CHIEFS: the beauty and the beast

Chiefs and Chieftaincy. Our traditional rulers. Their power, their history, their role, their challenges. In President Akufo-Addo’s recent speech at the National House of Chiefs, he spoke about modernization, ending discrimination, galamsey and not treating sexual violence as ‘family matters’.

The President told the Chiefs to resist the temptation of poisonous flattery. Instead he advised that they “allow the moral authority of your status to justify your interventions”.

This speech and the recent case of a Chief’s intervention in the case of an alleged child rape create a  moment to do a Chieftaincy inventory. Let’s explore what works and what doesn’t; what is problematic and why; what serves the people and what doesn’t.

Modern government and traditional chieftaincy create a complex governance structure here in Ghana. Chiefs occupy a particular power in contemporary and historical Ghana.

In contemporary times, their influence in the world of politics has led presidential candidates to court them, engage them, address them and confer upon them all manner of promise in order to secure their influence across the regions of Ghana.  That influence is about votes. That is despite Article 76 of the 1992 Constitution which prohibits chiefs from engaging in active partisan politics.  Chiefs hold cultural influence, political sway and symbolic power of national unity. The latter led the 1992 Constitution to forbid politically partisan engagement. Such noble words must contend with the messy, murky world of presidential political campaigning and the pursuit of power.

Neither the campaigning politician nor the Chief adheres to such small matters as Ghana’s Constitution and its directive when it comes to politics. Winning elections means engaging the power holders and the influencers.

Indeed, the Constitution may be firm; the influence of Chiefs in their regions is equally firm.  In Ghana, cultural power overrides legal power. Moral authority is granted by the belief of the people. Chiefs in Ghana carry profound moral authority – even when they are wrong, abusing that power, jeopardizing their district and falling foul of the rule of law. The people’s belief allows for such unsanctioned authority.

So, whatever the law says, the truths are more complicated. Power and influence are seductive beasts that burden vote seekers and taint the beauty of a tradition that seeks to serve a people.

From the contemporary to the historical.

Chieftaincy is an institution.  Pre-colonialism it held executive, legislative and judiciary power. Colonial masters sought to anaesthetize that power in order to rob a people of a culture and turn chiefs into colonizers subjects and colonizers into masters.

It worked. And its legacy lingers.

There are no halcyon days of governance. From Chiefs to Colonialism to Military rule to Modern Multi Party Democracy, the path is full of twists and turns. Power negotiation is always a tricky world to balance, and within this world there are multiple tensions.

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Our modern form of governance sometimes means we serve multiple masters that leave entire portions of society  unprotected. What kind of nation building is that?

Chiefs are citizens. As such they are subject to the rule of law, as is every other citizen.

In rural areas across Ghana’s 10 regions, Chiefs are the rule of law. Their moral authority is unquestioned, it ranks higher than law and order and their word is the last on a given matter. Chiefs’ citizenry comes with privileges and unfettered power.

From politics and power to disputes.

The failure to resolve chieftaincy disputes is considered a matter of national security. For me in Ghana, sexual violence is becoming a matter of national security. Individual cases reveal major gaps in investigating such incidences. The latest case in Assin revealed how a Chief can contribute to such gaps.

Chiefs are not a monolith. They can also be inspiration and solution.  Chiefs can be and are beauty.

Chiefs become beasts when they abuse their moral authority, obstruct justice – and in the case of the alleged rape of a child – create a path where alleged pedophiles flourish to harm girls and women. The potential for their power to be abused is absolute and terrifying.

We have a Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs.

It has a budget. Its role is the linkage between Government and the Chiefs. What does that mean in modern governance? And how do such linkages manifest?

The Ministry already landed in hot water when news hit the headlines of a planned pilgrimage partially paid for by the Ministry in June this year. They denied this. The allegations and accusations persisted. They explained they were assisting in ensuring a smooth pilgrimage for those Christians who travelled.

They intervened in a process in order to ensure justice – such is the conclusion of the above story.

In the midst of multiple actions in pursuit of justice for a 4 year old alleged rape victim, the silence of the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs was deafening. To date, no public statement has been made regarding the Assin Chief’s alleged interference in a criminal matter.

In the President’s speech to the National House of Chiefs, he urged them not to treat such horrors are ‘family matters’.  That the issue reached the office of the president prompting him to address it, is heartening. But where is the allocated Ministry?

What role does a Minister of Chieftaincy play when a Chief is accused essentially of obstructing justice? If on such a crucial matter the Ministry is silent – then what purpose does it serve? Is it that it is willing to intervene for the purpose of money when it comes to Christians but unwilling to do so when it comes to justice for innocent children?

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It is worth highlighting Article 272 of the 1992 Constitutions as regards Chiefs for the purposes of this particular argument.

Article 272 paragraph C says:- Undertake an evaluation of traditional customs and usages with a view to eliminating those customs and usages that are outmoded and socially harmful.

It is under Article 272 paragraph C that the Assin’s chief’s actions require specific scrutiny and a call for engagement by the Ministry for Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs.

Isn’t it socially harmful for girls to be unsafe in their regions due to Chiefs obstruction of justice? Doesn’t this traditional custom of elevating a Chief above the Rule of Law require careful evaluation and specific elimination as treating sexual violence as a ‘family matter’ is both socially harmful, outmoded and dangerously minimalizes a matter of criminality and pedophilia?

What sanction do Chiefs face when their actions threaten the course of justice? What penalty do they suffer if their actions succeed in causing acute distress to those they are sworn to protect? How do you assess moral authority when Chiefs make immoral judgments that threaten the safety of  – not just a 4 year old girl but all the little girls, young women – women in that region?  What happens to the Rule of Law when the Chief is the Rule of Law and he or she is failing to uphold it? What role does the Ministry of Chieftaincy play in such matters?

There are also money matters to consider.

Chiefs receive a monthly allowance from the government. Under this government, those allowances have increased from GhCedis800 to GhCedis1,000. For Queen Mothers it is now GhCedis500, up from GhCedis350.

How do Chiefs’ actions impact this allowance? Under what conditions are such allowances paid? If a Chief is falling foul of their Constitutional mandate, what interventions are available to the Ministry of Chieftaincy or the President?

Ultimately, Chiefs are a part of modern governance. Their power and that of a modern democracy are uneasy bedfellows. There is a politics of chieftaincy. It must evolve to take account of society’s current needs. Like partisan politics, the real power lies with the people.

The Assin child alleged rape case means a Chieftaincy inventory on issues of sexual violence is long overdue.

Honourable Minister of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs, your silence must end.

Source: Esther Armah

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