Complementary role of traditional institutions to nation building in Ghana

By: Clement Sefa-Nyarko, Participatory Development Associates, Accra

Prior to colonial rule in many sub-Saharan African countries, traditional political systems were the primary political authority that enjoyed enormous legitimacy among the people; but which have since been manipulated by governments and other political bodies to their advantage, without having opportunity to be transformed. Of course, chieftaincy systems in the pre-colonial and colonial times were modelled for their epochs and needed radical reforms to coincide with the social, cultural, economic and political changes that characterised Africa in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The manipulation and political interference, coupled with their in-built socio-cultural systems that resisted change, meant that the chieftaincy systems had no space to evolve. This has had negative impact on stability and development, and the case of Ghana is a typical example. Richard Crook defines traditional institutions as ‘all forms of social and political authority that have their historical origin in the pre-colonial states and societies, and which were incorporated by the British colonial rule into what is now Ghana’. There is emerging debate on whether, and to what extent, traditional authorities can contribute to nation building and national governance. There is also the discourse on whether to treat chieftaincy as one of the civil society actors or as a local government institution that should work with or alongside the local assemblies.

The current constitution of the Fourth Republic refrains from situating traditional institutions into the formal system of governance in Ghana; neither does the Local Government Act 2016 (Act 936). This is particularly because the current structure and degree of legitimacy of traditional authorities vary from culture to culture, and from locality to locality. For instance, the chieftaincy system of the Asanti Kingdom, headed by the The Otumfuo in the Ashanti Region, varies from that of the Dagbon Kingdom, headed by the Ya-Na in the Northern Region. The Otumfuo, as among many southern chiefs, can administer land to people and redistribute it, but the Ya-Na and other chiefs in the northern part of Ghana do not have that authority. This is due to the annexation of northern territories to the British Crown in the 1930s. The annexed land was transferred to the Government of Ghana after Independence in 1957, and has remained the same even after four bouts of constitutional regimes and many authoritarian regimes.

Some current traditional political systems are merely loosely linked segmentary lineage systems imposed by previous governments, something that is alien to chieftaincy systems, and which has resulted in the creation of political systems without legitimacy. The Killing of the King of Dagbon, Ya-Na Andani II of the Northern Region, according to Steve Tonah, was a manifestation of such schisms.

The more “traditional” chieftaincy systems, however, still hold legitimacy amongst peoples. Traditional authorities continue to deliver local justice, administer land adjudication, and deliver some of the public goods through community development activities. Chiefs are also major embodiment of traditional religious beliefs and practices in almost all Ghanaian societies.

Scholars like Irene Odotei, Steve Tonah and Richard Crook identify the following economic, socio-cultural and political factors as fundamentally responsible for the sustained influence of traditional authority in Ghana. First, they are the embodiment of cultural and religious leadership, with power over significant practices and belief systems. For some, however, the relatively unchanged nature of traditional systems of governance remain its major flaw that creates a discord between it and modern nation state systems of governance. Related to this is a second factor that relates to representation of the identity of their peoples; traditional leaders and their traditional symbols represent the people they govern. Third, they have control over land, whether customary tenure, tindaana, urban or rural. Fourth, they are custodians of accumulated family (royal) wealth and influence that are transferred from generation to generation.

It is too simplistic to argue that authentic development can happen in Ghana, especially in rural areas where traditional authority holds significant legitimacy, without the involvement of traditional authorities. Yet, the current traditional political systems cannot stand the rigours of modern governance, which must nurture accountability, transparency, progressive outlook and peaceful transfer of power. The constitution of the Fourth Republic has provided ceremonial portfolios for chiefs, including the setting up of paramouncies. These congregate into ten Regional House of Chiefs with minimal authority within Local Government framework. More constructive inclusion and reform is needed in this if it must yield results. Traditional authorities have the power to mobilise people and to enforce by-laws if properly motivated, regulated and restructured. In smaller circles, traditional authorities enjoy greater legitimacy, and can be instrumental in galvanising citizens around nation building themes for development. They could, for instance, be formally integrated into local government systems to formalise their legitimacy.

Fundamental questions that still need further discussion include: Do traditional institutions present viable alternative to modern state governance systems? What role can they play? To answer these questions holistically, several relevant questions need to be asked as well. For instance, how amenable are traditional institutions to scientific approaches to development? And what about the reverse?

In my next write-up, I will propose compelling reasons why traditional authorities need to lead in mobilising citizens against environmentally-degradable activities (like illegal small-scale mining activities) in farming communities in Ghana.

About the Author

Clement Sefa-Nyarko is a demographer with special interest in discourses on conflict, security and development. He lives in Ghana, and is currently the Research Manager for Participatory Development Associates Limited.

Follow Clement on Twitter at @sefanyarko