Respecting Chieftaincy in Ghana

The institution of chieftaincy has in both modern and pre-colonial times have been dominant in steering the affairs of statedoms. This dominance has been transferred to post-colonial states in Africa.

Prior to colonial rule, chiefs were the sole socio-political heads of states in various parts of Africa. In cases where chiefs did not exist especially in acephalous societies, there was some form of hierarchy that governed the people. Such societies were ruled or governed by their belief in the spirit forces and therefore by the agents of the spirit forces.

In Vol 8 of UNESCO’s General History of Africa series, Catholic Bishop Tshishiku Tshibangu writes: “The African is profoundly, incurably a believer, a religious person. To him, religion is not just a set of beliefs but a way of life, the basis of culture, identity and moral values. Religion is an essential part of the tradition that helps to promote both social stability and creative innovation.” This means that religion is deeply embedded in the African psyche. This also means religion affects the everyday life of the African and there is no way the African can do away with his religious beliefs – whether traditional or Christian or whatever religion there is. John Mbiti, another prominent Kenyan writer on religion, also shares the same view.

During colonial times in Gold Coast, the British used the chiefs as intermediaries and their representatives to the people in their application of the Indirect Rule system of governance as dictated by Lord Lugard’s The Dual Mandate. The British recognized that there was an elaborate already existent system of governance thus no need to bring in whole battalions as they did in other areas to promote British colonial interests in the Gold Coast. The chief was therefore used as government agents of colonial rule.

Chiefs that were created by the colonial master in some areas where there were no ‘recognized’ chiefs were called ‘warrant chiefs’ because they were individuals given warrants to represent the British among the natives. In recent times, in the colonial legacy of the Westminster system of government, chiefs have to be gazetted before they are recognized by the government as chiefs. They must have gone through the due process of installation by the traditional custom and authority.

Colonial rule it might seem concentrated power and authority into the hands of the chiefs. But it also had its disadvantages. Having recognized the power of the chief as the sole social and political head of the local community, the British put the traditional laws under the authority of the British laws. It was the traditional laws that gave the chief his power and ceding this power under British laws ensured that the chief’s authority was curtailed. Furthermore, colonial government functionaries took over most of the roles of the chief within the community and this somewhat reduced the chief to a ceremonial head more or less.

Even at the time when Governor Guggisberg in the 1920s decided to give Africans a hand in the administration of the Gold Coast via the African representatives on the Legislative Council (chiefs), the then educated elite thought they were the ones who deserved that slot because they had seen how the British system worked. Most of the elite had been educated in the metropolis and were coming back to their homelands to help in the struggle for independence.

In the Legislative Council debates, we find the elite going head to head with the chiefs over who held the right to represent the people. The main proponents in this struggle were Dr J. B. Danquah representing the elite and Nana Sir Ofori Atta representing the chiefs. By a twist, these two great men were cousins. This struggle has continued prior to independence and even after independence.

Independence shot the educated elite into the limelight and the post independent leaders like Kwame Nkrumah further pushed the chiefs into the periphery. This is what led to the famous statement Nkrumah is purported to have said that ‘chiefs who do not support the CPP will flee leaving their sandals behind’. Furthermore, this struggle between the chiefs and the elite is what has culminated in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana barring traditional chiefs from active partisan politics even though in recent times, chiefs are very highly educated.

With chiefs virtually becoming ceremonial heads against this background, why then is it that we still defer to chiefs in our African communities and also more people want to be chiefs thus resulting in more chieftaincy disputes than ever in the history of the country. Chiefs can now only be seen during traditional ceremonies like funerals and festivals or at state ceremonial functions.

Chiefs are recognizable by their traditional dressing of gold ornaments, beads, sandals, regalia and entourage. Even without the regalia, Africans respect chiefs even if they do not have any jurisdiction over these people. We all defer to them and wonder if anybody has bothered why we defer to chiefs once we hear they are chiefs. We consider them traditional authority and as an embodiment of customs and traditions.

The African cosmology (belief system) accounts for the way we as Africans go about our daily routine. No matter our level of education our religious affiliations, traditional African systems are still instilled deep within us. They are innate.

The African traditional belief system comprises of the belief in a Supreme Being. He is the Maker of the universe called Nyankopon, Mawu, Yehowa, etc in various languages by various societies.

Next to the belief in the Supreme Being is the belief in spirit forces. These spirit forces are said to dwell in inanimate objects such as rivers, mountains, rocks, trees etc. These spirit forces have different names in different communities and examples are Nogokpo in Volta region, Akonnedi of the Lartehs, Kpeshie Naa of the Gas, etc. These spirit forces are the gods who the Africans believe are very powerful to affect the lives of the living person.  With the advent of Christianity, these gods have been demonized and as such even with Christianity the African still believes in demon and spirit possession.

Next to the belief in the spirit forces or gods is the belief in the dead. The dead were once living beings like us who have gone on into the afterlife and it is believed still take care of the living by interceding on our behalf in the sprit realm. The belief in the dead ancestors is what accounts for the elaborate funeral ceremonies we see nowadays and the saying that we do not speak ill of the dead.

The African believes in the living being. This is why we have systems such as the extended family system where everybody is each other’s keeper. There is also a belief of self which relates each person to the other either by blood or spirit. This accounts for the systems of inheritance, matrilineal or patrilineal, the clan relations, etc.

The final link in the African belief system is the belief in the yet unborn. Africans already make provision for children and generations yet unborn. This accounts for why folk struggle to work hard in life and their simple reason being that they want their children to have it better than they had it when growing up. This is another reason why African land is held in trust for the family and not sold outright.

With this background, am sure you are wondering where the chief fits in in all this or you might have found it already because I am sure you are African reading this. Chiefs are usually, in most cases, the descendants of the founder of the society. In some societies, the chiefs are considered as gods. Those who are not considered gods are linked directly by bloodline or ancestry to the founder of the community.

The chief of a community is therefore the representative of the not only the spirit forces but also the representative of the ancestors within the community. Since we venerate the ancestors, it is imperative that we give the same reverence to the chief of the community. It is for this simple reason that Africans defer to chiefs throughout the continent even if the chief has no jurisdiction over you. Once he is a chief of some community, one does not even ask what sort of chief is or his designation and one accords him the necessary reverence.

In recent times however, the chieftaincy institution has been dragged in the mud by some unscrupulous people some posing as chiefs. There are many chieftaincy disputes more than ever in Ghana. This is because people have begun to flout the laid down traditional ways of choosing the chief as existed in the generations past.

With the capital economy and more candidates eligible for the position, it is imperative that some people are using their influence and wealth to covet chieftaincy titles they do not deserve. They are also using political clout to influence who becomes the chief of a community because of the government gazette that is required to recognize a chief of a community.

In an institution where the criteria handed down generations is stringent and makes sure the best candidate gets the position, lobbying for the position and using monetary influence has led to some bad nuts becoming chiefs in their areas. Some of these people flout the customary and traditional laws of the community and only do as they please. These chiefs think that the community is subject to their whims and caprices and as such they only perform the functions that they see fit, not what is expected of them by the community. Mostly they are highly educated and very rich and flaunt their wealth to the community as ‘untouchables’.

In Ghana, even though the Article 276 (1) of the 1992 Constitution forbids the active participation of chiefs in partisan politics because of issues we have discussed from the background of chiefs, we find chiefs taking sides with political parties and sometimes mounting political platforms to raise funds for and openly support political parties. Why then will our democracy not be marred by violence and intolerance if some political parties cannot organize rallies and even campaigns in these areas.

Some astute chiefs however have managed to set up development funds and projects within their communities to better the lives of their people. It is imperative that as Africans we use what we know from our culture as a yardstick to measure which of the chiefs are good and development minded and which of them are not. It is only in this way and with one voice that we can curtail the activities of these bad nuts within the institution not to drag chieftaincy into disrepute.

African chiefs embody the culture and represent our core values as Africans. If we do not protect our culture, like the Chinese have done, we will lose it to all these western influences cropping into our culture and very soon we will not have any identity at all. A people with no identity are a lost people.

Long live Ghana, long live Africa!!



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