Nigerian traditional rulers often derive their titles from the rulers of independent states or communities that existed before the formation of modern Nigeria. Although they do not have formal political power, in many cases they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence.
Though their bearers usually maintain the monarchical styles and titles of their sovereign ancestors, both their independent activities and their relations with the central and regional governments of Nigeria are closer in substance to those of the high nobility of old Europe than to those of actual reigning monarchs.
Modern Nigeria encompasses lands traditionally occupied by highly diverse ethnic groups with very different languages and traditions. In broad terms, the southeast was occupied mainly by Igbo, the Niger Delta by Edo and Igbo related people, the southwest by Yoruba and related people and the north by Hausa and Fulani people, with a complex intermingling of different ethnic groups in the Middle Belt between north and south. In total there were (and are) more than 200 distinct ethnic groups.
Before the arrival of the British in the late 19th century, the history of the area was turbulent, with periods when empires such as those of Oyo, Benin, Kanem-Bornu and Sokoto gained control over large areas, and other periods when the states were more fragmented. Although political structures differed widely between different ethnic groups, it was common for each town or collection of towns to have a recognized ruler, who might in turn be subordinate to the ruler of a larger polity. Thus the Sokoto caliphate was divided into emirates, with the emirs loosely subordinate to the Sultan of Sokoto, although at times acting as independent rulers.
Europeans had long traded with the coastal states, primarily exchanging cotton and other manufactured goods for slaves and palm oil products at centers such as Calabar, Bonny and Lagos. The Niger Coast Protectorate was established in 1891 holding a small area along the coast. During the period 1879-1900 the Royal Niger Company made a concerted effort to take control of the interior, using disciplined troops armed with the Maxim gun, and making treaties of "protection" with the local rulers. The company's territory was sold to the British government in 1900, with the southern region merged with the Niger Coast Protectorate to become the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate remaining separate. In 1914 the two were merged into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, with roughly the same boundaries as the modern state of Nigeria.
The first British High Commissioner for Northern Nigeria, Lord Frederick Lugard, tried to rule through the traditional rulers, and this approach was later extended to the south. Lugard's successor Hugh Clifford left this system in place in the north, where the emirate system had long traditions, but introduced a legislative council with some elected members in the south, relegating the traditional rulers to mainly symbolic roles. Over time, the relationship between the colonial administration and the traditional rulers evolved. For example, the Tiv people, at the time the fourth largest ethnic group in the country, had always been extremely decentralized and therefore had no paramount ruler. The British created the office of Tor Tiv in 1947, appointing Makere Dzakpe as the first holder of this title, in order to have a "traditional ruler" to speak for the Tiv people.
With independence in 1960, followed by alternating democratic and military governments, the status of the traditional rulers evolved even further. In the north, the emirs finally lost power to the government administration, though said administration was often staffed by traditional notables. Where rulers had previously acquired office strictly through inheritance or through appointment by a council of elders, the government now increasingly became involved in the succession. Thus, in May 1994, the military ruler General Sani Abacha deposed Awwal Ibrahim, Sarkin Suleja, although he was subsequently reinstated in January 2000.
In some cases, the government has merged or split traditional domains. For example, there had been two rulers of the Efik people in the area around Calabar, but in December 1970 it was agreed to combine the office into a single one that was to be held by a ruler known as the Obong. When Yobe State was created there were just four emirates, but in January 2000 the state governor Bukar Abba Ibrahim restructured the state into 13. The government has maintained colonial classifications. Thus when Kwara State governor Bukola Saraki appointed three new monarchs in August 2010, the new Emir of Kaiama was designated a first class traditional ruler while the Onigosun of Igosun and Alaran of Aran-Orin were designated third class monarchs.
Traditional rulers today are still highly respected in many communities, and have considerable political and economic influence.
Although they have no formal role in the democratic structure, there is intense competition for royal seats amongst the finite pool of eligible dynasts. The rulers can also award traditional or honorary titles within the Nigerian chieftaincy system. These titles come with ex officio positions in their "administrations", and wealthy businessmen and politicians often place great value in acquiring such titles.
The rulers play useful roles in mediating between the people and the state, enhancing national identity, resolving minor conflicts and providing an institutional safety-valve for often inadequate state bureaucracies. One reason for their influence may be that the people of many ethnic groups have limited ability to communicate in the official English language, so the traditional ruler serves as an interpreter and spokesperson. By June 2010, Akwa Ibom State had 116 traditional rulers with official certificates from the state. They had received new cars on their appointment, among other perks. The chairman of the Akwa Ibom council of Chiefs said that in return, the traditional fathers were responsible for preventing robberies and kidnappings in their domains.
As there are 521 different languages native to Nigeria, there are many titles for traditional rulers.
In the Middle Belt of Nigeria, different titles are held. An example is the Aku Uka of the Kwararafa kingdom, traditional ruler of the Jukun, whose seat is in Wukari, Taraba state. Agwam is used among the Atyap peoples, Kpop among the Ham; Agwom among the Adara, Afizere, Bakulu and Gbong Gwom by the Berom in southern Kaduna State and Plateau State. Tor is used by the Tiv and Oche by the Idoma of Benue State. Long and Ngolong are used by the Goemai and Ngas, respectively, and Ponzhi is used by the Tarok, all of Plateau State. Ohinoyi and Ohimegye is used by the Ebira in Kogi and Nasarawa States. Ere is used by the Koro Wachi; Are by the Eggon, Etum and Tum are used by the Numana, Ninzam, Nikyob-Nindem; Chun by the Mada all of southern Kaduna and Nasarawa States. Attah or Onu is used by the Igala of Kogi State.
Oba is the title of the Benin Kingdom's paramount ruler in Edo State. Enogie (plural enigie) and Okao (plural ikao) are ascribed to his dukes and viceroys within the Benin Kingdom, while Odionwere is ascribed to his governors or senior elders. In practice, enigie are not installed in communities with ikao, as they are both traditional rulers and representatives of the Oba, charged with the administration of their respective communities.
Oba is also used by the Yoruba peoples to refer to their various rulers, though other titles such as Ooni, Alake, Alaafin, Awujale, Olomu, Akarigbo, Orangun, Olu'wo, Eleko, Olumushin and Eburu are also used, specific to the people and/or place ruled.
Oduduwa, Ooni of Ife
Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai El-Kanemi, Shehu of Borno
Umar, Shehu of Borno
Chukwuemeka Eri, Eze of Aguleri
Eyamba IX, Obong of Duke Town
William Koko, Amanyanaboh of Nembe in his war canoe (seated under the umbrella)
Ovonramwen, Oba of Benin and his wives Queen Egbe (on the left) and Queen Aighobahi (on the right)