Chieftaincy must be reengineered to become relevant in the modern Ghanaian state.

Chieftaincy must be reengineered to become relevant in the modern Ghanaian state.

“Chiefs will run away and leave their sandals.”


During the vetting of Justice Clemence Honyenuga to the bench of Ghana’s Supreme Court on Monday 11th May 2020, an issue that needs critical attention but somehow suppressed, jolted to the top of the news.

The Justice who is also a Paramount Chief was accused by the Minority in Parliament for allegedly endorsing the second term bid of President Akufo-Addo. This is because the 1992 Constitution bars chiefs from participating in active party politics.

The response of the Justice was that those comments were not his personal views. According to him they were made in the interest of the chiefs and people of the Nyagbo Traditional Area. And in that sense, he was soliciting for support for his people as this is a common practice by chiefs in the country.

Imbued in his response is the bare, dire and unfortunate situation of the modern day chief. In other words, Justice Honyenuga was saying he cannot, by and large, do much for his people without the support of the central government.

Does that make chiefs redundant?

Only a historical journey would be able to help us appreciate the situation better. And based on their present contributions to national development and cohesion, a critical and crucial decision must be made on the remolding of the institution.

Evolution of Chieftaincy in Ghana                                  

Before Britain imposed itself on our forebears and claimed 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.

However, 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 the society couldn’t pulverize it but retrofitted the institution into the colonial governance system. 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 imposed chiefs arbitrarily on some areas in the current Upper East, Upper West and Volta Regions which were headless communities. 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. The main idea behind this policy, which was to cause persistent and damaging conflicts decades later, was to make the implementation of colonial policy easy.   

By the time the colonial government was being replaced by the nationalist government, the Legislative Council, Judicial Council, the West Africa Frontier Force (military) and the Gold Coast Police Force; they had replaced most of the functions of the chiefs.

With the relative redundancy of the chieftaincy institution in post-colonial Ghana, the new government considered erasing the institution from the 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 favor 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.

chiefs ghana news compressed

However, the relationship between President Nkrumah’s government and the chieftaincy institution, I believe can be summed up in a comment he made that, “Chiefs will run away and leave their sandals.”

Doubtless, his overthrow pumped some life back into the institution as the 1969 Constitution recognized it by creating the Traditional Councils, Regional and National House of Chiefs. Busia (1951) researched on the position of chiefs in the modern state and was very critical of the institution and his government established the Chieftaincy Act, 370 in September 1971, to further strengthen the institution. Until 2008 the 1971 Act was the main legal instrument backing chieftaincy in Ghana.

Even though, in the 1980s more than 60 percent of Ghanaians were bowing to their ancestral gods, many chiefs had lost their grip to manifest tangible changes in their communities. But the numbers sustained the religious functions of chiefs.

Recently, however, this function has plummeted since 71 percent of the present population identify themselves as Christians whereas close to 20 percent are Muslims. It is without doubt that Ghanaians who still worship traditionally are very insignificant as almost all chiefs in this country go to churches or mosques to worship. Also with globalization’s effort in making us more cosmopolitan, many youths have lost enormous touch with their traditional and cultural beliefs and customs.

I believe it will not be far from wrong to indicate that this diagnosis makes the current position of chiefs in the Ghanaian political structure superfluous.

Moreover, current issues regarding the institution has been more retrogressive than progressive.

Perennially, there have been glaring hostilities between Ga chiefs and some Christian churches. This arises because of the violation of the ban on noise making by the churches during the ‘Homowo’ festival.

According to the National House of Chiefs, as at 2013 there were 64 disputed seats in the country. Further cementing the divisions in the country is the insidious acts of some political actors who seek political legitimacy from some traditional leaders through public endorsements.

Campion and Acheampong (2014), have recorded numerous instances of some chiefs selling lands owned by their people to unscrupulous investors which further pushes many vulnerable rural folks into penury.

Worsening the situation is the perception or actual involvement of chiefs in Illegal mining, a critical challenge facing our state.

Still important…

This diagnosis of the situation of chiefs doesn’t mean they are utterly non important in the country.

In many rural areas where courts are non-existent, chiefs still perform their judicial functions. Some also mobilize funds to improve their communities. Many chiefs are more or less the bridge between rural folk and formal state institutions. According to the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (CIKOD), a local non-governmental organization that focuses on the development of indigenous institutions in Ghana, 80% of Ghanaians claim allegiance to one chief or another. In that sense people still consider chieftaincy as the repository of the customs, history and traditions of Ghana.

The institution also plays a very cardinal role in solving problems between key national political actors. Still fresh in the minds of many Ghanaians, I would like to believe, is the role played during and after the last general-elections by the Asantehene and other chiefs.

The designation of a ministry for chieftaincy and monthly stipends of 80 and 60 Euros per month to chiefs and queen mothers respectively indicate some sort of commitment to the institution by the state.

But a La Mantse is quoted by Assiemeng (1981) to have said

“the influence of the chief so permeates the whole fabric of social life in the rural communities that if only a purposeful effort had been made in the past to reshape the institution to give it a modern outlook, chieftaincy would have played a more useful role in the life of the nation.”  

The late J.H Mensah, who was the Senior Minister under the Kuffour administration once said that,

“we should apply our minds assiduously to reshaping the institution for today’s world.”

I do not assume competence in the endeavor of fashioning out a policy to guide how the state and chieftaincy must relate. Or to determine the future of the institution. I believe the job of a writer is to highlight critical issues of concern in his or her society with a pining hope that those with transformative powers will reflect on such ideas for the prosperous continuity of that society.

But from whatever angle we may look at chieftaincy in this country, it needs reshaping to be relevant because it has lost its lustre.


By: Kofi Boateng