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Opinions of Thursday, 24 January 2008

Columnist: Afriyie, Bright Siaw

Chieftaincy and Democracy

In the mist of good people of Ghana there have been some interesting debates going on in this forum about the merits of Chieftaincy institution in Ghana. While some arguments favor the chieftaincy institution as worthy of its usage for development to incorporate traditional values, others push down the institution as archaic and most retrogressive and undemocratic. Others argue that there are too many problems with chieftaincy, especially in Ghana, while in essence without realizing the occurrences of some serious troubles infringed on us by democratic processes in Africa in general. Some do not necessarily realize that the establishment of chieftaincy institution takes precedence over the advent of modern democracy. It is undeniable fact that such issues as occurrences where political parties clashing each other in Zaire-Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Kenya purport a glimpse of distasteful flavor of politics and the entire democratic machinery in Africa. Even in Ghana starting from CPP era thru AFRC/PNDC times, the country had experienced some bad moments and some serious political unrest. In contrast, the chieftaincy institutions have known few of the kind of instability, and even the few occurrences were mostly due to the political powers exerting external influence on traditional rulers? interest. I am not writing this article because I am a traditional chief of Adansi-Atobiase myself, but because, as a Ghanaian, I have the obligation to throw light on the obscured misconception of chieftaincy institution in general.

Chieftaincy is an institution established by God noting from the time of Pharaohs, Saul, David, Herod, and Solomon and so on. (Please refer to 1 Samuel 10:1). The key objective seemingly to create a ?leader and subject? relationship, a social contract with a concerted motive that the leader would always protect and defend his/her subjects in times of war and also assumes the responsibility as the judge of the people and figuratively be a symbol of the cultural community. For several thousands of years the installation of chiefs, have been through the selection of a person whose lineage can be traced to the stool. The colonial masters? influences may have made some ethnic groups deviate a bit from their line of inheritance as had occurred in Cameroon and Botswana, according to Dr. Nyamnoh and even in Ghana according to oral tradition.

Bringing the chieftaincy back to Ghana colonial and post-colonial impact has greatly affected the autonomous powers that were originally vested in traditional chiefs. Modern system of governance being imported culture only educates Africans to reject their own traditions and cultural heritages to the advantage of post-colonial fashions, the so called ?modernized democracy?. In Africa, chieftaincy is a dynamic institution with pre-colonial roots in some cases, and largely colonial and post-colonial origins in others. Within these frameworks, chieftaincy is seldom credited with the ability to liberate or to work in tune with popular expectations, even when such expectations are largely unaccounted for by such competing rhetoric as liberalism and socialism. Now that the central government assumes the function of defense and judgment the following questions come to mind: 1. What role is left for the chief to assume? 2. What kind of democracy does the chieftaincy institution represent?

I dare to say that chieftaincy institution has a great merit in African society and has even gained better recognition internationally. One typical example is GhanaFest annual ceremonies in Chicago,USA, with fiery food, traditional dancing, live music and ceremonial wear. This signifies the plight of Ghanaians in diaspora portraying their rich cultural heritage that is centered around the chieftaincy institution. We should not allow a gloomy faction of some advanced world cultures overshadow our rich heritage. At present however, scholars increasingly acknowledge the resilience of chieftaincy institutions, even in contexts like Mozambique where in the past they had been threatened with abolition. A renewed boom in chieftaincy is thus observed and many chiefs are taking up central roles in contemporary politics which must be encouraged in Ghana. For example in Ghana, in the upcoming presidential elections, the country's traditional rulers may use their influence to sway the election in favor of their preferred candidates just by fulfilling their traditional role in this democratic process. In general, chiefs and chiefdoms, instead of being pushed ?into the position of impoverished relics of a glorious past?, have been functioning as auxiliaries or administrative extensions of many post-colonial governments, and as ?vote banks/brokers? for politicians keen on cashing in on the imagined or real status of chiefs as ?the true representatives of their ?people??.

