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The Anachronism of our Chieftaincy

Sat, 22 Nov 2014 Source: Sarfo, Samuel Adjei

By Dr. Samuel Adjei Sarfo

Ghanaians’, and for that matter the world’s, leadership concept evolved from the philosophy of domination. Those who initially chose to rule states and nations did not ascend to power to make life any better for anybody, but to dominate the people, satisfy their interests and to satiate their ego and that of their families and cronies. That is the reality of the origins of political power which projected notions akin to the hierarchy inherent in the animal kingdom: a lion dominates its pride by brute force! Over time, subjects demanded more accountability and democracy from their governments, hence the present democratic dispensation wherein real power and sovereignty reside in the people. Thus the power we spawn in a democratic system is antithetical to the natural order; in the natural order, those who lead the group do so by brute force and sheer domination. Democratic leadership is therefore the work of human enlightenment, and must be preserved by constant vigilance.

However, although deemed as a republic, Ghana still maintains the old notions of power as the instrument of domination, exploitation and egotism: we have a grotesque system whereby the hereditary chieftaincy institution runs concurrently with a constitutional republican system. This is aptly oxymoronic insofar as the whole system of chieftaincy depends for its survival on domination through bloodline, something utterly repudiated in a republican government. In a republican system, none can claim royalty of any sort and there is equality before the law.

But, within the system of chieftaincy, the chief is supposed to dominate by the mere fact of his birth and to maintain the tradition and culture of the people by changing nothing. This gives way to the idea that there are those who have special blood by dint of their birth and are consequently destined to rule forever. This notion is odious and can implicate a chain of undesirable attitudes and posturing. It can even breed ethnocentric ideas: if it is possible for one family to be inherently superior, it is possible for whole clans or tribes to consider themselves superior to all others. So the very idea of royalty is patently inimical to the very idea of a republican system of government. That is why the two cannot exist side by side.

Moreover, the whole system of chieftaincy is about mental ossification: the idea that we must maintain everything as it was long before the ancestors were born. So reform and innovation are anathema to the chieftaincy institution and may well run counter to the very oath and duties of the chiefs themselves. The chiefs swear to lead according to the traditions of their forebears. That is why up to this day, the chief must wrap around his body a whole piece of clothing and wear some conspicuous medallion and jewelry while dragging his feet in unwieldy sandals or being carried in a palanquin. Besides, he must preside over rites and rituals centered on appeasing the ancestors, maintaining taboos and promoting superstition. He even wields the right of first refusal among the kingdom’s maidenheads and is encouraged to be polygamous if not altogether orgiastic. These are all done in the name of tradition and culture which are usually understood to be the old ways of doing things. Nothing in this institution explicitly references change or duty and accountability to the people. Indeed, the Akan expression for one who has ascended to the throne is “Wadi ade3”, literally meaning “he has eaten something”. This expresses the right of the chief to exploit his people in all respects.

Thus conceptually speaking, our idea of political leadership tracks its directions from the chieftaincy system itself which is an anachronistic institution promoting divine rights of domination, condoning superstition, and committed to changing nothing. Dictators in Africa who are fond of medals and are bound to perpetuate their rule and change nothing are learning from the chieftaincy system. Those who claim the right to stay in power forever and condemn democracy as un-African often refer to our chieftaincy system as a traditional and cultural model for their pernicious ideas. Up to today, our politicians think of themselves as demigods with untrammeled powers to do whatever they choose without regard to the welfare of the people. Their heads are infested with domineering powers as exercised within the traditional system instead of those exercised within a typical democratic dispensation.

But we have chosen to live in a democratic dispensation, and the culture of our leadership must reflect a paradigm shift from the rights of domination and exploitation deriving from our birth to the rights of civil leadership acquired through election by the people. In this context, it is the political establishment that must influence the power arrangements within the chieftaincy institution, not vice versa. This means that instead of acting as demigods, our politicians must promote humility and equanimity and good leadership as examples for the chiefs. They should be more cognizant of the power of the people and respect this power in every action they take.They should repudiate rituals and superstition and be committed to accountability and progress, and influence the traditional leadership system to do the same. Finally, the traditional system of leadership must reflect our national republican philosophy. This means that appropriate laws should be enacted to abolish rule by heredity and make the chiefs accountable to the people and elective for term limits.

We live in a fast-changing world within which our very survival as a country depends on adopting creative and innovative ideas that will move our country forward. If we are still sticking to outmoded customs and moribund traditions all in the name of culture and tradition, the winds of change will pass us by, and within a modern, republican civilization, we will continue to maintain and protect deleterious institutions and systems that have no place in a truly republican and democratic nation.

Samuel Adjei Sarfo, Doctor of Jurisprudence, is a general legal practitioner in Austin, Texas, USA. You may email him at sarfoadjei@yahoo.com

Columnist: Sarfo, Samuel Adjei