WHO NEEDS CHIEFS IN GHANA?
By: Santuah Niagia
THE British used chiefs to foist indirect rule; Nkrumah tried to disband them; the Constitution treats them like ugly customers; public doesn’t seem to know what they do, but wherever they reign, people are prepared to die for them. They are called chiefs.
What is it about chiefs that tickles the fancy of some but rankles the bile of others?
By the end of the 16th century, most ethnic groups constituting the modern Ghanaian population had settled in their present locations. These were a motley collection of warriors in search of new territories, traders in search of new trade partners and commodities and nomads in search of adventure.
Most of the warriors and traders established large kingdoms and ruled over them, as is seen today in Ashanti, Dagbon and Gonjaland. Rather than establish centralized states themselves, the adventure seekers, such as the Kassena, the Kuasasi and Talensi, lived in segmented societies, bound together by kinship ties and ruled by the heads of their clans.
By the time British colonizers showed up in Ghana, there was no motivation for anyone to ruffle such an elaborate system of local governance with the chiefs at the apex. The British not only let sleeping dogs lie; they put them to sleep. Chiefs figured prominently in the system of direct rule which the British authorities adopted to administer their colonies in Africa.
According to Frederick Lugard, the architect of indirect rule, the policy was cost effective because it reduced the number of European officers in the field. By allowing the local rulers to exercise direct administrative control over their people, opposition to European rule from the local population was minimized. Thus the direct rule had the ultimate advantage of guaranteeing the maintenance of law and order.
In an attempt to balance the primary concern of protecting British interests with the need for recognition for African sentiments, the Guggisberg Constitution of 1925 created provincial councils of paramount chiefs, which British in turn elected chiefs as unofficial members of the Legislative Council. However, the Ghanaian elite accused the chiefs that in return for British support, they allowed the provincial councils to fall completely under government control.
The British kept reforming the system to make it better respond to both local and colonial needs. Some of the Ghanaians believed that the reforms, by increasing the power of chiefs at the expense of local initiative, permitted the colonial government to avoid movement toward the any form of popular participation in the colony’s administration. But independence within British Commonwealth. On March 6, 1957, the 113th anniversary of the Bond of 1844, the former British colony of the Gold Coast became the independent state of Ghana.
The Independence Constitution of 1957 granted a voice to chiefs and their local councils by providing for the creation of Regional Assemblies. No bill affecting the privileges of chiefs could become law except by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly and by simple majority approval in two-thirds of the Regional Assemblies. When local CPP supporters gained control of enough Regional Assemblies, however, Nkrumah promptly secured passage of an act removing the special entrenchment protection clause in the Constitution, which included the privileged position of chiefs.
In the Ashanti Region where the Asantehene traditionally was supreme, the Ashanti Confederacy was reconstructed in 1958, leading to a dilution of the Asantehene’s power and subsequently the Ashanti Lands and their revenues under the direct control of the central government. Eventually, the regional assemblies were abolished and Kwame Nkrumah became a law onto himself. He sacked judges, amended the Constitution at his pleasure and removed chiefs who would not toe his line.
Recalcitrant were publicly humiliated and destooled, notwithstanding the fierce defence put up by Nkrumah’s arch rival and one of Ghana’s leading jurists, Dr J. B. Danquah. Danquah asserted and reasonably so that “not only were the traditional states over whom the chiefs ruled order than the modern state of Ghana itself but that the lives of most people were regulated by custom and not solely by national laws”.
In this light, Ghana’s Constitution duly recognizes chiefs but does not assign them any specific roles. According to Article 270 (1) “The institution of chieftaincy, together with its traditional as established by customary law and usage, is hereby guaranteed.”
But chiefs cannot take part in active party politics unless they abdicate. This has fuelled conflicting views about the political roles of chiefs and contributed to the erosion of their status and relevance.
But, as Prof. Richard Rathbone of the University of London asserts, “Although considerably transformed, the institution of chieftaincy has survived against great odds, in part because chiefs continue to symbolize place and pride in locality (with emphasis)”.
Whereas some would like to see chiefs play an active policy advisory and consultative role, others feel such a role might involve them in partisan politics and compromise their cultural position as “fathers” of their people.
The relentless meddling in chieftaincy affairs since the colonial era has not only allowed charlatans to slip into the system but also created dangerous impression that just anyone can become a chief.
It cannot be emphasized enough that there are several ways of becoming a citizen of Ghana but the Constitution specifies in Article 62 that “A person shall not be qualified for election as the President of Ghana unless (a) he is a citizen of Ghana by birth.” (With emphasis). The nation cannot afford to have the executive authority of Ghana vested in someone if the person were not a Ghanaian by birth. Similarly, no community can afford to entrust custody of its cultural heritage into the lands people unless they hailed from the appropriate family and lineage from any part of the community.
But, as the Deputy Eastern Regional Minister, Mohammed Baba Jamal, rightly noted, the enstoolment of “wrong persons” as chiefs accounts for the numerous chieftaincy disputes raging in the country.
Being a chief goes beyond position and privilege; it even goes beyond identity. Being a chief is about the preservation of nature and culture. Be that as it may, if chiefs are to continue to enjoy pride of place in Ghana, the institution of chieftaincy must be reviewed to make it more responsive to the aspirations of a rapidly changing Ghanaian society.
Daily Graphic Page: 19 Wednesday, June 2, 2010.