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Opinions of Monday, 16 October 2006

Columnist: Amoateng, Yaw

Chieftaincy and Royalty in Ghana: Are We Throwing Away the Baby with the Bathwater?

One of the hallmarks of our rapidly evolving democratic culture as a nation has been the relentlessness with which we have subjected every social, political, and economic institution to scrutiny through open debate and discussion. Consistent with this culture of debate, there has been a flurry of debate and commentaries about the institution of Chieftaincy. Not surprisingly, consensus on the relevance of the institution in the midst of a modern nation-state is far from being achieved. In fact, it appears that the bulk of the analyses seem to be suggesting that the institution is incompatible with modern forms of governance and must therefore be done away with. And, almost invariably, those who suggest that Chieftaincy should be abolished argue that the institution is hereditary and therefore “undemocratic”. Moreover, the argument runs, the institution fosters tribalism, conflict and classism, so to speak. It is significant to note at the outset that the history of the debate about the relevance of the institution goes back to the colonial era when the British colonial administrator in the northern Nigerian Caliphates, Lord Lugard, concluded in his Dual Mandate that in view of the fact that the institution was an essential element in the African’s cosmology, it was to be maintained. This conclusion about the relevance of Chieftaincy led to the introduction of the indirect rule system of administration in most of the British colonies throughout our continent.

Expectedly, this debate continued in the years immediately following decolonization due to both the nature of coalitions formed during the independence struggles amongst the different social formations and the nature of the post-colonial state itself in Africa. But, while the history of the debate about the functionality of Chieftaincy is as old as the Republic itself, it has become more intense since the NPP came to power some six years ago. Without a doubt, this development is a function of both the historical association between the Danquah-Busia political tradition and royalty in the country and the flare up of Chieftaincy-related disputes and violence in several parts of the country in recent years, developments which may have acted as a catalyst for the NPP government’s decision to establish a Ministry of Chieftaincy Affairs. But, do these anomalies of Chieftainship justify such an outright rejection as some seem to be saying? I think the short answer to this question is a categorical NO. I am saying this because I believe that like every system of governance Chieftaincy has its flaws, but these in no way amount to the compromising of our brand of democracy.

It is my aim in this article is to respond to one particular article on Chieftaincy that appeared on the Ghanaweb.com site recently arguing for the outright rejection of such a vital institution of governance in our country. It is my contention that the author’s obsession with binary thinking leads him to commit several conceptual and factual errors: Chieftaincy is based on genetics while democracy is based on merit; office bearers under Chieftaincy are born, while those under democracy are elected; Chieftaincy is reactionary, while democracy is progressive etc. Even though the author does not provide us with the definition of “meritocratic” democracy (obviously because of the difficulty in defining the concept, one can safely assume that he is referring to the neo-liberal type.

I think it would be helpful if we started with certain truisms about the institution of Chieftaincy. The first of these truisms is that the even though the selection of a chief is limited to only members of royal families, the decision to nominate and enstool a person as a chief is based on principles which make the process meritorious, to say the least. A mere birth into a royal family does not guarantee a person the right to the throne. We must not forget the fact that before a person becomes a chief, they are just like any other members of the community and during this period both the royal families and the community are afforded the opportunity to vet the character of all potential chiefs. When the stool becomes vacant either through death or destoolment of the incumbent, the decision by the kingmakers is based on the moral character of the candidates as defined by humility, honesty, compassion, etc. This character evaluation is not done haphazardly because even though the nomination may be the prerogative of members of the aristocracy, their decision is subject to approval by the broader community through the Nkwankwaahene (Chief of the youth). This point very important in illustrating the participatory nature of this form of governance, as we all know, in instances where a chief becomes, arrogant, abusive or extravagant, the “ordinary” members of the community can bring charges against him leading to a possible dismissal from office.

The second truism is that the institution of Chieftaincy is very political in nature. Our history tells us that (after the author in question admonishes us to read our history) that prior to the inauguration of the colonial project, chiefs wielded political, administrative, judicial and even religious powers. Even though because of the superior firepower of the colonialists they managed to subjugate us, our chiefs were the rallying points of the strong local resistance to the imposition of colonial rule. Through the leadership of our chiefs and kings, African peoples everywhere on the continent were not passive recipients of the colonial project and it was the realization of the popularity and the political nature of the institution by the colonialists which informed the decision to preserve it through the indirect rule and other systems of governance at the local level. The colonialists realized that to achieve their aims of exploiting the resources in the colonies to advance the interests of industrial capitalism, they needed the chiefs to ostensibly mobilize their subjects for development projects.

