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17.09.2005 Feature Article

Traditional Justice And Modernism

Traditional Justice And Modernism
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Recently, the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association (CJMA) held a conference in the Ghanaian capital of Accra during which the delegates of the association expressed their commonality of interests, duties and responsibilities with the Ghanaian institution of chieftaincy. Needless to say, such salutary affirmation of mutual interests was a remarkable step in the right direction. For, historically, the judicial system established by the British colonial government throughout the erstwhile British Empire had the indelible distinction of deprecating the pre-colonial traditional African rule of law. Oftentimes, the latter institution was disdainfully designated as “Native Customs.” The more noble concept of “Law” was exclusively arrogated to the judicial system of the British colonialist, who was regarded as possessing the especial preserve of elaborate, systematic and rational faculties. The colonized African, and non-European, was cavalierly deemed to be merely possessed of the barest rudiments of morality and rational faculties. And where an elaborate system of thought and scientific engagement were encountered in the so-called Black Africa, as was the case with the geographical region of present-day Mali, particularly in the discipline of astrology, an external, often European factor, was invoked to explain off the “mystery.”

And so, it is quite refreshing to learn that the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association has finally come around to critically recognizing the indispensable significance and impact of the rule of law and chieftaincy. It is, in a vital sense, a salutary renaissance of the “Danquahist” perspective on the imperative need to organically intermarry African judicial tradition with our inherited British colonial counterpart.

And on this score, it is quite significant to recall that relatively speaking, the British imperialist did far better in recognizing the need to maintaining a vestigial essence of African traditional law, if the colonized societies were not to totally rebel against the Messianic European colonizer. In the Francophone areas of the continent, brutal attempts, in the dubious name of nonesuch French enlightenment dictated that traditional African culture would be radically extirpated and replaced by French culture and rule of law. In the end, what resulted, via the infamous policy of assimilation, was a critical damage to traditional African institutions while at the same time the radical attempt at Gallicizing - or Frenchifying - the proverbial African personality miserably failed to take roots. The obvious reason was the fact that hundreds of thousands of years of African civilization could simply not be wished away by a pathetically adolescent European civilization whose sole claim to superiority inhered in some meager three centuries of superficial, technological advancement.

Also significant was the woeful failure - if also because of its deafening proclamation of cultural superiority - of the French government to, literally, put its money where its wide mouth was. And the preceding state of affairs largely explains why today the Francophone regions of the African continent are also among the least modernized and most culturally atrophied. But what is even more dispiriting was the fact that many of the most vocally anti-colonial African leaders who took over from the European imperialist turned out to be more hostile towards traditional African institutions than their European predecessors had been. In essence, what we had in the immediate postcolonial era, were black-skinned rulers who could be more aptly described as “Afropeans” rather than bona fide Africans. Thus, one found the genius likes of Ghana's Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to be far more interested in the dogged and virtually blind pursuit of Marxist socialism, even as the foremost proponent of twentieth-century pan-Africanism threatened to rain hell and brimstone on the august and time-honored tradition of chieftaincy. And so, paradoxically, the dawn of continental African political independence also witnessed a withering regression of traditional cultural values, even by intellectual leaders who pretended to be promoting a salutary revival or renaissance of the proverbial African personality. Ironically, President Nkrumah also coined a term for this largely inauspicious epoch which witnessed the emergence of a new, and also quite bizarre, brand of African leadership hell-bent on hurtling the deleterious process of massive de-Africanization began by the erstwhile European imperialist to its logical conclusion of the inadvertent creation of a crisis of identity at multi-layered levels of human endeavor.

The conferees also reportedly promised to launch a spirited study “into the administration of justice by Ghana's chieftaincy system,” whatever the latter phrase means(Ghanaian News Agency 7/31/05). The theme of the conference, “Judicial Reforms within the Commonwealth, Impact, Driving Force and the Future,” however, bespoke nothing short of mainstream British colonial legacy. In sum, it appears that the purported promise by the CJMA delegates to launching a study into Ghanaian traditional administration of justice was purely a diplomatic afterthought. Or it could simply be that the Ghanaian News Agency reporter who covered the aforementioned event was not professionally equal to the task. For nowhere in the report are even tentative details offered regarding the modalities of such a study.

Indeed, one gets a glaring sense of a window-dressing gesture from the rather pedestrian and cavalier representation of Lord David Hope, president of the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association to the Ga Traditional Council. In a courtesy call, Lord Hope reportedly remarked that “[The Ghanaian] chiefs were an embodiment of knowledge and wisdom, adding earlier [on that the] remarks of Nii Adote Obuor II, Acting President of the GTC, exemplified [the latter's] deep insight [into] the role of the Association, which had the observance of the rule of law and the spirit of friendship as its conerstone.”

Perhaps somebody ought to have apprised Lord David Hope of the fact that the year was 2005, not either 1805 or 1905, and that most major traditional Ghanaian rulers these days are even better educated - or schooled in the ways of the West - than most of their counterparts in Europe. The preceding notwithstanding, it also didn't help matters that the Ghanaian News Agency reporter would describe the president of the CJMA as “Mr. Lord David Hope,” instead of either “Mr. David Hope” or “Lord David Hope.” Which, inevitably, makes one wonder what is being taught the country's journalists these days. Then also, the same anonymous reporter described the head of the Ghanaian judiciary as “Chief Justice Mr. George Kingsley Acquah,” instead of either “Chief Justice George Kingsley Acquah,” or “Mr. George Kingsley Acquah.” Indeed, our elders and thinkers have insightfully observed that in order to walk steadily, one ought to first learn to crawl. How one wishes that many a contemporary Ghanaian journalist, or reporter, would heed the preceding exhortation before proceeding to unmitigably and gratuitously bash the presidential family over the so-called Hotel-De-Kufuor affair. *Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., teaches English and Journalism at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is the author of eleven volumes of poetry and prose, including Sounds of Sirens, a volume of essays on Ghanaian politics, all of which are available from,,, and Barnes & Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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