Chieftaincy in Ghana – time for modernisation or time for an end?

Although on the surface it seems Ghana’s archaic chieftaincy structures have survived colonialism and are still celebrated and revered in modern times, I did not realise how much influence neighbouring tribes and British rule have had on the institution.

Alhassan Mbalba and Queen Mother Naa Tsotsoo Soyoo I © MisBeee Writes

Star 100 UK’s seminar: ‘Tribes: Chieftaincy in Ghana’ brought together four speakers representing the Akans, GaDangmes, Ewes and Northerners to shed some light on the intricacies of this much-celebrated institution.

Jamestown chieftaincy

According to Her Royal Highness (HRH) Queen Mother Naa Tsotsoo Soyoo I, the current chieftaincy tradition used among the GaDangme people was adopted from the Akans.

She also explained that enstoolment of the chiefs in Jamestown was decided by the British who governed the Jamestown area – hence the English name.

Ghana and the Levites

During the seminar, the strong connection between the Hebrews and Ga people was also touched upon – something that people have alluded to me many times. According to the Queen Mother, the Ga people inherited certain elements of Jewish culture from the Levites. She added that the Wolomes (Ga spiritual leaders) are considered to be the Levite priests and a lot of what they do – such as wearing white – is considered to be part of Levite tradition.

But her words were qualified by seminar moderator Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame Jnr, lecturer at the SOAS Centre for Cultural in Literary and Postcolonial Studies in London. He pointed out that the Levite tradition of wearing white actually originated from ancient Black Nubia and Egypt.

Asantes and male circumcision

Interestingly, I thought every male was circumcised in Ghana. But it seems candidates for kingship are not, according to Asante royal Akwasi Amponsa-Afrifa.

It seems enstooling a circumcised male would be akin to having a left-handed or disabled ohene in power – and that just is not done.

I have read that this is the reason why the late Gyearbuor Asante aka Matthew from sitcom ‘Desmond’s’, made sure he was circumcised.

According to details on the Friends of Tafo website, Gyearbuor was a member of the Kwahu Tafo Royal family. Becoming circumcised ruled himself out of a chieftaincy role and allowed him to pursue his passion for acting instead.

Another interesting influence on the chiefs came from their British rulers. Far from being wholly independent, Akwasi explained the Brits sought to control the masses by bribing and influencing the royals once they realised the power the ahenfo wielded over their subjects. But this had dire consequences for some chiefs as their subjects would rather they were dead than be ruled as puppets by the British.

Evolving roles

Moving forward to modern times and it seems poor remuneration can leave some chiefs open to corruption. Others feel compelled to sell land amassed over centuries to generate money. Chiefs were seen as spiritual leaders but since the displacement of the dominant traditional religions in favour of Christianity and Islam, the divine status of the chiefs has been side-lined. Combined with the stress and responsibilities that often comes with the role, these factors were identified, during the seminar, as reasons why some people shy away from accepting chieftaincy roles.

End to chieftaincy

One particularly vocal audience member – Ade Sawyerr – said chieftaincy was an undemocratic institution that added nothing to Ghana’s development.

In his view since Ghana is a republic, he believed her institutions should be republican also. As a result, having chiefs selected due to their lineage and not through democratic means, went against that.

His views were vehemently challenged by the panellists, and his words deftly rebuffed by the moderator. Dr Osei-Nyame Jnr said rather than rejecting Ghana’s chieftaincy institution, people should use it as an opportunity to celebrate our rich cultures and identity. It should be a reminder also that before colonialism, there were structures in place that worked and held communities together, he said.

Modern chieftaincy

But I feel the last word should go to the Queen Mother who discussed the modernisation of the institution.

She told the audience: If I were to play a traditional role, I would not be as out-spoken as I currently am, particularly on issues such as Female Gender Mutilation.

And if I had my way, I would identify potential young candidates for chieftaincy and train them in management, law, accountancy and public administration so that they can grow and evolve into useful leaders, she said. By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

Check out some of the highlights from the seminar in the following three-part vlog below:

Part1 on YouTube – some insight into chieftaincy

Part2 on YouTube – Ghana and the link to Levites

Part3 on YouTube – time to modernise the institution or scrap it?



For more posts like this, check:

Ghanaian sitcom star leaves legacy in Kwahu

Côte d’Ivoire sculptures: unmasking the truth

The Brasil 2014 World Cup: a family affair


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