The people of pre-colonial Nigeria existed as individual tribes, headed by traditional rulers often seen as demigods whose commands reflected the gods’ wishes. Some, in fact, were believed to be gods, like Sango, while others were believed to have transcended. That being said, they held substantial power and control over their subjects and had a stronghold from which they brought about peace and orderliness.
When the British came, they adopted the indirect ruling system where these rulers served as arbitrators between the colonial government and the people. This change diminished the overall powers of the traditional rulers and even more so since federalism came into being. However, despite this change, Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, still has their culture going strong, and some of these kings have managed to retain power.
Nigeria might be a democratic nation, but theocracy and monarchy still greatly influence how certain people see things and how certain communities operate. Technically speaking, the most powerful rulers rank even above governors, as evidenced by newly elected governors going to collect the king’s blessings. These kings still wield influence in the country, even in politics, and they also command respect from a large number of the country’s population.
So, for those of you who are culturally oblivious and have come here seeking help, probably under the threat of disownment from your Olori ebi, here are some of the most powerful traditional rulers in Nigeria, in no particular order.
Top traditional rulers in Nigeria
The Oba of Lagos
You know a king is powerful when politicians still approach him for advice even when he has no political power.
Oba Rilwan Akiolu, a.k.a. the Eleko of Eko, is an essential factor in the operation of affairs in Nigeria’s number one metropolitan city. Since his ascension in 2003, the monarch has held the position of the traditional and sovereign figure in the city of Lagos, one of the largest cities in Africa.
Every Oba of Lagos claims to belong to the pedigree of Ashipa, one of the Oba of Benin’s war captains who was rewarded with the title of Oloriogun, the war leader, and received the city of Lagos to govern as a boon. Previous rulers used the titles of Ologun and Eleko before it was finally changed to Oba.
The Emir of Kano
The Kano Emirate, with the Emir at its helm, was formed in 1805 in the aftermath of the Fulani Jihad when the Sokoto Caliphate subjugated the previous Hausa Sultanate of Kano.
In 2019, the emirate was split into five by the Kano State Government, carving off the Emirates of Bichi, Karaye, Gaya, and Rano, in addition to the substantially reduced Kano Emirate.
Aminu Ado Bayero, from the Fulani Sullubawa clan, is the 15th Fulani Emir of Kano and ascended the throne on March 9, 2020, following the deposition of his nephew Muhammad Sanusi II by Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje on the grounds of alleged insubordination and disrespect to lawful instructions from the office of the Governor. Bayero is also the chancellor of the University of Calabar.
The title of Emir commands a wealth of respect from Muslims all over the country, and his voice holds a strong resonance in Nigeria. Hence the throne is often awarded to people with strong backgrounds, popular support, connection, exposure, and financial muscle.
The Ọọ̀ni of Ife
Ile-Ife, known as the root of the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, is a dynasty that goes back hundreds of years, and the seat of Ọọ̀ni is hugely influential both among Nigerians and foreigners, home and abroad. Ascension to the throne is often based on family lines, and the present Ooni may also choose his successor.
The current ruler is Ọọ̀ni Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja II, who was crowned on October 26, 2015, following the death of the late Oba Okunade Sijuwade on July 28, 2015. On June 12, 2016, the Ọọni was presented with the key of the City of Somerset, Franklin Township in New Jersey, United States, and honoured with the proclamation of the town of Franklin alongside his wife, Olori Wuraola Ogunwusi, the Yeyelua.
The Alaafin of Oyo
The position of Alaafin is one of the most powerful and influential monarchical titles to be attained in Yoruba and Nigeria as a whole, and the title itself means king or ruler in the Yoruba language. He also has other names like kabiyesi, meaning he who cannot be questioned, and iku baba yeye, meaning the king who can command death.
The Alaafin is the ceremonial ruler of all tribes in Oyo State in Nigeria. This position served as a tool in the British indirect ruling system, through which they colonised the Oyo Empire.
The most recent Alaafin of Oyo was Oba Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III. He ascended the throne in 1970, succeeding Alaafin Gbadegesin Ladigbolu II until his death on April 22, 2022.
The Oba of Benin
According to the tradition of the Benin people, there is a myth that a king is forbidden from seeing his first son. This is because, even at birth, the son is king; hence he must be taken away from the palace, for no two kings can rule one kingdom.
