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Igbo Traditional Rulers

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afrika spectrum 33 (1998) 1: 57 - 79

Axel Harneit-Sievers1

Igbo 'Traditional Rulers':
Chieftaincy and the state in Southeastern Nigeria
Since the 1970s, the institution of chieftaincy has gained much prominence in the
social and political life of Nigeria. The growing importance of Traditional Rulers
(sometimes even called ‘natural rulers’) in everyday affairs, in local and national
politics in Nigeria has received comparatively little attention by social scientists –
especially so for areas where no strong chieftaincy institutions existed in pre-colonial times.2
The expansion of the chieftaincy institution, in terms of influence and quantity
of office-holders, and its increasing visibility are irritating facts, compared to the
prognoses of social theory. Classical modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s
assumed that the principles of ‘modern’ formalized bureaucratic office and of functional differentiation would become more important than ‘traditional’ leaders. In a
parallel way, underdevelopment and dependency theory hardly foresaw a renewed
boom for an institution which they thought to be rooted in a pre- or non-capitalist
Such conceptual difficulties can, of course, easily be resolved if contemporary
chieftaincy institutions in Nigeria are understood not only, and not even primarily,
as belonging to a pre-modern, pre-capitalist past; but rather as institutions which
have either (been) adapted to the contemporary socio-political setting, or even
have been specifically created for or by it.
Obviously, the Nigerian experience provides numerous examples for the compatibility between chieftaincy institutions based on the principle of tradition on the
one hand, and ‘modernity’ and capitalism (or, rather, Nigeria’s peculiar version of

The author is a member of the research group ‘Locality and the State: The Construction of Spatial and Social Order in Modern African and Asian History’ at the Center for Modern Oriental...


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