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Chieftaincy: Bringing Clarity To The Blurring Issues

Fri, 10 Nov 2006 Source: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Since I wrote a couple of pieces on the need to move away from chieftaincy to a meritocratic system, some have come out of the woodwork to defend the institution of chieftaincy even though the gale that blows against it has gathered renewed strength. Almost all admit that the institution needs some radical restructuring, yet none has presented us with any meaningful recommendations that would even begin to suggest that chieftaincy can be slapped in line with the rule of law and a modern meritocratic democracy. I suspect the institution is beyond reform. One Yaw Amoateng, claims not to know what a meritocracy means yet he is able to argue against it? If you’ve stepped foot in a classroom, you should know what a merit based system is. Even the royal academy intends to use a merit system. Bring the unmeritorious chiefs in and teach them what merit is about and can do. We continue to hear trite and warmed up arguments designed to confuse and perpetuate a system whose relevance is heartily questionable. There are times when I feel as though chieftaincy is a religion to some. And as Kofi Nyame admonished us, religion abhors reason. You either believe or you don’t. This effort to restate, focus and clear up the blatant misrepresentations is for those that want to examine this issue from the point of reason not blind faith.

If you choose reason over blind faith in the discussion on chieftaincy, you can’t help but to notice the untenable arguments that the protagonists of chieftaincy continue to make. Indeed, some of the arguments advanced by those who seek to attack my position and person, are outright misleading and attempts to write tall, juicy and fat tales. These are nothing but gilded efforts at romanticism and sentimentality. My motivation to see chieftaincy phased out comes from the needless suffering of our people in the rural areas, duality of authority in the local areas, lack of inclusion, bald face corruption, human rights, violence, conflicts and the perpetual lack of leadership from these chiefs. In this daunting effort, I focus solely on the institution and not personalities. Critical also to my motivation, is the unfair, unjust, retrogressive and antediluvian nature of this institution.

To make the discussion on chieftaincy meaningful, we must keep the context in mind. Ghana is a failed state when it comes to leadership and many other things. Perhaps a clear indication of such failure is the number of people toiling in the diaspora. Most of us will love to stay home and earn a decent living. Is it not interesting to note that some of the most ardent supporters of chieftaincy are those who have escaped their villages? Their chiefs, since pre-colonial time, could not provide development for their tribesmen and as a result, they have fled the hardships and are eking a living outside. Now hear me, if other countries run this ruthless, suffocating and ineffective local system, will we have had the opportunity to sojourn there? Would we have had the crass nerve to beg from them? How many will honestly like to leave Ghana for greener pastures, only to find themselves under another ineffective chief in a different country? These days, the better you are at begging, the more celebrated a leader you are. Perhaps another experiment that will prove the failure of leadership in Ghana will be to put a ship at all the ports and announce that no visa is required to board these ships that are headed to the West and other verdant locales. Can you imagine how many of our people who will want to hop on? You may want to try the reverse in a country like the US or Britain and see how many may want to leave their country and make a living in a place like Ghana or any other African country. I can go on and on to make a stern case for our failed state but why must I? I think it is quite obvious that the leadership bar is not actually low, but broken beyond repair. Yet, there is ample hope so long as we don’t give up and continue to stay the course. This is why we must be relentless and opt for reason instead of foolhardy and sentimentality that has little to do with real life results.

Given the context of failed leadership in Ghana, one cannot help but look at the various levels of leadership in the country. Broadly, one can look at leadership at the central level and local level. Even in these broad categories, one can further examine other levels of leadership. The focus of this debate on chieftaincy is at the local level of leadership. Trust me, we will come to the central leadership problem sooner than you think. Why is the local situation very important? Well, over 70% of our people live in rural Ghana. Most of these folks are very poor. They do not have drinking water, good roads, hospitals, schools and other facilities that help make life bearable. You cannot talk about local government without talking about chiefs. They control the lands and do inordinately affect what goes on at the local level. Now, they are being urged to assert themselves! In doing what? Unfortunately, their presence is more of a nuisance than a blessing. They foster conflicts, engage in corruption, are not accountable, nurture a dual system of governance, promote Dark-Age customs, foster tribalism and overall, mislead their own tribesmen. These are all stark facts. In fact, not a day goes by without reading about the confusion and problems that these chiefs present to us. Not the least among our problems is the sustenance of the rule of law as it relates to these absolute monarchs. Are they above or below the law? Can someone tell us?

