Why chieftaincy must suit the modern Ghanaian state

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The influence or otherwise of chiefs in Ghana has again come under scrutiny. This time, it is about their inability to help stomp out the menace of illegal mining that is destroying water bodies and the environment. But they are acting.

The Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, has summoned chiefs under his domain whose lands illegal miners have invaded are causing havoc to the forests and water bodies.

At the time these conversations were taking place, the Chief of Sefwi Elubo in the Western North and his brother, were arrested for engaging in illegal mining activities.

And across the boundary in the Western North Region, the Paramount Chief of Sefwi Wiawso, Katakyie Kwasi Bumagama II, took a daring stance against the illegal mining menace.

He issued a decree in October 2022 that banned illegal mining in the area, which is known to be one of Ghana’s biggest cocoa hubs.

Per the directive, all divisional chiefs had two weeks to ensure that all earth-moving machines and heavy equipment used in galamsey activities are moved from all illegal mining sites.

It is to be followed by regular visits to the sites, as well as using informants to track and arrest the perpetrators of illegal mining.

Evolution of Chieftaincy in Ghana

Before Britain imposed itself on our forebears and claimed we were not fit to rule ourselves, chiefs in the various ethnic groups led their people. They performed pivotal economic, military, administrative, judicial, cultural and religious functions.

However, when Lord Lugard’s indirect rule assumed control in the Gold Coast, the colonial government ruled through the chiefs. The colonialists, seeing how rooted the institution of chieftaincy was in the society, couldn’t abolish it but retrofitted it into the colonial governance system. This was done through laws such as the Chiefs Ordinance 1904 and the Native Authority Ordinance 1932. The latter, in particular, gave the Chief Commissioner the capacity to “constitute any area and define the limits thereof; assign to that area any name and description he may think fit; appoint any chief or other native or group of natives to be a native authority for any area for the purpose of this Ordinances.”

As a result of this law, the colonial administration imposed chiefs arbitrarily on some “chiefless”  ethnic groups in the current Upper East, Upper West and Volta Regions. Other ethnic groups, mostly in the north of the country were merged under one ruler.

An example was the merger of the Mamprugu, Kusasi, Grunshi, Frafra and Builsa, with the Nayiri (chief of Mamprugu) as the paramount chief. The main idea behind this policy, which caused persistent and damaging conflicts decades later, was to make the implementation of colonial policy easy.

By the time the colonial government was being replaced by the nationalist government, the Legislative Council, Judicial Council, the West Africa Frontier Force (military) and the Gold Coast Police Force had replaced most of the functions of the chiefs.

With the relative redundancy of the chieftaincy institution in post-colonial Ghana, the new government took actions that were said to undermine the chieftaincy institutions. This idea was fueled by the actions of some chiefs, who were seen to be the fight for independence.

Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God. Africa Must Unite” — Kwame Nkrumah
Nkrumah’s critics say he stifled the chieftaincy institution in Ghana

The posture of President Kwame Nkrumah was not in favour of the chieftaincy institution. The relationship between President Nkrumah’s government and the chieftaincy institution, could be summed up in a comment he made that “chiefs will run away and leave their sandals.”

Regardless of this, his Convention People’s Party (CPP) government thought it wise not to abolish the institution.

Nkrumah’s overthrow pumped some life back into the institution as the 1969 Constitution created the Traditional Councils, Regional and National House of Chiefs. Busia (1951) had researched the position of chiefs in the modern state and was very critical of the institution but his government established the Chieftaincy Act, 370 in September 1971, to further strengthen the institution. Until 2008, the 1971 Act was the main legal instrument backing chieftaincy in Ghana.

This notwithstanding, the current issues regarding the chieftaincy institution have been more retrogressive than progressive.

According to the National House of Chiefs, as of 2013, there were 64 disputed stools in the country. Further cementing the divisions in the country are the insidious acts of some political actors who seek political legitimacy from some traditional leaders through public endorsements.

Campion and Acheampong (2014), have recorded numerous instances of some chiefs selling lands owned by their people to unscrupulous investors, which further pushes many vulnerable rural folks into penury.

As highlighted earlier, the involvement of chiefs in illegal mining is no more a perception. This has also worsened the image of the chieftaincy institution.

Are chiefs still important?

The Paramount Chief of Nakong Pe Joseph Banapeh Afagachie II addressing the gathering at the palace. scaled
In communities where state’s judicial system does not exist, chiefs fill the gap

In many rural areas, where courts are non-existent, chiefs still perform some judicial functions. Some also mobilise funds to improve their communities. Many chiefs are more or less the bridge between rural folk and formal state institutions. According to the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (CIKOD), a local non-governmental organization that focuses on the development of indigenous institutions in Ghana, 80% of Ghanaians claim allegiance to one chief or another. In that sense, people still consider chieftaincy as the repository of the customs, history and traditions of Ghana.

The institution also plays a cardinal role in solving problems between key national political actors. The role the Asantehene and other chiefs played during and after the 2016 general-elections is one such example.

The designation of a ministry for chieftaincy and monthly stipends to chiefs and queen mothers respectively indicate some sort of commitment to the institution by the state.

But a La Mantse is quoted by Assiemeng (1981) to have said “the influence of the chief so permeates the whole fabric of social life in the rural communities that if only a purposeful effort had been made in the past to reshape the institution to give it a modern outlook, chieftaincy would have played a more useful role in the life of the nation.”

The late J.H Mensah, who was the Senior Minister under the Kufour administration once said that, “we should apply our minds assiduously to reshaping the institution for today’s world.”

I do not assume competence in the endeavour of fashioning out a policy to guide how the state and chieftaincy must relate. Neither can I determine the future of the institution. However, I believe the job of a writer is to highlight critical issues of concern in his or her society with a pining hope that those with transformative powers will reflect on such ideas for the prosperous continuity of that society.

From whatever perspective one looks at chieftaincy in this Ghana, it needs reshaping to be relevant because it has lost its shine.

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The writer of this report, Edmund Agyemang Boateng, is a Fellow of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa.

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