Close to the end of a 200 years of colonial control, the British administration in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, implemented numerous policies to help it control the territory easily.
Central among those policies were laws established to manage the Chieftaincy institution in the society.
This decision has caused persistent and damaging chieftaincy clashes in the northern parts of our country. It is difficult to accept that these laws and policies were not established to deliberately cause eternal divisions in our society.
However, after one exhumes the bones of the past, the actual cause of the ever-present turbulence, which absolutely no one in this country is safe from, no matter what they may think, stares in the face, poking mercilessly in the eye.
Before the British embarked on a voyage to dismantle the entire pantheon on which our society rested on and imposed themselves on our forebears, claiming we were not fit to rule ourselves, chiefs in the numerous ethnic groups in the territory led their people. They performed crucial economic, military, administrative, judicial, cultural and religious functions.
There may have been misunderstandings and even violent conflict among ourselves before European imperialism, but is there a group of people in the world peculiar in this regard?
However, what seems like an eternal blow on the cohesion of our society was landed, when Lord Frederick Lugard’s indirect rule assumed control in the territory. The unflinching influence of the chiefs on their people started waning. This was obvious because of the analogous functions of the colonial government and the chiefs. The colonialists, seeing how rooted the institution of chieftaincy was in our society, couldn’t pulverize it but retrofitted the institution into the colonial governance system.
Indeed, their actions led to the decimation of the power of chiefs. This was done through laws such as the Chiefs Ordinance 1904 and the Native Authority Ordinance 1932. The latter in particular, gave the Chief Commissioner the capacity to “constitute any area and define the limits thereof; assign to that area any name and description he may think fit; appoint any chief or other native or group of natives to be a native authority for any area for the purpose of this Ordinances.”
As a result of this law, the colonial administration arbitrarily imposed chiefs on some headless societies in the current Upper East, Upper West and Volta Regions. Other ethnic groups, mostly in the north of the country were merged under one ruler.
An example is the merging of the Mamprugu, Kusasi, Grunshi, Frafra and Builsa with Nayiri (Chief of Mamprugu) as the paramount chief. Numerous such actions were taken by the colonial government.
I cannot assume the ability to know the intentions of the colonialists when these fatalistic laws were being established, but they were doubtless made with a similar vision that informed the Berlin West Africa Conference in 1884.
With the relative redundancy of the chieftaincy institution in post-colonial Ghana, the new nationalist government considered erasing the institution from our society. This idea was fueled by the actions of some chiefs, who were seen as against the fight for independence because freedom threatened their ensconced position within the colonial government.
The personal idiosyncrasies of President Kwame Nkrumah were not in favour of the institution. This posture of Nkrumah heightened when some chiefs displayed their support for the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) during the fight to independence. Regardless of this, the new Convention People’s Party (CPP) government thought it wise not to abolish the institution.
However, the relationship between President Nkrumah’s government and the chieftaincy institution can be summed up in a comment he made that, “Chiefs will run away and leave their sandals.”
As they didn’t run away and their actions and inactions continue to plague our country, we need to tackle this situation head on before they eventually swallow us.
To solve this colonial legacy, we must face the truth. The truth that many of the ethnic groups fighting for power are doing so because they are cut off from economic gains, from progress; and they have to survive.
The reality is that, if one is in traditional power, they are closer to the political administration. This is because paramount chiefs do not only determine or have an overarching influence on who becomes a District, Municipal and Metropolitan head, the opportunities available to them can only be dreamt up by a group of people who cannot reach the political class.
Therefore, we should not be overly surprised as to what anybody will do to become a chief, in a largely unprofitable land, if they have the slightest claim to determine their own destiny.
It is true that dignity is bounded up in these chieftaincy claims. But I believe the young folks who are used to burn, maim and kill by those reaching for paramountcy may decline being turned into pawns, if their economic situations were not as hopeless as it is now.
The writer is Kofi Boateng and can be reached on [email protected].