Our case against chieftaincy is a clear one. To Yaw Amoateng I say this, we are not here to validate what Lord Luggard, a colonialist and indeed a racist thinks of our society or its outdated indigenous institutions. His comments were made at a time when we did not have democracy but rather survived in a state of constant tribal wars. Luggard is free to assume what is best for us. We just will not buy his canard in this day and age. Perhaps his observation makes sense for a colonialist whose sole aim is to rape the colonized country economically. So let me pose this question, if you are a colonialist, looking for something without any desire to invest nothing, would you disturb a system that allows you to milk and rape a group of people over and over again? Is it not on record that these chiefs were partners to the colonialist? Some even fought against our independence. If anything at all, the fact that the colonialist overwhelmed us should be a scathing if not scalding indictment of our chiefs. Where was that elaborate army formation or clan system to help fight off these colonial rogues? Perhaps, the reasons why we posed no match for these musket bearing colonialists lies in inter tribal wars and deep divisions among us. Now we have a chance to come together as a county and you folks want to talk chieftaincy? Luggard, is the proponent of a system that allowed, ironically, another monarch to rape the poor people of Africa. He wanted to spend less using the existing system to carry out his rape. I will not take a ringing endorsement from such a cagy and unsavory character as proof that chieftaincy is a system that ought to be preserved and nurtured in old or present day Ghana.

Any system that puts people in leadership positions for life, will not guarantee effective leadership. If you put a person in place for life, and do not have job expectation or milestones, how do you measure performance? What really do we expect from chiefs and how do we evaluate our expectation without being told that we don’t respect our elders and authority? Is this not the reason why chieftaincy never brought anything meaningful to the people? Folks, this struggle to phase out chieftaincy is about effective leadership. It is about bringing development to the people in the rural areas. And no one is guaranteeing that removing chieftaincy will singularly guarantee success overnight. What we are nibbling at is that, removing an obstacle is just a first step. Once the obstacle is gone, serious efforts must be made to put in place a vibrant democratic system locally free of any distractions and encumbrances. Getting rid of chieftaincy is just a first critical and necessary step. Neither democracy nor chieftaincy is a perfect system. Yet in comparing the imperfections of democracy to that of chieftaincy, we ought to opt for democracy hands down. For example, we are cloyed all the time with how these chiefs, AKA benevolent dictators, did this and did that. How do we formally and peacefully evaluate their performance without voting? If they are that good, why not seek national office and help move the country forward? What really are these chiefs afraid of? Can we safely say that the reasons or basic assumptions for putting chiefs in place for life still exist today? If they do, why did we ask Rawlings to hand over then? Why did we stomp in a fit of rage when Nkrumah became an absolute political monarch? Why not have another chief in the form of Rawlings ruling us for life? After all, is our new chief doing significantly better than Rawlings? School me!

We cannot continue to provide or cede all kinds of resources to these chiefs and then ask no questions. Anyone that is entrusted with resources must be made to openly account for the trust. As we speak, various chiefs have collected all kinds of monies both foreign and local but cannot be questioned about what they did with the money. To do so is to attack a tribe, even though these chiefs are nothing but glorified tribal foremen constantly reminding us of our tribal divisions even as we struggle to build a united nation. I don’t understand why some cannot see that an emphasis on tribe, as we seen recently, is a damning blow to our nation building effort. It just makes it harder than it should be. Since the insecurities that create a need for virulent tribal bonding (survival) do not exist, what is all this hoopla about tribe? Can’t we still be brothers and sisters without invoking tribe? These chiefs swear oaths that require them to look out for their tribesmen over and above the interest of our nation. So what happens if their tribal interest does not sit well with our national interest? Was that not the case of Nkrumah versus the NLM AKA Matemeho? I am not at all convinced that a zealous emphasis on tribe is healthy for our national development effort. Again, I am one who believes that the insecurities that led to strong tribal bonding has been or must be addressed within the confines of our nation state contraption. The need to attack or enslave each other is no longer there and will not be tolerated so why this constant drumbeat of tribe?

