Contributed by Ijale Joseph
The Tiv people constitute one of the major ethnic groups in the Middle belt region. Historical evidence shows that they originally migrated from the Cameroonian hills having previously inhabited a place called Seem.
In their Pre-colonial socio-political organization, not only do the Tiv had no state machinery but they also had no formal officers. Thus unlike the Hausa, Fulani, the Edo and the Yoruba ethnic groups who established states with highly centralized institutions.
Tiv society was marked by the absence of offices and office holders. The absence of a centralized political system should not be misconstrued to mean the lack of organs of government. Here as it was with many pre-colonial African societies, such organs were fused together each acting on the other in a way that ensured social and political stability and cohesion.
In traditional Tiv society, the smallest unit of social and political organization was the compound/Ya. The Ya could contain a few as two or three round huts and as many as thirty round hits. The Tiv compound was based on the extended family system and the kingship structure. The compound was usually presided over by the eldest member called Orya and his authority depended on his personality, ability and power to govern. Apart from settling disputes involving the members of the compound, the Orya was also in charge of the allocation of farm lands and also providing social security for members of his compound. He represented the compound at the elders council and relayed decision arrived at to the members of his compound. It was in this wise that Orya is seen as the political, economic and religious head of the Ya or compound.
In the traditional Tiv system, lineage organization tended to be the sole basis of socio-political organization and power in turn tended to revolve around the communal authority of Ijir, which was the Tiv council in which jural, religious, witch craft, economic, and other issues were discussed and settled. When the whole group assembled for the purpose of Ijir it was presumed by all tiv that were assembled under the sovereign of Ityo, the corporate agnate. Traditionally what this is implies is that “to the tiv man what mattered was the Ityo acted provided a functional platform for effective social and political participation for every individual thereby enabling collective decisions to be much more easily acceptable to all.
This segmentary lineage structure implies a non-centralized distribution of authority on a supra-local level. The authority of any individual is thus restricted only to his lineage segment the “elder” who has authority only over those members of his lineage segment. The political significance of this competition and rivalry lies in the fact that it limits the authority of the leader to the internal affairs of his segment only, the extent of the limitations varying with the contexts of action. This way, each lineage is relatively independent from the actions and affairs of the other, unless where there were serious matters affecting the lineage in the community.
This network of power relations and authority deployment was important for the operations of the Tiv socio-political system prevented the emergency and evolution of the institution of a chief among the Tiv. The concept of executive chieftainship is foreign to the Tiv.
Although elders are respected and heard, ultimate authority lay in the hands of the group as a while so the political significance of the Tiv adage which says “Ka Tor ga, ka Ityo ihemye ” meaning it is not the leader but the paternal kinsmen who as corporate body are sovereign. It does appear therefore that authority as legitimate power cannot be said to be diffused among the Tiv. This is the case because as Tseayo further points out, it lies very clearly with the communal authority of the Ijir where agreements are arrived at by consensus.
Leadership in Pre-colonial Tiv political system was not a function of certain socially recognized variables but of individual merit and ability with knowledge of ritual processes and functions. In the traditional socio-political systems of the people, the concept of Tor (head) is normally used to refer to a situation in which ability has been combined with status and such individual have been recognized as processing authority. It should be stated however that the ultimate executive and coercive authority rests with the Ijir. Individual authority among the tiv people is in most cases confined to specific spheres.
In all this cases, the tiv have no intention that the title holders usurp their authority but simply that they should be the instrument through which this authority would be enhanced and dispened. In fact straight pain was taken to ensure that such distinguished personalities do not lose sight of their true positions as people given prestige by the grace of the generality of the Tiv to whom they remain subordinated. Pre-colonial Tiv socio-political organization was also distinguished by the institution of Kwav. The Kwav was usually organized within the lineage structure which was also the radius of political operations. The Kwav had the right to be part of the Ijir where they were truly involved in the discussion and deliberation processes. Usually presided over by the Tor-U-Kwav, the age-grades in Pre-colonial Tiv society performed a variety of functions ranging from path clearing, bridge and road construction as well as rendering of self services to members.
In the Pre-colonial Tiv socio-political arrangement there were no permanent ruling class, no permanent aristocracy and no permanent power elite. There was therefore no permanent social group to weld power over the society. Among the Tiv, the lineage was the highest unit if socio-political organization and the communal authority of the Ijir remained the nucleus of traditional administration, controlling executive, legislative as well as the judiciary power.
The seemingly egalitarian arrangement of the tiv is demonstrated by the democratic principle which guided the decision making process to the Ijir. To start with, the lineage meetings comprise elders can better be appreciated as the spokesmen off their families in the Ijir to solve a number of problems these engaged in debates, discussions and negotiations. At the end of the discussions decisions were arrived at by consensus. Although it is true that the lineage meeting was presided over by the eldest Man in the group of the eldest family, the personality had no authority over the Ijir institution. It is against this background that the Ijir is seen as the most powerful organ of government in the traditional socio-political organization of the Tiv.