Academic journal article Africa

Chieftaincy and the State in Abacha's Nigeria: Kingship, Political Rivalry and Competing Histories in Abeokuta during the 1990s

Academic journal article Africa

Chieftaincy and the State in Abacha's Nigeria: Kingship, Political Rivalry and Competing Histories in Abeokuta during the 1990s

Article excerpt


This article investigates the relationship between chieftaincy and the state in modern Nigeria. It focuses on politics and the mythical history of kings in the city of Abeokuta and argues that, particularly during the 1990s, the royal politics of the town drew heavily on different versions of mythical history. The reasons are twofold. They concern, first, the traditional political discourse of Yoruba kingship, in which a king's legitimacy can be discussed in terms of the attributes of the royal persona he embodies. In this context, legitimacy and status are often discussed as the first king's mythical origin. However, the continued political relevance and even volatility of this discourse in the 1990s related to the nature of the Nigerian state, in which traditional status is closely associated with political power.


In recent years, traditional and neo-traditional institutions have gained power and infuence in many African states. Several writers have associated this phenomenon with the administrative and political problems of many African states, arguing that the `traditional' realm expands or maintains its authority to the detriment of the `modern' state apparatus. Mamdani (1996) links the perceived dichotomy between the modern and the traditional with the urban-rural divide. He suggests that, while Africa's urban centres are part of an emerging civil society, rural power continues to be represented by the decentralised despotism of the local rulers whose legitimacy is entrenched by notions of community and culture.

In more general terms, Herbst (2000: 173-97) asserts that the traditional control over the allocation of land reflects the inability of African states to project power to the rural areas. Correspondingly, van Rouveroy (1999:21-47) maintains that traditional authority inevitably poses a challenge to the political and administrative process in Africa. Believing that the state is losing ground in the conflict with the traditional, von Trotha (1996: 91) even suggests that traditional authorities (1) are the ideal candidates to preside over the `political tribalisation' of the social order in Africa.

However, the increased role given to traditional authority even in successful or `strong' states like South Africa would suggest that the perceived dichotomy between traditional and state authority does not characterise all of Africa. Bayart (1993) argues that, in many African nations, the state bureaucracies do not exist in opposition to traditional authority, but as spaces for the assimilation, mediation and collaboration of elites. In this process, those whose social positions are legitimised by tradition try to establish or widen their access to the state, while the `modern' power holders attempt to utilise what is perceived as traditional legitimacy for their own ends. As Rathbone's (2000) and Vaughan's (2000) studies of traditional authority in Ghana and Nigeria respectively illustrate, this process is often conflictual. However, as revealed by Harneit-Sievers's (1998) analysis of modern forms of traditional authority among the Igbo of eastern Nigeria, the traditional represents not only an important political arena within state politics, but also one which is characterised by local interests, historical reinterpretations and cultural creativity.

In Nigeria successive military governments since 1983 have relied on traditional support for their own legitimacy. Many traditional rulers (2) exercise great influence on local politics in their domains, but rely on the state for stipends and business opportunities. Meanwhile, successful administrators and politicians have sought traditional status, usually through obtaining chieftaincy titles themselves. Through this, they become associated with certain localities and are often expected to champion local interests. Therefore the ties between traditional rulers, politicians and administrators reflect and create local political identities as well as constituting access to the political and administrative sphere. …

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