Assessment of Traditional Institutions and Socio Economic Development of Benin City

Nigerian Traditional Institutions and Social Economic Development

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2011

77 Pages



The term paper examined traditional institutions and socio-economic development in Benin City. The paper also examined in details the customary laws and their applications particularly in ensuring fairness, justice, peace and maintenance of order.

Both primary and secondary sources of data were utilized for the study. The primary data were questionnaires and personal interview. The secondary data were sourced from textbooks, internet sources,journals,articles,etc.The term paper revealed the institutional arrangements that are creations of the city itself. It was discovered that people had great organizing capabilities and propensities to administer and govern the affairs of the city.

The paper also discovered that the city through its traditional, political, and administrative institutions such as the oba,the chief, the trade unions and professional guilds, compound heads and town unions were to complement the efforts of the then colonial masters and are still performing the same function in the present day government particularly in the provision of basic social service and infrastructure and in the maintenance of law and order.It was also noted that the introduction of indirect rule by the white colonial masters had a debilitating effect on the administration and governance of the people who already had a truly democratic arrangement in place.

The study concluded that traditional institutions have made significant impact on the governance and administration of Benin City.



Traditional institutions have been in existence before the advent of the colonial masters

because of evolution of different types of administration in the governance and administration of traditional communities in general that brought about the classification of the old system as being traditional while the latter introduced system is known as modern institutions. There is a line of demarcation between the traditional institutions and modern institutions. The emergence of modern institutions in the administration and development of communities has raised the question of the relevance of traditional institutions. Their continuous existence is even being questioned as well as the role they are performing.

Prior to the advent of colonial rule, the administration of the communities of what became named as Nigeria were under the traditional institutions. These traditional institutions are many and Benin traditional system, though bearing striking semblance to Yoruba traditional system, was unique in many respects. Therefore, traditional institutions during the pre-colonial Nigeria were many and diverse in composition but the most prominent of all is the kingship institution. It is at the apex and it is the one that other traditional institutions are subjected to. Notable among these diverse traditional institutions are the Yoruba traditional system, Hausa pre-colonial traditional system, and the Ibo Traditional system.

The Benin traditional system has been described as a hybrid between the Yoruba Traditional institution and the Ibo traditional system, but identifying more substantially to the former. The points of convergence between the Benin system and the Yoruba system include the democratic and republican nature of the two institutions, in which Kingship and traditional title acquisition are attained through contested elective principle. Other areas of convergence are the embedded separation of powers and, most especially the principle of checks and balances akin to what obtains in modern systems. In the two system, the tripartite demarcation of the three arms of government are well recognized and most often than not performed by different arms of government. Although, the paramount ruler wielded tremendous powers, which allowed him to operate as the last resorts in most of the powers, nevertheless, the roles of the three arms of government are separated. The principle of checks and balances operates distinctly in the two system in such a way that each arm of government constitutes a necessary check on the other arms, and vice-versa. For instance, a traditional rite of passage may be performed on an erring paramount ruler if his rulership became unpopular and autocratic to bear by the citizens. The only notable area of convergence between Benin and Ibo traditional system is in the Age-grade system. It is important to state that the Benin traditional system differed substantially from the a cephalous Ibo pre-colonial traditional institutions in which the latter is notable.

Thus, the only known administration of communities during the pre-colonial era was the traditional institutions. However, with the advent of colonization, the traditional institutions were relegated to serving the colonial powers. Even though the people were still administered through the traditional institutions from the principle of ‘indirect rule’ the real power was in the hands of the colonial agents. Upon independence, the modern political powers and administration of communities were handed over to civilian personnel, with little or no recognition of the traditional institutions. However, subsequent manifestations in the general political system of the country underscored the need to involve the traditional institutions in governance. This study therefore delved substantially in the level of performance of the Benin traditional system in the socio economic development of the Benin community.

This particular work is designed to examine the duty or the part being played by traditional institutions which by virtue of their being handed down from generation to generation might not be dynamic and revolutionary, in the growth of Benin combining some local government area in Edo State. Development is essential in the life of every community and it behooves every institution to contribute to it in order to safeguard its continuous existence, however it will critically be analyzed whether traditional institutions are still relevant in contributing to the growth of the community or not.

It is therefore hoped that this particular work will bring out few enviable roles of traditional institutions in the socio economic development of Benin City, highlight the neglected area and suggest other useful ways and methods by which traditional institutions can contribute more meaningfully and their relevance to traditional societies.

