“During the First Republic (1960-1966), the civilian administration in Kano was instituted by the leftists. The Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) won and ruled Kano State. The administration of the Second Republic (1979-1983) under the Peoples’ Redemption Party (PRP) was equally a leftist party. Both administrations criticised traditional institutions and attempted to subvert the powers of traditional rulers. However, the strong historical roots of traditional institutions in Kano generated stiff resistance from their subjects.”


Below is the unedited report from the book, The Role of Traditional Rulers in Conflict Prevention and Mediation in Nigeria By Roger Blench, Selbut Longtau, Umar Hassan and Martin Walsh, and prepared forthe UK Department for International Development (DfID), Nigeria on Saturday April 29, 2006.

Role of Traditional Rulers

Before the arrival of British rule in Nigeria, particularly in northern Nigeria, traditional rulers had full authority or power over their people and ruled in the interest of their subjects through their councillors, including district heads and village heads. Emirs functioned as both religious and administrative leaders; they were also responsible for judiciary matters in their domains and led their people to war. Despite possessing all of these powers, traditional rulers were not dictators, but typically consulted with their councillors and other officials. Nonetheless, traditional rulers in the precolonial period usually had the final say.

When the British captured northern Nigeria, they left most traditional rulers in place and allowed them to continue administering their subjects. The powers of traditional rulers were even reinforced in some respects during the colonial period, and they could veto any decision taken by the members of their councils. The judiciary and the Native Authority police and prisons were under the direct control of traditional rulers; and they had the full support of the colonial authorities in maintaining law and order. However, as increasing numbers of “western-educated” people became available, things started to change. Such people were appointed to the Emirate councils and had to consent to any decision taken before they were passed. The appointment of district heads was increasingly based on merit and local acceptability, even in areas where such appointments were reserved for hereditary candidates. Further changes followed independence. Emirs had to work with another constituted authority known as the council; a system referred to as ‘Emir and Council’ as opposed to the ‘Emir in Council’ of the colonial period. Rulers had to abide by the majority decision of their councils, though they still had control of most local government affairs. In each region a House of Chiefs was created and any decision taken by members of the regional House of Assembly had to be referred there for endorsement before it was passed as law. In 1967-68, the judiciary, prisons and Native Authority police were removed from the control of the Emirs and chiefs. This dramatic change completely removed more than half of their powers; it did not, however, significantly diminish their prestige in the eyes of their subjects. The 1976 Local Government laws removed traditional rulers completely from the functions of local government and they became only advisers.

Under the Nigerian Constitution, the functions of the councils are purely advisory and include but are not limited to the following:

(a) formulation of general proposals and advice to local government;

(b) provision of advice on religious matters;

(c) support for arts and culture;

(d) chieftaincy matters and control of traditional titles and offices;

(e) mobilisation of people for self-help projects;

(f) assistance in the collection of levies and local revenue;

(g) making representations to government on matters referred to council by government.

District heads were part of the precolonial state systems in northern Nigeria and their role was modified after Nigeria became a British colony in 1900. A district head is the most senior administrator and community leader in his area, responsible for the maintenance of law and order, and collection of taxes and other revenue. District heads are expected to initiate development at local level and to mobilise people to undertake communal works to this end. They are also charged with educating people on government policy. Heads derive their authority from the councils and local government, and are appointed, disciplined and paid by the former. Village heads work under the district heads and are expected to tour frequently and acquaint themselves with the feelings of the people. They must keep their councils and local government informed of local developments, submitting regular reports on a range of matters. District and village heads perform the role of traditional rulers in their respective communities, and command wide respect for this. The Emirate system is the only one of its kind in the country that is aimed, in true federal spirit, at uniting people, irrespective of ethnicity or religious belief. District heads, for example, are often appointed to districts different from their places of origin. At the council level, various interest groups from within the emirate meet periodically to discuss not only local issues but national issues as well. Traditional rulers act as advisers to all local government councils within their domain. Local government chairmen become ex-officio members of the councils; they have no vote but are free to take part in council debates and express their opinions.

