Rethinking the role of the traditional institution in African development: Iyah-Gbede community in Kogi State, Nigeria as a case study

                          Recent studies on Africa have shown that traditional institutions and their representatives such as Chiefs, Obas, Emirs, and influential tribal men are powerful forces in sub-Sahara Africa. Its also important to note that before colonization, societies in Africa had evolved various systems of political administration based on the peculiarity of these ethnic nationalities. This article is about the role of the traditional institution in Africa, thus special Len focus is placed on the mechanism through which traditional institutions foster peace and development in their various domains.

It’s important to note that every human society is geared towards development, either socially, economically, or politically. It will also show the relevance of traditional institutions to modern African society, especially in this period of our democracy, and equally, stress how traditional institutions can effectively use their position to bring about socio-economic development.

The first part gives a brief introduction to the traditional institution in Nigeria, the changing nature of the traditional institution is outlined in the second part, the third part talks about traditional institutions and development, and the fourth part examines the impact and role of the traditional institution to the development of Iyah-Gbede community in Kogi State, Nigeria and the last part look at the conclusion and recommendation on how to incorporate the traditional institution in the local government system in Nigeria.

           Traditional institutions in Africa (Nigeria)

Africa is regarded as the cradle of civilization and home to the first men who live in caves and survived by gathering fruits and hunting in groups. With times, these hunting groups evolved into more complex organizations that required settling down at a location and having a code of conduct to regulate and protect the interests of members of the group. Boom, the traditional institutions as we now called them today were born.

Before the arrival of the British overlord in the late 19th century, the history of the Nigeria areas was a turbulent one with periods when empires and kingdoms such as the Oyo empire, Benin Empire, Kanam-Borno empire, and Sokoto caliphate gained control over large areas and other periods when states were more fragmented. It is important to know that political structures differed widely between ethnic groups, it was common for each town or collection of towns to have a recognized ruler, who might, in turn, be subordinate to the ruler of a larger entity, e.g., the Sokoto caliphate was divided into emirates, with the emirs loosely subordinate to the Sultan of Sokoto, although at times acting as independent rulers.

Modern Nigeria encompasses land traditionally occupied by highly diverse ethnic groups with different languages, customs, and traditions. In broad terms, the southeast was occupied by Ibos, the Niger-delta by Edo and Ibo-related people, the southwest by the Yorubas and related people, and the north by Hausa and Fulani people, with a complex intermingling of different ethnic groups in the Middlebelt. In total there are more than 200 distinct ethnic groups in Nigeria. Each distinct ethnic group had its customs, traditions, and institutions through which they govern itself. 

Nigerian traditional rulers often derive their titles from the rulers of independent states or communities that existed before the formation of modern Nigeria. Even though in a now independent Nigeria, they did not have formal political power, in many cases, they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence to shape the outcome of events in their domain.

                       Changing nature of the traditional institutions in Africa (Nigeria)

The colonial administration of the pre-independence period in Nigeria relied on the traditional institution to govern the people, native authority was set up by the British colonial officers. From that period on, traditional authorities have found themselves playing a complimentary leadership role in their various domain; however, their relevance in contemporary Nigerian society appears to be diminishing with the result that various tiers of government appear to involve them in the governance process only when it suits their purpose.

With independence in 1960, followed by alternating democratic and military governments, the status of the traditional ruler evolved even further as the traditional rulers lost their power to the government. In the 1990s several governments in Africa adopted policies to introduce democratic decentralization, at the same time; the government also understood the value of recognizing traditional institutions. Scholarly debates thus emerged as many saw traditional institutions as insurmountable obstacles to democratic decentralization. Could one have both institutions in the same society? Several case studies were conducted to answer this question. Some of these studies concluded by saying that traditional institutions would help to bring legitimacy to the local government systems. Others warned that as traditional institutions were not downwardly accountable, one should avoid a situation where they get too much power.

Traditional institutions play some essential and fundamental role in governance in Nigeria, it is a pity that their role is not acknowledged in the Nigerian constitution of 1999 and its various amendments. Even without having a formal role in the constitution, traditional rulers today are still highly respected in many communities and have considerable political and economic influences. Although they have no formal role in the democratic structure, there is intense competition for royal seats among the finite pool of eligible dynasties. For example, after the death of Oba Adeyemi Lamidi at 11, about 60 princes were jostling to occupy the vacant throne of the Alaafin (king) of Oyo in Oyo State, Nigeria.

