Traditional authorities
Text Jacopo Lentini
Editing Evans Ahorsu

Traditional Authorities

Set somewhere between tradition and innovation, the system of power in Ghana is changing radically. What is actually happening? The following report explains it.

Part of the collective imagination of Africa is made up of tribal leaders, village chiefs and kings. Other than their element of folklore which is the more commonly represented aspect, traditional authorities are in actual fact often vital for the functioning of the State. While they are present throughout the continent, in Ghana, one of the most stable sub-Saharian countries with a constant growth, they are particularly authoritative. “As one of our proverbs says, you can pick a fight with a member of the royal family, but you can’t offend them,” tells us Prince Barak, a young man of Tamale, capital of the Southern Region and the Country’s third city. Outside the urban centre the savannah prevails. In these more remote areas, the influence of local leaders appears to be even more important than elsewhere. Prince is the son of the deputy-chief of a village only a few kilometres from the city. “My father’s title is not that important, however if I lived in his jurisdiction there would be a lot more people treating me with great respect.”

In Zabzugu, 150 km east of Tamale, capital of the Northern Region and only a few kilometers from the border with Togo, the district regent, Salifu M. Lagfu, is officiating the ceremony for the appointment of a new deputy chief. The ceremony is called “enskinment”, from the English word “skin”, with reference to the animal skin carpet on which the appointed sits

Guardians of the earth

“My mother had bought some land, but once when I went to see it I found there were people building on it who claimed they had also bought it. She turned to the local leader to solve the issue,” tells us Zuu Tiparga, a Tamale university student. The double sale of plots of land are not rare and traditional authorities are the immediate point of reference before turning to the institutional authorities. This is a central issue in Ghana where the State owns only 20% of the Country’s entire land. The rest is managed by village leaders who rule over disputes and concessions. Any initiative modifying the territory must go through them, and they are certainly not new to the idea development. In fact, according to anthropologist Valerio Colosio, already in remote times, in certain areas of Ghana, “development was defined using the indigenous term nkosuo. It was not a practice invented and imported with British colonization, but a local concept. Originally nkosuo, indicated the deforestation of a plot of land for the purpose of making it arable”.

A woman prepares baobab flour in the Yinduri community, in the extreme north of Ghana, only a few kilometres from Burkina Faso. This food is typical of the northern areas in the middle of the savannah

If the strength of western economies stems from private sector initiatives, the peculiarity here is the ability of local communities to set up shared projects. “For us working in the farming industry, the figure of the village leader is fundamental. We grow cashew nuts and cashew trees require a long time to grow. Therefore local farmers need to obtain from him the guarantee that the land will be available for a certain number of years,” explains Mauro Bartolomeo, head of the NGO Ciss (Cooperazione Internazionale Sud Sud) in Ghana, operating in the Brong Ahafo and northern regions. Unlike the more urban contexts where the chief’s charisma is sometimes overshadowed by a multitude of religious pastors or successful businessmen, in rural areas the community’s sacred respect towards its leaders is the key to   the success of cooperation. According to Bartolomeo “the farm workers who benefit from the project feel like they owe him, and it is he who indicates who, of the many, will be a part of it, acting as a guarantor of their motivation to participate”.

Singing at official ceremonies is reserved to those with the appropriate title and it is the duty of the “gonje” to cue the music. "I skipped school to come here. I didn’t want to miss it,” says Abdul-Razak Lagfu, a young man originally from Zabzugu who moved to Tamale in search of work

A clash between systems

Traditional authorities are not a structure running parallel with the modern State; they are integrated and at the same time competing with it. “Parliament shall have no power to enact any law which in any way detracts or derogates from the honor and dignity of the institution of chieftaincy”, recites chapter 22 of Ghana’s constitution. During the colonial period the British endowed the chiefs with enormous power, instrumental to serving their interests. Since the independence of Ghana in 1957, they have been carrying out a role as mediators between the local population and government institutions to which they are subordinated.

Where women are not traditional leaders, they do however have important roles. Mary is the leader of the Kudzra community female country labourers, in the Volta Region

“We know our roots and we try to pass them on to the young. The path towards development passes through our culture,” states Obrempong Nyanful Krampah XI, a member of the National House of Chiefs, the highest administrative body of the traditional system. Despite the title’s ancestral sound, Krampah XI lives in the modern world, like many other chieftains, at least in the urban areas. He runs an import-export business in the mineral and construction sector and taking a break from his work, as his gaze moves away from the latest generation computer, he expresses his worries regarding the future of his role: “With the passing of time our leadership is losing strength”. If on the one hand the chieftain’s importance has increased compared to the past, their power today is limited to and aligned with modern structures, even going so far as having a Ministry of Traditional Affairs.

Young women during the funeral of the head of the Fodome district, in the Volta region. Funerals can last up to 3 days

By law chiefs cannot run for office here, however the detachment from politics is merely formal. Krampah XI recently accused the government of trying to access traditional appointments by illicitly nominating figures who are close to the majority party. This has now turned into a legal battle. “It is by nature a criminal act, which destroys the reputation of institutions,” he declared. Relations between the two State systems have always been heated. “Politics tries not to openly interfere in traditional affairs, because they need the favour of the leaders to win elections. However, the modern state detains a much wider authority and often obtains the largest slice of the cake,” explains Alhassan Anamzoya, a sociologist at the University of Ghana in the capital Accra. “Africa must find its own development model and not imitate that of western countries.” This statement, which certainly seems admissible, is shared by many: from economists to international cooperatives, but above all by Africans themselves.