The role of traditional institutions in political change and development Richard Crook Why traditional institutions? Among development practitioners, there is growing interest in the search for more ‘authentic’ and socially embedded civil society actors. Renewed interest is being shown in whether locally-based traditional institutions match this description, given their continuing importance in respect to local justice, land and community development activities. This paper looks at the role of traditional institutions, especially chiefs, in Ghanaian society and politics. It asks what kind of contribution they might make to the strengthening of civil society and to democratic demands for better government. The main arguments of the paper are: 1. Traditional institutions and leaders in Ghana remain a very significant element in society which cannot be ignored. But they vary enormously across the different cultures and localities of the country, and it is difficult to formulate policies or approaches which would be of general validity. 2. Chieftaincy in particular is a contested and a highly political institution, because of its associations with authority and power, and as a result of its politicisation by successive governments and parties. It cannot be treated simply as a ‘civil society’ group. 3. Extreme caution should therefore be exercised in respect of policies which might encourage a renewal of official participation by chiefs in political life or government. The undoubted contribution that some chiefs make to local development efforts should continue to be structured by informal and community-based mechanisms. 4. On the other hand, their role in land administration is so important that it does need to be more regularised and regulated. The role of traditional institutions in modern Ghana What are traditional institutions? In this paper, the phrase refers to all those forms of social and political authority which have their historical origin in the pre-colonial states and societies, and which were incorporated by British colonial rule into what is now Ghana. On this definition, traditional institutions are very varied. Although indigenous in origin, they have changed in many ways during the colonial and post-colonial periods. They are living institutions, not museum pieces. At one extreme, some Ghanaian societies had extremely hierarchical, militarised forms of kingship or chieftaincy. These varied according to how the rulers were chosen. Amongst the Akan peoples of southern Ghana, for instance, the Asantehene was once the ruler of an empire which dominated most of southern Ghana and its eastern and western borderlands. Today, he is the leader of a traditional state, which is also an administrative Region, inhabited by over two million people. He commands the allegiance of a group of paramount chiefs who rule the federated Asante states (aman) in a hierarchy which is replicated down to the village chief level. Although the Asante king’s office is hereditary, in that he must come from a royal matrilineage, he is chosen by a group of ‘kingmakers’ in a very competitive process from among a potentially large number of candidates. He can be removed (destooled) if the kingmakers deem him to have breached his oaths of office, although this is not an easy process, and frequently provokes violence. This model of Akan kingship can be found throughout southern Ghana, from communities which rival Asante in scale, such as Akyem Abuakwa, to groups of a few small towns. In the northern regions, states such as Mamprugu, Dagbon and Gonja also have kingship. But here kings are chosen
CDD/ODI Policy Brief No. 4 according to patrilineal succession, and they practise much more authoritarian forms of rule over sub-chiefs and subjects. At the other extreme, many societies in Ghana (in the northern regions or Trans-Volta-Togoland)...