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Chieftaincy: Is It Contexually Relevant?

Chieftaincy is a topic that invokes all kinds of tension, animosity and primal fear in some of us. The passion around chieftaincy is as intriguing as the institution itself. Often, the talk of chieftaincy happens in some sort of intellectual vacuum. It is my view that it will help the discussion if we talk about chieftaincy in a context, with a lucid vision as the backdrop. In assaying the institution of chieftaincy, we are better able to engage in fruitful discussions if we look at its relevancy toward where we are going instead of where we have been. What is heritage if we cannot feed, cloth and house our people? Don’t frisk me yet, I am not against culture and heritage but it has to be meaningful to make sense. If we cannot question the basic assumptions that underlie a cultural or traditional practice, then how are we able to make critical and fundamental changes to nudge us forward? I hope I am making sense because by the end of this essay, I am looking to not only win converts but also instigate a thoughtful, yet dispassionate discussion, that may influence where we go from here with chieftaincy.

Let me start off by saying that love of country is my only motivation here. My struggle, is to find what works in our society and see how best we can position it to spur development. We cannot parley about development without talking about vision. What kind of Ghana are we creating? What kind do we want to create? You see, once you and I answer these questions, the relevancy of chieftaincy becomes easy to discuss. My vision of Ghana is that, it become a country where everyone is judged by the contents of his or her character and behavior, not what family they are born into or what genetics they are made of. I want a meritocratic country where the son or daughter of the watchman has the same opportunities like the son or daughter of the president. A country where we have a level playing field and opportunities are opened to all. We must all pull ourselves by our bootstraps. Now, it is your turn to define a vision for Ghana and ask yourself if chieftaincy can help build that vision and where it fits in. Time for homework!

The institution of chieftaincy varies from place to place in Ghana. The process for selecting chiefs also vary, given the tribe in question. Noting these variations, one can admit that, in a generic way, chiefs are selected by kingmakers in consultation with the council of elders and the tribe as a whole. The kingmakers, I am told, consult with various family heads within the clans that make up the tribe. Chiefs are tribal heads fused with legislative, executive and judicial power. Chiefs are also seen by some as religious leaders and custodians of culture. Some of these powers have eroded over time but in some very remote areas, these powers are as virulent as the days of the much revered Yaa Asantewaa. Our inability to provide effective democratic local government, continues to make an ambivalent case for chieftaincy.

Prior to the advent of colonialism, present day Ghana was inhabited by a band of marauding tribes. These tribes had leaders known as chiefs. Based on military design or societal arrangements, sub-chiefs and divisional chiefs were appointed by the King or Paramount chief. It is important to note that pre-colonial tribal societies were purely agrarian communities. These were simple societies that nursed the basic goals of growing food and hunting animals. So, it is not far-fetched to intimate that chieftaincy worked very well at that time. Chiefs enjoyed the best and maintained harems in a top down system that had them at the zenith. Can we rightfully say, that, our current situation of cell phones and computers is the same as the simple agrarian society that our forefathers enjoyed? Of course voting was not in vogue so consensus prevailed. Decision-making tools are always situational/contextual. How well does consensus work when you are dealing with a large number of people in a town or country? Do we have that kind of time to play with? Can we invariably say that the country Ghana was born then? I ask these questions because I believe that a careful study of our trudge, if not sashay, through time, helps to size up the relevancy of institutions and how they’ve helped move society towards its futuristic goals. More importantly, technological and social changes ought to help retire or develop processes that help society to become more inclusive, egalitarian and subsequently humane.

The colonialist came in and drew borders; a group of tribes were bunched together to meet the needs of these vampires and viola, country Ghana was formed. Not that simple but formed it was. This new formation was called the Gold Coast, a name that Nkrumah changed to Ghana at independence. Once country Ghana was created, a new obligation was placed on its people, willingly or unwillingly, to transition from our kingdom and feudal mentality to that of a nation state mentality. Despite protestation by a selfish few, particularly the NLM, aimed at breaking up what we now know as Ghana, Nkrumah stood his grounds to keep Ghana as it is today. I don’t think I will be making it up, if I say that some of us have still not transitioned from what I call the kingdom mentality to the nation state mentality. Some argue that only inter marriages will solve this conundrum and move us towards a unified country. Go figure, is all I can say for now!

