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8 January 2006 | Feature Article

The role of traditional rulers in Ghana’s socio-economic development


In recent weeks I have followed the lively cyberspace discussions on the role of Ghana's traditional rulers in the country's socio-economic development. The views offered on the subject by the various contributors were interesting indeed. Some were well reasoned, whereas others were simply “tongue-in-cheek” remarks on a very important subject. This article is a contribution to this useful debate. Traditional leadership Ghana's traditional leadership structure is a hierarchy. At the base is the clan head (Abusuapannin). Sitting above the clan head is the village or town chief, also known in some of the Akan dialects as the “Odikuro”, literally the owner of the village or the town. The next in the hierarchy is the “Omanhene” or the paramount chief, usually the traditional leader at the district level. At the apex is the head of a tribal group such as the King of Asantes or the Ga Mantse of the Gas. The common thread in the roles of these various hierarchical authorities is that they are:

• the custodians of ancestral and community land;

• the custodians of culture, customary laws and traditions including history;

• the initiators and champions of development activities in their respective areas of jurisdiction; and

• responsible for the maintenance of law and order including presiding over and settling non-criminal civil disputes. Democracy and traditional leadership It is often commented by some leading African intelligentsia that the concept of western democracy as it is understood today is foreign to African societies. My own personal experience does not support this viewpoint. As rightly pointed out by one of the contributors on the subject, when I was growing up at the village, the “dawuro” was the most common and versatile method by which the traditional leader communicated with his subjects. Such communication involved either summoning the community to participate in discussion of issues impacting on the village, or requesting his subject to undertake some important community activity. Among the many worthwhile community activities commonly undertaken at the request of the traditional leader were: cleaning around the village, trimming footpaths to farms and digging new pit latrines etc. Democracy was exhibited at every level through the participation of all able-bodied men and women in community discussions as well as in the execution of these activities.

The selection and eventual enstoolment of a traditional leader was conducted based on democratic principles. While the village “royal house” had the prerogative of suggesting the chief-designate, the final approval was left to the community at large. Any nominee deemed unsuitable by the community was resoundly rejected, and it was up to the village royal house to nominate a substitute who was acceptable to the community. This method of identifying and installing traditional leaders in traditional Ghanaian communities is no different from the modern practice of conducting elections to elect governments in modern political systems. Accountability Similarly, some contributors have sought to justify the lack of accountability by some of our prominent traditional leaders on the basis that under our traditional systems and norms, it is an affront to require the chief or king to account to the people for how certain decisions have been taken or how funds have been expended. Again, I challenge this viewpoint. When it comes to the expenditure of public funds, nobody should be above accountability. Good leadership is also about transparency. Without accountability and transparency, there cannot be trust between leaders and the people they lead. In this context, leadership by example cannot be overemphasized. Culture Culture, which can be defined as “the way of life of a people” has become synonymous with traditional authority and related institutions in today's Ghanaian society. There can be justification in holding on to those aspects of our culture, which are impeding socio-economic development in modern Ghana. Many of the chiefs and kings in Ghana today are highly educated, some with postgraduate degrees obtained in prestigious overseas institutions. In some cases, the individuals have lived and worked overseas in international organizations including private sector multinational companies. However, it is disappointing that some choose to adopt a “head in the sand” attitude and follow blindly some of the antiquated cultural practices which are now an anathema to a modern society. An example is the way funerals are conducted in some cultures in Ghana, particularly among the Akans, which has been discussed ad nauseam in this cyberspace dialogue. All cultures honour the dead, and it is befitting that a person's life should be celebrated when he or she passes on. However, this should not be done in a manner that imposes financial hardships on those who have been left behind or for that matter affects adversely national productivity.

Growing up in the village, it was not uncommon for the villagers to mourn a dead person for weeks, during which time, nobody went to the farm. The impact of this cultural practice on productivity was substantial, particularly in a society where the average productivity was already low due to the reliance on manual labour.

A quick analysis of the reforms to funeral practices in Ghana introduced by the former President, Mr. Rawlings, indicates that it is the duration of the funerals which has been reduced rather than the expenditure per se. Although limited in scope, this reform has been in the right direction, and should be built on to further reform funeral practices in Ghana to minimize its adverse impacts on communities and the national economy.

In relation to the high cost of funerals in Ghana, I believe that those of us in the Diaspora should accept part of the blame. As many of us in the Diaspora have the financial resources, it is not uncommon for some of us to use occasions such as funerals to “impress” and show off how better off we are than those who have not been fortunate to travel, live and work overseas. As commented by one contributor “what is the logic in spending excessively on the death to the detriment of the living?”

The second example of where some aspects of our cultural practices are impeding economic development in Ghana is with our land tenure system. It defies explanation that after 48 years of independence, Ghana, a tropical country with good climate and soils, cannot consistently feed itself. In my view, this is in part due to our land tenure system which makes it almost impossible for investors to acquire large parcels of land for large-scale economic activities. Prior to the civil war in the Ivory Coast, Ghana was importing plantains from our near neighbour. Unlike Ghana, Ivory Coast's land tenure system promotes both large-scale agriculture such as plantain and oil palm plantations and subsistence agriculture, which is necessary to achieve food security, particularly at the village level.

Malaysia, one of the so called Asian tiger economies, is the world's largest producer of palm oil, which is used in a broad range of industries including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Malaysia, which achieved independence in the same year as Ghana, has been able to achieve this economic miracle because oil palm seedlings, which were initially taken from Ghana's Kade research station in the eastern region, are planted in large-scale industrial plantations. One of the reasons often given for the lack of effective land reform in Ghana is that such reforms will not be supported by the traditional rulers. As some political leaders in Ghana, in part depend on the support of some of the more powerful traditional rulers, governments, since independence, have been reluctant to tackle this important issue.

With many modern and highly educated individuals now occupying positions as traditional leaders in Ghana, it should be possible for the national government to work with these traditional leaders to reform some of these antiquated customs and cultural norms which impede economic progress. As one contributor rightly pointed out, such reforms would be a fitting legacy to the initiators. Wealth is not the only way by which one can leave a lasting legacy for posterity. I have been watching a documentary on television recently about the “Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.” Many of the people who were involved in some of these visionary projects were ordinary men and women whose single motivation was to do and do well a task which had been entrusted to them. Failure of leadership In general, I believe that there has been a failure of leadership in Ghana since independence by the successive governments. This failure in leadership relates to the inability of governments to tackle and address issues which affect the national interest. However, in relation to our culture, the greatest leadership failure has come from our traditional leaders. As indicated above, the majority of them are “modern and educated” yet conveniently, they hide behind antiquated customs and norms purely because they serve their personal interests. On the one hand, they profess modernity, but still cling to outdated norms and customs to prop up their “traditional” positions which give them access to wealth, power and influence in society. I have often commented that “Africa's greatest problem is its educated elite.” Being well educated, often at the tax payer's expense, we know how to manipulate the system to serve our individual ends to the detriment of the majority of the people who are mostly illiterate.

One of the important roles of all national governments is to implement reforms which are assessed to be in the national interest. All policies have losers and winners. It is the responsibility of national governments to ensure that in implementing any reform, the adverse impacts are minimized or mitigated. Land reform in Ghana may impact adversely on the interests of some of the traditional rulers in the short term. However, in the long term, a major stumbling block to socio-economic development would have been removed for the benefit of the whole country, both present and future generations. How can Ghana be successful in attracting overseas private investors when a simple concept such as “ownership right” be it to land or some other asset cannot be securely guaranteed in law and enforced transparently?

When I first came to Australia in 1978 as a student, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries on earth. It was a poor, peasant agricultural country still under American-instigated and supported global economic sanctions. According to World Bank data, today, Vietnam is one of the countries in the world whose policies are fast reducing poverty among its people. Vietnam's economic miracle has been achieved while the country is still under a communist government. Vietnam's experience suggests that in Africa, we are very good at manufacturing excuses for why the continent cannot develop economically, while we conveniently turn a blind eye to the solutions, which are obvious to everybody. Again, I have recently been following a series of BBC broadcasts of the views of a wide range of Africans on the merits of the G8's initiative to forgive the debt of some of the poorest countries in Africa. Listening to these individuals clearly informed that our people know what needs to be done to pull the continent from its economic mess. What is lacking is the leadership to do it. In one of these broadcasts, I was astounded to hear that Uganda has so much foreign aid it cannot spend the money. This was confirmed on the program by Uganda's Minister for Finance who indicated that the large volume of foreign aid going into the country was causing inflationary problems for the country's economy, yet some argue that the lack of financial resources is one of the major factors impeding socio-economic development in Africa. As one American expert eloquently put it “in Africa, leaders govern for themselves, their families, immediate clan members and tribes in that order. The commonweal is a complete anathema to many leaders in Africa.” Delivery of Outcomes In the past, I had agreed with commentators who argued that corruption was a major stumbling block to socio-economic development in Africa. Having followed closely the economic progress in South East Asia, I have changed my mind on this issue. I believe that the lack of “delivery ethic” is one of Africa's major challenges, and constitutes a major failure in leadership. Corruption is present in all societies. It is a matter of scale and the form it takes. The difference between Africa and South East Asia is that the leaders in South East Asia be they political or traditional; do deliver outcomes for their people. Roads and other infrastructure are actually built, even if some of the money finds its way into private bank accounts. Similarly, national institutions are maintained. In Africa, because of the lack of accountability, outcomes are not delivered, while the allocated funds disappear. Where there is delivery, the outcomes are usually sub-standard in terms of quality, timelines and budget overruns. I do not condone corruption. However, one has to be realistic about the situation in Africa. Many African countries do not have social security systems. In addition, many do not have systems in place to ensure that individuals who serve in public office are adequately looked after financially when they leave public life. Unacceptable as the practice is, one has to accept that individuals including political leaders will always find ways and means of ensuring their continuing financial security. Sycophancy Sycophancy is another factor which has contributed to the failure of traditional leadership in Ghana, and this is related to the points I have already made above. Many of our traditional leaders have the skills and knowledge, and indeed the ability to make useful contribution to socio-economic development in Ghana but fail to do so because of self interest. In my view, the fear of losing political patronage, which in some cases prop up their own positions, prevent them from influencing government policy positively. Indeed, stories abound about traditional leaders in Ghana, when after being appointed to important and influential parastatal boards as chairs, their first act is to use public funds to buy the latest models of Pajeros and Land Rovers, even before the first meeting has been held to discuss the program of work, let alone the outcomes to be achieved and the strategies for achieving them. How can anyone blame the very poor “underlings” in the government ministries when they ask for a few cedis before they fetch a client's file? From where they sit, all they see are the so called “leaders” constantly dipping their snouts into public funds. How do we expect them to do otherwise when the leadership is not showing examples worthy of emulation? It is not all doom and gloom There have been occasions when I have thrown my hands in the air and lamented that “Africa will not change economically in my life time.” However, I begin to have a glimmer of hope for the future as I read the lively and in some cases very constructive discussions about the issues affecting our societies in Africa. In countries like Vietnam, India and China, the fundamentals for their economic progress were provided in part by their expatriate communities. Funds sent home to support their relatives provided vital foreign exchange which their respective governments used constructively to build the infrastructure needed to improve their international competitiveness for overseas private investment. Is Africa ready to emulate this example? More importantly, is there a traditional leader in Africa who is prepared to be visionary and a true champion of socio-economic development? As one of the contributors rightly pointed out leadership involves developing a vision, marshalling the necessary resources including bringing the people behind its implementation. I will add that the other important ingredients of true and effective leadership are:

• governing for all rather than a select few; and

• delivering outcomes including being prepared to be accountable to the people for the delivery or non-delivery of those outcomes.

The lessons from South East Asia have shown that democratic governments, while desirable, by themselves may not bring socio-economic development. What is required are leaders who are single-minded about their vision and have the determination to deliver for the greater good of all the people. In this context, while the late Dr Kwame Nkrumah urged Africans to “first seek the political kingdom”, I argue that we should rather “first seek economic emancipation and political emancipation will follow.” Governments can no longer oppress their people politically once they are liberated economically. The case of Singapore is a glowing example. Political dissidence cannot effectively be suppressed. This is because the majority of the people no longer depend on their government for jobs and financial security. Conclusion Culture is important for every society. Like history, it provides the basis to assess the past to provide a compass for the future. Culture, however, can become an impediment to a society's progress if it is manipulated by powerful members of society for their benefit to the detriment of the majority of the people. I trust that discussions on the various aspects of our society currently going on among interested individuals in the Diaspora will influence the thinking of well meaning individuals in our country to refocus our priorities and energies to make a difference for the whole country. It is important that as a society, we do not use culture to subvert rule of law. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Author: Kwame Asumadu, Dr.
Stories: 5 Publication(s)
Column: KwameAsumadu