1.2 Statement of the Research Problem

With the advent of modern governance system handed down from colonialism and subsequently liberal democracies in Nigeria, the traditional institutions have been undermined in many respects. Notable among these are in the areas of the roles hitherto performed by these institutions and the recognitions accorded the stools. In the modern traditional system, the roles of the traditional institutions have been greatly reduced to traditional rites performance while the constitutions have not allotted any distinct governance recognition to them. The 1999 Constitution passably recognized the existence of traditional institutions but failed to state specifically its exact position in the scheme of governance.

However, the traditional institutions have remained a dominant part of Nigeria’s communities and recognised by the people for homage and reverence. Gradually, the institutions have become handy to modern governments as possible medium of settlement minor disputes and also in the area of socio-economic and political development of the Nigerian communities. In Benin, the existing traditional system, which has been in existence before the colonization of Nigeria, is one institution that has performed a lot of roles in this respect. The onus of this work is to therefore examine the level of involvement of this traditional institution in the socio-economic development of the current level of development of Benin-City.

1.3 Objectives of the study

The objectives of this work are to

i. examine the roles of traditional institutions in Benin as a community;
ii. assess the impact of these institutions in the development of Benin town; and
iii. examine their relevance in this period and identify values and inherent advantages of traditional institutions.

1.4 Research Questions

The research questions stipulated for this study are:

1. What are Traditional or indigenous institutions?
2. What sis the relevance of socio-economic and political development of a city?
3. How do traditional authorities administer their communities prior to and after colonial rule?
4. Does the advent of colonization affect administration in Benin City?

1.5 Scope of study

The study is centered on Traditional Institutions and Socio-Economic development in Benin City with specific reference to the historical and geographical settings of Benin City and special considerations for the origin of Benin, the religion of the people, the occupation and industries of the people and various places of interest in the city.

The study covers Benin town, which is a Bini Community that consist of Oredo local government whose headquarter is in Benin City and part of Egor local Government whose headquarter is in Uselu. It is an ideal place with first class traditional rulers and it has the history of development to which the contribution of traditional institutions cannot be undermined.

The study covers the period before the advent of colonialism through the era of indirect rule to post colonial time with special emphasis on the contributions of traditional institutions and socio economic development of Benin City

1.6 Significance of the study

This study is a precious addition to the existing knowledge that was acquired in the previous research conducted on traditional institutions and socio economic development among the Benin people. It will enable scholars of this topic to made comparison in their governance and administrative system. This is germane because without studying political, Economic and socio cultural history of other communities, an adequate comparative analysis will be difficult to make.

The study explored the relevance of the king (Oba), the council of Chiefs (Ekhaemwen), The Nobles (Uzama N’Ihinron), Provincial rulers (Enogie or Ogie-isi) and their roles as the executive and legislative arms of governance in the Benin traditional council. The study also considered the relevance of tradition as they affect trade association, professional guilds, marriage and the institution of the present day administration.

Finally, it was also revealed that traditional institutions play a vital role in the socio economic development of a community as it serve as checks to the society their by making their operations and performance worthy of being examined.

Operational Definition of Key Concepts in the Study

The nature of this essay demands the operational definitions and explanations of the following terms and not the history of their definitions,

1. Traditional or Indigenous Institutions.
2. Development.

Traditional or Indigenous Institutions:

In this particular work, these are limited to organizations and offices that evolved or that were created and were nurtured by the people of the community before the advent of colonialism. They are long-established practice that does not derive their existence from the formal constitutions of the state. Instead, they have their origin in African natural history, tradition, culture and technology. These institutions are grouped into social organisation, political or administrative institution, age grade association, trade and professional guilds, village unions, community development associations, women groups and religious organisation.

The legacies of the colonial period's indirect rule in the South-Western part of Nigeria, formal institutions which are organisation and offices that have their origin or are derived directly from the modern state or the formal constitutions of the state are likely to get mentioning and also distinctions may He made between them and the traditional institutions.


The term 'Development is opera to a multitude of theoretical interpretations and empirical operationalizations by different scholars. In other words , "Development' as a concept is well known in policy and scholarly circles. Yet its popularity also explains the fact that the concept has become highly controversial, subjective and normative.

