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Feature Article of Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Columnist: Abdulai, Yakubu

Transforming the Dagbon Chieftaincy Institution into a Development Institution

For many centuries, the chieftaincy institution (CI) in Dagbon has been focused on governance rather than developing the state. In the olden days when wars were common, provision of security against external aggression and food security (by praying the Greater God or smaller gods for good rain and good harvest) were the ultimate goals of every chief. In modern times, where security issues has become the role of the nation state, and Dagbon state haven been consolidated, there is the need to transform the chieftaincy institution into a developmental one rather than concentrating on governance alone.



The relevance of the institution in recent times has been questioned by many people especially after the Dagbon conflict in 2002. For many people, the institution has outlived its usefulness and must therefore be scrapped. Others proposed that, in the face of constant chieftaincy conflict, Dagbon should be divided; the east for Abudus, and the west for Andanis. All these propositions are due to the fact that, the institution has not lived to commensurate with modern times, thus making it look backward, outdated and for that matter, irrelevant.

However, in examining the issue from a development practitioner’s view, the chieftaincy institution only need to change its roles, to make it more relevant to modern times. Analysts have indicated that, the major challenge facing chieftaincy institution (CI) in Ghana and Northern Region in particular is illiteracy and ignorance. Knierzinger (2011) in his thesis “Chieftaincy and Development in Ghana: From Political Intermediaries to Neotraditional Development Brokers” has indicated that a “glance at the private jobs of paramount chiefs confirms this assumption: 17% are lecturers or teachers, 18% are other civil servants, 5% (9 persons out of 185) are lawyers and 35% are farmers, the majority of whom are again to be found in the Northern Region.” The 35% of farmers means, they are illiterates. If research is conducted on Dagbon alone, the illiteracy rate among chiefs in general will hit 80% or more. In modern times, there is no doubt that, education plays an important role in shaping the development of the people.

The multiplier effects of this prolonged illiteracy and ignorance are that, perennial hunger, poverty, diseases and youth migration are visible everywhere in Dagbon. Chiefs, who are supposed to be the legitimate representatives of their people, and are supposed to articulate their development needs cannot do so effectively. This is due to their lower level of education and exposure, hence their less involvement in development projects.

Even though the colonial regime is widely blamed for the general least development of the north because of their policy on education in the north, we cannot keep crying over spilled milk. We need to carry on by starting on a clean slate.

As a revered traditional institution, and guaranteed by the 1992 constitution, the CI in Ghana and indeed, in Dagbon has come a long way. It is on record that, the founders of modern day Dagbon in 1416 by Na Sitobu and his son, Na Nyagsi came with the chieftaincy institution. According to Rattray (1932), when Na Sitobu and Na Nyagsi descended on Dagbon, they “were better clothed, familiar with the idea of Kingship or Chieftainship in our modern sense…” The chieftaincy institution in Dagbon vested the sovereignty of Dagbon in the Ya-Na. Before the modern time, Ya-Na was “the commander-in-Chief of the Dagbon Military Establishment. He was not only the head of state, but also the Chief of Justice. In addition, he was the head of the legislative body” Mahama (2003). Even in modern days, the Ya-Na still commands enormous power and authority in Dagbon State.

Just as the Ya-Na, as the overlord of Dagbon, has powers over Dagbon, all chiefs in Dagbon possess authority in their jurisdiction; which sometimes transcends beyond their communities. By beating the gong-gong, a chief can easily summon his people. This is an indication that, chiefs in general commands some authority in Dagbon. As a result, when the British arrived in the Northern Territory, they quickly recognised these powers and found it useful. They supported the institution in order to use chiefs as auxiliaries to the colonial state. The chiefs and their elders served as central figures in the local government and were made to imposed fines and fees and collected taxes on behalf of the government. The chiefs also served as interlocutors of the government on behalf of their people and helped the colonial office to implement their policies.

However, after independent, most of the powers hitherto held by the CI were automatically taken away by the constitution and vested them on the president and other branches of the government. Only powers related to traditional issues were left to the chiefs. Nevertheless, chiefs still settles disputes in their communities (except ‘big’ disputes and crimes), ensures law and order, peace and discipline. The chiefs maintain the tradition of their communities and serves as the custodians of their lands. They also mobilise and organises their people for self-help projects. Finally and importantly, chiefs are the rulers of their communities.

Chieftaincy has been the embodiment of the soul, culture, authority, socio-economic and political lives of the people of Dagbon for centuries. It is a source of hope, pride and aspiration, as well as a unifying factor of Dagombas in general. In other words, the institution has been an important aspect in the lives of the people of Dagbon.

As leaders, chiefs are therefore supposed to care for the well?being of the people and provide them with jobs. In a nutshell, they are supposed to help bring development to their people.

Transforming the CI would therefore be of great benefit to Dagbon and indeed, Ghana as a whole. It will transform chiefs into development agents to help their communities shake off poverty. For the purpose of living behind good legacies, chiefs will strive during their reign to bring development projects to their people. Today, it is rare to see footprints of chiefs in our communities.

It is important to recognise that, the dilemma to Dagbon development lies in the hands of Dagombas, and the chiefs must therefore be repositioned to lead the way. Transforming chiefs as development agents will generally transform Dagbon, help create jobs, and curb the Kayaayee menace Dagbon is grappling with right now. An increase in employment avenues will lead to peaceful atmosphere in Dagbon as more of the youth will be engaged in productive ventures rather than dancing to the tune of warmongers.

An enlighten CI will go a long way to enlighten and open up rural communities for development. Chiefs will no longer sit and wait for development to come to them, but will go out to look for development. They will knock at every door to get help for their people.

Politicians have not helped matters in Dagbon. They have persistently been making several promises without fulfilling them. Enlightened communities will lead to greater accountability either directly or through elections. The people will ask politicians and other public office holder for accountability and voting will be based on issues; thus enhancing development in Dagbon.

Even though Dagbon has no abundant mineral resources such as gold, diamond and oil (except the iron ore found at Sheni in the eastern part), the vast fertile land for food crops can be of benefit to the people. Agriculture should therefore be modernised to make it lucrative to attract the youth so as to transform Dagbon into a better state. Investment in the people through education can improve the human resources that can be used for the development of the area.

While their counterparts in Southern Ghana are forming NGOs and Foundations, and attracting millions of dollars from the World Bank to promote development in their areas, nothing much is seen about Dagbon chiefs in this direction. In the south, the Tema Educational Fund, the Kwahu Educational Fund, the Asantehene Educational Fund, the Ga Educational Endowment Fund among others, are some of the foundations established by chiefs to enhance and promote the development of their areas. Dagbon can only boast of two or three of such foundations which include the Zo Simli Naa Educational Fund and the Dakpema Educational Fund.

Taking away some of the powers of chiefs by the constitution after independent could also explain why Dagbon chiefs are not development oriented. The state had taken the role of providing security, social amenities (education, health and drinking water), and infrastructure to Ghanaian in general. This reduced the role of the chiefs to mere ceremonial heads rather than providers of development. Even when the going became tough and government could no longer provide all the needs of its people, Dagbon chiefs are still living in the past; hoping that government will help them with their development needs.

To be successful in transforming the CI into a development agency, the state, the market and the civil society organisations (CSO) have a herculean task to play. Without the collaboration of these institutions, it will be difficult to make much progress.

The state should lead the direction by increasing its effort to provide the basic infrastructure for the rural areas such as electricity, school buildings, portable water, roads, and market avenues; the market should create a condition for fair trade in the rural areas to keep farmers in business; and the CSOs should help to promote and coordinate development in the rural communities.

The state through the Northern Regional Coordinating Council, all the District Assemblies in Dagbon, the Northern Regional House of Chiefs, the Ghana Tourist Board and the Centre for National Culture on one hand, and the CSOs through the numerous NGOs in Dagbon on the other hand needs to collaborate to effectively animate and build the capacities of the chiefs to reposition them to play an effective role as development agents in their communities. Various aspects of community life should be explored - cultural, social, economic and political - so as to enable the chiefs as mayors and chief executives of their communities to approach development holistically.

The willingness of chiefs to participate in the capacity building process is an important factor to consider in this struggle. As a result of old age and illiteracy, most of the chiefs may not be able to take effective part in this new endeavour. In that case, it is appropriate to appoint either an elder in the community or a very enlighten person to substitute them. So long as the chief gives his blessing the community will always respect it.

As an agrarian economy, one major challenge facing farmers in Northern Ghana in general is availability of market for their farm products. This is where the market is important in community development. Various marketing avenues needs to be identified (both locally and international) for the various farm produce of the farmers. If ready market is assured, then farmers will be ready to supply them with products. Assuring farmers ready market is not enough though, but giving them fair prices for their products is what will keep them in business. There should therefore be a balance between the two. The state should ensure that, the market behaves humanly so as to bring about social and economic development to the people.



Finally, it is important for all citizens of Dagbon to rally their support behind this new course to ensure a great leap in the development of Dagbon. Development takes time to be realised. Therefore, the people need to brace themselves for a long but very important journey to development.



By: Yakubu Abdulai

Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

Email: abdulaiya@gmail.com

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