As a country, Ghana is faced with daunting challenges. The least of which is not chieftaincy. Where does chieftaincy fit in and how can it be reformed to help move us forward as a country? Should we traduce it to just a relic that reminds us of our past? Should it even be reformed? Is chieftaincy amenable to reform that will make it egalitarian? Are we not working assiduously towards an egalitarian society? Is that not the ideal that we restively crave for? To answer these questions, one has to examine the institution of chieftaincy and the basic assumptions that undergird it. It is only through the latter process that we will know whether chieftaincy has outlived its usefulness or can be salvaged to make meaningful contributions towards our national development. To be very frank and honest, I doubt if chieftaincy can be reformed. I say this because any meaningful reform will kill chieftaincy, as we know it. Take for example inclusion; any reform that does not open it up to all able-bodied persons in that locality is not acceptable since it violates the basic principles of inclusiveness, a key ingredient for peaceful development and a meritocratic society. Therefore, why bother with reform? Chieftaincy is so taut and exclusive in disposition that, any slight stretch of its tapestry will lead to irreparable tear. Localities must not continue to remain tribal enclaves. Diversity man! Tribal Integration!

Who is a chief and how is he selected? A chief is an alpha male who is selected by the village or tribal elite. Chiefs are put in place for life. They can be destooled for bad behavior but it is a difficult and laborious process. Often times, since bad behavior or performance standards are not defined, a chief can literally coast on the throne till a cold embrace with death. Notice that the lack of express performance standards leaves members of the tribal group with little to judge their chief’s performance. Commoners rarely question their royal chiefs about performance anyway. Even when they do, the chiefs do not only resist but also invoke royal privilege. In a power distant culture like ours, very few are brought up to question or challenge authority.

To be selected as a chief, you must belong to a particular bloodline, be male, and belong to a particular genetic make up. How is royal bloodline determined? Well, these bloodlines were established hundreds of years ago. What basis did they use? Well, your ancestors may have established the village, fought gallantly in some war, belong to some relatively rich family, excelled in his locality and any other criteria that the village elite saw fit. There is nothing scientific or proven here. These bloodlines are currently closed to all who did not make it at the inception of the system. So what we have now are great grand children of past heroes enjoying the everlasting returns of their great great grand parents. What were the values then and what are they now? This is just like saying that Nkrumah or Busia’s children will automatically be presidents or prime ministers in Ghana regardless of whether they are able, ready and willing to do the job. So, they will take turns ruling and the rest of us are all blocked from ever becoming rulers because we don’t belong to the Nkrumah or Busia bloodline. If this is not madness what else is? Why must we sequester our leadership talents and potential, at a time when we need them the most?

I have very troubling concerns about the institution of chieftaincy, as we know it. I do not believe that in this day and age, any one should assume leadership based on bloodline, genetics and the heroic deeds of their great grand parents. The reason being that, what their forefathers did, has nothing to do with the challenges that we overwhelmingly face today. This notion that one is born royal and therefore they deserve to rule or lord it over others is very sad indeed. It promotes a culture of privilege for a scant minority at the expense of the majority. Did God ordain anyone to rule over the other? If we are all God’s children, then it just makes sense that we should all be given a chance to prove ourselves. Let us not make any mistake here; chieftaincy is a man made system of government. This crass notion of divine ordination must be debunked. If indeed, it is man made to meet the times of yesteryear, why must we continue such a discriminatory system? What baffles me to this day is the kind of Ghanaian that goes to church only to return home justifying chieftaincy. My God! Did God not create us all equal? Somebody please talk to me!

The trait paradigm of leadership has been dealt debilitating blows by cutting edge research. There is now evidence that trait alone is not a reason for leadership. So, to have a certain bloodline or attribute passed on genetically, does not guarantee nor suggest that you will be able to ape or exhibit the same effulgence or stack bravery that earned your grandfather the throne. We also know that, those that are classified as commoners have shown time and time again that they are just as capable of leading, if not better, like these spoiled royal brats. So, as far as competency and performance goes, nothing is etched in stone royally. This is why leaders should not be selected from a limited gene pool or bloodline. We need a level playing field so that all men and indeed women, can compete for leadership positions without regard to what family you are condemned to. We cheat ourselves consistently if we continue to exclude 99% of our people from being chiefs, thus leaders. The goal should be getting the best person to rule, especially, if he/she is going to be there for life. But wait a minute, should anyone rule for life? Holy grail of Mary please save our souls! For those who are reform minded, please take away that for-life crap. No one is that good to wear adult or royal diapers on any throne. Did we not have a fit when Nkrumah was voted president for life? So how can these same matemeho traditionalists defend the fact that a chief must rule for life? Ahaaaa!! Gotcha!!