An important international report on the state of World Development issued of late underscored this fact when it noted that:

Development never will be, and never can be defined to universal satisfaction. It refers, broadly speaking, to desirable social and economic progress and people will always have different views about what is desirable. (World Development Reports, 2008)

Various scholars have taken development to precisely mean change, advancement, improvement and progress. In its ethnocentric sense, some scholars regard it as modernization westernization. Opinion among development scholars, policy makers and multilateral agencies, agreed that the caveat here is not to attempt determine which condition is ultimate rather in the final analysis, both the material and psychological conditions are necessary ingredients for development. Any attempt to put one factor as ultimate would not only distort our understanding of development but frustrate it. The point simply is that both conditions are mutually reinforcing. However, Oni and Bello (2007) have argued that for the concept to be properly understood, it must be pinned down to specific spheres of life.

Social Development

Social development refers to qualitative improvement in the people’s living conditions. In particular, it emphasizes the reduction of absolute and relative poverty both through social transfers and improved economic conditions arising from economic growth.

Economic Development

Economic Development has been popularly looked at from a quantitative point of view. Some people regard it as an increase in total goods and services produced by the people of a nation over a specific period of time. Others say it is increase or qualitative improvement in the factors of production, leading to increase in quantity and quality of goods and services produced over a given period of time. To Marxist scholars, economic development is improvement in the quality of factors and equitable distribution of surplus values obtained from production. Surplus values here mean earnings from factors of production such as rent on land, wages for labour, interest on capital and profit to entrepreneurship. They argue that for equitable distribution of surplus value to take place, the state or government must control all factors of production. Therefore, for purpose of this essay, economic development shall means:

'Qualitative and quantitative change in factors of production leading to increase in quality and quantity of goods and services produced by a society and increase in the quality of such goods and services that every individual is opportune to possess*.



This chapter review extant with a view to identifying the contributions of several scholars in the area of study who have contributed to governance scholarship on the one hand, and expectedly indigenous institutions on the other hand. Consequently, the gap in knowledge is identified.

2.1 Traditional Institutions in Benin: The Pre-colonial Era.

Before the advent of white colonial masters, there was maintenance of law and order in Benin land through the help of indigenous institutions. Apart from playing vital role as checks and balances to the general administration and governance of the people, these indigenous institutions also addressed the problem of enculturation to ensure the stability and continuity of the Benin communities in an intergenerational cycle of life. These indigenous institutions include the family, marriage, religion, secret societies, and guilds and so on.

Malinowski asserted that an institution could not be said to be functional except it fulfils some basic needs of its members and that social solidarity is the end product of such social institutions that can be regarded as functional. Malinowski, B. (1948) in his book, "The Magic, Science and Religion and other Essays" made it clear that indigenous institutions serve some peculiar functions in the society.

The functions served are social integration, cohesion, social solidarity and unity among the people in a society.

Before colonization, the people were administered under the umbrella of large political organizations such as the Fulani Emirate in the North, the kingdoms or empires in the Yoruba land and Benin, village system in Igbo land and the extended family system in the East of the Niger. Indigenous institutions in all these places mentioned governed and administered through the operation of customary laws.

Fortes and Evan Pritchard who did extensive scholarly work on contemporary African political institutions classified these institutions into two main groups: chiefly and chief less society. Chiefly societies are those with centralized authority, well-defined administrative machinery and established judicial institution while chief less societies are those in which authority is dispersed through a number of counter-balancing segments instead of being concentrated in a single central authority.

The Benin society belongs to the chiefly societies. The traditional Benin political institutions were arranged hierarchically with the Oba (king) at the apex. "Before the coming of the British colonial administration, the town Benin (ubini) was the key political unit upon which government rested in all Benin kingdoms". Atanda (1980). Every town, village or hamlet was under a responsible leader called King (Oba). This arrangement allowed the functioning of the central administration which gave room to independent governments in each kingdom. The central government of the kingdom was based at the capital while those of the subordinate towns and villages served as local government units.