Chieftaincy has thus had continued relevance. Evidence of this includes the fact that an increasing number of highly educated young men, some with doctoral degrees from European and North American universities, are being enthroned chiefs of various communities throughout the country. Unlike during the 1950s and 1960s when educated chiefs were rare. The practice of appointing and installing chiefs as representatives among their subjects in the diaspora has become quite common nowadays. As ?sons and daughters of the soil? of various home villages, some urban elite do not hesitate to invite their village chiefs to preside over ceremonies and functions aimed at enhancing their chances in the cities where they live and work. All these obviously account for meritorious status of the chieftaincy institution.

The argument that the chieftaincy institution is archaic and retrogressive is certainly disputable a fact that is too vague. The chieftaincy institution is an ongoing modernization process. In South Africa for instance, where even the ANC elite in struggle had predicted the passing of chieftaincy alongside apartheid, active dynamic re-appropriation of ?tradition? has been observed through claims to chieftaincy by historically marginalized cultural communities seeking recognition and representation, and chiefs like Mangosuthu Buthelezi have played and are playing key roles at the centre of post-apartheid party politics and power. In Ghana for instance, the role that the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II is playing is magnification of our rich culture embraced with the promotion of education. One can just observe the great achievement of the present Asantehene, the transformation of the Manhyia palace, and the modernization role is quite impressive. That is a boost to another level of modernization. Going to the small towns chiefs play important role in the community. I, for example with a little resources, had mobilized all Adansi-Atobiase natives living home and abroad to be involved in communal labor to build a police station and a school which responsibilities would have been for the central government to assume. Ethnic elite associations proliferate in the corridors of power and resources seeking political and economic recognition and representation for their regions or peoples as cultural units. They do not hesitate to call upon their chiefs to facilitate this process of ?bringing development? to the home village, even if this entails rivalry and conflict with other chiefdoms.

Trying to define "Democracy" in this context is a difficult task, but I will try. Democracy has developed over the course of history and is present in many different forms today. In brief terms democracy is a form of government in which state authority is derived directly and/or indirectly from the people. Democracy may be practiced in several forms such as direct, representative (parliamentary-UK and presidential-USA), or mixed. Democracy is based on a certain image of man. A society can be regarded as being democratic when, while recognizing the dignity of man, the state's ultimate value is aimed at guaranteeing all citizens the right to equal freedom and the right to organize their lives in a responsible way while creating the social conditions necessary for this. To this end, democracy is a value-bound political system whose aim is the realization of values rather than a system based on neutral rules of procedure. Therefore, democracy is more than the sum of formal procedures and laws. On this basis, I dare to say that the process of choosing a chief among the Akans also involves a ?democratic? process.

Looking at when a stool becomes vacant, qualified persons with lineage to the stool are invited to submit their candidacy through the queen-mother a watchdog of royal lineage. The process continues by selecting a candidate and the sub-chiefs each representing the seven Ashanti clans known as king makers are made to confirm this candidate. All this process is democratic in itself. Someone may argue that why should chiefs selected from his direct stool lineage be democratic? The answer is very simple, and I am going to focus on Akan ethnic group. Each of the seven clans of the Akan has its own lineage with respect to a particular city or village. For example the stool lineage of Kumasi belongs to Oyokoo clan, Asante Mampong belongs to Bretuo clan, Adansi for Okoona, Dormaa for Aduana, etc. The rule is that no one clan can criss-cross the other for a stool lineage. Theorizing democracy and accountability in Africa ought to emphasize networking and creative domestication of encounters with others. This focus should check the application of misleading labels, and draw attention to the various pressures exerted on the state and private corporate entities by various groups in various ways for various reasons of empowerment. Although the presumed representability and accountability of chiefs to their populations have been questioned, this does not seem to have affected the political importance of chieftaincy in a significant way. A growing number of scholars recognize chieftaincy as a force to be reckoned with in contemporary politics in Africa, especially with increasing claims for recognition, restitution and representation by cultural and ethnic communities. Many of us are yet to abandon our sterile prescriptiveness informed by the arrogance of ignorance, and to understand that the reductionist, insensitive, barbie-like model alternatives we seek to impose are simply too rigid to do justice to Africans and their communities as dynamic embodiments of a creative mix of encounters and identities. To be genuine scholars of democracy, we must be democratic in our scholarship, by emphasizing observation over opinion.

