In this article, the writer reviews the uncomfortable history between Chieftaincy and partisan politics and the relevance of the law in the fourth republic.
It is an election year again and political activities are heating up after initial fears that the COVID-19 pandemic might have an adverse effect on campaigning. Various political candidates have begun touring the country to take their message to the people in order to convince them and secure their votes.
A vital aspect of campaigns has been the practice of meeting the chiefs or other traditional leaders of various communities to pay homage and listen to the concerns of the chiefs first before the other activities on the campaign itinerary are carried out. The institution of chieftaincy is one of the institutions that the country has consciously decided to protect and preserve even with the constitution where article 271 “guarantees” the institution of chieftaincy along with its traditional councils as established by customary law and usage.
It is important to note that the chieftaincy institution being prominent and having a unique role to play in our democracy was always in the contemplation of the framers of the constitution. In fact, there was a long-held view that Ghana should have a bi-cameral legislature with chiefs occupying a non-partisan second chamber in order to influence the legislative process. Whilst this view never prevailed, the Council of State first established by the 1969 Constitution mainly to influence executive decisions such as the appointment of constitutional officers has been viewed by some as a compromise of a sort to appease the advocates of a second non-partisan chamber. The Council of State has historically had quite a number of chiefs from different parts of the country and thus the importance of the chieftaincy institution to nation-building has never been in doubt.
The constitutional guarantee of chieftaincy was necessitated by the turbulent history between chiefs and ruling political parties. In fact, the roots of some chieftaincy disputes can be traced to times past when the recognition of a chief by the government could affect the legitimacy of a chief, and thus some candidates for a stool or skin aligned themselves with politicians. The unpalatable effects of those periods resulted in the conscious effort to absolve the institution of chieftaincy from political influence and control and restore it to the position of an institution that inspires unity and promotes togetherness having recourse to the fact that partisan politics can be very divisive.
Instead of leaving this realization to the conscience and good judgment of chiefs to decide and be neutral in partisan politics, the constitution barred chiefs from taking part in partisan politics in article 276. Article 94(3)(c) further makes a person seeking to be a Member of Parliament ineligible if he was a chief. This is irrespective of the fact that a person could become a legislator as an independent candidate and who was not necessarily a member of a political party.
These issues have to be looked at in light of the rampant endorsements of politicians by chiefs. Some have asked whether these endorsements could pass for participation in active party politics and thus a contravention of article 276. Whilst what exactly article 276 means by “active party politics” is unclear and in the absence of a definitive interpretation of that provision by the Supreme Court any such discussion is mere speculation, the intention of the framers of the constitution by enacting article 276 has to be looked at. In a lecture at the University of Ghana School of Law in 2017, Nana Dr. S. K. B. Asante who chaired the Committee of Experts which was instrumental in the drafting of the 1992 Constitution explained that the Consultative Assembly which proposed article 276 (1) did so because in their view chiefs were symbols of unity within their respective jurisdictions and the divisive nature of “active party politics” was inconsistent with their role as chiefs which usually involved them being impartial arbiters in disputes between their subjects.
The significant role of traditional authorities in the development of the nation especially at the local level cannot be overemphasized as they usually partner with the MMDAs to bring development to their areas. This role means there is going to be constant interaction with politicians and sometimes traditional rulers might have to make an assessment on the state of the community to the politician either in government or in opposition in order to secure a project or two for their community.
However, it would seem like some chiefs in an attempt to get into the good books of those who share the national cake are now making pronouncements that have the potential to undermine their role as symbols of unity and effectively undermine the purpose for which article 276 (1) found its way into the constitution. In recent times there have been many such pronouncements by chiefs when politicians have paid visits to them but perhaps the best example of this was in the 2016 election campaign. In the run-up to the December 7 polls in 2016, there was a ceremony for the redevelopment of the Salaga market where the chief of the Gbese Traditional Area in Accra, Nii Ayi Bonte assured the crowd which had the Chief of Staff representing the president that he would abdicate his stool if President John Mahama lost the election. The rest as they say is history and the embarrassment that followed was needless as such a definite pronouncement could easily have been avoided.
The other side of the argument is that with the divisive nature of our body politic, chiefs being symbols of unity would be required to intervene in national issues where politicians cannot be left alone to influence policy. This would sometimes require them to pass value judgments on actions of political actors which may be interpreted as endorsements or condemnations by followers of politicians. It is in no way being suggested that chiefs should refuse to comment on issues of public interest because they could be misinterpreted. However, that is very different from wilfully making statements that could end up demeaning an office seen by the constitution as one above divisive “active party politics”.
Another election is at the corner and as usual, the politicians are paying homage to traditional rulers before they begin campaigning in the various communities. While some chiefs are reminding politicians about their commitment to the people and entreating them to engage in issue-based politics, others are endorsing candidates in ways that political activists would be proud of. In the event that there are post-election disputes at the local level which would require independent arbiters to facilitate the healing process, such chiefs would have ruled themselves out already.
“Volta Region is not like a loyal housewife whose husband will come home only when he’s hungry. That is why, I’m very glad that we have so many paramount chiefs here across the Region who have come to welcome Nana Akufo Addo and his entourage.” – 2016
“It’s very refreshing to hear you try to give us hope. The hope that we all need. This is the time to give hope to our people, time to give hope to our youth. I believe that working together in unity devoid of [partisan] politics we can transform our beautiful country into a paradise,” – 2020 during a courtesy visit by Former President Mahama
Whilst the role of chiefs in a republic is still the subject of debate with some arguing that there is no place for chieftaincy in a republic, the constitution believes a place can be found for the institution, and thus chiefs must play their role assiduously for the nation to move forward. Admittedly, the chiefs who indulge in these endorsements are in the minority but the nature of the chieftaincy institution is such that the acts of indiscretion of a few chiefs has the potential to tarnish the image of the entire institution. As it stands, the political endorsements made by some chiefs when elections come around patently defeats the purpose of article 276 of the constitution and the longer this goes on, the more battered the image of the institution becomes.