I find it very disingenuous when people compare chieftaincy in Ghana to that of the monarchy in Britain. There is only one monarch in Britain. They all speak basically one language. The culture is fairly homogenous. This cannot be likened to our multi-ethnic tower of Babel situation in Ghana. Every village has chief in Ghana. The professor also fails to note the bloody struggle that took place between the commoners and the monarchy in Britain. The commoners distilled the British monarchy, as we know it, out of endless struggles. It did not happen because the people blindly supported the absolute monarch of their time. How can anyone compare a multi-ethnic country like Ghana to that of Britain or even Japan when dealing with the issue of monarchy? Again, using trite arguments, the Professor tries to muddy the water. If Ghana ever matures to a situation where we have one toothless monarchy that leaves a vibrant democracy alone, maybe our shriek will lessen. Even so, the push to retire the monarchy in Britain has not died down. The British monarchy is not messing around with the Blair’s government, is it? The queen is not the head of one tribe arranging loans with world bodies outside the confines of government. She is not acting as though she is the government. Of course, if and when elected leaders choose to abdicate their responsibilities, either by design or inadvertently, other power hungry neophytes will take over. I believe that is the situation in Ghana as we speak. I want our elected representatives to speak for me not some glorified tribal headman fronting as an elected officer. If these chiefs want to behave like elected officers, why not run for office nationally? They fear elections but want to act as elected officers? No way Jose!!!

The core of the case against chieftaincy is inherent in its unfairness and injustice to the very people it lords over. It is kind of sad and hilarious at the same time to see a professor of social science, Yaw Amoateng, talk about kingmakers when we are talking about universal adult suffrage. The way a society progresses is to put in place superior systems that allow it to function effectively. So, if men and women can go and vote their wishes and desires at the poll, why must they cede this inalienable right to a bunch of crooked, mostly uneducated kingmakers who spawn nothing but confusion most of the time? Just think about why there was a need for kingmakers and tell me if that need cannot be met in a much better way by allowing people to vote. We act as if we cannot learn anything new. If we used kingmakers then, must we continue to use them now? Why don’t we use kingmakers to select children of our political royalty at the national level then? Why do the supporters of chieftaincy think that universal adult suffrage is good nationally but not locally? If it can be used locally, why do we need kingmakers and chiefs? Why have a parallel system that causes headaches and tribal tensions? Can anyone help us reason this conundrum out? The point here is that voting is a much more practical way to make leadership decisions in a multi-ethnic political environment then any other decision tool. Consensus, linked to chieftaincy, is another decision-making tool that they like to brag about. However, it is very time consuming and has its time and place. Given the explosion in population and complexity of our once agrarian society, using a tool like consensus to make leadership choices is totally impossible. Not even at the local level. Let my people vote for their leaders!

As if the above gaffe is not enough, Prof., Yaw Amoateng, perhaps a victim of bad leadership at home like most of us, since he is working is South Africa, goes on to say that it is ok to continue the kind of backwater “democracy” that they ascribe to chieftaincy. How in the world, can you take a tribe, then exclude over 99% of its members from ever leading them while continuing to wax democracy? And this comes from a professor of sociology? How can you isolate less than 1% of a tribe based on gene pool and birthrights, and then mimic some kind of backwater democracy within this one percent group? And with a straight face, the professor tells the whole world that this is some strand of democracy that is worth our time and effort in this day and age? Do you folks now see why most of our educated folks have lost credibility with our people? Is democracy not government of the people, for the people and by the people? Does it say government of the privileged by the blue bloods and for the chiefs? All we are asking is that the system of leadership for any group must be opened to all its members. The system must be transparent and indeed fair. This way, people can compete for leadership position based on performance not birthrights. Why should this be such a hard thing to sell to those who claim to be educated, believe in fairness and do want effective leadership? I just don’t get it!! Why is it wrong to say that all those that are governed should be free to not only elect those that govern them but be elected as well? Why is it wrong to have an inclusive society? Why really should anyone with an iota of fairness in his system continue to defend a discriminatory system like chieftaincy?

