The Chieftaincy Institution-Lessons from Our Ancestors and Traditions

Published on 8th November 2005

To understand how our political structures have impinged upon our traditional institutions in Ghana is to appraise the system of rules, norms, and spiritual beliefs of the Chieftaincy institution. The institution predates the arrival of both Arab traders and the later European exploration and colonization. Yet, so far, we have ignored the evolution of the very complex processes by which institutional transfers of ruling powers from the ancient traditional power structures to the colonial and now post-colonial administrative power structures. By discussing some of the traditionally-oriented systems, we hope our evolving political and social aspects will be scrutinized and become clearer. This is necessary if we mean to improve upon the systems of governance of our people.

Tradition is a term referring to a particular form of social organization, the basis of which is the recognition and integration of kinship structures. This is by means of amalgamation of families into larger and larger kinship groupings in which totemic genetic inheritance provide a major social guide. There are various kinds of traditional systems in Ghana but the Akan traditional system predominates as far as the bulk of the population of the country is concerned. The Akan people of Ghana comprise of the Ashantis, Brongs, Fantes, and Akuapims. I will therefore examine the chieftaincy institution as practiced by the groups of the Akan people of Ghana for the purpose of this article.

One finds a high level of indigenous sophistication, manners, cultures and beliefs which were ignored and are still being misconceived by both outsiders and the educated elite alike. Each traditional system has its behavioral, goals, and social norms upon which the system evolves. The behavioral norms are the systems of authority and roles as they are legitimized in various clusters such as the family, the chieftaincy hierarchy, the state council and other structures from which authority is derived and exercised. The goal orientation refers to the types of expectations that were built into the traditional system by which individuals view their future and direct their activities towards achieving them. The social norms refer to the rules regarding rewards, sanctions, festivals, rituals and sacrifices. Guides to political and other social behavior are enunciated in proverbs as proverbial laws. These proverbs are usually interpreted by the elders as part of the living codes of behavior. These proverbs often stem from the past and are associated with good and bad lessons learnt from the past and orally passed on from generation to generation. They are not in a written document but are acceptable guides for our laws, customs and practices. 

A typical Akan chieftaincy institution in its administrative set up comprises of the Chief (Ohene at times referred to by special titles befitting his status like Odikuro, Omanhene or Asantehene), the Queen-mother, and the Sub-Chiefs (often referred to as members of the state council, elders, or kin-makers). The Queen-mother is described as the mother of the chief although most often she is his sister, or the sister of his maternal uncle or his niece. The relationship gives the Queen-mother an equal authority if not higher in the family throne or property. It is the responsibility of the Queen-mother to advise the chief. She has the freedom and traditional powers to scold the Chief and to deal with him as no one else can. The Queen-mother selects or nominates the candidate to fill a vacant stool. As the mother of the members of the royal lineage, she is regarded as the authority on the kinship relations of the lineage. She questions as to whether or not any candidate possesses a legitimate kin-right to the stool. The Queen-mother is in-charge of the women of the village, town, or traditional area and oversees their interests. She advises the Chief and is considered the custodian of our traditional values. Her position is such that she is a powerful figure in the community and exerts her influence in many subtle ways, little understood by foreigners and even the local men themselves in their domain. Her powers also reflect on the subtle powers of wives and women in general in the traditional power structure of the Akan people.  

Besides the Chief and the Queen-mother, several individuals or groups of specialized positions are held by the sub-chiefs and family elders to perform different administrative tasks with coordinated efforts for the progress of the subjects within the administrative boundary. In addition to the chief and the Queen-mother, there are two other senior Sub-Chiefs, the \"Kurontihene\" (the opposition leader) is the head of the family of the original settlers of the village, town or traditional area. The \"Akwamuhene\" is responsible for lands and revenue. Among others we have the \"Adontenhene\" who commands the main body of troops to defend the people in case of attack, the \"Nifahene\" commands the right wing of the army, the \"Benkumhene\" leads the left wing army, the \"Kyidomhene\" is the leader of the rear guard, the \"Ankobeahene\" is responsible for the safety and security of the town while the men are at war, the \"Okyeame\" is the spokesman for the chief and the

\"Nkwankwaahene\" is the spokesman for the commoners in the village, town or traditional area. Other less significant administrative positions include various activity organizers like the gong-gong beaters, executioners, paranquin carriers, and drummers.  

The Chief Priest or Priestess to whom the people look for any signals of omens and admonitions by the \"gods\" as well as healing and spiritual empowerment, at times acts as a power broker in times of perpetual administrative crisis as a result of human or natural disaster. He/She is the religious leader of the people. These are all lineage posts, the occupants being the heads of the various family lineages responsible for the various sectors and specializations within the community. In the past, this elaborate administrative structure could be extended to cover the whole empire. The ancient kingdoms and empires of West Africa like the Ghana, Songhay and Sokoto as well as Fulani, Hausa and Ashanti Kingdoms were equally well administratively structured. 

The privileges and limits to the role of the chief are specialized and composite of sacred and non-sacred functions. These are delineated and monitored by the Queen-mother, the Sub-Chiefs, or the commoners. The Chief has an elaborate system for sounding out public attitude about his own activities and determine the extent of opposition. The lyrics of songs by the women in the village under the moonlight can even reflect on his popularity. The Chief, therefore, keeps his ears to the ground through the Queen-mother, the lyrics of songs, the elders and other public officials so that he will be aware of the public sentiments. If he goes beyond the bounds of his office, he could be removed or destooled. The final indication of a sitting Chief being destooled is the removal of one of the sandals he is wearing by the Queen-mother. This is done when he is seated on the throne in his official capacity as a Chief. For it is a taboo to touch his bear-foot on the ground when sitting on the stool supposed to be the symbol of the ancestral gods and spirits. That is why we have the Akan constitutional maxim that \"the Chief rules but the Queen-mother reigns\".

When a Chief dies or is destooled a new Chief is generally chosen from a particular kingship branch of the clan to which the stool belongs. There may be many separate kingship groups tracing their descent from a common mother (matrilineal). The chieftain may also pass alternatively from one group to another or even in rotation amongst the heads of three or four different kingship groups holding the office in turn. The eldest son of the senior woman of the royal family may or may not succeed. A brother may succeed a brother, an uncle, nephew, grandfather, grandson, can be chosen and the younger of any of these candidates may be chosen over the elder. With these different possible aspirants, much room is left for a democratic process to choose the best suitable candidate. A formal process of selecting a chief is initiated with an official delegation from the kin-makers to the Queen-mother asking her to nominate a Chief. The Queen-mother then holds a meeting with all the adult men and senior women of the branches of the royal lineage. The eligible candidates are considered in turn and the most suitable one is chosen. The necessary qualities apart from the lineage rights include intelligence, humility, generosity, manliness, and physical fitness. When a candidate is selected the Queen-mother sends to inform the Kurontihene. The \"Kurontihene\" then sends a message to all the elders of the village or town asking them to be present for the election of the new chief. This is an important occasion in which everybody takes interest; all the headmen, elders, and commoners come to the meeting. The spokesman for the commoners, the \"Nkwankwaahene\", would indicate to the kin-makers, from the response of the crowd after introducing the new candidate. If there is widespread dissatisfaction with the new candidate, the response from the crowd would indicate and the whole process would have to be started all over again. If the candidate is applauded and cheered from the crowd he is carried on shoulders with white clay powder poured on him through the streets of the village or town for the preparation of swearing in ceremony. 

At the moment of enstoolment the admonitions of the public are repeated to the Chief by the Queen-mother. This is the swearing of the sacred oath administered by the Queen-mother which means she can revoke them against the chief to be destooled if he breaks any of them. The recitation of these admonitions by the Queen-mother are:

\"Tell him that

We do not wish greediness 

We do not wish that he should curse us

We do not wish that his ears should be hard of hearing

We do not wish that he should call people fools

We do not wish that he should act on his own initiative 

We do not wish things done here as it is done in Kumasi (referring to the traditional capital and suspicion of the centralized powers over there)

We do not wish that it should ever be said \"I have no time. I have no time\".

We do not wish personal abuse

We do not wish personal violence”

The chief is enstooled with these words of caution ringing in his ears. His election is a signal for rejoicing, and a sharing of group identity and participation.

For those whose orientations are within the traditional focus, the past becomes more significant as threats to its continuity and sacredness occur from imported political and religious institutions. Attacks by these religious and political institutions particularly colonialism, Christianity and Islam have vitiated much of the structures of traditional legitimacy. However, the old traditional norms and beliefs are still intact in many areas, raising the consciousness into the political and religious discussions of the modern functions and performances of chiefs, the clergy and the political leaders. This debate have been going on since the earlier Legislative Assembly of the Gold Coast to the present 4th Republic of Ghana and will still continue as we the proud people of Ghana try to explore the better common sense of governance in the country. 


David, E.A.: Ghana in Transition, Princeton, 1972

Rattray, R.S.: Ashanti Law, London, 1924

Busia, K.A.: The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti, London, 1951

West Africa Magazine: Legislative Asssembly debate over the place of chiefs in the parliamentary system of Gold Coast, Nov.21, 1953, p.1095

Ayittey,G. : African Traditional Institutions, 1996




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