BY: Celestine Mel

A faithful friend in the diaspora who takes my opinions seriously, rang me up yesterday, to ask about the raging debate regarding the newly enacted Supreme Traditional Ruler’s Council Law in Akwa Ibom State. It was the first indication to me, that people took the mass hysteria generated by the topic, seriously. I must confess that I pay little attention to matters bordering on the traditional institution in south-east Nigeria. The reason for this is not far-fetched.

As a student of history, I learnt quite early that ‘monarchism’ was non-existent among our forebears until the advent of colonial rule. Rather, villages and hamlets were ruled by republican heads who were chosen from among the eldest. Ekpe and Ekpo were law enforcement institutions. No one person mustered the power to rule over and dominate other families, villages and clans. In contrast, the Hausas, Yoruba’s and Benis had monarchs whose offices were physical symbolism of political and religious authorities. Such monarchs earned their legitimacy and obeisance from their subjects who saw them as representatives of the divine sovereign. They represented ancestors and divinities. Their leadership roles were considered sacred and their authority to rule was preordained and could not be questioned. Their reaches went far and beyond. These institutions date back thousands of years and the holders of such offices are revered by all mortals to this day.

The above contrasts with the latter-day traditional governance institutions in our State, which were mostly created to assist the colonial masters, implement their indirect rule, a pitiable imitation of the success story from the west and the north of Nigeria. Post independence, ‘traditional institutions’ in our state have perpetually struggle to find relevance in a landscape of republicanism. At best, they are revered as the bridge between the past and the present. But because the God we worship forbids adoration to any traditional deity, we constantly see the battle between faith, the place of traditional rulers and the modernity of democracy, as if they are just symbols.

My friend forced me to inquire into the latest ethnic wrangling, by seeking and reading the new law. To my shock and amazement, I feel that some fifth columnists, decided to capitalize on the “hurt-no-one” disposition of Governor Umo Eno, to further a narrow interest and bring the government to disrepute through the new law.

It is true that the Akwa Ibom State Traditional Rulers Council was uncomfortable with the apparent lack of due recognition to members of the council at the national level, as a result of the absence of a first-class monarch among them. To address the situation, the council on its own accord, decided to elevate itself a notch higher. It came up with the idea of a Supreme Traditional Rulers’ Council with a President-General as the supremo, who would be revered like other first class monarchs like the Sultan of Sokoto, Emire of Gwandu, Oba of Benin, Obong of Calabar, etc. This agitation started in the days of Deacon Udom Emmanuel as Governor.

In the build up to the last general elections, Pastor Umo Eno met with the traditional rulers in council. They demanded that the TRC be elevated to a Supreme Council and the laws be amended to accommodate the office of President-General. They also nominated the Oku Ibom Ibibio to be the lifetime keeper of that title. Pastor Umo Eno, being the democrat that he unpretentiously is, accepted their demand and promised that he will give effect to the agitation as soon as he got into government.

When he assumed office, and in keeping with the promise, he liaised with the TRC and got a draft bill which he forwarded to the House of Assembly. The House, activated the process for enacting bills, by subjecting the draft to first and second reading. The House also committed the draft to a committee headed by Hon (Elder) Mfon Idung, an Annang son. The committee staged public hearings, which drew presentations from all and sundry, including the traditional rulers themselves.

During the public hearing, a broad spectrum of respondents faulted the part of the bill which attached the Oku Ibom Ibibio stool to the office of President-General of the Supreme TRC in perpetuity. Rather, it was made manifest and agreed that the office of President-General be kept by the Oku Ibom Ibibio in the first instance, and be rotated to the Annang ethic nationality upon the demise of the Oku Ibom, who would in turn relinquish the office to the Oron nation upon his own demise.

