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Obasanjo: When protocol clashes with tradition




E di de! (Stand up!). E joko! (Sit down!), a male voice, loud and guttural, was blasting out from the phone of a colleague who was engrossed in a video he was playing. The voice sounded more like that of a military officer commanding troops on parade. However, it was the unmistakable voice of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Though a retired General, Obasanjo, in this video, was not drilling soldiers on a military parade. His targets were traditional rulers from different parts of Oyo State dressed in flowing robes and clutching their staffs of office. They obeyed the command like soldiers will do; only that the speed at which they stood and sat was different from how soldiers would have done it.

The command was not a friendly one and the tone indicated so. The venue was the unveiling of the Iseyin Campus of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology on Friday, September 15, 2023. Obasanjo, the Ebora Owu, was a guest of the state governor, Seyi Makinde, at that event. He arrived at the venue with his host and according to him, he discovered that while others who were already seated stood up to welcome the governor and his entourage, the monarchs remained seated. He added that while the programme was underway and the governor stood up to deliver his address and others stood, the monarchs again remained seated. Angered by what he viewed as disrespect to constituted authority (apologies to late Senator Abiola Ajimobi), he decided to give the monarchs a lecture (both theory and practical) on protocol.

I have read and listened to many commentaries on that incident. Positions were taken in favour and against both sides, depending on the commentators’ points of view.

I have decided to join the debate. My intervention will be two-fold and will be in the form of answering two questions that I intend to ask. One, were the traditional rulers right to have sat down while the governor and his guest (Obasanjo) entered the venue? I don’t think they were right.

I have had the opportunity of covering many events presided over by top government officials like ministers, governors and Presidents. The usual thing is that all those already seated (including traditional rulers) will rise as a mark of respect when such government officials arrive for the meetings or events. Some comperes will even, while announcing the arrival of these important persons, ask that guests rise to welcome them. “Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, shall we all rise to welcome the man who has changed the face of modern-day Lekki State; the man who has achieved a lot with little resources, I am talking of no other person but His Excellency, Governor, Senator, Chief, Dr Jeremiah Atimuoyeyije, CON, Mni!,” you will hear them say on top of their voices at such events while everybody, willingly or reluctantly, will rise.

Most times, it is while standing like that and the government official arrives at his seat that the national anthem will be recited to signal the commencement of the event. Thereafter, the government official can then ask the guests to sit while he takes his seat too.

He was so used to this that something happened during one of his engagements at the then Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja which was later rechristened the State House Conference Centre.

A cocktail reception was organised in honour of members of the national team, the Super Eagles. I can’t immediately recollect the feat they achieved that qualified them for that presidential reception.

As typical of such brief events, chairs were not provided since guests were expected to socialise while drinking and eating appetisers. The organisers however provided a few tables where the drinks and appetisers could be placed.

Former President Jonathan arrived at the venue and his arrival signalled the formal commencement of the programme even though guests had gone far with their drinks and appetisers as of the time of his arrival. After the national anthem was recited, Jonathan’s voice came up loudly from the speakers in the hall and it was a directive that nobody was willing to obey. “Thank you, please be seated!” he said. All those in the hall laughed and murmured some inaudible words because in the absence of chairs, obeying such a presidential order would mean sitting on the floor. The former President too quickly realised his mistake and joined in the laughter that followed his directive.

As far as I am concerned, it is not in doubt that all those seated, irrespective of age or position, usually stand to welcome these government officials. In some cases, some of the highly placed people in attendance may even be asked to line up at the entrance of the venue to welcome these VVIPs and then enter the venue with them.

I also know that a similar thing is obtainable in the palaces of these traditional rulers.  Once their guests are seated and they walk in, their guests will rise and remain standing until they sit on their throne. Some will even prostrate or kneel as the case may be as the monarchs walk in. The guests would have started rising from their seats immediately after members of the monarch’s advance team were seen finding their way in.

Having dealt with the question of whether the traditional rulers were right or wrong to have sat down while the governor and his guest entered the venue, I will proceed to the second question. Two, can Obasanjo have handled the situation better than he did?  With due respect to the former President, I believe the situation could have been handled better.

I believe he could have done so differently in two ways. The former President could have sought a private audience with the monarchs after the programme and made them realise the implications of their behaviour and advise them against recurrence.

Secondly, if he felt strongly that he should make his observation known publicly the way he did, I also believe that his message could have been passed without adding the twist of commanding them to stand and to sit like a class teacher would order his pupils. That was demeaning of their status. In doing that, in my view, Obasanjo only succeeded in correcting what he viewed as the wrong behaviour of the monarchs with another wrong behaviour.

Despite the boldface public comments that have trailed the episode, especially from Obasanjo and traditional rulers (including those who were not even at the event), lessons must have been learnt from both divides. The traditional rulers, I suspect, will not remain seated while the state governor arrives at any event again, except for those of them who are advanced in age and cannot withstand the rigour of standing for too long. It is also my belief that Obasanjo, no matter how enraged he may be, may never again reprimand highly placed persons (not traditional rulers alone) publicly as he did in Iseyin.

The Iseyin episode was a case of protocol clashing with tradition and in a situation like that, wisdom is required in handling the fallout.

In the meantime, let all parties (including third parties) sit down and let sleeping dogs lie.