Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chieftaincy, an Albatross We Can Do Without

Chieftaincy is a revered institution in Ghana, but I belong to a minority of people who think it has outlived its usefulness. It doesn't matter if it is chiefdom or kingdom, it is simply incongruous with what we want to achieve as a people- Statehood- that is what Ghana stands for. A king is the ruler of an independent State (according to Oxford's dictionary), while a Chief may be the ruler of a tribe. To the extent that there is only one independent State called Ghana that we belong to, I get amused by the claims to Kingdoms in Ghana. I have heard arguments asserting that one traditional leader is a King and another is not. That might be the case three hundred years ago, but they lost that title from the very moment they couldn't defend their territories against the white man who merged them with other States and tribes to form what we know today as Ghana. Lesotho and Swaziland are States that exist as kingdoms in Africa today, but the same cannot be said of Ghana. If nations had been created from the former states of Asante, Anlo, Ga, or Okyenman with monarchs at the helms, then we could be talking about kingdoms.

Whether Chief or King, in the period when they had some relevance, their function was to provide leadership and governance for their people. They made laws, they passed the death sentence, and they banished people from their territories because they had the authority and power to do so. The idea that blood qualifies you to exercise such authority provides nature with the platform to mock humanity. Putting a moron in line is a scary proposition that may compel some king makers to look elsewhere for a successor in order to rescue the stool from the games of nature, but these acts only lead to another dangerous game called war. Luckily, the power to govern has been taken away from the chieftaincy institution and handed over to a system that provides opportunity for all citizens so willing, to stake their claim to leadership regardless of whose DNA they carry. If monarchs cannot fulfill the purpose that defines them, why do we have to keep them? It is not surprising that many of them think they can still wield these powers, once we keep them, they must fulfill their function.

A few years ago, a group from the Asante region declared Kumasi as a no go area for some journalists because they said unpalatable things about the Asantehene. Assuming traditional authorities still retain the authority to banish people from their traditional areas, and the Ga Mantse decides to exercise that authority in Accra, people will clearly be robbed of their right to make a living in Ghana. How ludicrous does that sound? But now and then, we hear of traditional leaders banning people or groups from their areas. We cannot preserve the sanctity of our State in this manner. Clearly Chieftaincy is an albatross we can do without.

Those who argue that chieftaincy is relevant in our context because it is a tradition that defines us as Africans, forget that Chieftaincy is not a Ghanaian or African invention. There were empires far bigger than any in Africa, with Kings at the helm. Most of these empires have been reformed into modern democracies. In fact, there are still monarchs who preside over independent states in Europe and the Arab world among others. These monarchs are the heads of State not the heads of a tribe that is a subset of the State. Ironically, many chiefdoms existing in Ghana today were spared the violent overthrow that consigned some of their counterparts in other parts of the world to the dustbin of history, by the actions of the colonialists who took away their powers and formed modern African states. If that hadn't happened, some of the existing chiefdoms would have been abolished by their own people who would have gotten tired of the undemocratic and dictatorial nature of this system of governance. Others would have fallen to other empires, and maybe some of them would have reformed into great democracies. Africans wouldn't have put up with practices like sacrificing their children to accompany dead kings or chiefs forever. But the reality beyond these ifs is that, Europeans intervened in Africa and demarcated it into States made up of former States.

Beyond colour, I see little difference between the invading Europeans and our own Kings. They were both spurred on by greed and notoriety to conquer and establish empires. They even collaborated in selling our kinsmen as slaves. But on the flip side of the coin, the States created by the European invaders created a stable condition to conserve the various chiefdoms. The stability created, combined with our own irrational emotional attachment to the past, is responsible for the sustenance of these chiefdoms up to date. If they had been left to the law of the jungle that created them, many of them would have been history.