To finalize legislative action on the bill, the Chairman of the Committee made the following submission:
Section 48(1) and (2) “(1) The Vice President I and II shall be the highest-ranking Chiefs from the other two larger ethnic groups in the state other than that of the President-General of the Council. (2) The Tenure of the President-General shall be for life and on his demise, he shall be succeeded by the Vice President 1, while the Vice President 2 becomes the Vice President 1 in rotational system among the three major ethnic groups in the State”. The Chairman further prayed the House to accept the bill as recommended and pass into law. This is where things got interesting.

Information at the disposal of yours truly is that active and vocal members of the House, led by Honorable Otobong Bob, who is the Deputy House Leader and Chairman, Works Committee, from Nsit Ubium State Constituency, insisted that the Bill in its original and raw form, be passed without any of the amendments presented by the committee. The Speaker, put the bill to voice vote, and ruled (as usual) that the ayes have it, amid protestations by several members present who felt there was need for the amended clause to be inserted.

Originally, clause 47 which was passed into law, is worded as follows: “(1) The President General of the Council shall be the Oku Ibom Ibibio, representing the largest ethnic group in the State” (2) The President general Shall be the Supreme Head of the Council and shall superintend over the affairs of the council”. The amended clause 47 and 48, which the committee presented on plenary, which would have made the office of President-General rotatory upon the demise of the occupant, was discarded and defeated.

I understand the thinking within the opponents of the amendment. After all, the Emir of Kano is always Fulani, even though Kano is populated by different tribes, including the Hausa. Similarly, the Oba of Lagos is always Yoruba, even though Lagos is a melting pot of disparate ethnic groups. Ditto for Oba of Benin who must be a Benin man, even though Edo is a coagulation of several other ethnic nationalities. The same for the Etsu Nupe and the likes. However, the distinguishing feature between traditional rulers in other climes and that of Akwa Ibom is that ours are not passed down from one generation and family to another. There are no blue-blooded monarchs in our State. Everyone of them is an artificial creation for administrative convenience. None passes through a spiritual rite of passage. None represents the deity; the almighty. None is a product of conquest, jihad or warfare. Rather, ours evolved as time passed.

It is my considered opinion that our State is too sophisticated for this level of primordial sentimentalism. Before now, the traditional institution had little role to play in determining our destinies. Occupants of the offices merely luxuriated in their kingdoms and turned a blind eye to the goings-on around about them. If we must create a higher place for them, we need to do it in such a way as not to create unnecessary tension and bad blood among the ethnic groups. Thankfully, the government, through a press statement by the Commissioner for Information, Comrade Ini Ememobong, has indicated a willingness to revisit the vexing issue and correct perceived anomalies. That is the way to go. It is incumbent on the House of Assembly, to quickly reconsider the law and do the needful. As a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of Governor (Pastor) Umo Eno, I urge him to please take a step backwards, listen to reason and act in the overriding interest of the State.

I do not believe that Governor Umo Eno anticipated the firestorm that has erupted from his innocent attempt to satisfy the yearnings of our royal fathers. Chances are, if he knew, he won’t have gotten involved, in view of the plethora of issues that need his attention. But that is leadership in its crudest form. It throws you a curve ball when you least expected. He that I know, will rise to the occasion and get this ironed out.

This brings me to the quest of the otherwise docile opposition, to gain mileage from this little schism. A friend rang me up to complain that the “people at the center” will capitalize on the seeming crisis to route out the PDP in 2027. I laughed off the joke. Because I know that 2027 will be determined by the size, reach and impact of Gov. Umo Eno on the lives of ordinary folks out there, not the sentimentalism of the superiority between Ibibio and other ethnic groups. I am sure, because poverty has no tribal marks. Hunger knows no language. Infrastructure respects no rank or title. The people will vote more for their welfare, than for the innocuous abstractions of the elites, who meet to bicker over nothing, in order to hoodwink the masses to anger. By the time the ARISE agenda finds presence in every Ward, every clan and every hamlet, the temporary clout of the monarchial hoopla would fade into nothingness.

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