TRADITIONAL INSTITUTIONS Author: Kwame Gyekye

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    Traditional institutions roots are ancient, they are a repository of the history and the collective experience of a people. The history and the experience are the foundations on which solid modern institutions are built. Nothing emanates from a vacuum. Modern political ideas of democracy in Europe emanated from traditional European institutions with their systems of thought, organization and belief. Through constant re-examination and refinement of received European traditions by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Adam Smith, Marx Engels, John Stuart Mill, and Machiavelli, among others, modern ideas of democracy, justice, and efficient government were devised. However, the process of modernization was not a smooth one.

    The development of democratic political institutions in Britain, most probably the oldest democracy in the modern west, began with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. But it took many centuries for those institutions to evolve into their present forms, an evolutionary process that was guided by the compass of historical and cultural circumstances. The process had to jump or knock down such hurdles as autocracies, military dictatorships, claims to divine right of power, enlightened or benevolent despotism, strong and unyielding monarchical systems, and other impediments to the establishment of democracy.

    Clearly, modernity requires more than mere institutions. It demands an evolution in the thinking of a people. Evolution in this sense is a gradual refinement of the fundamental ways of thinking and institutions of the people. Our post-colonial leaders did not seem to understand this fact. They adopted colonial institutions wholesale without respect for the fact that the traditional institutions had alternative approaches to governance. These alternative approaches could form an intellectual reference point for the transition to new systems. These institutions represented an indigenous evolution of systems of governance which people related to socially, emotionally and intellectually. They were legitimate by virtue of history, experience and of the fact that they were indigenously conceived and had a force of the wisdom of the people. The proper approach, I submit would have been to borrow ideas from the western political systems, modify the indigenous political systems with the assistance, and in partnership with indigenous traditional leaders, and come up with a hybrid system with local legitimacy.

    Traditional institutions had authority and legitimacy that post-colonial African governments are yet to attain.The problem for post-colonial African governments seeking to attain legitimacy is the institutions they are basing their authority on are foreign. Since there were, and is, a multitude of traditional institutions with legitimacy and authority among the different ethnic communities in any given nation, it’s not efficient nor desirable, to have one uniform, blanket administrative approach in all regions.

    The traditional institutions form the foundation on which new concepts are built. This foundation enables the people to incorporate new ideas into their body politic without loosing the essential elements of their own tradition, and also makes the new concepts understandable. Remember “without the roots, the first good wind will blow the tree away”.

    Traditional African institutions have possessed many of the elements of modern political systems such as the concepts of democracy, accountability and freedom of expression.The concept of using traditional institutions as building blocks for modern African societies is not as far fetched as some — totally immersed in western ideology, culture, and systems of thought—would think.

    Chieftaincy is the embodiment of the people.Each Akan town or village constitutes a political unit. A great number of such towns and villages form a paramountcy, a state (oman). Each town or village has a chief and a council of elders, these elders being the heads of clans. The chief presides at the meetings of the council. In the conduct of its affairs, each lineage in a town, or each town in a paramountcy, acts autonomously, without any interference from either the chief (in the case of purely lineage affairs) or the paramount chief (in case of purely town affairs). A decentralized political system is thus an outstanding feature of the traditional Akan political culture. Just as each town or village has a council, so does the state have a state council. The state council, presided over by the Omanhene, draws its membership from the chiefs of the towns and villages constituting the state. In addition, each Omanhene represents the interest of its state on the national level.

    The chief, who is the political head of a town or village, is chosen from the royal lineage by the head of the lineage in consultation with the members of that lineage. It is necessary that the person chosen be acceptable not only to the councilors, who represent their clans, but also to a unit, which can be referred to as “commoners” who are in effect, the body of citizens. The paramount chief is chosen in the same way, except that his election has to be acceptable to the chiefs of the constituent towns and villages. Thus, never is a chief imposed upon an community.

    What is important to note here is that despite the restrictions inherent in hereditary office, the concept of political choice and the consent of the governed was firmly rooted in many African political systems.In deciding whom to choose and present to the people, the Queen-mother and kingmakers have to exercise the greatest judiciousness and wisdom.In putting a person forward for the position of chief, the electors have to convince themselves that their choice will be acceptable to the people as a whole. Thus, insofar as the people have a say in the suitability of the person chosen to rule them, it may be said that the traditional Akan political system makes it possible for the people to choose their own rulers, even if the initiative is taken by some few people, namely, some members of the royal lineage. That is the reason, why they always nominate a very popular candidate.