What the hierarchical nature of government signified was that the Oba cannot rule alone but must govern only with the assistance and support of his Council of Chiefs (Ekhaemwen). The Oyo example sufficed here where the Alaafin was assisted by a Council - the Oyomesi consisting of between six or seven chiefs with the Bashorun as Chairman. The Oba could not be autocratic because the principle of checks and balances was strictly adhered to in various kingdoms and empires so as to curb the excesses of traditional rulers. According to Aromolaran (1977), "... any tyrannical Oba was quickly brought to book by well-established indigenous methods of direct or indirect control". For example, senior chiefs could tell the Oba the desire of the people. They could depose him or ask him to go into voluntary exile or even insist on his committing suicide. Therefore, any Oba who treated the advice of his chiefs with levity did so at his own risk or peril. Using Oyo as a case study, the council, through their Chairman, the Bashorun, could proclaim the rejection of the Alaafin and could even advice him to commit suicide by presenting to him an empty calabash. However, it was observed that the Council of Chiefs alone could not depose the Oba without the tacit consent and approval of the secret cult called the Ogboni. Buttressing this point further, Abiola (1974) pointed out that, "even though the empty calabash was presented to the Oba by the council of chiefs, it was also liable to the approval of the Ogboni before the Oba could be asked to commit suicide". From the above, one can rightly conclude that the traditional political institutions imbibed some democratic principles where certain decisions are meant for ratification by some other higher authorities.

In the judicial realm, the Oba, assisted by the Council of Chiefs, administered justice. The Oba could impose judgement on all types of cases including banishment and outright execution. The head of each subordinate town, village or hamlet was responsible to the Oba at the centre. Administration in these places was often headed by 'Enogie'. In the judiciary sphere, the Enogie could tackle certain matters, which could still be subject to the final approval of the central government (the Oba). The Enogie paid annual homage to the Oba and also supplied the Oba with a definite number of warriors for the Oba's army.

Another significant characteristic features of the traditional political institutions is the method of choosing their leaders. Traditionally, the founder of a village was usually appointed as the leader or the head of the village, "with a member of the family, either the son or the brother or a cousin succeeding in perpetuity" (Johnson 1976). However, where a group of people decided to settle in a particular place, the selection of the village leader (Enogie) was usually through those who emanated from the Royal Family. Each Royal family in Benin traces its descent to the line of Oranmiyan the father of Eweka1.Because of this, it is discovered that not anyone can become an Oba except those from the ruling houses; hence the office of Obaship is not rotational but hereditary. A council of seven kingmakers (Uzama N ‘Ihinron) was responsible for grooming the heir apparent (Edaiken). The installation of an Oba was always marked by traditional ceremonies and rituals and the Oba was said to be sacred. In Benin, the Oba is the next person to the "Osanobua", that is, the Supreme Being-God. In the past, the Oba was rarely seen in the public. After installation, all the property (Aro- Enikao) of the former Oba would be inherited by the newly-installed Oba because such property belongs to the 'throne' and not an individual.

Before the advent of colonial administration, the judiciary in Benin was amazingly functional. Minor cases were brought before the chiefs for judgement while the more serious cases such as arson, treason, murder etc were referred to the Oba and his high chiefs for judgement. Sentences on offences were graded. For instance, while offences such as stealing and fighting attracted rebuke and light fines, serious offences such as murder, arson and treason attracted judgement that ranged from imprisonment, huge fines, death sentences and banishment from town. In addition, offenders were made to confess to their sins because it was generally believed that non-confession would bring evil not only to the culprits but also to all members of their families. The Oba's court was the final Court of Appeal and it was the special prerogative of the Oba to grant pardon.

Just as it was believed that it was the duty of every member of a community to ensure a society where peace, justice and equity reigned, indigenous institutions such as women groups, religious organizations, trade guilds and other professional bodies (Owina) were also working hand-in-hand with the Oba and his Council of Chiefs to ensure socio-economic and political development of their society.

2.1.1 Indigenous Institutions in the Colonial Era in Benin

The period of British colonization of African coincided with the era of industrial revolution in Europe. It was a period when there was dire need for raw materials to cater for the needs of the growing industries in Europe. The idea of colonization, therefore, was to develop Europe in Africa. Simply put, the essence of colonization was to transform the economy of Europe using Africa as a springboard.

By 1900, British control over of Benin had been established after the deportation of the Oba (ovonramwen) to Calabar. The white colonial masters initially found it impossible to cope with the problem of administering Benin because the culture of the people was alien to the Europeans. Added to this were the problems of inadequate personnel and fund. The pattern of governance and institutional arrangement used by the people to manage their own affairs at the community level were strange to what the British administrators understood. As a way out of these problems, the colonial masters decided to administer through the existing political and administrative institutions under the supervision of British officials. That was known as indirect system of ruling. The white colonialists believed that if the people were given some degree of local autonomy, they would be contented, peaceful and loyal to the government. It was pointed out that at the local level where the indirect rule system was adopted; the traditional ruler was the British agent (Abiola 1974). The Oba and his chiefs often presided over local courts and settled local matters, applying customary laws.

