Opinions Fri, 30 Nov 2007

Chieftaincy, power base and social contract

The ongoing debate about whether or not to phase out the institution of chieftaincy is very interesting and at the same time disappointing. In these few paragraphs, I will attempt to provide an Industrial-Organizational Psychological perspective on the debate as well as provide other perspectives from the social science to support my arguments.

The first question to ask is what is chieftaincy from a scientific standpoint? The institution of chieftaincy equates leadership of the good people of Ghana as our societies were and still are social organizations. Leadership has been defined as the process of influencing people towards the achievement of some goals. As a result, the effective leader is the one who ensures that the group of people he or she leads accomplishes their group goal. This then leads us to the foundation of leadership in general and chieftaincy in particular.

Two industrial and organizational psychologists, French and Raven, identified 5 bases of power which broadly group into 2 classes. They identified the following sources of power: legitimate, coercive, reward, referent, and expert. Experts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Organizational Behavior, Human Resource Management and allied fields see these sources as either position power or personal power. Legitimate, coercive and reward gives the individual position power whiles personal power comprises referent and expert. In order for us to understand what these sources of power have to do with chieftaincy, let’s define the various sources of power. Legitimate power gives the individual holder a right to demand compliance or obedience from the subordinates whiles coercive and reward sources gives the individual holder influence over others because he or she controls the disciplinary (instead of punishment) and reward systems respectively, all as a result of the position the person holds in the social organization. Referent base gives the individual hold power over others because the holder is admired by the followers for his or her personal traits or characteristics that the followers aspire to possess. Expert source gives the holder influence because he or she possesses knowledge, skills, and abilities that the group needs but may be in short supply within the group.

Chieftaincy as a mechanism for leadership is heavily based on position power. This is because the compliance and obedience that the good people of Ghana expressed towards this institution was based on the right of the chief or king to demand compliance, and the control they exert over punishment and their ability to reward. I am not discussing the importance of this institution in the pre-colonial and during the colonial days but to show the foundation of the institution in those days. Even though there is no gainsaying that both personal and position powers were crucial, there was still over reliance on position power. This led to concentration on acquisition and use of position power to the neglect of personal power. The social organizations that the chiefs led have given way to the emergence of new social organization based on democratic governance. This shift has largely left the chieftaincy institution redundant in contemporary times. Interestingly, the new social organization is based on a similar premise: the position power. This means that the good people of Ghana cannot be expected to express compliance and obedience to the leaders of the traditional societies (chiefs) and at the same time to leaders of the modern society (president and his or her representatives). This is because the traditional societies are under the constitution of the modern society and the constitution wields more power than the rules and taboos of the traditional societies. Whenever there is a conflict the between the traditions and customs and the provisions in the constitution, the former is expected to be changed. For instance, the abolition of human sacrifice and attempts to dismantle trokosi system and Gambaga witch camp are due to the conflict between modernity and traditions and the fact that traditions are expected to give way.


Another way to view this is a social contract perspective. This perspective holds that people give up certain rights to others in return for protection and law and order. The good people of Ghana gave the allegiance to chiefs for protection against tribal wars and other demeanors as well as law and order during the olden days. In the contemporary times, where protection cannot be guaranteed by chieftaincy because the institution is no longer capable of doing so, the social contract cannot be upheld. This situation has broken the contract between the chiefs and the followers. The question is why should one party continue to perform their side of the contract when the other party cannot be expected to execute his or her side successfully in the social milieu. The social contract in the contemporary times is not between chiefs and traditional rulers of and the good people rather between the president and democratic institutions and the people of Ghana. Whether or not we like it, even the pro-chieftaincy will be less likely to comply with rules by traditional rulers if they cannot give them something they need in return. I know this statement may be challenged but the truth is that if chiefs decide to demand respect, compliance, and obedience from them they may disrespect that because they have nothing to actually lose and will only comply because they respect them.

The discussion above indicates that the institution of chieftaincy has lost its legitimacy it used to possess. What is the way forward for the institution of chieftaincy? I believe that there is a need for the institution to build a different power base so that they can actually wield the influence they used to. Research indicates that personal power is more effective than position power in influencing people. This is because over reliance on position power usually lead to a situation where followers say “to hell with authority” and “damned the consequences”. That is they become rebellious and challenge authority to do what it says it will do unless the followers… As a result, there is a need for reform in the institution of chieftaincy. If chieftaincy wishes to exert any meaningful influence on the people of Ghana, then it should monitor its selection and learning and development of its leaders. In simple terms, only those with referent and expert power will earn respect and compliance from the good people of Ghana in this contemporary Ghana. The king makers should select only qualified candidates with referent and expert power and/ or develop them to acquire these power bases. I anticipate that following this recommendation strictly can lead to problems but that is the only way they salvage this dying institution. They may also develop new contract with their people; that is chieftaincy should tell the good people of Ghana what they would get in return if they comply and obey their rulings.

One may also argue that the constitution can be made to give some authority to chieftaincy but the truth is that doing so will be undemocratic and resisted by Ghanaians. Our education and desire for democracy have led us to question the legitimacy of chieftaincy and the solution lies in its ability to shift its power base and write new social contract with Ghanaians. On this note, I call on others to share their in-depth perspective on the debate with us without sentiment, particularly from those in History, Political Science, and Sociology and other social sciences.

Seth Oppong (Nana Yaw)
Graduate Student in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Department of Psychology, University of Ghana, Legon Visiting Research scholar to North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC for 2007/2008 academic year

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Oppong, Seth