In many parts of West Africa, there is an old chieftaincy tradition. The Akan of Ghana have developed their own hierarchy which exists aside the democratic structure of the country. The Akan word for the ruler is nana. In colonial times, Europeans translated it to “chief”, which is not equivalent. Other sources speak of “kings”, which is also not correct. The term “chief” has naturalized nowadays, though it would be more exact to use the Fante expression nana.
The roots of Akan chieftaincy are unknown. Written sources are scarce. When the Akan were settling in the Tekyiman Region, i.e. before 1300, they already had the chieftaincy system for long. The Paramount Chief had a position which can be compared to that of an absolutist king.
When the Republic of Ghana was founded in 1957, it was agreed that the chieftaincy system should be respected.
Chieftaincy is officially accepted. Politicians ask chiefs for advice because usually they are closer to the people. The highest committee is the National House of Chiefs in Accra. There are also Regional Houses of Chiefs. In case of problems between the chiefs, the House of Chiefs has a legal function
The highest rank is that of a Paramount chief. Within the Akan people, there are different sub-groups, like the Ashanti or the Fante. The Ashanti have only one paramount chief, the asantehene. The present Asantehene is Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II. Foreign guests of state usually visit the president and the Asantehene. The Fante have several Paramount Chiefs with very small territories. So the influence of the Fante Paramount Chief is comparatively small.
Underneath the Paramount chiefs, there are Chiefs and subchiefs. A subchief can be compared to the mayor of a village. The chiefs have their own territory, and apart from that, they have a function at court. Most of the functions are traditional, some have been created recently:
A chief arbitrates and decides political and economic questions in his area. When he is installed, he receives a stool name. Usually, all chief on one stool have the same name – a number is added.
OmanheneThe English translation of the title Omanhene is “Paramount Chief”.
AnkobeaheneAnkobea means one who stays at home or does not go anywhere. Ankobeahene is the caretaker of the palace.
ObaatanObaatan means “parent”. His symbol is the egg out of which all other chiefs came. He is Omanhene’s counsellor. When Omanhene’s stool is vacant, Obaatan suggests the next candidate.
TofuheneThe “warrior” is the head of the Asafo companies. The ‘Tofuhene or Tufohene’ is also the Chief Adviser to the Chief. The meaning of Tufo in Akan language is ADVISE.
AdonteheneThere are four positions describing military flanks. Adontehene is the one who goes in front of the army.
NkyidomNkyidom is the last going. He collects the soldiers who are left behind and sends them back to the army. During Odambea, Nkyidom always sits in the last palanquin.
NifaheneNyimfahene holds the right position of the army.
BenkumheneBenkumhene has the left flank.
AkyampimheneIf there is anything to distribute or to share, Akyampimhene has to do it. He is also the first son of the King.
MankradoMankrado’s function is purification. He puts leaves into the water which he sprinkles over omanhene. He always has salt in his pocket to make things taste better for Omanhene.
GuantuaheneThe function of Guantuahene is younger than ten years. Guantoahene is the one people can turn to for shelter and mercy.
NsumankwaheneNsumankwahene watches the oracle. This function is also younger than ten years.
Nkosuohene Nkosuohene is responsible for the development of the region. The title is in use since about ten years and was adopted from the Ashanti who had made it up before. This title was created to honour someone who does not have to be member of a royal family. There are some foreigners who have been honoured with this title.
An Akan stool believed to be for a Queen Mother, 1940-1965, in the collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
The title of Queen mother can relate to the rank of a paramount queen, a queen or a sub-queen. The Akan name is the same as for the men, “nana”. When using English, Ghanaians say “queen mother”. This woman is not necessarily the respective chief’s mother. Her role in the system is to have an eye on the social conditions, and a personally capable Queen mother has been known to equal or even surpass a reigning Chief in terms of power and prestige. A good example of this happening is the case of Queen Yaa Asantewa.
Personal OrnamentsOn occasions, chiefs wear the traditional cloth, which is a six yards long piece of fabric, wrapped around the body. Female chiefs have two pieces of fabric which can be of different design.
The jewellery is very ample and used to be of gold. Nowadays, most chiefs are wearing imitations. The Head-Dress usually has the form of a crown. It can be made of metal or of black velvet, ornamented with metal. Chiefs have traditional sandals, and the wearing of sandals is symbolic. When a chief abdicates, he puts off his sandals.
Fly-whiskWhen riding in a palanquin, chiefs hold a fly-whisk in one hand and a ceremonial sword in the other. The fly-whisk is made of animal hair.
SwordThe ceremonial short sword is used for animal sacrifice. The chiefs touches the animal’s throat symbolically with his sword before someone else cuts the throat with a sharp knife.
PalanquinDuring a Durbar, which is a special parade, some chiefs are carried in a palanquin. Subchiefs have to walk. The palanquins can have the form of a chair or of a bed.
Instead of a throne, Akan Chiefs are sitting on a stool. When they die, their stool is painted black and stored in a sacred room.
Umbrella (Bamkyim)Very big umbrellas made of silk and other rich fabrics show from afara that a chief is coming.
Destoolment/Deskinment of a Chief:
Whenever a chief does any wrong, he is first spoken to by his elders. In the Akan set-up, the chief is sometimes advised by the queen mother. If he continues to do wrong, he is reported to his father to counsel him. When all these fail, charges are preferred against him, and he is summoned by the Oman (State) to answer the charges.
If the chief refuses to attend to the call, the people would go to him, remove his sandals, fire a gun, and then declare him destooled.
These days charges preferred against a paramount chief may go through the Regional House of Chiefs. Sometimes such cases may be referred to the National House of Chiefs. If the chief is found guilty, he is declared destooled.
What are some of the offenses which may lead to the destoolment or deskinment of a chief?
A chief must not show disrespect to his elders. He must not misuse money belonging to the traditional area. It is an offense for the chief to sell or misuse any state property. As a head of the traditional area, he should not refuse to perform the necessary customary rites. He is also not to fight in public or in privatge and he should not eat in public. He should not fail to attend to the summons of his people.
The most important person in the chief’s entourage is the priest or priestess (okomfo). Traditionally, the priest tells the chief when it is for example time to start a war or to marry.
There is also a stool wife. No matter if a chief is married or not, when installed, he will be married to a very young girl. Nowadays, it is not obligatory, though polygamy is still legal. Today, the symbolic act is sufficient: During parades, a stool wife is sitting in front of the chief.
A chief has one or more linguists (okyeami, sg.). A chief never talks in public, but conveys messages through his linguist who is also responsible for the pouring of libations.
Chiefs are selected from the royal family. Those who select the chief are the kingmakers.
In the southern part of Ghana, especially among the Akan, the queen mother nominates the candidate. This nomination must be approved by the kingmakers. The kingmakers therefore determine who is to be the chief. After the approval by the kingmakers, the elected candidate is introduced to the community. He is carried shoulder high through the main streets of the town.
The chief-elect is kept in a room for some time before he is outdoored. During this period of confinement, he is taught the history, tradition, customs, and practices of his people. He is also cleansed spiritually for his new role.
On the day of enstoolment, the chief-elect is beautifully dressed and carried in a palanquin through the main streets of the town. After this he swears the oath of allegiance to his people. His sub-chiefs in turn swear to him, on behalf of the people. After this, he is taken to the stool room where he is made to ‘sit’ on the stool three times. He then chooses a stool name for himself.
Qualities required of a would-be Chief:
Before a person can be selected as a chief, he must have certain qualities. The following are some of the qualities:
i. The person should be mentally and physically sound.ii. He should have no physical deformity.iii. The chief should have good characteriv. He must be acceptable to a majority of the people.
Duties and Responsibilities of a Chief:
The chief has many duties to perform. The following are some of his duties and responsibilities:
i. He is the spiritual leader of his people.ii. He is the administrator of political leader of the traditional area.iii. He is the leader of all development projects of the area.iv. He settles disputes among his people.v. He is the link between the traditional area and the central government.vi. He sees to it that all traditional rites and customs are duly performed.vii. He is the custodian of all the land and other property of the traditional area.
There are many symbols and ornaments that constitute the stool/skin regalia. The following are some of then:
i. The Stool/Skin
The stool and the skin of certain animals are the most important of the chief’s regalia. In Ghana, stools are found among the Akan, the Ewe, the Ga-Adangme, and other ethnic groups in the south. Skins, on the other hand, are used in the Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana.
It is believed that most people in the Northern and Upper Regions in the past, moved from place to place tending sheep and cattle. A skin was therefore easy to obtain and keep. The owner would sit or sleep on it during his travels.
In the Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana, the skin serves as the throne of the chief. It can be the skin of a goat, sheep, cow, hyena, buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant, etc. The chief can sit on any of these skins at any given time. His status is shown by the type of skin he uses. If he uses the skin of a fearful animal, he is then considered to be a powerful chief.
The stool also symbolizes the soul of the society and is very much treasured.
ii. Personal Ornaments
The most outstanding of the chief’s regalia is his ceremonial dress. In most communities in the south, the most outstanding ceremonial dress of the chief is the “kente” cloth. The other ornaments of the Ghanaian chief include jewelry. The jewelry is for the neck, elbow, knee, ankle, and fingers. These ornaments are made of gold or precious beads or talismans.
In the Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana, the ceremonial dresses are the ‘robes.’ These are gowns or garments made up of various kinds of materials such as cotton, linen, silk, and locally woven wool.
The head-dress is another ornament for the chief. It may be a cap, hat, helmet, crown, headband, or turban. It is a taboo for a chief to walk barefooted. Sandals therefore form part of his personal ornaments.
Other regalia of the Ghanaian chief include umbrellas, palanquins, linguist-sticks, or staffs of office.