On their way to present themselves to the Emir at the annual Kano Durbar festival, these young aristocrats embody many of the contradictions of contemporary traditional authority in Nigeria. One of West-Africa’s largest celebrations of precolonial power, the Durbar ostensibly contains much that is ’traditional': district, village, and ward heads from all over Kano come to the Emir’s Palace on horseback, dressed in their customary garb and guarded by ’traditional’ soldiers, to greet the Emir and demonstrate their allegiance. And yet ironically, the festival itself is largely a colonial invention, intended to solidify the position of the ‘decentralised despots’ through whom they ruled their colonies.
Traditional rulers, from Igbo chiefs to Fulani Emirs, constitute one of the more intriguing aspects of Nigerian politics, seemingly anachronistic remnants of tradition in a deeply (post)modern, oil-driven political economy. But the ambiguity of their ‘traditional’ status makes them difficult to position and understand. Classically, Weber viewed traditional authority as legitimate domination based on "the sanctity of age-old rules and powers”, and traditional leaders as those who "are obeyed because of their traditional status”. If we allow for some constructivism, we may keep following Weber and define as ’traditional authorities’ all those elites who claim legitimate power on the basis of (real or imagined) ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ or ‘custom’.
Does this definition work for Nigeria’s traditional rulers? And might it help to explain the surprising resurgence of traditional authority in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, as a product of a postmodern yearning for culture and custom? Perhaps. In northern Nigeria, I have spoken to many people who feel that the Emirate authorities represent at least some aspects of their region’s culture, or what it means to belong: aspectsof (Sufi) Islam, of Hausa and/or Fulani customs, of a sense of ‘Northernness’.
Emirate leaders themselves also appear to count on this source of legitimacy by maintaining (pre)colonial aspects of their dress and ritualistic behaviour, and explicitly presenting themselves as ‘fathers’ of their community. But at the same time, they are acutely aware that their popularity is conditional on what they bring their people: as peace builders, social service providers, local administrators, and community representatives relatively untainted by the corruption of Nigerian politicking. Outwardly traditional, perhaps, but functionally on a tightrope between custom and the demands of modern politics.