In a small rural community in the southern part of Adamawa State, women have established themselves on the throne, ruling the men for about two and a half centuries. Throughout the history of Arnado Debbo, it has been the exclusive right of women to ascend the throne of Dimgyeb.
The small, rural settlement, about five kilometers from Ganye town, the administrative headquarters of Ganye Local Government Area, is mainly inhabited by small scale farmers and petty traders. The community had flourished as an independent chiefdom until the advent of colonial administration when it came under Sugu District.
Before driving along one of the worst roads in Adamawa to get to the village, visitors have to obtain permission from the district head of Sugu, who usually sends one of his aides with the visitors to facilitate audience with the female ruler through her council members.
In accordance with the tradition of Arnado Debbo, visitors are kept waiting for some time at a small round hut made from mud and thatched roof as the aides work to complete the process of final confirmation from their queen.
As soon as final confirmation is received, visitors are ushered into the modest and traditional compound that shows the history of the throne. The ruler occupies the central hut, which is surrounded by few others. In the central hut, she sits on a simple chair in a thatched porch, with a female aide to her left and male courtiers sitting on a sprawling mat before her.
The 76-year-old Nyagangwu (ruler) of the village, Bintu Namda, was crowned in November 2014 after beating another female contestant to the throne. The contest followed a screening by members of the ruling clan to reduce the number of contesting princesses. She is the 16th ruler in the succession since the first female ruler, Gangwun Sukbarun blazed the trail for women 246 years ago.
Malam Atiku Gende, an 89-year-old council member who has worked with six rulers in the traditional house, explained that the traditional council consists of 10 kingmakers (kemembu), the Yeba (custodian of newly selected rulers) and four elders from the area. He added that the area under the control of the ruler extends to seven surrounding villages, each with its male ward head reporting to the Gangwu.
“The Kemembu are charged with the responsibility of selecting a new ruler. After selection, they keep her in my custody (Yeba) until the day she will be accompanied to the palace. Everything around her must be traditional. She eats from a wooden plate and lives in a traditional room,” he said.
According to him, the history of female rulers began more than two centuries ago when the kingdom was confronted with a mysterious problem – the kings died between three to six months on the throne. So the princess and kingmakers decided to experiment with women as rulers. That’s how the throne was conceded to the womenfolk.
He said the first woman to rule the kingdom reigned for nine years.
According to him, men no longer lay claim to the throne. In fact, it has become a taboo for men to show interest on the throne. He noted that the community is properly guided by the ancient tradition and the people are comfortable with their female rulers.
He said that following the consensus that transferred power to women, Nyagangwu Sukbarub ruled for nine years while the second female ruler, Nyagangwu Seuduu ruled for 22 years. Also, Nyagangwu Jubkuna ruled for 31 years, Nya Gangwu Shukji ruled for 17 years and Nyagangwu Kuhube who ruled for eight years.
Gende further said that Nyagangwu Nyagyeb ruled for 41 years; Nygangwu Nyabuu, 18 years; Nyagangwu Saante, 25 years; Nyagangwu Gan Ya Khantso, 11 years; Nyagangwu Nyasir, 16 years; Nyagangwu Wekangshi, 21 years; Nyagangwu Umma Toro, 17 years; and Nyaganwu Astadukko Buba, eight years.
The present ruler, Nyagangwu Bintu Namda, has so far spent two years on the throne, he said.
The council member said whenever there was a drought or other natural disasters, the ruler, who is also the traditional and spiritual leader of the community, leads the people to offer sacrifices on the mountains and seek guidance from the gods.
He, however, noted that with the advent of Islam and Christianity, the ruler now mobilises religious leaders to conduct prayer sessions in their respective worship places.
Gende, who was appointed a council member 54 years ago, could still remember when a hyena and an antelope came to the village during the reign of Nyagangwun Saante. He said the ruler saw that as a warning from the spirits; hence she quickly summoned the council to discuss the strange occurrence. After consultations with the then traditionalists on the mountains, it was found out that an unmarried girl got pregnant. So the girl’s father was made to pay a fine of a he-goat and 20 measures of guinea corn, which would be used to offer sacrifice.
He revealed that, for a princess to be shortlisted as a contestant to the throne, she must be at least 60 years of age. This is because at this age, she is expected to be experienced in life and free from sexual relationships, even with her husband.
Shedding more light on the activities of the kingdom, the Wakili (prime minister), Muhammadu Kambari, said the rulers (Nyagangwu) were installed from Sugu, the district headquarters of the community. He added that every gangwun must live in the traditional compound in the village, from where she rules, while the Wakili liaises with other traditional rulers and government officials in the district to represent her in public functions.
He added that all visitors to the Nyagangwun, including her family members and children,were received by the Wakili, as tradition forbids her from receiving guests. However, during festive periods, the ruler hosts women, where she interacts with them and cracks jokes.
But despite the rich history of Arnado Debbo, the community lacks basic social amenities. The only primary school in the village was established in 1979, and since then, no new structure has been added to it. The community relies on local wells as the only source of water.
“This kingdom comprises of seven villages, three of which are located in the mountains, but we do not have a single dispensary, not to talk of basic primary health clinic. Our women and children have to go to Sugu for medical treatment; and you can see that there is no road to Suku. We call on the government to construct the road to this place,” one of the villagers said.
A male member of the ruling clan, who did not want to be quoted, lamented that successive governments in Adamawa State had neglected the community and its traditional structure. He emphasised the need to improve the traditional architecture of the palace to promote the cultural heritage of the state and harness its tourism potentials.
“Although Nyagangwun’s room needs to be simple and traditional, the palace needs some architectural upgrade to represent the rich history of the ruling dynasty. Government should invest in this cultural treasure,” he said.