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Opinions of Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Columnist: Adjei-Brenyah, Dennis

Chieftaincy And Property Rights: The Loss Of Custodial Protections

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Dennis Adjei-Brenyah, Esq.

Attorney and Counselor at Law, New York

There is a controversy brewing in Okyeman. We have been told that a member of the Asona royal family of Kyebi, one Nana Adjei-Boating, has directly accused the sitting Okyehene Osagyefo Amoatia Ofori Panyin, II of engaging in “galamsey” – illegal mining; in the area where the Okyehene is the dominant “overlord”.

It would seem to any onlooker attempting to understand the on-going turmoil in Okyeman that clearly, there are indications of some measure of failure of transparency flowing – as polluted as the mighty Birim River- from the local/traditional politics of chieftaincy and claims of ascendancy to powerful chiefdoms. Traditional politics and structured allegiances are constant features of chieftaincy. The Okyeman matter, no less complex, in the face of the oily mix of Parliamentary Democracy and modern governance interfacing with the waters of solid loyalties of the traditional order.

I subscribe to the notion that, even within the complex reality of our modern world – constitutiona democratic governance, the force and cultural call of chieftaincy have merits. In a real sense, we, as people, are defined by and within the point-marks of the traditional boundaries of our chiefdoms. This institution can and should be a catalyst for development; provided always, that there are put in place, coherent principled rules defining and controlling the perimeters of that power base anchored and embodied in traditional governance symbolized in chieftaincy.

We are all sadly too familiar with the horrendous translation of loyalties to persons or “Skins” or “Gates” or “Stools;” when ill-defined and contentious avenues of succession to those “powerful” positions are not forcefully checked.

Our traditional succession apparatus is usually able to avoid such horrendous expressions of violence and mayhem and the generally insidious assault on the peace and tranquility of our people in the motherland (or; if you prefer – the fatherland).

It is against this background that when sitting chiefs are accused directly as has happened in Okyeman; that instruments of governmental force must manifest themselves boldly and quickly with an eye to squashing “trouble makers”. Failure of such “force” is a benign invitation to uncontrolled gun-play. We bear witnesses to this. Emotions and loyalties combine to overturn reason. Conflagration prevails. Peace losses out. Brother sets upon brother. Fear predominates. We can always do better than that. But, then again, there are always the shameless profiteers of violence; the exploiters of “brother on brother” mayhem for political gains. It is all in the mix.

As the circumstances played out, we were told that the charging party (who lays claim to the Okyeman Stool himself) – and ,of course, a citizen of the area, was “tried” and fined 72 sheep and 36 crates of schnapps in absentia, by the Okyeman Council, for the allegations leveled against the chief and failure to substantiate such allegations. It is not clear under traditional “law” whether this fine is reviewable. The charging party has expressly refused or declined to pay this rather hefty fine. What is the enforcement mechanism? Or, is it all an exercise in empty traditional and local politics? Where do we go from here? What are we doing wrong?

Be that as it may, the Okyehene finally denied the accusation. And, in the process of his denial, the chief made statements that constitute the defining features of the true damage being done to chieftaincy by those who should know much better. The story as presented is that the Okyehene regarded the matter of the accusation as “laughable” and he laughed at such accusation: That he ( the Okyehene) is sponsoring unlawful, illegal mining in his neighborhood and thus contributing to the environmental degradation of the area. This, I dare say, is not a “laughing” matter. It is as intense and as serious as they come. And yet, the Okyehene is reported to have said: “…I laugh…I think if I want to do mining anybody can’t stop me…why will I go and hide to steal my own property?” (See Ghanaweb December 1, 2011 in news).

If indeed, this is the correct quote from the chief, then clearly, there are severe difficulties with his understanding ( and chieftaincies’ understanding of its role) in protecting the assets of our people.

First: on the matter of some uncertain semantics: Did he mean to say; “If I want to do mining, anybody can’t stop me…” Let it be known that if, indeed, the chief has been given the proper authority to operate “mining,” then he is all clear. If, on the other hand, he is doing “illegal” mining as charged by the Nana Adjei-Boating, then, clearly, “anybody” can and should stop him. If he meant “nobody” can stop him, if he engages in illegal “mining” then, again, he is sadly mistaken. There are laws governing mining. He is not immune from the force and operation of such laws. No one is: It is probably true, that, in a general sense, if the chief is engaging in mining (the legal type) “anybody can’t stop” him. Only the lawful constituted authorities can -- subject to the license. However, any citizen, including the present charging party, will be within his/her rights to instigate an appropriate inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the operation of any “ mining operation” by anybody without any verifiable authorization, resulting in environmental degradation in the area.

Second: Beyond the semantics and word-play, my greater concern is the statement attributed to the great chief that: “Why will I go and hide to steal my own property?” Simply put, it is not, repeat, not his property. Therefore, it is conceivable he could “hide” and “steal” it. That statement betrays the failure of persons in authority to see and recognize that they are no more than custodians – to hold and protect for the people and posterity. The gold and the diamonds and whatever treasures are embedded in the bowls of Okyeman land, are not his property, as he seems to think. Those treasures belong to all children of Okyeman, and by extension, all of Ghana and its people. This failure of chiefs and traditional leaders, to see themselves as custodians of the treasures of our people, has caused and is causing us major headaches – major ill-health to our development efforts. That is what fuels the unsustainable radical position that Chieftaincy is “irrelevant”. We give meaning to that stand by the conduct of some of our chiefs.

A duty is imposed upon us all to educate and nurture this principle of saving and improving what the Almighty has bountifully provided us to pass it on to the yet unborn. And the Birim River, the Ofin River, the Pra River and my own little Nwabi River, will flow again – free from the sickening pollution killing us and, with it, our future.

*Dennis Adjei-Brenyah, Esq. is a practicing lawyer in New York, USA,