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23.04.2010 Feature Article

Saving the Chieftaincy Institution

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As a fall-out of the Tuobodom-Techiman dispute and its concomitant pronouncements by the Asantehene, resident scholars have given very intelligent exegesis of the harmful effects of chieftaincy. Aficionados of epistemology, political clairvoyants and social soothsayers have all called for the abolition of chieftaincy. But like many one-sided viewpoints, these strident calls miss the implications of abolition. Nobody has articulated clearly the crucial steps involved in dismantling the institution or the exact substitution for this complex system. Who is brave enough to present a bill to parliament seeking the abolition of chieftaincy? Which parliamentary committee is going to discuss such a bill? Which house members are going to take part in any floor debate about it? How many votes can be secured from the general members? Since chieftaincy is guaranteed in our constitution, and its abolition implies a dilation of executive power, what will be its implication for the balance of power for the other co-ordinate branches of government? So you see, any talk about the abolition of chieftaincy merely echoes the Aesopian question: Who is going to bell the cat?

Chieftaincy is an institution that permeates the very fabric of the Ghanaian traditional society. Whereas the chief might be the fulcrum of traditional power, his veins and arteries of authority reach through every clan insofar as every clan is represented by its sub-chief. Thus, in its ideal form, the chieftaincy institution is a type of representative system of efficient governance.

The typical traditional government has a hierarchy roughly like this:

1. At the very top is the chief.
2. Then comes his various sub-chiefs pooled from every clan in the chiefdom.

3. The clan is sub-divided into families, each of which will have its head.

4. Then comes the heads of households.
The most important function of the chieftaincy institution is its adjudicatory function.

A typical grievance goes through every level of the hierarchy. For example, a child reports a grievance to the father; if unresolved, then to the family head; if unresolved, then to the clan head. The grievance goes all the way up to the chief. Stages may be skipped if there are cross-claims from different clans, and a case may be resolved very early in this process of adjudication.

The institution helps resolve conflicts without recourse to the orthodox courts. In this adjudicative function, chieftaincy resolves over 90% of the cases that ever reach the trial stage in our orthodox judicial system. If you go through the orthodox judicial system, a land case could take up to 25 years. An efficient traditional court finishes the same case in two weeks.

Besides its adjudicatory functions, chieftaincy serves to unite the people. It is a repository of a people's tradition, history and culture. It preserves the community's laws and lore. It has homeostatic effects on societal ethos and mores……

Take off the chief, and the whole traditional hierarchy comes tumbling down like the wall of Jericho. Or are the abolitionists suggesting that government appoints an officer to replace the chief? Or that government throws in a bunch of assembly-men as sub-chiefs? Or that it appoints family heads for the various clans? Or that we just abolish this institution and leave a hole in the life of the traditional society?

Given its systemic nature and function, exactly what do we mean when we say “abolish chieftaincy”? Critics point to conflicts inherent in chieftaincy. They do not go on to ask why Ghana is one of the most peaceful countries in the whole world, and whether the chiefs might be a factor to the prevailing peace. They don't ask what will happen when traditional authority is gone. They pretend that chieftaincy conflicts have overwhelmed the country and engulfed Ghana in a conflagration.

Recently, an intelligent commentator averred that “part of the reason our progress has been hindered is our penchant for our traditional ways, nepotism and ethnocentrism, as well as other corrupt practices linked to tradition.”My answer to him was, “These issues could easily be resolved by the efforts of all Ghanaians, not just the chiefs. Mention the name of one chief involved in nepotism, ethnocentrism and corrupt practices and I will show you twenty politicians involved in worse social ill... Mention the name of any chief that has been tried for criminal activities, and I will show you twenty politicians that should be tried for stealing from the national coffers.”

The commentator further asserted, “All the good things that you mentioned can be supplanted by central government.”

My answer, “What good has the central government done the country since independence. Ghanaians virtually do everything for themselves by negotiating the socio-cultural labyrinth. Does government give unemployment benefit, free education or free health care to the people?” Which institution is worse? The government or chieftaincy? You want to trust the government to supplant the traditional system and to provide “all the good things”? Good luck. I think our politicians are worse than our chiefs. Most of them are thinking of how to ride in big cars, build huge mansions and sleep with beautiful women. They rarely think about the people. If we are not calling for the abolition of the government with all these reeking evils, why are we calling for the abolition of chieftaincy? What is the hidden agenda of those calling for the abolition of chieftaincy?”

Chieftaincy, like any other institution, has its inherent problems. For example, it is too entangled in traditional religion. There ought to be a clear separation between the office and any religion. Then again, a few of the chiefs suffer from stark illiteracy and moral turpitude. We should impose more stringent standards and qualifying processes in order to select from the royal households the very best in education, wisdom and morality. The people have no significant role in endorsing the appointed chief. A franchise mechanism should be established whereby the chosen one should be endorsed by the people through a clear exercise of the vote. Or else the people will have no duty to the chief. There is no term limits in chieftaincy. We could easily set a term limit (say 15 years). Succession lines are too convoluted. Before a chief dies, his heir apparent should be well known. We should document and publish the line of succession for the community's perusal. Chiefs are selling off their people's land. We can enact legislation to make it impossible for chiefs to become land sellers. Finally the institution is unequally gendered. There ought to be more involvement of women. Women are better at conflict resolution than men. In short, radical reforms are what we need, not abolition of the institution.

People make hash arguments for meritocracy to be substituted for bloodline. I don't know what they understand by that nominal phrase “meritocracy” or from whence they got the impression that any leadership anywhere has ever been based on the nebulous concept of “meritocracy”. Leadership in politics, business, commerce and academia has always been based on several factors. If these factors fall under the critic's notion of meritocracy, then so be it. However, let somebody come forward and explain to me the elements of “meritocracy”, and I will show the person that our tradition requires the same kind of elements from a typical chief. Thus “meritocracy” is an overbroad term behind which people hide to make specious arguments against chieftaincy. Chieftaincy is definitely based on meritocracy!

One argument for maintaining "royal" succession line, is the same argument used for maintaining property rights through intestacy. Royalty is akin to property. Stools/Skins are the bona fide property of specific families affirmed by acquisition, history and traditions. Ancestors of so-called royals may have acquired their positions by being the first settlers, conquerors, or usurpers. Whatever the method, they acquired their status through some legally cognizable means. Just as one cannot dispossess any individual whose ancestors left him property, so one cannot dispossess any individual whose ancestors left him a stool or a skin. This is especially true where, as here, submission to the chief's authority is a voluntary exercise within our republican context.

If you want to know how Ghanaian societies will be without chiefs, you can look at those places that have no chiefs due to chieftaincy conflicts. There, there is no sense of moderation, no sense of propriety, no respect for law and order; in short, people do whatever they like. The good book says in Judges that in those days, there was no King in Israel; and the people did whatever they liked…. The worst form of (traditional) government is better than anarchy. And usually, the best way to exercise real power is not to eliminate a system already in place. You adopt, adapt it and reform it for your purposes. That is how to avoid throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Credit: Samuel Adjei Sarfo, Houston, Texas.

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Samuel Adjei Sarfo
Samuel Adjei Sarfo, © 2010

The author has 28 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: SamuelAdjeiSarfo

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

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