As an agent of development, Chieftaincy is superfluous. With all the problems we have with democratically elected leadership, it remains a better agent of development and accountability than Chieftaincy. At least there is no law that forbids citizens from criticizing the way elected leaders apply our taxes, and we can fire them if we're not happy with their performance. But our chiefs love to live in the tenth century. They are 'beyond reproach' and can do no wrong. Try criticizing them and you will slaughter a sheep. Reality is that we pay taxes to the State of Ghana, why should we pretend we need Chiefs to develop our towns and cities?

Whiles we romanticize with the past by tenaciously holding on to an institution we do not need, the institution itself is loudly calling on the museums to prepare a place for it. Succession is still guided by outmoded rules carried along by oral tradition and different people have their own version of the tradition, with little room for reform. The senseless war of attrition among gates in the north, the needless deaths resulting from attempts to install an Awomefia in Anlo, the question of allegiance between Techiman, Tuobodom , Asanteman and the aftermath are indicators that beg the relevance of the institution in our modern world. I admire the efforts of three big chiefs namely, Okyenhene, Asantehene and the Agbogbomefia, to bring relevance to the institution. But the mission impossible nature of their endevour is underscored by the Techiman- Asanteman palava.

The Chief of Techieman arrests another chief from Tuobodom, who claims allegiance (what does that mean in the 21st century Ghana?) to the Asantehene, and is alleged to have abused him in his palace. The chief of Tuobodom reports this to the Asanatehene, who is enraged (rightly so) that the security system failed to address an obvious injustice. What does he do? He asks the President to choose between him and the Techimanhene, and also threatens to serve the chief of Techiman with a dose of his own medicine (kidnap him) if he sets foot in his traditional area. All these would have made perfect sense in the year 1810, but we are in 2010. But not exercising the authority the Asante stool is known for will undermine the myth surrounding the office. So the Great King Solomon is caught up between pre-medieval practices of his ancestors and the reality that he doesn't wield the powers his ancestors enjoyed. Unfortunately, threatening to kidnap another person is an offence under the laws of Ghana. Will anybody dare to drag Asantehene before a court of law? The answer is no. Will the Techimanhene be called to answer to the charges of kidnapping? Possibly so. Chieftaincy has led us into a trap. The chief of Tuobodom is before a court of law for an alleged offence. If the Chief who is alleged to have kidnapped and molested him is not charged, that is a big problem. However if he is charged, but the Asantehene is left off the hook, we have another problem. The situation will degenerate into inter tribal bickering with accusations that some tribes and their Chiefs are treated differently even though we are all supposed to be equal before the law. This is my biggest problem with Chieftaincy.

The institution does not only emphasize our tribal differences but exaggerates them. At a time when we need to focus on integrating Africa into one powerful unit, we are busily dividing the already small national components of the continent along tribal lines. Most discussions on Internet message boards and other places quickly degenerate into inter-tribal insults. Chieftaincy plays a big part in dividing us along tribes when we need to foster a sense of national identity. It courts allegiance onto itself rather than Ghana. Some of these Chiefdoms and their followers delude themselves into believing that they are so popular around world, and that is their claim to fame. The truth is that the State of Ghana itself is not that popular. Your tribe may have been mentioned in history books in Africa but that is all there is to it, many forget the name before they graduate and as for the rest of the world, you never existed. Asia accounts for over fifty percent of the world's population, I will be surprised if 0.5 percent of Asians have ever head of Nana Osei Tutu I or Togbui Sri I, or the States they represent. Ethnicity is one great danger to the stability of our State. Rwanda Burundi and Kenya are examples that should deter us from threading the path of the unthinkable. Unfortunately, we have an institution called chieftaincy which is revered by too many, which either consciously or unconsciously draws us to the precipice.

Politicians have latched on to the confusion created by the position of Chieftaincy for cheap popularity. Ministries have been created to look after chieftaincy. The constitution contains phrases to massage the egos of some Chiefs. But if we want this nation to thrive, we must rise above these attempts to placate an institution that is begging to be buried. I'm hoping for a time when the institution will be consigned to the museum, so Ghana can move on.

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