I totally disagree with the fact that Chieftaincy is a retrogressive institution. Almost everywhere, chiefs and chiefdoms have become active agents in the quest by the ?modern big men and women? of politics, business, popular entertainment, bureaucracy and the intellect for traditional cultural symbols as a way of maximizing opportunities at the centre of bureaucratic and state power. It is in this connection that some scholars have understood the growing interest in the new elite to invest in neo-traditional titles and maintain strong links with their home village through kin and client patronage networks. Monarchies over the world have demonstrated this resilience and adaptability of might in the face of clamors for rights. In the June 2002 Golden Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen?s adaptiveness and stature as a symbol of unity were described by Prime Minister Tony Blair as the reason for the current outpouring of deference from people with whom she enjoys a strong and deep relationship. The British monarchy has survived also thanks to a shrewd investment of its symbolic capital in the new elite, some of whom have risen to prominence from among the working classes and inner-cities. If we consider chiefs as agents and chieftaincy as dynamic institutions, we are likely to be more patient towards ongoing processes of negotiation, accommodation and conviviality between continuities and encounters with difference and innovation on the continent. We would be less keen on signing a death warrant for or seeking to bury chieftaincy alive. Africans have been quick to recognize the merits and limitations of liberal democracy and its rhetoric of rights, because they are inadequately accounted for under global consumer capitalism and because of the sheer resilience and creativity of their cultures. With this recognition has come the quest for creative ways of marrying tradition and modernity, ethnicity and statehood, subjection and citizenship, might and right and the role embraces the following outline:

1. The role of traditional leaders in the modern democratic dispensation, the constitutions or laws of entities shall be amended to provide for the role of traditional leaders in the Legislative and Judicial branches where appropriate; 2. Education, the laws shall be enacted for the teaching, learning, and use of indigenous languages, customs and cultures in all public and private schools at all grade levels; 3. Environment, the national and state constitutions or laws shall be enacted to provide for the inclusion of traditional or community leaders of the affected village or community as the first clearinghouse for major projects or programs; 4. Language, national or state constitutions and laws shall be amended to clearly require the use of indigenous languages in public institutions and functions and to declare its superiority over foreign languages in case of conflict. Students shall be proficient in writing and reading and shall further be fluent in speaking of the indigenous language in accordance with set standards upon graduation from sixth grade; 5. Customary Dispute Resolution, specific provisions shall be incorporated in national, state or municipal constitutions or laws to provide for traditional or customary courts composed of traditional chiefs and community leaders to decide matters relating to customs and traditions. This is already implemented in Ghana.

African communities are similar in numerous ways, just as they are diverse. Invented, distorted, appropriated or not, chieftaincy remains part of the cultural and political landscapes, and is constantly negotiating and renegotiating with new encounters and changing material realities. The results are chiefs and chiefdoms that are neither completely traditional nor completely modern. Chiefs and chiefdoms shape and are shaped by the marriage of influences that makes it possible for Africans to be both ?citizens? and ?subjects?, and to negotiate conviviality among competing forces in their lives.

In this article, I have argued that, instead of being pushed aside by the modern power elites - as was widely predicted both by modernization theorists and their critics - chieftaincy has displayed remarkable dynamics and adaptability to new socio-economic and political developments, without becoming totally transformed in the process. Chiefdoms and chiefs have become active agents in the quest by the new elites for ethnic, cultural symbols as a way of maximizing opportunities at the centre of bureaucratic and state power, and at the home village where control over land and labor often require both financial and symbolic capital. Upon this merit chieftaincy must be sustained as rich culture, as African identity and as a great empowerment for socio-economic and political developments.

Bright Siaw Afriyie IT Professional, Texas (Nana Taaka II, Adansi-Atobiasehene)

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.