It is the same realization of the popularity and political nature of the institution of chieftaincy that guided the actions of the post-colonial state in Africa. It has erroneously been asserted by several social and political commentators that Kwame Nkrumah, because of his socialist tendencies, sought to abolish the institution of chieftaincy in his quest to usher in a classless society. Contrary to this claim, like his colonial predecessors, Kwame Nkrumah reasoned that because of the popularity of the institution, a fact which was underscored by the Ashanti-based National Liberation Movement’s resistance to his rule, the only way he could maintain power and ensure the successful implementation of his policies was to win the allegiance of the chiefs. To achieve this aim, Nkrumah consciously or unconsciously politicized the institution further by replacing noncompliant chiefs with members of opposing royal families who would dance to his political tunes. Needless to say this act palpably falsifies the thesis that Nkrumah the socialist sought to abolish the institution of chieftaincy; he only wanted to manipulate and destabilize the institution to serve his political agenda of maintaining power not only in Ghana but the whole of Africa. Thus, the continuing chieftaincy-related disputes and their attendant violence are indeed a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

The essence of the brand of democracy the author appeared to be touting is multi-partyism or multiplicity of interests and here too our history teaches us that as a group, chiefs never exhibited commonality of interests during both the colonial and post-colonial periods. In fact, while some chiefs and their retainers resisted colonialism to the end, others acquiesced easily, a situation which weakened the local resistance considerably. Thus, besides the “democratic” principles that characterized the internal functioning of the institution itself, it has always been the epitome of the countervailing centers of power that are vital for the nourishment of democracy. Does the existence of the Monarchy in the United Kingdom and other European countries detract from the democratic processes in those countries? Against this background of the brief political history of our country, it is indeed illogical for anybody to say that chieftaincy and meritorious democracy are not bedmates and at the same time shower praise on Kwame Nkrumah for having blazed the democratic trail in our country. For, if chiefs, by virtue of their individual personalities and variations in local customs and traditions, do not show uniformity of interests, then ipso facto their mere existence in the polity is surely consistent with of the democratic principle of diversity?

All this leads to a third truism about the institution of chieftaincy, which is that the institution is flexible and therefore able to adapt easily to changing circumstances. In fact, this feature of the institution is all the more important in the face of such untruths that it is aristocratic, reactionary, and only popular amongst our rural, illiterate folk. Without a doubt, such wild claims simply melt upon contact with the empirical evidence available on the rapidly changing role of chiefs in our contemporary society. It is very interesting indeed to observe that in spite of our so-called formal education, some of us still perpetuate the colonial myth of a dichotomy between rural and urban existence in our type of society. It is true that as measured by population size, we have cities and urban centers but the question I pose is: do we have empirical evidence of any significant shift in values with regard to chieftaincy as a result of the drift towards urban areas? Even though I am not aware of any such evidence in recent times, we can glean through the available anecdotal evidence to make some educated guesses about the state of affairs. To the extent that factors such as literacy, unemployment, network with ethnically-based groupings in the urban milieu influence changes in value orientation, we can aptly describe our urban dwellers both on the continent and in the diaspora at best as “urban villagers” as several sociologists have observed with regard to urbanization of Africans.

At a workshop organized by the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa in 2004, the Asantehene alluded to this phenomenon in the following words:

The people in this world largely have a traditional worldview and look to their chiefs and elders for development, settlement of disputes, allocation of land, financial support to the needy and other elements of social insurance. They hardly speak English or any European language. They have limited access to health facilities or other social amenities. They are mainly farmers or peasants and the quality of life is significantly lower than that of the other world. No chief who commutes from the first world to the second world can fail to appreciate the reality of this dualism and the challenges it poses for an integrated national development which is equitable and sustainable.

Essentially what this means is that widespread illiteracy and unemployment in African cities propel many migrants to gravitate towards members of their ethnic groups for the purpose of pooling resources together as an adaptive strategy in their new environments. So, rather than the atomistic individual which the city is supposed to create, we have perhaps the unintended consequence of such migrants becoming even more attached to their ethnic values, traditions and customs. And, let us not forget the fact the two largest cities of our country—Accra and Kumasi---are the seats of the Ga and Asanti Monarchies respectively. And, as a reflection of the institution’s adaptability, in recent months these two Monarchs have been able to mobilize their respective residents to undertake various development-related projects voluntarily. As further evidence of the resilience of the institution of chieftaincy, we are now increasingly witnessing a phenomenon in our country where kingmakers are opting to install as chiefs royals who are highly educated like the rest of us if not even better educated.

This latter point has been a consistent finding in a five-country study, including Ghana, under the auspices of the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa which is looking at the relevance of traditional authorities in modern African states. As a result of their educational standing many chiefs see themselves as better qualified and competent than some of the District Chief Executives who are appointed by the state to deliver development projects. One chief in Paramountcy in central Ghana was very emphatic about this issue and suggested that the poor state of development in his area was due to the poor education and incompetence of the District Chief Executive. So, rather than being a relic of the past as suggested by some analysts, the institution is versatile, proactive and dynamic. The King of the Bafokeng in South Africa put it so well when at an ECA workshop, he said: “We are rooted in –but not bound by – tradition”.

The Asantehene’s educational Fund, the increasing involvement of Chiefs, Queens and other traditional authorities in such worthy causes as poverty alleviation, HIV/Aids awareness and prevention, vocational training of the youth and women are a living testimony of how far our chiefs are prepared to go in the socio-economic development of African societies. Consider the position of Nkosoohene (chief of progress). This position does not only reflect the fact that non-royals can be appointed to the chief’s cabinet, but also the fact that the institution is dynamic and meritorious since the chief more often than not appoints an exemplary member of the community to this position. We should not be surprised at all if, because of its increasing relevance, an IT chief becomes added to the chief’s cabinet!

It might interest you to know that in South Africa, the state is seriously considering a policy shift to make traditional authorities sitting members of Municipal Councils as a means of ensuring better service delivery at the local level. Moreover, the pre-colonial and the immediate post-colonial situation where chiefs appeared to constitute a parallel power to that of the modern state is rapidly giving way to a situation where the two entities recognize complementary nature of the partnership between them. This was again echoed by King Molotlegi of the Bafokeng in the following words:

As traditional leaders and members of traditionally-governed communities, we are not opponents of the national government, but rather its constituents, ready to participate in the wider national debate. What’s needed is a mindset in which traditional structures are viewed as valuable partners, rather than as competitors or opponents, in the formation of African democracies (my emphasis).

It is indeed an understatement to say that as a dynamic institution, chieftaincy is a positive force for development in 21st century Africa, which contrary to the idea of progress has witnessed civil wars and underdevelopment of various dimensions. Take the conflagration in the West African sub-region in the last few years. What explains Ghana’s relative stability in an otherwise volatile region? Consensus is now emerging among some scholars that one of the cardinal variables that explain the Liberian brutal war has to do with the fact that because of its history as black settler colony, traditional bonds were weakened, if not totally displaced in certain instances and as a result a cultural void ensued with no strong values or norms of society to have acted as a check against the excesses. The legitimacy that traditional leaders command so as to hold society and its actors, especially the youth in check were absent thereby making mobilization for war easier.

It is within the context of this changing image and role of Chiefs that in 2004 the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) organized a workshop in Addis Ababa for prominent Monarchs on the continent to look at the feasibility of integrating traditional modes of governance with the modern “democratic” forms of governance in their quest to bring about a unique system of governance to streamline our political, economic and judicial institutions. The ECA’s point of departure is that the legitimacy of the democratic state should ultimately be based on indigenous social values as reflected in traditional governance which is not limited to chieftaincy but also includes such traditional political processes as consensual approach to the administration of justice based on customary law in traditional courts as opposed to the adversarial national court system. And the feasibility of such a project lies in the empirical evidence we now have of the increasingly supra-tribal nature of the institution of chieftaincy; the active role the Ashantehene and other chiefs from different parts of the country are playing to bring about an amicable solution to the Dagbon chieftaincy conflict is a clear evidence that the institution is not caught in some sort of a “tribal” time warp as many are wont to say.

In conclusion, I can’t help but echo the words of Mr. Olara Otunnu, the United Nations Under-Secretary and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, in summing the consensus that we need to reach between the two systems of governance: “The two sources of legitimacy of governance are not incompatible and Africa cannot move forward with one leg leaving the other behind”.

The writer, Professor Yaw Amoateng, is a sociologist and director of research with the human sciences research council, Cape Town, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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