The king (Oba, Emir, and Obi) as the head of the traditional institution in their various domain also enjoyed a significant place in governance, especially at the grassroots level. As the custodian of the people’s culture and traditions, they also served as the mouthpiece and representative of their people in an official capacity. They also engaged in the settlement of intra and inter-communal disputes, sort of like a father figure to all like, both indigenes and non-indigenes. 

                       Traditional institution and Development

According to William F.s in his research paper titled “traditional rulers and development”, five modern functions of traditional rulers are identified as contributing to development administrations: one, serving as a link between grassroots and seat of power; two, the extension of national identity through the conferral of traditional titles; three, resolving low-level conflict and serve as judicial gate-keeping; four, ombudsman ship and five, act as institutional safety-valve for overloaded and sub apportioned bureaucracies.

Several studies have affirmed the resiliency, legitimacy, and relevance of African traditional institutions in the socio-cultural, economic, and political lives of Africans, particularly in the rural areas. In Nigeria today, constitutionally established authorities exercise the power of government alongside traditional institutions. However, almost invariably the same functions, whether or not formally defined in the same terms or carry out in the same, are also performed by traditional institutions and their leaders.

Times without number, traditional rulers and their advisors help in the effective mobilization of the community towards the various government political, social, health, educational, agricultural, or any economic programs as may be initiated by the government from time to time. Iyah-Gbede, a small community in the Ijumu local government area of Kogi State, Nigeria has achieved and recorded giant development, which was facilitated by its traditional institutions. The decision to migrate from the old Iyah-Loke to their present site in Iyah-Lodo was conceived and carryout by the late King Jeminiwa and his council of chiefs. Because of that decision, the community now has various modern amenities as compared to the past.

Below are the following ways through which traditional institutions can play important role in the development of their society.

  1. Mediation in conflict: one of the major roles played by traditional rulers is mediating in times of conflict. They mediate in a conflict involving individuals and groups in the communities and even between their community and other communities. By doing so, traditional rulers are seen to be working with the local government to enhance the peace and security in their domain.
  2. Custodians of culture and traditions: traditional rulers are regarded as the custodian of their people’s culture, arts, and traditions. They also control traditional titles, offices, and rituals. It is their duty to inform the local government where there are modifications in their cultural practices. They also inform the local government of major cultural events and possible participation in such events.
  3. Communication channels: traditional heads are the channel of communication between the people and the local government. It is the duty of the traditional rulers to communicate government policies and programs to the people in a manner they will understand and encourage them to actively participate in the programs. They are also the channel through which the people express their grievances to the government. 
  4. Mobilization of community resources for government or community-initiated development: traditional institutions assist the government in sensitizing and mobilizing the support and resources of the people of their communities towards government-initiated programs and projects or even the ones initiated by the community themselves. Such mobilization is specifically in terms of engaging local resources, leadership potential, and entrepreneurial abilities for effective and efficient implementation of development programs.


The impact and role of traditional institutions in the development of the Iyah-Gbede community in Kogi state, Nigeria from 1976-to 2019.

Iyah-Gbede is a town located off km20 of the Kabba-Ilorin federal high-way and along the 

Ayegunle -Abuja axis, is in Ijumu local government of Kogi state, northcentral Nigeria. It is 300 kilometers away from Abuja, the nation’s capital. The Oba is the political, administrative, and traditional head of Iyah-Gbede. He presides over the council meeting of chiefs (King-in-council), generally held every Friday of the week, any other important meeting of the community in his absence, Gbakeji Oba (King deputy) would preside.


The Iyah-Gbede traditional institution can be described as a crossbred between the Yoruba traditional institution and the Ibo traditional system but identifies more substantially with the former. The points of convergence between the Iyah-Gbede system and the Yoruba system include the democratic and republican nature of the two institutions, in which kingships and other traditional titles and positions are attained through contested elective principles. Other areas of convergence are embedded separation of powers and most especially the principles of checks and balances, the tripartite separation of the three arms of government is well-recognized. Although, the supreme ruler wielded tremendous powers which allowed him to perform as the last resort.

Below are the areas in which the traditional institutions have played a great role in influencing and contributing to the development of the Iyah-Gbede community.

  1. The social and cultural impact of the traditional institution

Traditional institutions are the symbols of indigenous people’s rights, privileges, laws, customs, and traditions. Iyah-Gbede is not an exception, as the king, community development association, and ordinary citizens have all contributed in multiple ways to the social and cultural development of the community. As the custodian of the people’s culture and traditions, the king-in-council has been able to be at the forefront of development in the community.

One of the notable achievements of the traditional institution was the creation of the Iyah-Gbede patriotic society (IPS) in November 1955. The aims and objective of the association were to create a body to coordinate the cultural, economic, educational, and social development efforts of Iyah-Gbede and to create a traditional platform through which to correct any injustice done to the Iyah-Gbede community. Other objectives were to develop the spirit of oneness among citizens of Iyah-Gbede, guard and raise the social integrity of Iyah-Gbede, and join hands together to collectively develop their community.

  1. The educational impact of the traditional institution

Education, according to the encyclopedia is essentially a process by which the material, mental, moral, and cultural inheritance of a society is transmitted from one generation to another. Education is the sole foundation of mental development and progress. And in no small way, the traditional institutions which comprise the king and his chiefs, the Iyah-Gbede patriotic society, and the people themselves play a major role in the educational development of the community.

The road to acquiring education for Iyah-sons and daughters- has not been a smooth one at all. The journey started around 1938 with bright hopes for the future when a primary school was established by the church missionary society (CMS). But these hopes were dashed when the school was closed in 1940. Education in the Iyah-Gbede community between 1940 and 1948 was blank until a new primary school was started in 1948. The king-in-council and the Iyah-Gbede patriotic society were the main driving force behind the building of a new educational facility in the community. 

  1. Iyah-Gbede development projects

A lot of development has been executed in Iyah-Gbede by the traditional institution with little help and intervention from the state government. At times, most of these projects were self-financed by the contribution of community members or through the annual fund-raising day organized by the Iyah-Gbede patriotic society. The Iyah-Gbede patriotic society has been the prime mover of all the projects so far undertaken in the Iyah-Gbede community. This writer examined the pamphlets of the annual conference of 5th and 6th October 1973 and the report of the national executive committee of 1975, it should that the following development projects were planned or embarked upon:

  • Postal agency (approval has already been obtained)
  • The main market building (partially executed)
  • Electricity project
  • Road development (construction of access and link roads within the community)
  1. Iyah-Gbede Health Center

The idea of building a health center in Iyah-Gbede dates back to 1971 when the first fundraising for development was organized at Iyah-Gbede’s old site. Apart from the school project, the health center was the first self-financed project to be embarked upon by the community, notably the women were at the forefront of the project.

At a meeting of the national executive committee of Iyah-Gbede patriotic society held on the 5th and 6th October 1975, the decision was to commence work on building the health center and provide essential facilities before the official commissioning and to be able to attract government assistance. Through the support of the Oba-in-council and the Iyah-Gbede patriotic society members’ contributions, there is now a fully functioning medical facility in the community. This medical facility has contributed greatly to the improvement of the health of the people of Iyah-Gbede, and people in neighboring towns and villages.

These are just a few examples of how the traditional institutions have been able to contribute to the socio-economic development of Iyah-Gbede. Other areas include the building of market place, commissioning of electricity projects, provision of access and link roads in and out of the community, self-financing of the Iyah-Gbede community townhall, and the dedication of a large area of land for a cemetery/burial ground.


           Africa has come of age: like the late Nigeria head of state general Muritala Muhammed said, we need to start looking inward and using our African values to be at the forefront of Africa’s development. perhaps, the traditional institution is a good place to start.

This article is focused on the role of traditional institutions in the development of Africa “using the Iyah-Gbede community in Kogi State, Nigeria” as an example of what can be done; when traditional institutions are empowered to be involved in the development process. The local government system needs institutional and administrative reforms that will catalyze traditional institutions into the core administration of local government. Harmonization of administrative tendencies of the traditional institutions and the modern local system will bring more development to the grassroots.



Mitchell Goist & Florian G.K: Traditional institutions and social cooperation-experimental evidence from the Buganda kingdom.

William F.S Millies: Traditional rulers and development administration; chieftaincy in Nigeria and Vanuatu.

Wikipedia: Nigeria’s traditional rulers

The role of traditional rulers in local government administration.

Relevance of traditional institutions in African development. Economic Commission for Africa 2020 report.

Author: Ibitomi Ibiwumi Otunola

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