To the people of the community, the newly introduced indirect system of government was greatly disadvantageous. For instance, the traditional rulers no longer enjoyed any monopoly over their subjects. The Oba was a mere representative of the British as the system of rule-ruler-ruled relationship was dictated by the colonial administration. In other words, those institutional arrangements that were indigenous to the people and which brought up clearly their self governing, self organizing and self capabilities and propensities were subdued by the British system of governance. In the indirect rule of government, no ruler was allowed to ascend the throne without the prior and tacit approval of the colonial administrators. In essence, the idea of performing the traditional rites and ritual before an Oba was installed meant nothing to the British. To them, it was barbaric. In the same vein, no traditional procedure was followed before an Oba who was considered recalcitrant by the colonial administration was removed. Sanctions were imposed immediately by the British administrator whenever any offence was committed. So also, traditional rulers were maintained and protected for as long as they remained loyal to the British administrators.

The Native Ordinance of 1910 was enacted by the British administration for the establishment of Native Authorities. It was first established in the North and when it was discovered to be effective, it was introduced to the South. The British Administrative Officers in charge were to rule through the chiefs, educate them in their cooperation and help to maintain their prestige. The main functions of the Native Authorities were to maintain laws and order and collect revenue for the administration. One major problem that confronted the Native Authorities, though, was the lack of uniformity in their sizes. While some were too large for effective coverage and administration, others, in the majority, were too small.

Cameron and Cooper (1961) stated that, "the creation of Native Authorities provided a stable and reasonably permanent form of local government. The system was founded on traditional institutions and the powers of the chiefs as native authorities were underwritten by the government. The chiefs could therefore perform their functions with confidence in the knowledge that their actions, unless contrary to government policy, would be given official support". This was to say that as long as the traditional rulers continued to do the biddings of the government, the sky was their limit in the governance of their areas of jurisdiction. The best illustration of this assertion was in Oyo where for about twenty-five years; Captain Ross really made the reigning Alaafin, Siyanbola Onikepe Ladigbolu very powerful indeed. Other paramount chiefs were encouraged by the example of Oyo to exercise as much power as possible within their localities. This was more so when in the 1920s the paramount chiefs were made sole native authorities in their respective areas.

By the 1930s, the power established and sustained by paramount chiefs had begun to cause resentment and there were agitations to curb them. It was obvious that the middle-class, buoyed by the little western education acquired, tried as much as possible to pressurize the British Colonial masters to grant them opportunity to participate directly or indirectly in the governance of their local affairs but their request was turned down by the British. It was discovered that the ruling classes jealously guided their traditional prerogatives and objected to any encroachment on their positions of authority while the emerging middle-class pressed for reforms which would give them a definite say in public affairs. Although the British colonial government preserved the traditional institutions which were believed to be best equipped to maintain stability at the local level, it, however, did not lose touch with the consciousness that if these institutions were to survive, they must change with the times.

In spite of the fact that the British colonialists were convinced that the indirect rule system was the most suitable system of government to be adopted in Nigeria without hindering the existing political settings, some authors and writers heavily criticized the adoption of indirect system of government. For example, Algazali (1976), in his opinion, noted that, "indirect rule system was in fact a makeshift policy, a child of expediency erected in a system of government". He further observed that as a child of expediency, the system seriously lacked "some of the most vital dimensions of management namely: planning, clarity of objectives and goals, organizational growth to meet future demands and clear vision for the future."

Aromolaran Adekunle (1977) too criticized that, "under indirect rule administration, although the Oba received more pay, they lost their traditional ties and respect which joined them to their people". The adoption of the indirect system of ruling had led to the power and authority of the Oba being tremendously and considerably diminished. The white colonial masters went as far as deposing some traditional rulers who were considered too rude or uncooperative. The increase of power work took its turn on the Oba. Gradually, they were turned into civil servants and bureaucrats who had little or no time left for the affairs of the people. They could no longer perform their usual hospitality to their people. This marked the beginning of the predicament faced by the head of indigenous institutions because the Resident and District Offices started to control financial policies and the laws of succession and dethronement.


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Assessment of Traditional Institutions and Socio Economic Development of Benin City
Nigerian Traditional Institutions and Social Economic Development
Obafemi Awolowo University  (Department of Public Administration)
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assessment, traditional, institutions, socio, economic, development, benin, city, nigerian, social
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Adeola Ajayi (Author), 2011, Assessment of Traditional Institutions and Socio Economic Development of Benin City, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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