Akan Chieftaincy: Balancing tradition and modern democracy in Ghana

Ashanti Chieftaincy

Stories and facts

In many parts of West Africa, the chieftaincy tradition remains a deeply rooted aspect of society, with the Akan people developing their own hierarchy that exists alongside the democratic structure of Ghana.

The Akan word for a ruler or one of his various courtiers is "Nana" (/ˈnænə/). Historically, Europeans translated it as "chief," but this term is not entirely accurate. Some sources refer to them as "kings," which is also misleading, especially for courtiers. While the term "chief" is commonly used among modern Ghanaians, it is more precise to use "Nana" without translation when possible.

The origins of the Akan chieftaincy system are unclear, with few written records. When the Akan settled in Bonoman before 1300, they adopted the existing chieftaincy system.

The paramount chief's role was comparable to that of an absolutist king. When Ghana gained independence in 1957, the new republic agreed to respect the chieftaincy system, acknowledging its significance.

Today, chieftaincy is officially recognized, and politicians often seek advice from chiefs, who are typically closer to the people. The highest authority is the National House of Chiefs in Kumasi, with regional houses of chiefs handling local matters. The House of Chiefs also serves a legal function in resolving disputes among chiefs.

Within the Akan ethnic group, there are various kin groups such as the Ashanti, Bono, Akyem, Kwahu, Akwapim, Assin, and Fante. The highest rank is the paramount chief, with sub-chiefs below them. Sub-chiefs are akin to mayors, with hereditary offices rather than elected positions.

They oversee their territories and serve as ministers at their paramount chiefs' courts, handling political and economic matters.

Ahenfo is a general title for native city-state rulers in Akan culture, with "Ohene" being the common title for a king. The female equivalent is "Ohemaa," meaning queen or female ruler, though "Henewaa" or "Heneba" is sometimes used for a chief's child.

The Omanhene, or paramount chief, is the highest-ranking chief, with the Krontihene as the second-in-command and caretaker of the land. The Ankobeahene manages the palace, while the Obaatan, a female role symbolized by the egg, counsels the Omanhene and suggests the next chief.

The Tufohene, or warlord, leads defense efforts and enforces local laws, akin to a police commander or state attorney. The Asafohene heads a single Asafo company, and the Manwerehene oversees the interior.

The Sanaahene manages the treasury, and the Adontehene leads the army's front flank. The Nkyidomhene ensures soldiers rejoin the army, while the Nifahene and Benkumhene manage the right and left flanks, respectively. The Akyempimhene, often the king's son, protects the king and distributes resources.

The Mankrado performs purification rituals, and the Guantuahene offers shelter and mercy. The Nsumankwahene oversees spiritual matters, while the Nkosuohene promotes regional development, a role open to non-royals.

Chiefs have various entourage members, including the Okomfo, a priest or priestess who advises on major decisions, and a stool wife, symbolically married to the chief. The Okyeame, or linguist, conveys the chief's messages.

The Queen Mother, or Ohemaa, holds significant power, sometimes rivaling the chief. She nominates the next chief, with the role often performed by the clan head in consultation with family members.

On special occasions, chiefs wear traditional cloth, ample jewelry (often imitation gold), and crowns. Chiefs also use fly-whisks and ceremonial swords, and during parades, they may be carried in palanquins. Instead of a throne, Akan chiefs sit on stools, which are blackened and stored in sacred rooms after their death. Large umbrellas, or Bamkyim, are used to shade chiefs and signal their approach.



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