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This unit focuses on institutional communication in Africa. Drawing from Nigeria, it looks at types and structure. It further looks at traditional authorities, socio-political organisations and their communication patterns.


At the end of this unit of study, should be able to:

  1. Outline the types of institutional structures and examples 
  2. List the types of institutional structures 
  3. Discuss the types of institutional structures and their implications for African Communication
  4. Have a clearer understanding of traditional authorities and socio-political organisations 
  5. Discuss the communication patterns of traditional authorities and socio-political organisations 


3.1 Traditional Authorities, Social/Political Organisations, and Grassroot 

Organisations and Associations 

Institutions are part of traditional African society. There are various institutional structures that must be taken into account in studying African Communication Systems. Experts have even recognised that knowledge of and relationships with institutional structures can facilitate or inhibit expected development outcomes. This justifies why this module is focused on institutional communication.

Since the traditional authorities and socio-political organisations are the custodians of a people’s cultural heritage, it is essential that they should be “properly” understood in the context of African communication. Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups, and each ethnic group has its own respected traditional authorities and socio-political organisations, which must be recognised and appeased for peace to reign in the communities. So, the peculiarities of each ethnic group must be recognised, properly considered and understood for effective communication. According to Nwuneli (1983:148):

In some cultures it is considered sincere and trustworthy when a person looks straight in the face or,…looks [at] you right in the eyes. In other cultures it is rude and impertinent to “catch somebody’s eye” during conversation. In some cultures, people express themselves non-verbally by the mimicry of the face.
So, to enhance effective communication, it is important to ascertain most acceptable ways of approaching, looking and discussing with the traditional, socio-political organisations in a community and to know the flow of communication. Even in some cultures, it might be necessary to through an intermediary, in some others the best approach could be to seek audience with the highest traditional authority like the Emir/Sultan, Eze/Obi, Ooni/Alaafin, etc. The flow of communication is culture-specific, but the guiding principle is to recognise traditional structures in Africa.

3.2 Some Examples of Traditional Authorities and Socio-Political Organisations in Nigeria

According to Nwuneli (1983), channels represent only the hardware in the information transfer process, while the software aspect represent the information which originate from authoritative sources depending on the local political structure of the people.

3.2.1 Types of Institutional Structures and Examples

Although indigenous Nigerian society had no newspapers, it had agencies and institutions which in several respects serve the same purpose as the newspaper or at least answer the contemporary needs of communication (Omu, 1978:1).

Institutional structures vary depending on the culture of a people. Nigeria, for instance, has more then 250 ethnic groups, and each ethnic group has its own institutional structure. These structures must be recognised and understood in the scheme of African communication because they are effective channels of commuication. This unit basically groups them into four:

A) Traditional Authorities – Examples

  1. Emir of Katsina
  2. Sultan of Sokoto
  3. Ado Bayero of Kano 
  4. Etsu Nupe 
  5. Gbomgwom Jos 
  6. Olu of Warri 
  7. Oba of Benin 
  8. Oba of Lagos 
  9. Ooni of Ife 
  10. Alaafin of Oyo 
  11. Eze in Ibo Land 
  12. Obi of Agbor 
  13. Obuenwe of Emu Kingdom 
  14. Igwe of Okpai 
  15. Owelle of Onitsha 
  16. Attah of Igala 
  17. Chiefs/village/ward Heads 

B) Social/Political Organisations – Examples

Community Based Organisations. E.g. Age Grade Groups and other indigenous groups (village meetings, mothers’ clubs, Men’s group and women’s groups)

C) Religious/Grassroot/Economic Organisation and Associations – Examples

  1. Associations E.g. Co-operatives associations, loan associations and youth associations
  2. Artisans/various Economic groups E.g. Fishermen, hunters, hairdressers, tailors, Bricklayers and farmers 
  3. Religious E.g. NASFAT, Christain Association of Nigeria (CAN), Full Gospel Businness Men’s Fellowship 

D) Kinship Groupings – Examples

  1. Arewa Consultaive forum
  2. Afenifere
  3. Ohaneze N’digbo
  4. Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP)
  5. Odua Peoples Congress (OPC)
  6. Egbesu (Ethnic militia group in Ijaw region of Nigeria
  7. Bakassi (Ethnic militia group in eastern Nigeria)

3.3 Traditional Authorities, Socio-Political Organisations and their Communication Patterns

Traditional Authorities: In Northern Nigeria, information for dissemination could originate from the Emir’s palace, or from a person with such delegated authority in the villages. In the South West, messages could originate from the Oba or Baale; while in the South East, messages could originate from the Chiefs, Council of Elders, or some Age Grades delegated with authority to perform special tasks for their communities.