The whole process of selecting chiefs is totally unacceptable in this day of technology and cell phones. That a village or tribal elite gets to select a leader of a tribe is wrong. Whether we should be selecting leaders based on tribe is another nasty wart to contend with. After all, in the country Ghana, anyone can live anywhere, so why can’t they be part of the local process for selecting leaders? Yes, regardless of tribe! If I am living in Kumasi, then I want to have a say in the selection of the chief. Why not? If his rule is going to impact me then I want a say! Fair is fair!! Yes, the family head in the clan may be consulted but should grown men not be allowed to make their choices directly? Wouldn’t it be beautiful to see pure democracy at the grassroots if we can just let people vote directly for their own chief? Why continue this so called consensus canard if people can vote for the best candidate from amongst all the people in the locality?

Chieftaincy as it exists reinforces tribe like no other factor in our country. Some say well there is nothing wrong with tribe. Sure there is nothing wrong with tribe. I mean, not until you put that ism tail on it. Then is becomes a real problem. Without a sense of tribe there is no tribalism. So let us accept the fact that tribes exist but deemphasize tribe at the gain of pushing nationality. After all, are we not a country now? It appears as if some have still not transitioned to that sense of national identity and that they will still like to fight inter tribal wars like the pre-colonial days. When I see people, I tell them I am a Ghanaian. I don’t start off with, I am this or that tribe. I am not telling you my tribe. You can go by my name but just remember the pitfall in that too.

Sexism and discrimination! As black people we know the pain of discrimination and sexism. We have the slave trade and colonialism as testament to the kind of excruciating pain that one endures when these despicable acts occur. So where do we get off discriminating against our own people by saying you or I cannot be chief of our people because we were not born in a certain bloodline or lineage? Why should a woman be condemned to being a queen mother if she actually wants to be a chief? Who said women cannot rule men? How can anyone with good conscience look in the mirror and say Kojo Armah or Ansah Baah will never be chief because he does not have the pedigree? Should Kojo Armah and Ansah Baah not be given the same opportunity as Nana Okropong to prove themselves? Just imagine that Kojo Armah and Nana Okropong were born on the same day and belong to the same tribe. They sat in the same classroom and had the same training. However, Kojo Armah the commoner, graduated with honors and is a successful businessman based on his leadership abilities and superior intellect. Everyone in town knows that Kojo is a better leader but he will never be the chief because Nana Okropong is a royal brat and Kojo A. is not? Folks, is this the kind of merit less society that we want? Why should we reward privilege and mediocrity? Come on! We must resolutely do better than that.

Notice that I have not even touched on the evils of conflicts, fraud, land disputes, reckless misappropriations, human sacrifice and other impish deeds that chieftaincy impinges on us. Our chiefs have on occasion shown a tendency to self-serve. So they colluded with colonialists to sell our brothers and sisters into slavery for alcohol and gunpowder. Then they resisted our efforts to rip the colonial fetters that held us in place. Yes, some chiefs fought the colonialist but not because they really cared for others or some of their own people. Instead, it was a constant knock to get access to trade routes and subjugate other tribes. This actually made it easier for the colonialist to round us all up into one country. Guess what that did? It enabled the wanton economic rape that we all detest and wish it never happened.

Chieftaincy is a system of governance that centers absolute powers in one alpha male. This means that separation of powers, as we know it, is rarely practiced. Some have argued that the council of elders serves as a check and the people can destool their chiefs or vote with their feet. If these fraudulent assertions were really true, why do we have such a mess with chiefs? Why can’t the council of elders stop the chiefs from selling one plot of land to several individuals? Why are these chiefs not being destooled for the conflicts that they propagate? Why do we still see fraud with our chiefs? Something does not roundly add up here. When it comes to chieftaincy, truth gets as much respect as a mouse cornered by a hungry cat with a voracious appetite. The truth is that this so called council of elders is nothing but a gaggle of court jesters who hang around for handouts and any other privileges that accrue to them. They are not in any position to stop these all-powerful chiefs and stand to lose their lofty perch if they dare upset the bankyi cart. They are indeed, neck deep in this muck!! Other than that, someone explain to us why this mess?

