Desperate for development- White chiefs in Ghana

In recent times in Ghana, scarce support from the central government has prompted the introduction in local chieftaincies of the office of development chief also known as nkosohene, with their functions and roles are exclusively devoted to local development. So far, so good, you might think, but although the nkoso office/ stool a common trend in the appointment of occupants is the predilections of traditional councils for white chiefs. Consequently, the office is increasingly assuming a foreign complexion.  In many localities in the country, the office of (nkosohene) is awarded to whites and at times notable personalities in the West for their contribution towards the development of the people of that region. Yet it would be misleading to perceive this as purely an honorary offering of gratitude and appreciation. Instead, the traditional councils take such decisions, based on instrumental calculations that the appointment of whites and notable personalities in the western world as ‘development chiefs’ will unlock the door to development philanthropism and investment in social capital. The reality however suggests the contrary.

In 2004, amidst the pomp and excitable cheer of the people of the village of Ajumako-Bisease in central Ghana, Bob Geldof was enstooled as the nkosohene. Adorned in traditional regalia, he affirmed the sacred oath by declaring to the people of the village that he will honour the functions and sanctity of his office. It is almost 7 years since Bob was made chief but the people of the village alongside their kingmakers are asking the same question; where is our development chief? In his defence, Bob has been incredibly busy filling up his wall of fame with international accolades. For his achievement as a self-styled mouthpiece of African development, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, honoured with the 2005 Nobel Man of Peace award. He also received a European human rights prize for “exceptional commitment” to human rights and many more.  When not spit shinning his awards, Bob was globetrotting the African continent as part of the BBC Africa television series, that span across, West Africa (Ghana, Benin and Mali), Central Africa (DR Congo and Uganda) and East Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania and Somalia). There is certainly more glamour in being on TV than building schools and hospitals in a remote village in Ghana. Ajumako-Bisease is a poverty stricken village with inadequate infrastructures and amenities.

Unlike Bob Geldof the late Jimmy Moxon was considered to be a good example of a white chief. At the dawn of Ghana’s independence Jimmy Moxon a colonial district commissioner swapped allegiances by taking up the stool of the Ankobea district of Aburi in 1963. He assumed the stool name Nana Kofi Obonyaa (literally means, “the chief born on Friday, who lives at the bottom of the cliff district).  He is the only white person in Ghana to have occupied a traditional stool, although bypassing traditional customs and laws of succession. This is partly explained by the fact that he assumed the position at the time of Nkrumah’s modernisation reforms, which singled out traditional administration under an offensive programme of despotic intervention and disruption by central government. The historian Richard Rathbone presents an insightful account of Nkrumah’s hegemonic campaign against traditional rule in his book Nkrumah and his chiefs. That said, Moxon the “white nana” is reported to have carried out his functions seriously and respectfully. His obituary in The Independent newspaper  mentions his role in settling disputes and initiatiating new projects.

Besides the exceptional case of Moxon, most of the white chiefs today occupying the office of nkosohene seem to take their cue from Bob Geldof. Notwithstanding their eligibility to the stool, upon assuming office most of them hardly return back to the village to fulfill their duties or even maintain any ties to the village.  Preferring to remain absent and exercising their role nominally, they tend to look upon the appointment as purely ceremonial rather than functional – and many confuse the term chief for ‘King’. This is not to say that all white chiefs behave in this manner, but the lack of any proper screening of potential candidates- to assess their readiness and fitness for the role- testify to a real lack of strategic and systematic procedures to assist the effective utilization of the office.

Speaking to A. K. Essien  the chief registrar of the National House of Chiefs in Ghana, he stated that the appointment of white chiefs primarily stems from the misconception of the material superiority of western culture and its people.  He also affirmed the above claim about the absenteeism of white chiefs and explained that the appointment of white chiefs represents a perversion of the institution of chieftaincy. He went on to argue that as a result of these reservations the national house of chiefs does not recognize the appointment of white chiefs. Nevertheless, given the democratic nature of Akan political structure, traditional councils have the autonomy to appoint to the office of development chief, whoever they prefer.

I must emphasise that the office of development chief/ nkoso is a modern invention that derive its practices from the urgent need for development. Therefore, to some extent it is removed from customary norms and conventional practices of chieftaincy. Given its dynamic quality the nkoso office has the potential to mobilise development resources outside of government, national, cultural and territorial confines. Thus, the nkoso stool represents a potentially useful meeting point between local development and global resources. However, the efficiency of the office is highly determined by how it is managed within the overarching structure, instead of the colour /culture of the occupant. This means that, potential candidates for the stool must be subjected to a proper and robust screening process to assess their readiness and suitability for the role. This would also help dispel any misconceptions pertaining to the expectations of the local people, traditional council members and potential candidates.

Henry Brefo is a writer and commentator and a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies.