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Opinions of Thursday, 10 July 2008

Columnist: Adu Asuama, Nana

The Inevitable Demise of Chieftaincy

The Inevitable Demise of Chieftaincy: How Prepared is the Nation?

Whenever I think of Chieftaincy, Enstoolment or Enskinment in Ghana, my mind conjures up images of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the interposed images, I see everything from equivocation, intimidation, mysterious rituals, witchcraft, and usurpation of power to the employment of desperate measures (like murder) as a means of gaining or holding on to traditional power. Just as the narrative of Macbeth presents readers or audience with a sense of a ticking time bomb, we Ghanaians, audience of the ongoing real life Drama called ‘Ghanaian Chieftaincy,’ are perceiving similar sensations on our national stage as stool after stool, skin after skin, gets engulfed in senseless endless squabbles, litigations and “I WILL SHOW YOU WHERE POWER LIES......”

Chieftaincy (monarchy), the first form of governance in almost every nation of the world, has served us well for centuries but at this point in our Nation’s history, it has very little relevance in our daily lives and absolutely no place in our democracy. We now see and hear the ticking hands of the CLOCK OF CHANGING TIMES as more and more Ghanaians call for the abolition of the institution in writings on Ghanaweb and in debates elsewhere. Time has run out, like Macbeth, chieftaincy is living on borrowed time.

Chieftaincy has survived fifty-one (51) post independent Ghana years and this has prompted some folks to chant the “resiliency of chieftaincy.” Beloved Ghanaians, make no mistake, the institution is on its way out. It is not a question of when but how. Worldwide, the pattern is the same, democracy comes into a country/state and monarchy (chieftaincy) goes out. In some states, it goes out quietly, in others, it goes out with a bang. In France, it went out with a revolution. HOW WILL CHIEFTAINCY LEAVE OUR NATION? Will it go quietly or with fireworks? The country of Nepal has recently voted to abolish monarchy (their version of chieftaincy). CAN WE GHANAIANS TAKE A CUE?

Unlike any other nation in the world, Ghana’s bottom heavy institution of village chief, sub village chiefs and sub-sub village chiefs is numerically too large and organizationally too ingrained in the fabric of our society to be abolished with one mighty stroke of the pen. However, we cannot keep pretending (business as usual) and allow this cankerworm of chieftaincy to gnaw right through the fabric of our democracy. We cannot as a nation practice separation of powers (executive - president, legislative - parliament, judiciary - courts) at the top of government only to concentrate all three powers in the hands of some village chief at the grassroots level.

Although all chiefs have concentrated power, some paramount chiefs with such power also control very large areas - case in point the Ashanti region. Before proceeding the reader must understand that this is an academic exercise to advance an argument. Ashanti region is not singled out for ethnocentric reasons. It simply provides the best example. The territorial sphere of influence of the Ashanti regional minister is almost the same size as that of Asantehene - the king. It is actually smaller if towns outside the region that swear the oath of allegiance to Asantehene is added to the mix. While the minister can only enforce laws passed by the parliament and interpreted by the courts, Otumfuo (the king) makes his own laws, enforces them and can prosecute or punish any subject who disobeys laws from his Manyhia palace / court.

Some modern attitudes question Asantehene’s power to effectively punish recalcitrant subjects. While this is true to some extent, nothing has taken that power away from him. The anti-chieftaincy camp looks at situations like this and calls for action but every call for the abolition of the institution results in a more entrenched pro-chieftaincy support. Can we as a nation afford to sit idle as tension between the two sides builds to a crescendo? Are we oblivious to the insults that follow every Ghanaweb article on the issue? Can we openly discuss this issue on the streets of any Ghanaian village, town or city without resulting to fists, cutlasses, machetes, spears, bows and arrows or shot guns? This article is intended as the first of a series that seek to prepare the nation for the ultimate demise of the institution. Although my viewpoint is “anti-chieftaincy,” I am very, very aware of the historical importance of the institution and respectfully ask the government to build a Museum of Culture to protect this wonderful relic after its demise. In these series, I will answer questions related to the institution’s history, its cultural, social, religious, and political roles in Ghana as well as the rest of the world. My analysis will include popular assumptions and theoretical arguments that advocate that can modernize and keep the institution intact with all its paraphernalia. WILL THE DEMISE OF CHIEFTAINCY IN GHANA SIGNIFY THE END OF GHANAIAN CULTURE? No - Culture is defined by Merriam-Webster Online as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life.” Culture therefore is not a single aspect of our life but the sum of all the individual little things we do everyday. It is the summary of how we as a people cope with our environment. It is not static but dynamic; evolving all the time as we drop certain practices and adapt new ones to suit our changing circumstances.

Modern Ghana’s origin is traced to the 12th century with the movements of the Gonja, the Guam and the establishment of the Bono kingdom. Along the way, we have made some remarkable cultural changes although the lack of written records makes it impossible to chronicle them all. Since the breadth of culture is so wide, I will concentrate on something distinguishably Ghanaian - our clothing and textile industry and use it as a metaphor to advance this argument. Less than a hundred years ago, some of our indigenous people made cloth from tree barks. We have given up that practice and have replaced the Tree Bark cloth with KENTE, ADINKRA, BUBU, SMOCK, KABA etc.


No - We Ghanaians take special pride in our traditional wear. We wear our eight, ten or twelve yard cloth under one armpit and over the opposite shoulder with or without a Tee Shirt as dictated by the tradition of our particular locality proudly. We know we have a chip on our shoulder when we don our Smock, Bubu, Tie and Dye, Adinkra cloth, or clown it all with our vividly colored Kente. Our women are just perfect in Kaba and so some of us get carried away; point accusatory fingers at our country folks in shirts or a pair of trousers and shout: “followers of the white man!”

We forget that - Our cloths, whether Akosombo, GTP, Damask, Java or Wax Prints are either adaptations from or are made in the white man’s world. The Calico cloth, we use in our Tie and Dye as well as in our Adinkra prints, is also a product of that civilization. The colored threads for our Kaba and Kente, the needles and crotchets, the sewing machine and the Loom we weave on are also products of the industrial revolution that occurred years ago in the world some of us love to hate. Indeed, we have successfully adapted or have seamlessly imported the very fabric of our Ghanaian identity and Culture – OUR GHANAIAN TEXTILES, A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION FOR OUR NATION.


No - The institution predates modern Ghana or ancient Ghana for that matter. It is found in ancient civilizations on all the continents except unpopulated Antarctica - from the southern tip of the Americas to Siberia in North Eastern Europe. Zulu land, Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Britain other countries of feudal Europe, India, China, Japan, native American tribes all had kings, queens, chiefs long before our nation was founded. We might have adapted chieftaincy from some earlier civilization. Some argue that our forebears stumbled onto chieftaincy without outside influence. After all historical records show monarchy in Egypt (Africa), Mesopotamia (Middle East), Peru (South America) and China (Asia) around the same time period. They say no group invented the institution. Fair argument, but the presence of the institution on other continents also negates claims that it is exclusively Ghanaian or the embodiment of African culture. It shows that we Ghanaians are late adapters of a system of government or social organizational structure that was tried by others before us. IF WE ARE LATE ADAPTERS THEN WHAT HAPPENED TO THOSE WHO PRACTICED CHIEFTAINCY / MONARCHY BEFORE US? About ninety-five percent of the world’s population had monarchs /chiefs at some point of their history then moved on to other forms of governance. Currently Britain, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Brunei, Bahrain, Thailand, Japan, Swaziland and Native American Reservations in the USA (to name a few) still maintain some form of chieftain or monarch. Monarchs of the world are usually grouped into two broad categories depending on type of power they wield - ceremonial or absolute. Future articles of the series will expand further on absolute and ceremonial monarchs. Ceremonial monarchs only represent their country at functions that require no executive decisions. Absolute monarchs have executive, legislative and judicial powers. They also control the pulse or revenue of the country. Almost all ceremonial monarchs began as absolute monarchs with executive power. At some point in their history, ordinary people of the realm stood up, demanded and got change.


The Ghanaian story is an enigma. Historically, chiefs in Ghana have had absolute power in the areas of their influence. They make the laws for the people - legislative power; they interpret the laws - judicial power and they enforce the law - executive power. Although the various constitutions of Ghana have ascribed each of these powers to a separate branch of government on the national level, none has specifically striped chiefs of any of these powers. Usually when a country becomes a republic, it does away with monarchy and all its entrapments. Ghana became a republic in 1960, got rid of the queen who lived miles and miles across the ocean but did nothing about local chiefs whose activities permeates our daily lives. Future articles of this series will explore this enigma; the various post independence constitutions and the pandering of our politicians on the issue. The viability of ceremonial chieftaincy in Ghana will also be tackled. SHOULD GHANAIANS DITCH THE TRADITIONS OF OUR FATHERS FOR WESTERN WAYS OF LIFE? No, not summarily but we should not accept everything old as gospel either. The realities of today’s Ghana are far different from the Ghana of our forebears. We should go through our traditional ways with a sieve, preserve what is worth preserving in our daily lives and consign others to museums or history books. As we go along, we should remember what Marcus Garvey said “people without a history are like a tree without roots.” Chieftaincy is our history not our future and we should make provision to preserve it as such.

We should remember that westerners did not arrive at democracy by chance. They went through periods of tribulation, wars and strive just as we did. They had chiefs /kings and queens just like we do. Who knows what we would have come up with if we have been left alone to develop at our own pace without the interference of the white man? After all we can point to the Ewe priestly system where chiefs “reign not rule.” While that system is a far cry from participatory government, it could have evolved further, it could have sorted out the atrocities like Trokosi that currently afflict it.

History tells us that for centuries the Greek City States practiced some rudimentary democracy while the rest of Europe languished in serfdom. It took years of efforts by English and French philosophical writers as well as American pragmatists to put democracy on the map.


Yes, it is. However, we can practice most of our good traditions without chiefs. For example, we can always pour libations in our homes, at our meetings or functions. And we don’t need a chief to preserve our forest. We will still have our family heads, extended family elders and community leaders. That is stratified family system and not chieftaincy. A chief is dependant on that structure and not vice versa.


This article has shown that we are at the twilight of the chieftaincy system. The institution is part of our culture and not our culture. The word ‘culture’ simply means “our way of life.” Over the years, our way of life has been changing with our natural and human environment. We have adjusted to earlier changes and will adjust very well to having no chiefs. While chieftaincy’s death is not yet upon us, it is imperative that we make provisions for its inevitable demise…. ready the epitaph; “RIP beloved chieftaincy” …. and be prepared to MATCH ON INTO FULL DEMOCRACY FOR ALL GHANAIANS AND STOP THIS PARTIAL DEMOCRACY FOR THE EDUCATED, VERY RICH OR POLITICALLY CONNECTED FEW.

By Nana (just a first name not a title) Adu Asuama - Raleigh, NC USA

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