The claim that Chieftaincy is flexible is inordinately laughable. It is as if we did not read the recent effusions by Asantehene when some asked him to go clear his name. Did the professor observe how the sub-chiefs were ordered to march lockstep with their royal lord? Where is the flexibility? Is he also aware of the harsh treatment that was meted out to those chiefs who refused to go along with the matemeho rogues? So where is the flexibility? The fact that chieftaincy has survived to this day does not in anyway suggest that it is flexible or necessarily useful. What happened in the past is a lack of scrutiny and some level of marginalization of the institution. What we want now is the complete retirement of the system of chieftaincy, so that a meritocracy can take its place. So that land as a factor of production can be freed and properly regulated to spur development. As far as I am concerned, one of the key features of any developed economy is one’s ability to buy and sell land freely. These hardcore traditionalists living in the diaspora are able to buy land and houses as they please and they love it. Their only problem is that no one must be able to buy their tribal lands. So this is all about tribe huh? If our idea of development includes economic prosperity, then this form of communal ownership of land must be examined critically. I am not convinced it should or will survive the winds of development that threaten our country soon. This sly idea of, “I can buy your land but you can’t buy my land” will not bring us the development that we desire. Land ownership not leasing should be the way forward. Unless and of course we have conceded that certain tribes must own on remain on certain geographical enclaves for eternity. The selling and buying of land in itself will infuse our economy with the much-needed capital for development. Is this not better than begging? The lessons of racisms in the west against blacks should be a glittering example on this issue.

One of the biggest fallacies that the proponents of chieftaincy continue to sell is this argument that chieftaincy is equivalent to our culture. Nothing is so far from the truth. Chieftaincy is a part of our culture just like trokosi is. It does not represent our entire culture. It is the people that create culture not chiefs. Our parents thought us about culture not chiefs. The Asantes did not lose their culture when prempeh 1 was exiled. The Ga folks continued with their lives for a few years without a king. Our Anlo folks lived for 8 years without the Awomefia. I am convinced beyond any doubt that life will go on and the culture will be progressive without the burden of chieftaincy. I am yet to see any group of people die off the face of God’s green earth by simply making progressive changes to their culture. What really is wrong with having required surgery aimed at improving your life? We are not asking for cosmetic change in this direction based on some fantasy or feel good sentimentality. We are saying that for practical reasons, we need effective leadership. To inch towards effective leadership, we need a system that taps into the manpower resources of all our people not a select few based on bloodline and genetics. What is inherently wrong with saying that those that are led must have the same rights and privileges to lead? Is it not true that some of the best leaders were once follows? To lead, must you not know how to follow? We are looking at the wellbeing of the whole group not an elite few. So, ours is based on the synergistic whole not the privileged local aristocracy who continue to fail the people time and time again. Calling for government help or traveling to beg for money has not helped and will not bring prosperity to any village.

Often when the issue of chieftaincy comes up, some are very quick to point to the crippling failure of our democratic experiment. I agree without equivocation that our democratic experiment has and continue to face daunting challenges. However, let us be fair in our comparison. We have not practiced democracy in Ghana for more than 25 years! For how long have we practiced chieftaincy? Chieftaincy my friends, predates colonialism! Before colonialism, all it did was instigate inter tribal wars, slavery, Dark Age rituals and a fixed state of underdevelopment. As someone rightly commented, chieftaincy is not designed for development. It is designed to maintain the status quo. We all know what maintaining the status quo does and will not work? We must therefore reject this kind of mentality and opt for progress. Our success lies in our ability to redefine ourselves. We do a disservice to ourselves by holding on to institutions that do not support the vision that we crave. Nationally we have chosen meritocratic democracy over chieftaincy because of its relative superiority.

The ideology or principles that underpin chieftaincy are sickening at best. This is why these traditionalists are not calling for royalty at the national level. This is why they can’t say that the kids of Nkrumah, Busia, Acheampong, Akuffo, Rawlings and now Kufour should be the only ones to rule Ghana. Can you imagine the kind of briar’s patch or hot pickle we will find ourselves in if we adopt this debased logic at the national level? To assume that some are suited for leadership because of their genetics or birthrights, is to assume human superiority by birth. Is this the message that the Danquah-Busia tradition want to send across? Yet, even as they give a ringing endorsement to this sick ideology, they profess to be the protagonist of the rule of law. If all men must be subject to the law, how then do you claim that some are more superior? Are the chiefs not the law on to themselves? Under chieftaincy, did or can we practice the rule of law, a key ingredient of democracy? Under a meritocracy, we are all equal in our humanness, and each will compete fairly based on their God given ability. If democracy is good at the national level, it must be good and consistent at the local level. We need a system that is nationally and locally cohesive and that system is meritocratic democracy.

Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman
(AKA Da Double-The double edge sword)


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

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka