Welcome to a Tin-Roofed Palace

Kings and sultans seek modern-day role in a nation headed toward democracy. NIGERIAN ROYALTY

HIS business card reads: ``With Royal Compliments.'' He lives in a palace - a modest one, but still a palace. He's a local king, one of many such royal leaders in Nigeria, a country whose military government promises democracy by 1992. Royalty has a place in Europe today; why not Africa?

``The people know the value of their traditional rulers,'' says Adegboye Akaiyejo, King, or Oba (his title in the local Yoruba language), of this centuries-old town in southwest Nigeria. ``They know politicians require votes and can tell them anything. The man who wears a crown does not tell a lie. He tells the truth at all times,'' regardless of the consequences.

Local elders, called ``kingmakers,'' nominate Obas from several ``royal'' families in the villages, towns, or cities of the Yoruba, one of Nigeria's main tribes. In Nigeria's Moslem north, a Sultan and Emirs are similarly nominated, then similarly appointed by the central government, which pays them a salary. Traditional leaders in other parts of Nigeria have other titles.

Nigerian royalty, which is a male bastion, dates back centuries. Before the British took control of Nigeria in the early 1900s, their word was law. Today, the laws leave them few powers.

While many Nigerians see them as a useful link between the people and government, especially as respected advisers to the central government, others, like journalist Abdul Oroh, from Nigeria's commercial capitol, Lagos, are bitterly opposed to them.

The whole institution of Nigerian royalty should, he says, ``be scrapped - put in the dustbin of history. It doesn't contribute to our social ... economic ... or political growth. It's no longer relevant to us as Nigerians. This system is in fact parasitic.''

Here in the center of a town with an open-air market and tiny shops of wood or mud, Adegboye Akaiyejo offers his visitors soft drinks in a large, carpeted room where an old clock ticks loudly on a wall. An overhead fan stirs the warm, humid air.

Sitting on a wooden throne used by his grandfather, who was also Oba here, he wears not a heavy crown, but a light cap, long robe, and loose-fitting slacks. Later he dons a more formal fez cap with yellow tassel, and takes his guests on a tour of the palace, with its rusting tin roofs, crumbling mud-walls, and 16 small courtyards. The palace was rebuilt after a fire in 1931.

``You will do me the honor of removing your shoes when we enter the living apartment of the Oba,'' he says. He explains that, except for himself and his immediate predecessor on the throne, previous Obas used the palace for themselves and their families. Today he lives in a modest, two-story house attached to the palace and equipped with a television, telephone, and air-conditioning.

The area of the palace he now shows his visitors was once occupied by women. In olden days, the Obas had many wives; they have fewer today, he says. His predecessor had eight wives, while he has ``about four,'' though he, too, would like to have eight, he says.

Pausing in one of the courtyards, he says human sacrifices used to take place there, up to the time of his great-grandfather.

What does the Oba of Ikere-Ekiti do these days? He and other royal leaders in Nigeria typically arbitrate a portion of civil disputes, such as land and marriage conflicts. If one of the parties in a dispute disagrees with a royal decision, he is free to take the issue to court. But court cases can drag out for years, while the Oba's decision comes quickly.

Parents also seek out his advice on education or jobs for their children. And royal leaders participate in many ceremonies.

But sometimes the issues are national. Last year, he and a delegation of other traditional leaders called on Ibrahim Babangida, the Nigerian military head of state, appealing to him to re-open a half dozen southern universities closed after student rioted against harsh economic conditions.

S.Olu Agbi is dean of the arts faculty at nearby Ondo State University. He has studied the role of traditional leaders in Nigeria.

``I'm not one of those who think the traditional leaders should be abolished,'' he says. In addition to their arbitration role in civil disputes, ``people see them as symbols of their ancestry, a linkage between the past and the present.''

But at the moment, Nigeria's royalty is ``in a situation of flux,'' he adds. They want a greater, and official, voice in the promised civilian government. They ``are clamoring for something comparable to the House of Lords in Britain. Nigeria's new constitution does not make provision for that.''

Yet the military government needs traditional leaders to help encourage mass participation in the two political parties the military set up late last year as part of the transition to civilian rule, says Professor Agbi. But the traditional leaders must not be seen as favoring one party or any candidates, or they will lose much influence, he says.

Far to the north, in Sokoto, the top traditional leader of Nigeria's millions of Moslems, Ibrahim Dasuki, the Sultan, says his office ``combines both temporal and spiritual responsibilities.'' He is the spiritual leader of the Moslems and, he says, assists the government at all levels in carrying out their functions.

The Sultan lives in a much larger city and palace than the Oba of Ikere-Ekiti. While visitors to the Oba greet him and are greeted in a relaxed air of informality, the stream of visitors to the Sultan of Sokoto kneel at his feet. As the Sultan walks slowly from his reception room to his private quarters, a retinue of palace employees and followers chant repeatedly: ``Long may you live. Long may you live.''

Nigerian journalist Oroh abhors such ritual. ``They, such traditional leaders, want people to worship them, to pay obeisance to them, to squat around them, to depend on them for their subsistence,'' he complains.

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