    Having been accepted by his subjects, the chief must take a public oath on the occasion of his formal investiture of power before his councilors and the body of citizens, promising that he will rule in accordance with the laws, customs, and institutions of the town or state and that should he renege on the oath he stands condemned and will be liable to deposition. At the formal investiture of power, a series of injunctions are publicly recited before the new chief. These injunctions define his political authority and the political relationship that is expected to be maintained between him and his subjects.The people are in effect, telling the chief how he should govern them: the chief is thus not expected to govern his subjects the way he wishes.The Asafo companies (commoners) can, and sometimes did, force the chief to be destooled either directly, or through the electors, if he did not live up to his oath. Unlike politicians, they do not have to wait till the next election, but can take actions against the chief, immediately.

    The councilors freely discuss all matters affecting the town or state. And, in any such atmosphere of free and frank expression of opinions, disagreements are inevitable. But in the event of such disagreements the council would continue to listen to arguments until a consensus was achieved with the reconciliation of opposed views.In the Akan tradition, no important decision was passed by the councilors without first consulting the people. The councilors and the people had a symbiotic relationship. The councilors did not operate like “elite” parliamentarians who knew best what the “peasants” want, as is the case now in most, if not all, modern African parliaments. The government’s decision-making process was not far removed from the people. And since the people were involved throughout much of the process, the decisions taken by the councilors were most likely to be endorsed by the community as legitimately representing their interests.

    The active participation of the community in its own political affairs in the traditional Akan society is a key feature of true democracy. Elders sit and discuss clan or state affairs in open view of everyone. Such participation and ownership of the political system is arguably the essence of democracy.

    African governments that do not take into account traditional African ideas and institutions cannot be considered truly democratic. One of the popular definitions of democracy is as follows:”government of the people, by the people, for the people”” By this definition, one can argue, that most modern African political systems are not democratic in as much as they are not derivations of the African peoples themselves, but are rather –almost completely– derivations of the European peoples, and cannot be said to be of the Africans.

    It is no wonder then that most African constitutions are not quite worth the paper they are written on. Most start with an underlying premise that the people’s indigenous traditions, including their wisdom in matters of local governance, are best suppressed in favor of poorly understood foreign models. Most African countries have not made serious attempts to build modern political systems on the foundations of their various people’s institutions.

    This situation can be illustrated by an example of students in school: students tend to build new knowledge –in a particular subject — on top of concepts learned in earlier, less advanced classes in the same category. Unless, a student were a genius, he or she would stumble through calculus, if the concepts he /she learned in Algebra or geometry could suddenly not be relied upon for reference. Further, in learning a foreign language, students normally understand new ideas and expressions of a foreign language by relating them to expressions and concepts of their own language. The same, I believe, is true for political systems. African societies like the Akan, had developed many of the concepts cherished by modern societies today. Many of these concepts were, of course, still evolving, but they could have formed a solid foundation on which modern models of governance, democracy, human rights and accountability could be referenced, in terms that African people could relate to. Perhaps Africans would then be less willing to tolerate undemocratic and abusive government.

    The destruction of the African mind left them less able to distinguish bad and corrupt, colonial administrative practices from the good ones. And since the destruction was largely premised on an assumption that nothing in African traditional institutions had redeemable value, the colonial models of governance became the de facto standards. Unfortunately, colonial governments, concerned as they were with subjugating natives through repressive laws and practices, were not good models to follow. Force was used by colonialists to settle disputes, while in traditional political systems, Africans were intimately involved in their affairs, colonialism rendered politicians and government remote.y colonialists to settle disputes, kings were exiled for dissenting, and the people largely had no say in colonial policies.

    The colonial government derived its legitimacy, not from the governed, but from the colonial metropolis.The colonial system of rule was undoubtedly a single-party or autocratic government. Therefore its no wonder, that the CPP government turned into a one party dictatorship. It is no wonder that they commited various crimes against human rights and destooled any Chief, who they thought was not supporting their party.

    The colonial system of government created a distance between the government and the governed and that same pattern of governing seems to have been followed by postcolonial African governments. This, in turn, has engendered attitudes of unconcern and insensitivity to the affairs of state on the part of the governed. Consequently, the general attitude of the citizen has been that it is possible to injure the state without injuring oneself, an attitude that opens the floodgates of bribery, corruption, carelessness about state property or state enterprise, and other unethical acts deleterious to the development and welfare of the state. Traditional ideology, however, positively maintains that any injury done to the community or state as a whole directly injures the individual. Thus, the traditional system generates sentiments of personal commitment to the community that the modern state has yet to create in its citizens.

    Long live the Asante kingdom.

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