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Opinions of Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: Who needs a chief?

We have come a long way from the days when we were ruled by chiefs, haven’t we? Those were the days when the chief could decide when you washed your clothes, how long you could stay out at night, when you can go to the market, when you can go hunting or even when you could sleep with your spouse. Those were the days when chiefs prosecuted goat thieves and punished adulterers.

On a whim, the chief could declare anyone a persona non grata and banish them from the village. He could have banish you if you ‘stole’ someone’s wife or if he felt like stealing your wife. If you were a woman and you dared to spurn the chief’s advances, he could order you and your family expelled from the hamlet or even killed. Those were the days when chiefs reigned supreme – powerful and accountable to no one but themselves.

Life then, was tough. And I’m glad I didn’t live in those days. I can’t imagine myself living in a world where I didn’t have a say in how taxes were collected and spent. I can’t imagine myself in a world where only a few people from a particular family could be chosen as rulers. People like me (born to poor women who sell ‘bofrote’) had no chance whatsoever of leading (or ruling) anyone.

We have been deceived that in those days chiefs were very instrumental in initiating and executing development projects. I wonder what those projects were. Did they build roads or hospitals? Did they provide safe drinking water or did they build schools and universities. If our current conditions are anything to go by, I think I need a lot more proof that chiefs led their people in executing development projects.

Whiles I wait for that proof, I’m taking the position that our chiefs have been of very little use to us, they are of no use to us now and I’m looking forward to the day when what we refer to as the ‘chieftaincy institution’ will be totally dismantled and buried for good.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Last week, the first deputy speaker of parliament, Freddy Blay was reported to have said that chieftaincy is an “anachronistic” institution which must be dumped in the abyss of the national museum. I have no reason to disagree with him. And I believe that if we all put aside our tendency to behave like ostriches, we would very easily understand and appreciate his position.

What have chiefs done for us lately? Nothing! They did nothing then and they are doing nothing now. To an extent, I think chiefs are worse than politicians. In a democracy, when a politician becomes arrogant and places his personal interests above that of the people, a time would come when the people would have a chance to decide whether to retain him in office or kick him out. Not so in chieftaincy. Once you get a ‘sankwas’ for a chief, you are stuck with him until he dies. What makes it even more annoying is that you might have had no hand whatsoever in choosing him to be a chief. The only thing that qualifies him as chief is that he was born into a so-called royal family and is therefore bestowed with a “divine right” to rule.

In our country these days, the “divine right” doesn’t just belong to those who were born into the royal family. If you are rich enough to buy your way into the royal family, you could become a chief. For this reason, among several others, we have so many chieftaincy disputes in every nook and cranny of this country. I don’t think there is a single stool or skin in this country which is not in dispute. Even in the national capital, there are people who strongly believe that the current Ga Mantse is not qualified to be on the stool. So bad was the situation that last year, during the ceremonial sprinkling of kpoikpoi to celebrate the Homowo festival, the Ga Mantse had to wear sneakers – supposedly in readiness for a sprint if he were attacked by people from the opposing faction. People are killing and maiming each other in Dagbon and Bawku because of disputes which go as far back as five decades ago. A similar situation pertains in Anloga and several other places.

All these give me ‘hope’ that the demise of the chieftaincy institution is a certainty. The deputy speaker of parliament should rest assured that no one will have to raise a sword to kill the chieftaincy institution. It will die by itself.

Look at Dagbon, for example. They’ve not had a chief there for more than eight years following the gruesome murder of the Ya Na. I don’t think they will ever have a chief there again. That problem cannot be resolved. I don’t think even King Solomon would have had a solution to that so the Asantehene and the other chiefs should just give up the mediation efforts. Without a chief, have the people of Dagbon lost anything? I don’t think so. There is still some tension in the area but besides that the people are going about their lives as they did when the Ya Na was alive and well. So are they missing their chief? No! They are doing just fine – except for the leaders of the two gates who both have an over-inflated sense of grievance and are unwilling to make any concessions at all. Let them keep at it. But let’s stop pampering them. If they go to war again, the leaders of both factions should be arrested, prosecuted and punished. End of the matter. No Ya Na? So what? Life goes on, doesn’t it?

That is how I think the chieftaincy institution will gradually, but surely, die off. As in evolutionary theory, chieftaincy has become a useless appendage for most of us and it will simply wither off. Nothing we do will save it. In an attempt to make themselves relevant, it has become fashionable for chiefs to set up educational funds. That’s good. But it won’t save chieftaincy. How many chiefs do we have in this country? Thousands! How many command respect and influence? You can count them on the fingers of one hand.

Those who argue for the retention of the chieftaincy institution say that our chiefs are the custodians of our culture. What culture? The backward culture that says you cannot question the chief or the one that says that dead people should be given a ‘befitting burial’ at the expense of the living? The culture that says women are subservient to men and cannot become chiefs? Most of practices that collectively make up our culture are too backward and we need to get rid of them. Therefore, why do we need custodians to keep them? Another reason why I think the chieftaincy institution is going to dies off is that in the 21st Century, we need leaders not rulers. Chiefs are rulers. We don’t choose them. They impose themselves on us and they are almost impossible to get rid of. They are accountable to only themselves and their whims become law. That’s how our ancestors chose to live in centuries past. In the current age, we need leaders who provide vision and direction; people we choose to lead us and can get rid of if they fail to live up to expectations.

Some people say we use our own unique African democracy to elect our chiefs. I won’t be deceived because I don’t think there is anything democratic about how chiefs are installed. Otherwise, Anlo will not be in the throes of an intractable chieftaincy dispute. The people would have decided whether or not Francis Agboada should be Togbe Sri.

I am by no means suggesting that chiefs should be democratically elected. I am also not saying they should reinvent themselves. Nothing they do will make them more relevant than they are now. On this, I am sure I can play Nostradamus and say that the chieftaincy institution is doomed. Thank God!