Socio-Political Organisations: Social organisations differ from one society to another. However, they are generally powerful institutional structures in African communication. While age-grade groups, market men/women associations, etc, are part of social institutional structures of any society. In other words, they are part of political or traditional structures. For instance, among the Ibos of Eastern Nigeria, the age-grades are part of the traditional authorities. So, proper knowledge of social institutions is very important in effective institutional communication. In Emu-Obodoeti community within Emu Clan in Ndokwa West Local Government Area of Delta State, marriage, burial and some other ceremonies cannot hold without seeking clearance from a particular concerned. In fact traditional marriage certificate in the community is issued by their “Development Committee” and the certificate does not carry the signature of the father of the bride but those of the “committee’s” officials.

Religious/Grass Root Organisation and Associations: Much indigenous communication occurs within highly homophilous groups or cliques. Such cliques facilitate efficient communication among their members, but act as barriers preventing new information from entering some cliques. Boundary spanners such as bridges (religious leaders), liaisons and cosmopolites have links with people outside their cliques; together with innovators, they introduce information to the network (Mowlana, 1983).

According to Wang and Dissanayake (1984), grass root organisations such as irrigation associations and housing co-operatives allow structured discussions involving organisation leaders and larger audiences than is possible in unstructured situations. These organisations orchestrate much communication through formal meetings of members, by messages sent about activities and obligations, and through work activities. There is an overlap between this and other categories. For example indigenous organisations often arrange folk media performances, though performance is not usually their major aim. They provide many opportunities for unorganised communication among organisation members

Zeroing on Nigeria and drawing from Tiv people of Benue state, Mede (1998) stated that in Tiv communities, the people created forums where they can meet to rub minds and exchange ideas. One of such fora is the Bam (a co-operative society) where people come together to contribute money to help one another. The Bam has become very popular in both the rural and urban Tiv communities. What is noteworthy about such gathering is that before the business of the day, anyone with a new idea on business or what have you, shares it with other members of the Bam, thus helping borrowers with new information on investment, and passing on news from other communities.

3.4 Communication Patterns

Information from these sources is disseminated both horizontally and vertically. Such information is relayed through the town crier (gongman) to the villagers (audience) publicly and simultaneously or indirect to the compound heads who in turn delivers the message vertically to the people through the family heads.

Messages that originate from these sources are of diverse nature. They range from developmental messages like school building to social, economic, political and traditional one. The messages are communicated with dates of certain festivals (cultural). The developmental messages like building, cutting and clearing roads use of general group dialogue, or individual discretion of the town announcer. Similarly, social messages like proclamation, banning certain domestic animals from wandering round the village use various communication modalities, but exclusively these use the masquerade for communication and enforcement.

These messages pass through a nexus of stages. From the source – Oba, Emir, and Council of Elders whose deliberations occasioned the order, to the village square meeting. This is equivalent to the referendum in modern democracy. Then to the gongman who timely reminds the people of the messages and accelerate people’s compliance. In the same vein, other messages, apart from the local ones, from local government, special messages from national and state levels circulate round the village to both groups and individuals; vertically, and horizontally.

3.5.0 Traditional Instruments, Gatekeepers and Gatekeeping in Traditional Authority Information Dissemination

According to Wilson (1982), traditional instruments of communication in African societies have their specific functions and these depend on the type of information that the ‘gatekeepers’ want the public to know. By making reference to ‘gatekeepers’ in the information dissemination process in African communities, Wilson (1982), thus seemed to recognise the usually authoritative source of information in traditional societies. He further reinforced his view in his statement on how the medium for particular information dissemination is chosen in those societies. As he puts it, “The medium is thus determined by the type of message to be sent, which in turn depends on the final authority of the king”. This statement shows that the village head and his council constitute themselves to ‘gatekeepers’ in the traditional communication process since it appears inconceivable to have information transfer without the authority of the chief.

