Over the last little while a ravaging debate over the relevance of the institution of chieftaincy under our present democratic governance has been going on in the Ghanaian internet community. I hope at the end of this article to have consolidated and won over some of us to the importance of keeping our institutions of chieftaincy.
Family, I will quote the pronouncements of some of our compatriots to bring to bare the parameters and constrains we are working with.
Minister of Health, Major Quashigah (Rtd.), on Saturday, 9 September, 2006, cautioned chiefs, “That posterity would continue to demand accountability on the cultural heritage bequeathed the chieftaincy institution, if they allowed the unique and valued inheritance to play second fiddle to western cultures. He therefore, entreated chiefs as the custodians of the land and traditional belief systems to guard against the phenomenal adulteration of the country's traditional customs, values, norms and practices or have no rallying point as a people”.
He said, “The unity, destiny and identity of the people on one hand and the country, at large, lays in its cultural heritage, which should be a restricted area or lose the cultural sovereignty in the midst of westernization, with no grounds for generations yet unborn”. Major Quashigah therefore, “….appealed to chiefs to lead national crusade of cultural renaissance to protect and safeguard the country's cultural heritage to correct the rising societal wrongs resulting from negative cultural perceptions” (Major Courage Quashigah -Rtd.). 1
“Culture, values and traditions do not equate to chieftaincy. This is a phony argument and you know it. We need better arguments! No chief taught me my culture, traditions and values. Chieftaincy is only a small fraction of a vibrant culture that we have. Without it life will go on. Let us focus on our democratic experiment. It is hard enough as it is. We have serious work to do” (Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman). 2
“What will become of the nation when it has no tradition of its own? And what makes the traditions of Ghana? Chiefs for what I know are the custodians of our customs and traditions. I would like to submit that in spite of the bones we may want to pick with chieftaincy, we cannot deny the fact that it is the bedrock of our Ghanaian (and even African) culture. I think there is great value in our culture so let us refine it and maintain it. An appreciation of ones own roots perhaps must be treated as a value” (Okyere Bonna). 3
“What is wrong with attacking chieftaincy? Some of us find it preposterous for the president to promote chieftaincy while he has neglected to promote democracy. Democracy means a respect for the rule of law; it means local participation in decision-making affecting the interests of the people; allowing district people to elect their own representatives. Is the president doing these? What about allowing the people to elect their own district chief executive officers?” (Prof. Yaw Appiah Dankwah). 4
“Our chiefs remain a focal point of our cultural identity. Notwithstanding the obvious problems the institution provides a great potential source for social and economic development. Chiefs provide leadership and serve as embodiment of our culture, traditions and customs. The institution goes to the heart of what distinguishes us as a people from others. It portrays our uniqueness as a country, nation and statehood. Nurtured properly the institution can serve as a medium for national development and the fostering of greater national unity. It is even common for settler communities to appoint from among themselves leaders they call chiefs” (Kofi Nyame). 5
Talk of a controversial topic that evokes high mercurial temperature from both protagonists and antagonists. But you know what it is very healthy sign that all of us as citizens are keen on this topic. It is far better to jaw, jaw, than to go to war on matters that affect all of us.
Now what are we talking about? I would throw about many issues to spur and guide us in our discussion. At the heart of this discussion is the role of chieftaincy under modern democratic governance and best practices. Is chieftaincy a relic of the past? Is it meritorious and democratic? Does the institution of chieftaincy impede upon or enhance our struggle to lift our country to greater glory and development? Does party politics and democracy capture all our aspirations and needs as to cause us to retire the institution of chieftaincy? Is it possible to go on a two speed system [dual mandate]; a traditional system that choreographs with and mimics the modern system, retaining all that is rich, best, relevant and splendid, whilst abandoning archaic customary practices along side the modern democratic constitutional system? Family, the foregoing carries in its bowel all the different sides of the same spectrum, GOVERNANCE.
Making the case for abolishing Chieftaincy:
Listening to Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman, in his various articles on the subject, I keep scratching my head, wondering what model he is holding for us to behold, the American system – he lives in America – or the reality of Ghana/Africa as we know it today. Okunka in his many essays comes across as one advocating for the abolishing of the institution of chieftaincy because it is patently undemocratic. That they in the past even collaborated with the white exploiters to steal our resources and sell our siblings into slavery; that they aided and abetted in the underdevelopment of Ghana/Africa by white Europeans to develop America; that it discriminates against women because no woman can be appointed a king; and finally succession to the throne is not based on universal adult suffrage, but by blood, hence without merits.
God dearest if these are the charges against our chiefs, you would expect our civilian authorities to be without blemish and clean like brand new whistles. Talk of ostriches burrowing their eyes into the sand. Let's for now say, it is the people not the system. We should be careful of advocates of “instant democracy syndrome”.
Social Structure of Ghana:
We hold the following truths to be self evident that Ghana is a community of communities. Our country can boast of over 40 ethnic or tribal communities each with its own language, customs, native religions, and cultural attributes, and each aspire to pursue certain objectives such as economic, cultural and social development. Each accept that there is also the parastatal apparatus called the political authority vested with constitutional powers to uphold certain universal rights, privileges and responsibilities that compel each of the pre-existing traditional authorities to yield certain rights, such as defense, police, monetary policies, judiciary, legislature etc. to the modern apparatus called the Republic of Ghana. What they have not elected to yield or cede to the central government, is their native lands, language, culture, traditional authority and daily practices that do not contravene and endanger civil liberties. For instance it is highly unlikely that we can impose one native language, say Twi, on all the rests in the name of homogeneity, even though going by the arguments of Okunka that could be considered as meritocracy. Chiefs do not supervise or operate a budget and have no constitutional mandate to raise any revenue say through municipal taxes to carry out their duties. However this aspect of chieftaincy is a recent development.
In the pre-colonial era and even for a long period under colonial rule most traditional authorities exercised real power, both political and spiritual, with the right to raise an army, wage war, extol and raise revenue and adjudicate in civil and criminal cases affecting their citizenry. In their deliberations the traditional authorities provided real room for political participation and cases and policies (dressed as – laws and taboos) were pursued until amicable consensus were/are reached, often ending with the complainant and defendant shaking hands, and the one found guilty slaughtering a sheep or goat and the meat shared by all assembled, and some schnapps and kola nuts given to the gods. Why the gods? You may ask. In the traditional system all infractions were considered infringements against the gods, the land and ancestors. This traditional dispensation held and continues to hold real meaning and satisfaction for our people, as compared to our modern jurisprudence that is often carried out and coached in a language and lexicon none of which the participants do understand or speak at home, except for the lawyers, and which is often very lengthy and costly.
Role of Chiefs in a changing tide and time:
Despite the complete erosion of the more potent powers of the traditional authorities from the time of white colonialists through “indirect rule” or “assimilation”, whereby our chiefs were turned over to become tools for white imperialist oppressors, to their present subjugation by black African presidents, the chiefs continue to wield spiritual, cultural and quasi-political powers over the people. They also continue to wield real economic power as the custodian of all the lands of the traditional authority. I must caution though that this right over land is proscribed or limited as the central government now by the constitution is the one which owns any mineral resources under the land. The chiefs of an area where say gold deposits are found are paid some pittance called royalty.
As custodians of the land the chiefs also hold the land as trustees on behalf of the peasants, dispensing equitable distribution of land to the citizenry under their care. And here is a delicate matter. You see in Ghana and Africa as a whole, the land is sacrosanct; it has three owners, the living, the dead and the unborn/posterity. None of this trinity can part with the land without the tacit consent of the other two parties. And since the ancestors or the future are not here, the living alone cannot give away ad infinitum, the land to non natives. One can only have user rights to the land. The land acts as the guarantor of welfare and safety net for the people. And any government must thread very carefully with any policies to appropriate the lands from the native authorities to a Lands Department where people and multinational corporations with deep pockets can snatch them away to the detriment of the peasants. Any such move would risk the unleashing of real social upheavals and revolution. Chiefs can remain as better adjudicator of who gets what and where regarding native lands. But then they should be made accountable to the people via some monitoring commission; the practice of some chiefs selling or leasing the same piece of land to multiple prospective developers leaves much to be desired.
Chiefs at the time of Military and Constitutional rule:
Given the breakdown of our suprastatal political authority throughout the 1960s up to the 1990s, at the behest of our boys in khaki, chiefs often emerged as the last resort for our ordinary folks in the rural areas for direction and settlements. Even as of to date the chiefs are one thing that consist of the embodiments of our common interests without bias or favor. Chiefs by their very nature are not like political parties that exist to articulate and advance certain parochial policies. Political parties are just that, parts of the whole. Their very operation and rules of engagement – winner takes all – often is wrought out in a bitter struggle that leaves bitter tastes in our mouth. Party politics inadvertently ends up creating schisms in the body politic, making sections of the population sworn enemies. Given such a background we should count ourselves lucky that there is another layer of failsafe safety net, away from politics and politicians that goes to unify and uphold the community.
A chief is by his very nature father of all the citizens in the area under his sway, and cannot be seen to show bias or favor to any members of the community. If he does that, that alone could be grounds for his destoolment. It is our custom that when an Omanhene [king] is placed on the stool, his people ask him to be good to them and treat them fairly and he also confirms that he will rule peacefully, that peace may rule throughout the whole country and confusion cease. Of late highly powerful kings have been enlisted by the central government to help deliberate in matters that border on ethnic or political crisis such as the appointment of Committee of Eminent Chiefs by the Kufour government, chaired by the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, to find peaceful and amicable solutions for the Dagbon chieftaincy crisis. The resiliency of the institution is shown by the eagerness of highly educated citizens, albeit royal blood, to seek and become paramount kings in their area. This new crop of chiefs includes the new Ga Mantse, Nii Tackie Tawiah III, Okyenhene, Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori-Panin, and the Agbogbomefia of the Asogli State, Togbe Afede.
The whole argument surrounding the role of chieftaincy, it appears to me, turns to focus on a very narrow paradigm. It is often the case that we focus on only the chief to the neglect of other factors, such as the chiefs sitting at the apogee of a whole canopy of institutional and administrative structures and familial network that start from the nucleus family, up the clans or abusuas/wes, towns and villages, council of elders, through mankralos, amanhenes (divisional chiefs or paramount chiefs) to kings. The chiefly house/gate is not distinguishable from the ethnic tribe. The descendants of “commoners” can become kings through marriage into the royal clan. This is unlike some countries, such as Japan, where such offspring would be debarred. The chief manifests the tribe and vice-versa. Every household is represented by his clan head in the council-of-elders which the chief chairs as first among equals. Given this circumstances it is just plain fool hardy to dispense abolishment of the institution of chieftaincy without thorough consideration for the traumatic shockwaves such an act would send to the body politic, in our hurry to copy everything white, strictly American and few non-monarchical European countries.
Improving the capacity of chiefs:
I would admit to Okunka that the institution of chieftaincy must become relevant to our changing times or risk being consigned to the ash heap of history as another has been. In that light we have to investigate very critically certain issues to bring the institution into line to serve our needs, not to overhaul it to such an extent it would become carbon copy of some Eurocentric administrative instrument.
We can make the institution of chieftaincy work for us but then we have to explore means to open it to funding, resources, accountability, popular participation, public debates, morality, and responsiveness to the people's aspirations.
We should find means or a formula to make chiefs to co-partner with the district assemblies and district chief executives. Chiefs can be used as another shot in the arm of the central government to initiate and monitor development projects in their areas, oversee low level conflict resolutions, keep the politicians and contractors on their toes, be the first responders and ears of government to low rumbling conflicts, official corruption, and be the focal point of mobilizations of the people to undertake district level projects etc. After all they and their people stand to benefit from government projects and them getting involved at the planning and implementation of programs would bring rare and vitally needed local level perspectives to programs that are often drawn and pushed down from Accra.
Traditional rulers can be of more service if somehow they are integrated into local administration. The paradigm should be non interference but not disinterested in local government administration. They are the first citizens of the local government area – headmen of the people, and smart money should dictate they should expect certain accountability from the politicians for and on behalf of the people of whom they are the chiefs. It is nonsense to say they can't be part because they are not elected. They are affirmed and upheld by their peoples on their successful nomination, often arrived at after very thorough and robust vetting mechanisms. One does not automatically become a chief or king by his mere membership of a royal family. He who is finally nominated solemnly vows and swears an oath of allegiance to the people and their representatives in public. The people's representatives in turn solemnly vow and swear oaths of allegiance to the new chief. Clear here is real social contract and covenant in action. The chief or king can be summarily destooled if he breaches any of his oaths of office. That, my friends, is legitimacy and mandate by any measure. The constitution of Ghana establishes National House of Chiefs and a Council of State which chiefs are integral part. We shouldn't muddle the waters by mixing issues that border on corruption with ensuring that administrative structures function and deliver like they were meant to be.
Corruption has become endemic in the body politic, we must fight it on all fours, but that is not the reason to say the institution of chieftaincy has to be scraped because some chiefs are corrupt. When we catch a corrupt individual, the law must be allowed to take its full course without respect for someone's pedigree or station in life. We can write the most beautiful laws and constitution in the world, it takes human beings to enforce or implement them, and we should not single out chiefs for blame when we don't enforce the law.
What is culture without the vital and central role played by the chiefs? We open ourselves to mass hysteria and hypnotism if we throw away our cultural heritage championed by our chiefs, for sure, as the day follows the night; Hollywood would be the beneficiary if we abolish our cultural institutions and heritage of which chieftaincy is integral part.
Our women folk should be made to participate fully in the council of elders, and where they are not part of that system, such a system should be redesigned, because I know that in every part of our Ghanaian traditional society women form about 50% of the population, if not more. The queen mothers and the various matriarchs and headwomen should be made to take vigorous role in the deliberations and debates affecting the district or traditional council.
This topic is by no means exhausted, such as removing impediments to land tenure system to unhinge the development energies and potential of our people and investors, but then I can only say so much for an article designed for a forum that is visited by all and sundry. I would only conclude by saying that there is beauty in diversity. In the words of our foremost famous pioneer educationist, Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey, “When we look at the keys of the piano, we can see black and white keys. You can get some note by playing only the white keys. Same applies when you play the black keys alone. But you get the best melody when you play both the black and white keys together”. That sums up my argument of charting a course for our beloved country. Both the protagonists and antagonists are in love with one woman - Mother Ghana. What is best for her is what we must all seek in a brotherly fashion. After all we cannot divorce each other; we are condemned to live under one roof called Ghana. We must make sure nobody tips the boat so hard it capsizes at the other end. All of us must uphold what is best of our traditional and modern authorities. We can wear many hats.
The problem with chiefs and Kings is that Western influences, starting with colonialism has robbed them of vital growth inputs to the extent it has turned some of them to become unaccountable to anyone. The institutions lack the system of checks and balances demanded by modern day systems of governance. Generally, they also have no economic or administrative capacity to provide services or develop the communities they are supposed to govern. But they can play a vital role in society and are still held in high regard in rural communities, often overlooked by the central government. My suggestion is that traditional systems of government are modernized, not abolished. In the grandeur scheme of things the institution of chieftaincy should be resourced and strengthened to become the residual cautionary voice and bedrock of the people, kind of spare tire or Plan B, providing support for the civilian political authority, and should replace the military as alternative wheel of governance, besides the main political parties. The military has no mandate whatsoever to rule. They never had in the past and they never have now or in the future. The coercive forces of the state should always be under the command and control of civilians, but unfortunately as the case has been, the military has assigned to itself the right to overthrow governments since independence. That is an absurdity and they have in no small measure contributed to our present stunted growth and predicaments, not the chiefs.
Eric Kwasi Bottah, alias Oyokoba
Philadelphia, PA, USA
Notes and References
1 Major Courage Quashiga: Minister calls on chiefs to enhance cultural heritage
2 Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman: Why Royalty And Meritocratic Democracy Are Not Bed
3 Okyere Bonna: Rejoinder: Who Is A Better Leader: Kufour Or Asantehene?
4 Prof. Yaw Appiah Dankwah: Uncritical Rejoinder
5 Kofi Nyame: Who Is A Better Leader: Kufour Or Asantehene?