or centrality of order of enactments, which can confer undue privileges and create avenues for the subversion of the society.

Indeed, Ndigbo see any form of pre-eminence in the village assembly as an unbridled outspokenness, which must be checked to prevent tyranny. According to Victor Uchendu, “they are jealous of their legislative authority and are not ready to surrender it to a small group of individuals.” To this effect, they consider the validity and security of their social environment on the strength of divine inspiration (not just the view of man) in the making of the laws, which informs the pattern of proclaiming a law with the ofo (signifying uprightness) depicting that every contribution and indeed the law, have been reached according to the custom of the land. It is like an oath to uphold the laws of the land and never to be a part of any form of subversion.

But whereas we can say that these sustained the primordial polities, what obtains at the moment is at best an admixture of the old values and new ways, most of which confuse the modern man and induce excuses for violation of the laws. Colonialism and indeed, post colonial African polities, appeared confused about what should constitute their social evolution and political order as in rising to the challenges of complex security questions negating modern mechanisms for restraining of the unbridled quest.

In the case of the modern Igbo societies, what with the multiplicity of chieftaincies, the negation of the age-old social order which effectively informed character and decency, has expectedly set the stage for an exercise of such looming communality affirmation I which checkmated unbridled individual assertiveness.

To worsen matters, the stage set by Lugard himself, as in appointing paramount chiefs just among the rich and influential without regard to community feeling or preference, seriously removed any form of credibility that would have been due some of such emerging chieftaincies. In some cases actually, Lugard just appointed such oppressive middle men either involved in the hateful slave dealing regime or the down-pricing of produces of which they (the middle men) reaped bountifully.

But if we excuse Lugard on grounds of ignorance, (and for the fact that his indirect rule system collapsed there in his face), the manner of appointing some of the chieftaincies by successive indigenous administrations seriously altered community prestige and stabilizing institutions. It has even been worsened by the failure of a majority of these chiefs to appreciate their own peculiar social environment. They rather sought an invention of the pomp and grandeur of the empire situations in Oyo, Sokoto, Kano, Benin and Borno, by initiating and indeed undertaking expensive ceremonies as a replication of age-old panoplies.

This done in total negation of the true age-old Igbo political and social scenario described by Isichei. “One of the things that struck the first western visitors to Igboland”, observed the historian, “was the extent to which democracy was truly practiced”. According to her, “an early visitor to a Niger Igbo town said that he felt he was in a free land, among a free people”. Elsewhere, another French visitor observed of the people that indeed true liberty existed in Igboland, although its name was not inscribed in any monument.

So, whereas it was true that the institutions of the old order sustained the socio-political order of that era, particularly with due respect to the belief system ordaining ceaseless morality and rectitude, the current regime of social order faces credibility question on account of rejection of such restraining elements of i the social environment which attenuated excessive assertiveness. In fact, it is in this area of excessive assertiveness, as pointed out by Emenne, that a vitiation of the fabric of social order was regrettably consummated.

But all is not lost. The chieftaincies have shown remarkable abilities in building welters of information network for government, such that security can be easily guaranteed with movements and peculiar conducts duly interpreted by the chieftains. This is even enhanced by the emergence of a new and wealthy chieftaincy class with backgrounds in academics, business, professions, law, medicine and the other callings, who are capable of situating their social environments to suit national security arrangements.

But in the event that it is finally appreciated that the various chieftaincies have imbibed what it would take to achieve social order, the deciding question now is on the extent the nation state can tolerate the national variety as to accommodate distinct polities in security of the societies. If that is done, and if it is pursued, bearing in mind that most of security issues rested on local factors the fabric of which is defined in locality context, the reversal of trends in deviant behaviours would have been reached and for which we declare, as usual, in Enugu State:

To God be the Glory.


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