With low expectations of elected politicians in Nigeria, Barbara Etim James is convinced that the solution to many of the country’s problems lies with its many chiefs, kings and queens.
Two years ago, the 54 year old was crowned a queen in the Efik kingdom in southern Nigeria.
Despite 20 years of living in the UK and founding a private equity firm, she says she is not a moderniser who wants to transform long-established African leadership structures to fit a Western model.
“Modernising suggests that you’re making something traditional more Western,” she says.
Ms James wants to turn that on its head.
“I’m bringing my global experience into a culture, not taking the culture into modernity.”
Ms James combines her role as the head of a private equity firm with that of queen, often travelling from her hometown of Calabar to cities like Lagos and Abuja for work.
“Calabar is my base but I spend a lot of time outside. But I have sort of field workers on the ground,” she says.
Members of the traditional council in her community are required to be physically present in Calabar for monthly meetings and she has to fly back home for these from wherever she is – a situation that she hopes technology can change.
“I am now having conversations with them about online meetings,” she says.
The suggestion may at first appear outrageous to people who consider it an insult to invite a respected person to an event by text message or phone – you have to send them a card, Ms James says.
“But they are very happy when people send them money online or by phone to their account,” she says, an argument she uses to support her point during discussions about enhancing culture with technology.
Politicians ‘only for short term’
The role of traditional rulers in Nigeria is not defined by the constitution and some see them as archaic institutions that have outlived their usefulness.
Cases where traditional rulers were ejected from their positions over accusations of not showing politicians support or respect have also highlighted that their roles are largely symbolic and raised questions about how much real power they hold.
They also lack an independent source of finance.
But Ms James believes that people like her can be more effective than politicians in bringing about change.
She argues that traditional rulers are closer to the people than their elected representatives as through their network of informants they have more of a sense of what is really going on.
This means they can have more impact than the political class when addressing issues like security and poverty, especially as their involvement is more long term, she says.