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Opinions of Sunday, 27 January 2008

Columnist: Dugbazah, Mawuetornam Apostle

Ghana's Chieftaincy Debate

For some time now, the cyber battles regarding chieftaincy have been raging on forums such as ghanaweb.com. It should come as no surprise that such debates are taking place. After all, the western world is bracing for more inroads into African land acquisition with the help of some of the continent's democratically elected officials. And so chieftaincy is a hot topic. To some, the question of whether to accept or reject this indigenous leadership institution is a simple issue: "get rid of it."

For some, the institution is precious and much too dear a part of African cultural and leadership heritage to suddenly part with. Two sides present a list of arguments for and against chieftaincy. In this piece Mawuetornam Dugbazah will discuss the implications of accepting the ante-chieftaincy thesis.

In the Depths of the Heart of Man

"To every utterance there is a motive."

Behind the chieftaincy debate is a host of underlying issues that are not explicitly being dealt with. In the world of ghanaweb.com, Nii Bannerman can be likened to a guru or professor of the ante-chieftaincy thesis. Like many among this 'meritocracy' camp, Nii Bannerman laces his contempt for chieftaincy in anecdotal overtones. His thesis is that the institution lacks leadership credibility, is culturally inconsistent and that it is not based on meritocracy. Others who argue against the chieftaincy institution are the likes of Esi Begyina. This class goes to the extent of using partially-unfounded arguments to defame chieftaincy. Esi has gone to the extent of stating that chiefs seek counsel from inanimate objects for guidance. Some of the discussions have even brought up ancient Akan practices involving human sacrifice and royal burials, as well as the infamous Kofi Kyintoh ritual killing of the 80s period. They have done all this in order to brand chieftaincy. They have also used this as a basis to argue for its abolishment. Despite their arguments, the ante-chieftaincy camp must recognize that their motives for the ante-chieftaincy thesis are bound to come into question at some point of this debate. And for the discerning, this is simply a matter of calling them to question.

The spirit of modern Ghana is the academic persuasion. Today's Ghanaian could very well be described as probably more European in his or her thinking than say, African? The issue however is not whether one is African or European in his or her thinking. Perhaps the more appropriate question to ask relative to the chieftaincy debate is whether or not one is actually just or even motivated by justice and truth. After all, cultural diffusions are the substance of our current epoch. However, let the African not forget history: it was the European and his or her so-called superior intellect that subjugated Africans to the demeaning institution of slavery and that manipulated African governance institutions using the system called 'indirect rule' in the not too distant past. Apart from the physical dimensions of the imposition of slavery, we are also aware of its psychological dimensions. The reality of slavery?s psychological dimensions led reggae's patriarch to pen and sing the lyrics 'emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds? (from Bob Marley's Redemption Song). I am sure that the rasta man would have some interesting words for Nii Bannerman and Esi Begyina.

So then, apart from Africans, today we can say without a doubt that Europeans were also the subjects of mental slavery: they exhibited and continue to exhibit a misguided superiority complex. Some even believe that Africans are incapable of the mental exercises and intellectual output that they have come to be known for since the late 1400s. Now if Europeans could be this deceived about Africans in comparison to their indigenes, then is it possible that even university educated Africans (the kind who seem to swallow everything European, hook, line and sinker) could also be suffering from a bout of superiority complex? In fact, could this class of ?professors? also be suffering from the past twisted thinking of Europeans?

Perhaps it is this alleged superiority complex that emboldens some of them to think that they can pass off anecdotal ranting for real analysis when debating the subject of African chieftaincy. Maybe they think they are so intellectually astute that they do not need to do real research into the institution of chieftaincy in order to discover the root causes of some of the problems that are often associated with it. This is dishonesty, and it is this type of intellectual dishonesty that often leads to the faulty rejections of things African and the even more ludicrous western sycophancy that makes Africans of various persuasions judge Europe and North America using the flawed aesthetic barometer. Such intellectual dishonesty is akin to telling lies or better yet, skewing results to favour flawed uses of the scientific method. Such lies corrupt the soul and are always intertwined with the root of all evil: the love of money. As you can see, my belief is that at the heart of the rant against chieftaincy is the ?love of? or service of money.

What is Chieftaincy? As I once pointed out to one of the ?professors? that posted his written views on chieftaincy on this web site, African chieftaincy can summarily be classified into two traditions: monarchical chieftaincy and priestly chieftaincy. Both traditions are simply leadership frameworks for governance and resource management. The first tradition presents the chief as a paramount leader to whom monetary tribute as well as what could be called ?excessive personal status?, is accorded. Monarchical chieftaincy also bears the mark of labour control from which it gathers some of its legitimacy for being. In Ghana, examples of monarchical chieftaincy can be seen among various Akan groups.

By definition, a monarch is a hereditary sovereign. Although this is an English language definition, the idea is consistent with monarchs in Africa. In the set up of monarchical chieftaincy, a form of absolute rule and resource management is passed from one individual to another within a particular lineage during generational transitions. In ancient times and even now, it was widely understood that even though the skills of leadership and management could be acquired by non-royals, some individuals demonstrated exceptional prowess at astute decision-making as well as a knack for organizational dynamics. Also, there was the acceptance that not everyone had a desire, let alone a sincere desire, to lead. It was therefore not uncommon to find stewardship over national resources being passed from one individual to another within the family lineage of a successive generation. The understanding was that since family itself is both a learning and leadership institution, there could be some transfer of the qualities of leadership that went into making one generation successful. Along with this came the use of the oral and written tradition to impart governance and resource history within the family setting. When it came to ideas about God or gods, some subjects of monarchs even believed that ?blessings? or divine benevolence towards one monarch was supposed to pass on to his or her descendants, thereby being at the service of another generation. Of course, this did not always turn out to be the case.

A feudal system of land management is often associated with monarchical chieftaincy. Within such an arrangement, a monarch is paid tribute in the form of tax. This tax is supposed to be used for creating and funding the governance structure that is built around the monarch. However, what often happened in ancient times was that some royal classes exempted themselves from taxation and lived lavishly on the backs of their subjects. Other groups, notably nations annexed through wars or whose kings or queens had been subjugated through other means were made to bear the burden of taxation. In European-occupied Africa this was the basis of poll taxes and the production of cash crops to be sent to countries like Britain and France.

The monarchical tradition of chieftaincy usually implied the superiority of one class over another. This often became the basis of labour control. An example of this is seen from Akan chieftaincy which was instrumental in West Africa?s cocoa boom of the early 1900s. Akan chiefs defined their power on the basis of labour control. Hence, many times, a caste-like system evolved in the Akan feudal system even if this was not formally expressed. Nations that hold to the monarchical tradition of chieftaincy usually have a ?nobility? class. Whether this nobility is or has really been noble or not is another question. One may investigate the examples of Britain (Prince Charles) and Asante (Otumfuo Osei Tutu II) to assess for themselves. Of course, ugliness as a virtue is sometimes subject to the interpretation of tinted lenses.

Unlike the monarchical tradition of chieftaincy, the priestly tradition of chieftaincy usually implies a set spiritual order as well as a council of ruling elders. Whereas monarchs often ruled by decree, decision making in the priestly tradition of chieftaincy is more a group effort. There is also more of a rigid set of standards about what those who call themselves ?chiefs? can and cannot do by virtue of the office they hold. Rule is less by an individual and more by a counsel that checks the use of power. The element of feudalism and labour control as a basis for power is relatively non-existent because national resources are intended to benefit all. In West Africa, Evhes demonstrate a good example of the priestly tradition of chieftaincy. In this arrangement, land management is non-feudal in nature. Land resources are not meant to benefit just those in the priestly class. Rather, land resources are intended to be used for everyone?s benefit at various levels.

The priestly tradition of chieftaincy does suggest that elders be accorded respect. However, elders are rarely considered to be objects of worship or awe as in the case of monarchical chieftaincy. Therefore, the pomp and pageantry often associated with Asante chieftaincy is not necessarily the case in Evhenyigba (Evheland). In fact, Evhes are sometimes accused of having no ?respect? for their chiefs. This is because in Evhenyigba, a chief is accorded respect on the basis of his doings. And if his doings do not warrant respect, he will rarely get it. As well, the idea of ?queens? is not usually associated with the priestly tradition of chieftaincy. This is because this tradition places the male at the head and as guardian of the family. Patriarchy is very much a part of the priestly chieftaincy tradition. Evhe elders will often tell you that the idea of a queen is not part of their culture. This is not to say that female leaders did not exist in the culture of the past. Rather this is the Evhe way of saying that female leaders are intended to be examples to other females, and not necessarily leaders of men. Today, this order is seen from the restrictions placed on females in concert with certain rituals that have evolved in Evhenyigba. In Part 2 of Ghana?s Chieftaincy Debate, I will look at the ante-chieftaincy thesis relating to the injustices of chieftaincy and dealing with backward practices and land mismanagement.

Mawuetornam Dugbazah is the editor of Our Insight, a quarterly newspaper published in Western Canada.

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