The organised and systematic nature of the Nigerian traditional communication channel is well brought to the fore by Wilson’s (1982) comparison of the traditional and modern systems of communication that exist in Nigeria. He compared the systems of control over information dissemination by the leaders of the traditional societies with the modern day operation of the mass media in Nigeria, whereby the apparatus of information was controlled by various governments in the country before the deregulation of the Nigerian media industry. It is in this sense that the leaders of our traditional socio-political systems recognised the need to control information output that they usually specifically appoint certain persons who acted as information officers cum public relations officers usually known as the village ‘gongmen’. To further examine gatekeeping in the organisation of traditional information flow in Africa, insights from Nigeria within the village belief systems and controlled cultural diameters would be utilised. Specifically, studies of the villages gongman – a well known and most useful ‘broadcaster’ of news in the rural areas and the courier chiefs (Ugboajah, 1980).

3.5.1 Institutional Communication Forms and their Uses

3.5.1a Courier Chiefs: These are lesser chiefs assisting the king (Oba or Emir) and council to disseminate information to the villages. According to Omu (1978:1), “in the old Oyo empire, for example, state messengers and intelligence officers (Ilari) carried information between the capital and the outlying provinces. But the most common of these indigenous officials was the town crier or bell man with his loud sounding gong, he announced the promulgation of laws and regulations, meetings, arrangements for communal work and generally spread ‘official’ information in the community. The town announcer is very much a crucial part of village society today and can still be seen in autonomous parts of urban centres with an established indigenous monarchy”. 

They also carry information and the responses of villagers to the king and council. For instance:
Chief Osutuke of Akure in western Nigeria is the senior newsman of the Omode-owas, the palace messengers of the Oba. He ranks himself from the Omode-owas. The ‘Chief editor’ of the palace news, Chief Osutuke is also a liaison officer of the palace and the feedback channel for the views of the people to their king. He sends his ‘reporters’ on ‘news beats’ to herald dates of traditional ceremonies, warning of epidemics, dates for cultivation, harvesting and social observances (Ugboajah, 1980:23)

3.5.1b Town Announcers or Gongman: They are the traditional announcers of communities’ news, decisions, instructions, laws and many other issues of the community to the whole people. They act as ‘broadcasting stations’ of our modern time. The system is still in use in rural African societies.

By this channel of communication, designated persons are employed as honourary official announcers of the community whenever needs arise. Whatever they announce are responsibilities of the community. Their announcements cover everybody within the community as modern new media do. Town announcers are mainly rewarded through barter in Emu Kingdom (a clan of Ukwani speaking people in Ndokwa West Local Government Area of Delta State- Nigeria). They are rewarded by exempting them from community labour and offered other remunerations during Council of Elders’ meetings whenever gifts are shared or distributed. According to Ogwezzy (1999), it is the quickest and widest way of news relaying by the traditional way. It is still the people’s main news media at the grass root.

As already pointed out by Nwuneli (1983), most of the information disseminated by the town announcer usually originate from some authoritative source such as the Emir, Oba, Council of Elders, or from someone or Age Grade with delegated powers to perform specific tasks for the village or town. It is these authoritative sources that determine the content of the town crier’s message. The attention gaining medium chosen by the village announcer depends on what has previously been accepted by the town or village, and the choice of channels could vary from gongs of various sizes and shapes to bells and drums.

The post of the village announcer or the gbohungbonhun in Yorubaland is in most cases a hereditary position. According to Ugboajah (1980:23-24)
An Ijebu village announcer trains his children in the communication jobs that await them. Thus the young village announcer must be briefed in his early years about the time, place and utility of the news and about technicalities in the use of the gong A Hausa announcer is called Mai Shela. He is the legendary figure, aided by the general belief that he is the appointee of Allah, but he is selected by
the Sariki or ruler of the village. Being revered and respected as a holy man, his body is inviolate and his announcements undoubted. The culmination of his yearly responsibilities is when he predicts and announces the date and sighting of religious Ramadan moon A jester, an announcer, a confidant of the elders and the Ofor [title holders]

– these are the roles of the village announcer in Isukwuator village in Imo State. He has been described as, ‘an institution synonymous with traditional authority’. It is to his credit that he was found very useful in the rehabilitation of the villages following the civil disturbances in this area of

3.5.1c  Functions of the Gongman: When one considers the similarities in the functions of the village announcer, known variously as the village gongman or town crier in Nigeria despite the great linguistic and ethnic diversity in the country, one would readily agree with Nwuneli (1983) that the concept of the town crier is the same nation over, that is, in Nigeria, regardless of whatever name the town crier is labelled. The Igbos call him Otiekwe; Hausa, Sankira; Yorubas; Gbohungbohun, even though the names vary in the same ethnic group. However, no matter the situation, the town crier is invariably used as the all purpose/general information disseminator.