Kano Emirate

The Emir of Kano is similarly trusted and highly respected by his subjects and indeed the whole nation. In times of civil disturbances, his help is usually sought by the government to calm frayed nerves. In Kano State, he is seen as the ‘father’ of all the residents. The court of Kano interprets government policies and conveys these to the grassroots through the traditional emirate channels of communication. The court also mobilises people to participate effectively in government programmes, and for this reason national and foreign dignitaries frequently visit the Emir to solicit his support for their various programmes. Religion-based protests, which often end up in riots, are not uncommon in Kano. Political and religious leaders often blame these on bands of hoodlums who operate under various names: ‘Yan Daba (invincibles who believe that their bodies are impregnable to metal), ‘Yan Daure (housebreakers or robbers), and ‘Yan Daukar Amarya (rapists). From time to time, the Emirate council fishes out members of these gangs and hands them over to the police for prosecution. Otherwise various religious and ethnic groups – Hausa, Fulani, Lebanese, Igbo, Yoruba, Edo, and others live peaceably side by side in Kano.

In the precolonial period, Kano Emirate was organised along feudal lines. The Emirate was divided into districts and each district was further split into villages. Each village was made up of wards. At the apex of the system was Sarkin Kano, the Emir, who was assisted by the Hakimai (district heads). Below the village heads were the ward heads who controlled the local peasants. These Emirate functionaries represented Sarkin Kano in their respective territories. They paid homage to the Emir in recognition of his supreme state powers. Tributary gifts were collected from farmers’ harvests and a portion of these retained by traditional rulers at different levels. Since the creation of Kano State in 1966, an Emirate council has been in place with the Emir as its chairman. The council advises government on religious, cultural and security matters. It also serves as an instrument for interpreting government policies and disseminating information from the state government to the grassroots. It also functions to promote Islam and by helping to maintain law and order within its territory.

The Emir holds courts daily to confer with dignitaries and interest groups, and to adjudicate minor civil cases. During fieldwork in Kano State, the representative of the Emir of Kano, some district, village and ward heads were interviewed. Leaders of ‘Yan Daba (magicians) and Sarkin Bambadawa (traditional musicians) were also interviewed and we participated in the 2006 Sallah Id-el Kabir celebrations. The present Emir of Kano, His Royal Highness Alh. (Dr.) Ado Bayero, is one of the most powerful leaders in northern Nigeria. When the then administration of Abubakar Rimi (governor of Kano State during the Second Republic, 1979-1983) tried to subvert the authority of the Emir, his subjects rose up against the government, and in the riot that ensued, the special adviser on politics to the Kano State government was killed.

During the First Republic (1960-1966), the civilian administration in Kano was instituted by the leftists. The Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) won and ruled Kano State. The administration of the Second Republic (1979-1983) under the Peoples’ Redemption Party (PRP) was equally a leftist party. Both administrations criticised traditional institutions and attempted to subvert the powers of traditional rulers. However, the strong historical roots of traditional institutions in Kano generated stiff resistance from their subjects. The legacy of this can be seen in the respect still accorded to traditional rulers and the paraphernalia and customs associated with them. The Sallah id-el-Kabir celebrations and homage paid to the Emir by district heads and other traditional titleholders demonstrate the strength, power and respect accorded to the traditional institution.

The long military rule in Nigeria contributed to strengthening the Emirate council in Kano. The military supported the council through the provision of expensive cars, buildings, and the furnishing of palaces in addition to financial support. Kano Emirate is home to both Tijjaniya and Qadiriyya sects, which are still headquartered in Kano. These Islamic sects are firm supporters of the traditional institutions and, in turn, enjoy the support of the Emir of Kano and his district heads. The Izala sect, which resists some of the practices associated with traditional rulers, has, however, faced strong resistance in Kano. The division of the old Kano State into the present Kano and Jigawa States has reduced the domain and powers of the Emir of Kano. He had previously ruled over the whole of Kano and most of Jigawa, except for parts of Kazaure which was in Daura Emirate.

There are now four Emirates and Emirs in Jigawa, but only one in Kano. As noted above, Kano State has experienced many ethno-religious conflicts, the latest being a reaction to the Christian/Muslim clashes in Plateau State. The Emirate made frantic efforts to stop the killing of Christians and the looting of the properties of Igbo traders and others. Several Christians and Igbos took shelter in the Emir’s palace. The Emir summoned all of the district heads and councillors in the Emirate council to ensure that the crisis did not spread to other parts of the State outside the city. Unlike the previous civilian regimes, the present Third Republic administration in Kano State has a high regard for the traditional institution and especially the Emir himself. The introduction of the Sharia legal system has facilitated the development of a close relationship between the government and the Emir: government had to seek the co-operation of traditional rulers in implementing Sharia. Another factor in this context was the support given by the strongest Islamic sects in Kano to the traditional rulers.

Murtadha Muhammad Gusau sent this from Okene, Kogi State, Nigeria. He can be reached via: gusaumurtada@gmail.com or +2348038289761.