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FEATURE: Politics and the Role of Chiefs in Ghana


The issue of chiefs' involvement in partisan politics is a vexed one that will persist for as long as politics and chieftaincy continue to take centre stage in the governance of Ghana. A chief who assumes a partisan political posture cannot at the same time be said to be espousing the privileges, sanctity and nobility reserved for chiefs because the two positions are diametrically opposed.

Yet some chiefs are known to have aligned themselves unashamedly with political parties and canvassed at public functions for some parties and even sought, subtly or openly, to direct their subjects to vote for a particular political party. Has the political establishment a carrot so appealing and a stick so strong and frightening as to compel chiefs to abandon their traditional role to dabble in partisan politics?

Chiefs in Ghana as elsewhere in Africa are the embodiments of their subjects. They exercise political, religious and spiritual powers over their people. In the advent of colonial rule and the emergence of modern nation states, the colonial authorities adopted policies that progressively nibbled at the powers of chiefs and made them accomplices of colonial domination.

New policies in a similar vein were introduced and old ones strengthened by indigenous governments at independence to reduce the status of chiefs. Today in Ghana, according to Dr. Gilbert Keith Bluwey, a Research Fellow at the University of Ghana, Legon, "chiefly power as a political power or the right of traditional rulers to make and enforce decisions in their own right is clearly outside the framework of the 1992 constitution".

Dr. Bluwey in a paper titled the "Role of Traditional Rulers in the District Assembly System of Local Government", called it a policy of political exclusion where "all the deliberative, legislative and executive organs of state from the village to the town level are composed of secular functionaries to the near exclusion of traditional rulers".

The only direct role remaining for chiefs in modern governance is that which Dr. Bluwey said arises out of "the right to be informed or consulted and the right to advise".

That role, he said, is played at the Unit, Town and District Assembly levels where "a small number of the membership of these bodies are expected to be appointed by secular functionaries after consultations with both traditional rulers and recognised bodies within the area of each of such organs"

Additionally, the constitution provides in Article 255(c) that two chiefs from the Regional House of Chiefs shall belong to the Regional Co-ordinating Council, which is headed by the Regional Minister. The President of the National House of Chiefs is an automatic member of the Council of State - the highest advisory body to the President.

Is it for want of a role in government, and/or the lingering fear of the use of governmental powers in the past to make or unmake chiefs by having to gazette them that draws chiefs into active politics? Or is it the desire by some chiefs to be counted as faithful servants of governments that makes them identify with a political party in power even at the risk of weakening his authority and causing disunity among their people?

Are some chiefs simply influenced by plain opportunism fuelled by rewards from a power broker in the form of cash, influence, advantage and other favours? A chief, according to Mr. Ankpierebe Alfred Tuureh, Registrar of the Volta Regional House of Chiefs, is comparable to a religious leader. "As the Priest who actively participates in partisan politics would be unable to hold his congregation together so would a chief doing the same not inspire his subjects," he stated.

In Mr. Tuureh's opinion, a chief who dabbles in partisan politics reduces his dignity, "exposes himself to insults and practically reduces himself to a commoner". He said that even though the constitution bars chiefs from active politics, he was unsure of where the dividing line between politics and active politics should lie.

"But I will condemn a chief who would mount a public platform to solicit votes for a political party and a chief who would send his gong-gong beater to town on the eve of elections to urge his subjects to vote in a certain way," Mr. Tuureh stated.

Allegations of impropriety levelled against chiefs include: . Open association with political parties. . Declaration of personal support for political parties; . Canvassing for political parties. . Intimidating subjects who do not support the chief's favourite party. Chiefs, in playing their traditional roles, interact with government at all levels. In the process, familiarity, especially where a government has stayed in power for a long time, the sweetness of influence peddling and power brokering and perhaps sheer greed and graft get them so entangled with governments that they are unable to extricate themselves from the trappings of partisan politics.

It cannot be ruled out however that some chiefs, as humans, get involved with political parties out of a strong conviction that their origins, traditions, leaders and programmes are the best. But, however strong a chief's conviction is to push him to dabble in active politics, the law, morality and sheer logic should deter him from doing so.

For these reasons, it is dishonourable for a chief who presides over a public function attended by a party official or government dignitary to urge the audience to vote for the party to which the dignitary belongs. So also is the chief who receives a political functionary at his palace and declares his support for his guest's political party.

As for those chiefs who run politically motivated errands, the plain truth is that they have acted sacrilegiously and abdicated their stools for no chief runs errands for a subject no matter how rich or powerful that subject is.

Such chiefs have traded with the "souls" of their subjects. They are stranded and bereft of honour. The change of government would now bring home to chiefs and all Ghanaians the import of the 1992 constitutional provision that certain institutions must operate in a non-partisan manner.

There is a call now for chiefs to get involved in the district assemblies. Professor Atsu Ayee of the Political Science Department of the University of Ghana, Legon, and an expert described the call, which came from the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, on decentralisation, as important.

However, if chiefs are to exert any positive influence on the development of their districts, then they have to be above partisan political influence and pressures in order to remain credible in the eyes of their subjects and Ghanaians in general.