3.5.1d Influence of Town Announcers on Messages: On the possible influence of the town announcers on messages that he disseminates, Nwuneli (1983) indicated that the only aspect of information dissemination which the town crier could influence is the strategy of information delivery, depending on the subject-matter which ranges from meeting announcements for Council of Elders or chiefs; directives from the Emir’s or Oba’s palace to general human interest information. The town crier could approach the subject-matter in his personal way, using artistic and speech eloquence to give the necessary and desired effects to the messages he is transmitting.

3.5.1e Attributes of the Gongman: From the above it is obvious that the town crier is very effective in the village system. Ugboajah (1980) emphasised some attributes of the village gongman which are as follows:

  1.  He knows his culture.
  2. He interprets his culture to fit the objectives of his society.
  3. He is not only respected and revered but perceived as credible.
  4. The notes from his communication medium- gong or drum or elephant tusk is decoded appropriately and receive attention from specific audience to whom they are addressed.

As can be seen from the foregoing, the gongman indeed occupies an important position in the diffusion of messages within the belief systems of the various ethnic groups in Nigeria and in their opinion formation processes and actions (Wilson, 1982). Thus, it is the intimate relationship between the source of the information and the audience that created a bond of trust which always determined the reliability of any information received and shows that the town crier is a trained professional with noble mind and wits. This is then why he is an eloquent interpreter of his chiefs’ messages being well tutored in traditions and proverbs (Ugboajah, 1979:43). Besides, the gongman is a trusted confidant, whose loyalty to the village authority is indisputable. And since he is part of the village system coupled with the fact that his task of news dissemination “was never competitive or profit-oriented (unlike the modern mass media), it then behoved him to discharge his duties efficiently and conscientiously too” (Wilson, 1982). This is why the various ethnic groups attach great importance to traditional communication. And since traditional media are said to have force and credibility, they put stability into Nigeria’s indigenous institutions (Ugboajah, 1991).

3.6 Masquerades/Cults

Although, they are essentially impersonation of ancestors, the masquerades in some societies like Igboland emerged at night to gossip and expose scandals like modern columnists except that the masquerade’s freedom of expression knew no laws of libel and sedition. The Yoruba ‘Oro’ and Igbo ‘Isato’ masquerades are indicated by Nwuneli (1983) as being used as effective channels of communication in the maintenance of village security or discipline in some parts of southern Nigeria.

While some Yoruba villages might use the ‘Oro’ cult to keep away intruders from their villages, some Igbo villages use the ‘Isato” masquerade to ward off thieves from their villages and towns. The ‘Oro’ explained by Nwuneli (1983), is an ancestral cult organisation whose symbol is the bull roarer. It is used in proclaiming curfew when riots were expected; in apprehending criminals and reduce crime.


The unit conculdes that institutional structures vary depending on the culture of a people. Nigeria, for instance, has more then 250 ethnic groups, and each ethnic group has its own. Again, that the concept of the town crier or gongman is the same all over in Nigeria. Also, from the plethora of information gathered from other sources, it is evident that the communication systems among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria are basically almost the same though with some variations from one ethnic group to another.


Drawing from Nigeria, this unit was focused on institutional structures in African culture, which is mainly of two types – traditional and social. The unit highlighted that in some cultures age-grade groups, market men/women associations, etc, are part of social institutional structures of the society. In other words, they are part of political or traditional structures. So, sometimes political structures overlap with traditional structures.

Furthermore, the unit focused on traditional authorities and socio-political organisations, highlighting their communication patterns. It was meant to enhance our understanding of traditional authorities, socio-political organisations and their places in African communication. 

Self Assessment Exercise

  1.  List and discuss the institutional structures in your community. 
  2.  List the attributes of a town announcer. 


  1. List ten traditional leaders in Nigeria and discuss their importance in communication
  2. Discuss the functions of a gongman
  3. Discuss the influence of the gongman on messages


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