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Opinions of Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Columnist: Amoateng, Acheampong Yaw

Chieftaincy Does Not Compromise Democracy In Ghana

History binds our state and society to the international Capitalist-Imperialist system whether we like it or not and our fundamental law (The 1992 Constitution), underwrites this historical bond in very clear and emphatic terms. In guaranteeing the institution of chieftaincy, the Constitution explicitly recognizes it as one of the countervailing forces in the polity that seek to safeguard the democratic project.

While since the eruption of the fracas between the Paramount Chief of Techiman and the Asante King over the ill treatment of the Paramount Chief of Tuobodom by the former, numerous views have been aired by concerned Ghanaians about the merits and demerits of chieftaincy as a socio-political institution, the one view that has fascinated me the most the question as to whether the institution is compatible with democracy.

Those of our compatriots who view chieftaincy as incompatible with democracy argue that because of the seemingly inherent succession disputes and other conflicts induced by the institution, it poses a real threat to our nascent democratic project and therefore should be abolished outright.

It is an indisputable fact that since 2000 when the NPP under former President Kufuor came to power Ghanaians have embraced the central tenets of liberal democracy with zeal and alacrity. Former President Kufour did not only preach democracy but in fact, lived it to the extent that there were calls from even opposition quarters that Ghanaians were taking the concept of free speech too far because of the licentious language some of our compatriots, including former President Rawlings, were using to describe both the president and the office he occupied.

The nurturing of democracy in the country since 2000 has won commendation by the international community who has hailed our country as the beacon of peace and stability on the continent. This international commendation of our democratic gains was concretized in the high profile visit to the country last year by the US President Barack Obama. Moreover, this fascination with our democracy is clearly evidenced by the rate at which foreign companies in other parts of the sub-region are relocating their headquarters to Accra.

The question as to whether chieftaincy is compatible with modern democratic governance is hardly a new one as we all know. The institution of chieftaincy is the empirical manifestation of the cultural diversity which characterizes even the so-called developed countries of the West whose development paradigm we subscribe to.

Thus, despite the fact that liberal democracy prescribes cultural diversity, some of our own social critics have suggested that the continued existence of the institution of traditional leadership in in our country is a fundamental contradiction of this democratization process. Almost invariably, such political and social analysts have argued that because traditional authority (chieftaincy) is based on birth right as opposed to elections, it compromises our hard won democracy. Moreover, they contend, the institution of traditional leadership is based on a rule by a few and therefore it is contrary to the republican ideals that underwrite liberal democracy as a system of governance.

It is interesting to note that the so-called negative characteristics of chieftaincy which make the institution repulsive to its detractors are rather ironically present in any system of governance in the orbit of either Western or Eastern ideology. For instance, the issue of hierarchy, which was evidently necessary as a means to maintain order and stability in traditional society, is not the preserve of chieftaincy, but rather present in any governance system. In his observation of American democracy, the sociologist C. Wright Mills, made it clear that the major decisions in that society are made by a few overlapping interests and not by the majority of people as their brand of democracy will have us believe.

And it is worth mentioning that a chief’s Council of Elders, a central structure, which is guided by the cardinal principle of “balance” (through representation by all sections of the community), is indeed akin to the present-day cabinet under the liberal-democratic system of governance and whose decisions are open to consensus. Moreover, the calls by some of our people to “modernize” the institution flies in the face of the facts on the ground for if we accept that Western, formal education is one of the coordinates of change and hence modernization, then their reasoning becomes circular in the face of the fact that most of our chiefs now are highly educated and are leading their peoples to pursue causes that can only be described as modern.

In conclusion, let me say that the institution of chieftaincy is a social organization and as such is naturally prone to occasional conflicts. But, unlike in the pre-colonial times when the institution solely performed the legislative, judicial, and executive functions of the state, in the nation state it is a mere part of the whole. Although, the institution has lost most of the legislative, judicial and executive powers to the modern state, as a political institution it is an important competing center of power.

Because the institution is a competing center of power, the direction and intensity of the conflict that is induced by it at any particular time depends largely upon its relationship with the nation state. I have argued in another paper to the effect that most of the conflicts we are witnessing now involving chieftaincy originated in Nkrumah’s attempts to politicize the institution to safeguard his political interests, especially, in the Brong/Ahafo region. The same tactic of using chieftaincy to divide and rule at the national level has been adopted by the National Democratic Congress in its quest to rule the country forever. For example, the elevation of the Chief of Sunyani to a paramountcy by the Rawlings administration lies at the root of the ongoing conflict between the Paramount Chief of Sunyani and the Paramount Chief of Dormaa Traditional Area, while as the Asante King correctly observed, the bias shown by the Brong/Ahafo Regional Minister was the reason for the direction and intensity of the Asante-Techiman conflict.

So, the charge that chieftaincy is incompatible with democracy is without any basis. The empirical evidence of the mutuality of the influence regarding the two systems of governance is too overwhelming to falsify. In our own country, we have record of our chiefs complementing the efforts of the central government in such areas as local government, education, conflict resolution, health (through their involvement in such educational campaigns as HIV/Aids awareness), water, sanitation and countless others.

All this goes to show that contrary to the view that the institution is reactionary, our chiefs have creatively adjusted to the tenets of modernization and have ensured that significant elements of the traditional political system have been made compatible in practical terms with significant features of the modern state. In other words, contrary to the expectation that traditional authority would be a victim of modernization, it has successfully adapted to modernizing influences through such mechanisms as education and acculturation.

PROFESSOR ACHEAMPONG YAW AMOATENG, PHD, IS A SOCIOLOGIST BASED IN SOUTH AFRICA AND GHANA.