The kingdom of Benin is one of the oldest in Nigeria’s history. In fact, at some point, the Oba of Benin was seen as a god and not a mere mortal, which should tell you just how powerful he must have been. The Empire’s first Oba, Oranmiyan, created the title when it still had Ogiso as its name.
During this time, the Oba also held the position of the Head of State of the Benin Empire, and was the head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Kingdom. Nevertheless, the kingdom has withstood the test of time and survived into the present day, along with its throne.
The Oba, also called the Omo N’Oba, is the custodian of the Edo culture in the state. The present ruler is Eheneden Erediauwa, the Ewuare II, who ascended the throne on October 20, 2016, to become the 40th monarch to assume the title of Oba of Benin. According to him, he was the first crown prince to be close to his father.
The Oba of Benin sometimes dives into political issues, as he still possesses the power to make some decisions in that territory.
The Sultan of Sokoto
The position of the Sultan has always been held in high esteem, dating back to the colonial era in Nigeria. Also known as the Amir-ul-Momineen, the Sultan ruled from the caliph of Sokoto, which was known as Sarkisian Musulmi, and had indisputable power among the rulers in central Sudan. He was also in charge of the administration of Sokoto and exercised total control over the caliphate.
In addition to this, the Sultan is also the spiritual leader of Muslims in Nigeria, a position that also increases his power, and his word carries a lot of weight with the Fulani and Hausa people of Northern Nigeria.
The current Sultan is Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar IV, who succeeded his late brother Muhammadu Maccido who lost his life in the ADC Airline flight 53 flight. He is the 20th Sultan of Sokoto, and succession is based on family ties and social standing.
The Obi of Onitsha
Despite the dictum axiom Igbo enwe eze, which translates literally to Igbo has no king, the post of Obi of Onitsha is one recognized by both the state and federal governments. The succession to the throne is only for the male descendants of the state’s founder, Eze Chima, and his descendants are regarded as Umuezechima or children of Eze Chima.
Often called Igwe or sky and many more reverential names, the Obi is regarded as semi-divine and the embodiment of the spirit of the ancestral god.
Igwe Nnayelugo Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, the current Obi, is the traditional leader of Onitsha in Anambra State and is regarded as a representative of the Igbo people. He is associated with the conduct of essential aspects of Onitsha’s local affairs. His power sometimes covers a reasonable aspect of the whole Igbo ethnicity, but he retains absolute control within the locality of Onitsha in Anambra state.
The Olubadan of Ibadan
The throne of Olubadan, which is the royal title given to the king of Ibadan land, Oyo State, in Nigeria, is exclusive to two families, the Egbe Agba (civil) and the Balogun (military). Upon the death of a monarch, the kingmakers choose a new king from either of these families on a rotational basis.
The title means Lord of Ibadan, and the eleven chiefs that form the Olubadan-in-council are the traditional heads of the 11 local governments in the land. They also preside over customary courts and are responsible for deciding on communal disputes such as matrimonial, land, and boundary cases.
Oba Lekan Balogun is the current Olubadan of Ibadan. He replaced Oba Saliu Adetunji who ascended the throne in 2016 and died on January 2, 2022.
The Olu of Warri
The kingdom of Warri (Iwerre) is an integral part of the traditional state of Warri in Delta State, Nigeria, which was founded by a prince of Benin, according to the Bini and Itsekiri people. It has remained predominantly Christian since the ascension of the first Christian King Sebastian I ‘King Oba Atorongboye’ in 1570. The Olu of Warri also remains the head of the Itsekiri people.
Ogiame Atuwatse III, born Utieyinoritsetsola Emiko, and also known as Tsola Emiko, is the traditional King and paramount ruler of the Kingdom of Warri. He was crowned the 21st Olu of Warri on August 21, 2021, at Ode-Itsekiri, succeeding his uncle, Ogiame Ikenwoli I, who was the 20th Olu of Warri.
The Dein of Agbor
Benjamin Ikechukwu Kaegborekuzi, the current Dein of Agbor, entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1981 as the world’s youngest monarch when he ascended the throne at the age of two following the sudden death of his predecessor, his father. A regent was then appointed to take his place while he traveled abroad to complete his education.
Agbor is an Iboh town in Delta that was once affiliated with the Benin empire before its subjugation by the British. It was established by Omini, who hailed from Agueri in Delta state, and the king is also known as Eze or Obi.
So now you know, and you can be sure that you know, because oyinbo say, “He who does not know, and he does not know that he does not know, is a compound fool.” Dazzall.
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