There are those who make all kinds of arguments to justify why chieftaincy should stay. Some even say that chieftaincy has outlasted all institutions and it deserves to stay. Others claim that democracy, as imported from the west, is on life support. What they forget is that we’ve had chieftaincy for hundreds of years! How did it lift our people? What is it that chieftaincy is trying to do in present day Ghana that we can’t do through our democratic experiment? How long have we flirted with our democratic experiment? If democracy had the same practice time as chieftaincy, will it lift us to higher heights? Chieftaincy has lasted because the focus has shifted away from chiefs to the central government. Some maintain that chieftaincy is on its last legs and that killing it off will not add anything to our development effort. While there may be specks of truth in some of these arguments, it does not outweigh the need to unload any obstacle that makes our drive toward development any more difficult than it should be. Take land reform; can we do it with chieftaincy in tow? Chieftaincy is a plurality of governance that we don’t need. We have to do away with drivers of mediocrity, confusion, conflicts and bad governance. The least we can do is to use chieftaincy as a guide of what not to do going forward. Yes, we are grateful for what chieftaincy did in the past but we cannot carry this outdated institution into the future. It is out of context and does not support the expressed or implied vision of the country we seek to create.

Lately, these protagonists and docents who cheer and champion chieftaincy are quick to point to how well Asantehene has begged his way into helping with education in Ghana. It is interesting to note how all his efforts are foreign inspired as opposed to being home grown. Now, if a chief with this much clout, power and resources, can only do what he is doing, then, not much should be expected from us, the commoners without any backing. The gospel truth is that even the most befuddled person, when placed in power will be able to do some good. Additionally, anyone with the position and power of Asantehene can and should do more than what he is doing. Is it just an idea and begging to support it? To say that he is a chief and therefore, that is the reason for doing what he has done for education is pure hogwash. Even bald face dictators and less powerful people alike have brought more life than these half-baked attempts premised on incessant begging, while the gold and diamond lay asleep. These chiefs are devoid of any vision and they are in no hurry to come off their high and mighty thrones to dirty their hands.

Another fallacy that ought to be debunked is the idea that chiefs are the custodians of culture and tradition. A careful look paints a much more different picture. When I was growing up, no chief taught me my tradition or culture. I learnt them from my parents. If we wake up tomorrow and all the chiefs are gone, our culture and traditions will not dissipate. Instead, we will be able to continue with one less obstacle to worry about. We can appoint village or town committees to take care of our traditions and culture. We honestly cannot justify dictatorship in the name of culture, heritage and tradition. Indeed, I am one who believes that deliberate attempts ought to be made to vet culture annually. We should come together around the fire every year and decide which cultural practice stays and which one must get the boot so that we can move steadfastly and prudently toward the vision that we are hell bent on cinching.

As it stands, we should only be nursing institutions that help build the future that we crave. When I envision a meritocratic country where everyone is able to pull themselves by their bootstraps, I don’t see chieftaincy. When I envision a village where sick people go to the hospital and seek medical attention, I don’t see chieftaincy. When I envision a democratic country where representation starts from grassroots, I don’t see chieftaincy. When I envision a country where industry is thriving I don’t see chieftaincy. When I envision a country where land ownership is complete and people can buy and sell land easily, I don’t see chieftaincy. When I envision teaching my kids about our culture, I don’t envision justifying why we should harbor such a discriminatory system of leadership. So where really does this tar baby fit? Your guess may not be as good as mine so let me tell you. I suspect a well-lit museum may not be such a bad idea. We have to bite this bullet for posterity and retire chieftaincy. Like a spent racehorse, chieftaincy must go. It is not amenable to reform. It just does no fit in. Let us continue with our democratic experiment and leave chieftaincy behind. The Greeks gave up the oldest currency, their pride and joy, to join the EU and we must also do the same with chieftaincy, so that we can join modern civilization. The first line of action is to allow those areas that are fed up with their corrupt and troublesome chiefs to outlaw chieftaincy in their locality.

Create post chieftaincy empowerment zones now!

Disclaimer: "The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article." © Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman.