The Castle and the Palace: Chieftaincy and Politics in Ghana

Chiefs have played an important role in the political framework of Ghana from time immemorial but recent times there have been calls for the institution to be scrapped because the traditional roles of the chief has been replaced by government functionaries. Yet more and more people are clamoring for chieftaincy titles all over thus sparking off the many chieftaincy disputes all over the country which has not helped in promoting the institution in the eyes of its opponents and only giving them more impetus to call for its abolishing.
To further delve into the issue especially of the chieftaincy disputes it is important to study what the law states about the chief and also his place in the political framework of the country. The constitution of Ghana, the highest law of the land defines the chief as “chief means a person who hailing from the appropriate family and lineage has been validly nominated, elected or selected and enstooled or installed as a chief or queenmother in accordance with the necessary customary law or usage.” (Chapter 22 Article 277)
Even though it is established that chiefs are very important in the political framework of Ghana, chiefs are barred from active partisan politics by law. Article 276 states “a chief shall not take part in active party politics; and any chief wishing to do so and seeking election to Parliament shall abdicate his stool or skin.
He may however be elected for public office if he qualifies for it. Article 276(2) “Notwithstanding clause (1) of this article and paragraph (c) of clause (3) of article 94 of this Constitution, a chief may be appointed to any public office for which he is otherwise qualified.”
The institution of chieftaincy in Africa has been with us since time immemorial. Traditional leaders have always existed in traditional society. It is very important to note that not all traditional areas had chiefs, even though they had some form of traditional leadership, before the advent of the Europeans. When the Portuguese arrived on the coast of El Mina they met the Fante chiefs.
There were chiefs in the Fante states because it is these chiefs who met the Portuguese on the coast and signed treaties with them to allow them to trade along the coast. The Portuguese had arrived on the coast of El Mina because they believed it was the source of all the gold that was arriving in Europe via the Trans Saharan trade. It was Fante chiefs who later signed the famous Bond of 1844 with Commander Hill that was to usher the Gold Coast as a colony during the scramble and partition for Africa. The Bond of 1844 ceded the authority of the chiefs in the Gold Coast to the British crown. It is believed that was the beginning of the decline of chiefly authority in the Gold Coast and chiefs have never attained their power and authority since it was ceded to the government and in recent times government functionaries have taken over most of the chiefly roles.
When the Bond of 1844 was signed it was an era of African state expansion and the Asantes inland had the Asantehene as the head of the Asante kingdom. The Asantehene is a unique position unlike any other in Africa because he is not just a paramount chief, he is a primus inter pares, a first among equals. This is because the Asante kingdom is made of different states that came together to form one kingdom to unite them and make them stronger. The Asantehene is the paramount chief of Kumase, the biggest of these states and he is just one of the paramount chiefs in this united kingdoms. The constitution of the Asante kingdom was drawn up by the legendary Osei Tutu with the help of his Grand Vizier Okomfo Anokye from Denkyira who conjured a Golden Stool from the sky to symbolize the unity of the Asante kingdom. He also planted a sword in the ground and with some rituals using hair and nails of the different paramount chiefs of the other states and said whenever the sword came out of the ground, the Asante kingdom would start falling apart. The sword is still in the ground till this day.
It is believed that the Golden Stool contained the spirit of Asante and any time it was lost, the Asante kingdom was at the risk of being disassembled. The occupant of the Golden Stool will be the representative of the gods and ancestors and the Asante people pay allegiance to whoever occupies the Golden Stool which is the Asantehene. This is the same information that Governor Hodgson, a British Governor of the Gold Coast got and marched with soldiers to the center of Kumase to demand that the Golden Stool be brought to him to sit on so that he will show that he was the overlord of Asante. When the stool was not provided he had all the chiefs in Asante arrested. When the men who were in Asante were afraid to fight, Queenmother Yaa Asantewaa mobilized an army and fought the British. This was the famous Yaa Asantewaa war that led to the final defeat and annexation of Asante into the Gold Coast territory. The Gold Coast was then divided into three parts: the Central Province, Asante Territory and Northern Protectorate.
The British used a system of Indirect Rule as popularized by Lord Lugard, a military diplomat, who had put it to effective use in India and parts of Asia where the British had colonies. Indirect Rule recognized that the colonies in Africa had traditional rulers who the natives revered and obeyed. The British calculated that it was therefore more cost effective and prudent to use these traditional leaders to administer the colonies instead of spending so much transporting garrisons of army and administrative personnel from the metropolis to these colonies. All that was important was for them to find a way to put these traditional leaders to work for British interest and do whatever the metropolis wanted.
Indirect Rule also recommended that resources used in these colonies be used to develop the colonies and surplus sent to the metropolis. For example, as at the time of Gold Coast’s independence, the British government owed the Gold Coast and amount of six million pounds sterling from exports from the Gold Coast. Indirect rule was to use local administration but still the metropolis had to benefit from the natural resources of the colony that were exported back to the metropolis.
Some other European nations used Direct Rule Policy. These European nations include Belgium and Germany in their African colonies. This is where the natives were subdued by force of arms and then forced to do the bidding of the colonial masters. The natives had no choice than to comply with what the colonial masters wanted or faced harsh measures and punishment. Even with the British, where there was settler interest the British also used Direct Rule.
Settler interest refers to a colony where the conditions including weather and land were favorable and similar to European conditions and conducive for the Europeans to settle. The Europeans as such had to find a way of taking over the lands of the people and convert it for their own use. This they took by force and put the natives in reserves. Such areas include
South Africa, Zimbabwe, parts of Kenya etc. In these places, the natives were subdued by military warfare with the Europeans which of course the natives lost due to the superior power of the European armies and then they were forced to work on their own lands which had been converted to lands of the masters.
It must be noted that there were kings in these areas who mobilized their armies against European occupation of their territory but they were subdued. One of such kings was Chaka of the Zulu kingdom. He is known to have had the most protracted war with the Boers to take over his land and kingdom. Chaka not only had issues with the Boers but also with succession smaller nations in his kingdom who went to fight on the side of the Europeans hoping to gain freedom from the Chaka’s kingdom. Kings in Africa have always played an important part in the political scheme of things.
‘Traditional leaders’ is used in this report advisedly because the Northern Territories prior to the advent of the Europeans did not really have chiefs. The Tendana, the land owner, was the traditional head of the community. These states in the north were mostly theocracies and the Tendana was not only the priest of the community but also the head of state. This is because he was the representative of the gods and the people obeyed what the gods had to say. This is also true of the Ga people of the south who were ruled by the Wulomei, traditional priests. The Ga state was also a theocracy and the gods determined the fate of the people. The natives listened to the priests who conveyed the message of the gods to the people.
The British especially realized that theocratic states needed someone they could deal with when it comes to administering the community. They separated the political administration from the priestly duties notwithstanding the fact that they branded traditional religion primitive, barbaric, uncouth, etc. So in states where there were no chiefs, the British selected a chief who was given a warrant to rule the people. These people were called ‘warrant chiefs’ and they were used especially for tax collection and development projects in the various communities. Warrant chiefs were paid a stipend for the amount of tax collected and this made them employees of the British colony. Chieftaincy therefore was established in the whole of the Gold Coast colony.
Thus families from which chiefs came from became very influential and important in succession to the title in a traditional area. Lineage and kinship ties became an integral part of traditional society. Some societies inherit matrilineally, like the Asante so the kingship title travels down the line of the female ancestor. Others however are patrilineal like the Ga and kingship title travels down from father to son directly. Therefore a person born in a kinship line was entitled to the throne to be chief so there are kingmakers who choose the best candidate for the title and throne or skin. At times there was more than one candidate and the best one has to be chosen for the title.
In recent times, the criteria for selection has changed. With the way the world is developing, it is important to choose a candidate who will meet global requirements such as a highly educated scholar, must be successful at what he does and must have a considerable experience in many fields thus giving him a wide network. It is for this reason that chieftaincy disputes have increased in recent times. There are instances where the most likely candidate does not really meet the global criteria and so another candidate is put forward for the chieftaincy title. The supporters and opponents therefore go head to head over the choice of chief and this ends up affecting events such as festivals and communal development since the chieftaincy seat is vacant and being settled in courts of law.
The important role played by chiefs in national development was acknowledged by Dr Kwame Nkrumah so that after independence, the National House of Chiefs was set up as an advisory body to the political authority on chieftaincy issues in the country. The constitution of Ghana makes provision for the National and Regional Houses of chiefs. Chapter 22 Article 271 establishes the National House of Chiefs and Article 272 points out its roles to (a) advise any person or authority charged with any responsibility under this Constitution or any other law for any matter relating to or affecting chieftaincy;
(b) undertake the progressive study, interpretation and codification of customary law with a view to evolving, in appropriate cases, a unified system of rules of customary law, and compiling the laws and lines of succession applicable to each stool or skin;
(c) undertake an evaluation of traditional customs and usages with a view to eliminating those customs and usages that are outmoded and socially harmful
The National House of Chiefs is therefore mainly an advisory body to the President on chieftaincy issues. Chiefs have therefore been reduced to consultants and basically figureheads in their communities. This is because their roles have been taken over by government functionaries in their various communities. Recently, the Dutch government has voted some money to sponsor the codification of the traditional laws with special regard to succession in chieftaincy to reduce the incidence of chieftaincy succession disputes that affect the whole national body politic in the country. Most of these protracted disputes have arisen and persist out of government interference in the issues at stake. Political leaders usually have a vested interest in who becomes chief in a particular area in terms of resources and votes for democratic elections. There is the need to go into the history of the community and trace the lineage of the chiefs and find who the rightful occupant of the stool or skin is but this is blatantly disregarded.
Chiefs are important in the politics of Ghana and even though barred from active partisan politics they have been known to influence partisan politics with their open support for one party or the other. It is on record that there was times in Ghana’s political history where political parties were formed based on support from chiefs in a particular area.
With modern democratic machinery taking over most of the roles of the chief and the chief being reduced to just a figurehead in the community, what else is there to gain from acquiring a chieftaincy title that has people cramming for it all over leading to many chieftaincy disputes. These disputes not only mar the image of the institution but also are a misuse of regional and national resources in trying to get these disputes settled so there can be peace and development within these communities.
The answer lies in the African cosmologic set up. The African’s world view is made up of the spirit forces, the living, the dead and the yet unborn. Whatever the African does inherently is fashioned into this cosmology. This is why no matter how educated and how exposed an African is to European and Western culture, he still believes in traditional systems. This accounts for why people will go to the Christian church but still consult witchdoctors on the side when they have issues.
With regards to the chief, the African believes that the chief is the custodian of traditional authority and customs. The chief is the representative of the gods and ancestors on earth because he comes from the direct lineage of the founder of the community. It is in this regard therefore that chiefs still carry the respect of the people whether from their own traditional area or community or not. Any African sees any chief and accords him the same respect that his subjects will accord him in his community because the African does not see only a man but also a representative of the ancestors and founders of a particular community. Chiefs stand in the gap between the living and the dead in a community or society.
It has been established in this report that chiefs play an important role in the politics of African society and Ghana is no exception. People with means also crave chieftaincy titles they do not qualify for and this also brings about disputes which not only mar the authenticity of the institution but also affect national development. It is important that chiefs be part of the national development planning since they are usually the representatives of the people and not the government functionaries that are put in place. Some of these government functionaries do not even stay in the communities but are absentee residents and are not really aware of what goes on in the community. People therefore still look up to chiefs for direction and purpose in whatever they do. So what the chief of the community says at durbar during festivals is taken very seriously.
In conclusion, so long as we remain Africans, chiefs will be a part of our system no matter the education, experience and exposure in the global world of technology and computers. Chiefs will continue to embody the socio – cultural heritage of Africans in our various societies and people will still use them as the first point of call for advice rather than the government functionaries who come and go with elections.


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