The contribution of chiefs to nationalism during Gold Coast
By Antoinette Isabella Mintah
CHIEFS are traditional rulers who preside over the people in communities. While some are elected others accede by inheritance as prescribed by the customs of the communities. In their palaces are traditional courts where local disputes and other cases are adjudicated to ensure the prevalence of peace and tranquility.
Ghanaians have over the decades demonstrated loyalty towards their chiefs, who are considered as the custodians of the land and people as well as our heritage.
Professor Hans Kohn defines nationalism as “a state of mind or an act of consciousness in which supreme loyalty is felt towards a state”. In the context of colonial politics in Ghana, we could talk of nationalism as the struggle by a people with a common identification to free themselves from foreign control and exploitation.
In Ghana, the twentieth century atmosphere expressed the desire for freedom in two different ways and at two different stages. The first emerging in the inter-war period (1919 -1930), referred to as proto-nationalism, while the second which became dominant after the Second World War (1939-45) was militant, mass or radical nationalism.
Nationalism during the inter-war period manifested in protests and demands of the nationalists not aimed at seeking immediate independence but rather the trimming of “rough edges” of the colonial administration to allow their participation in government. Demands focused on franchise for the indigenous people and an end to all forms of discrimination against Africans.
These nationalists were mainly the educated elite who resided in urban centres relying on diplomacy and constitutional means in addressing their grievances on the shortfalls in British Colonial Administration. To them, ultimately, the attainment of independence was a long-term objective.
The post-war nationalists adopted such radical methods as strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and the like to pressurise the colonial government for self determination.
Causes of nationalism before 1939
A number of factors accounted for the rise of nationalism before World War II. During the period, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, formed in 1897, took its roots from the Mfantsi Amanbuhu Fekuw - a Cape Coast movement; protested against Governor Bradford Griffith’s drafted Lands Bill of 1894, as amended by Governor William Maxwell’s Lands Bill of 1897.
The Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS) was launched at Cape Coast in April 1897, by some chiefs and the educated elite of the Gold Coast. The Bill, as amended by Governor Maxwell, sought to vest in the Crown, all tribal lands not in visible use.
Really, the idea of ‘Public Lands’ raised a storm of opposition.
John Mensah Sarbah, a lawyer and one of the members of the movement, who-spoke on the Bill at the Bar of the Legislative Council, was even to declare more succinctly the position of the people when he opined that by the tenets of land tenure in the Gold Coast, every piece of land has an owner(s), including the living and the dead.
The import of this stance was that all lands, which were not privately owned, or owned communally were held in trust, either by the head of the extended family on behalf of its members (including the unborn), or by chiefs on behalf of citizens of the area. The spirit of the Lands Bill, therefore, ran counter to the basic tenets of customary law on land ownership. The counter-position of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society sought to challenge the obnoxious government policies such as the Lands Act which it succeeded in preventing from passage into law.
Indeed, the Mfantsi Amanbuhu Fekuw (Fante National Association) was a collaborative effort between the chiefs and the educated elite to counteract the coercive effects of the European presence and to promote the rich African culture.
Another calculated attempt in agitation to colonial arbitrary foreign domination was that of King Aggrey of Cape Coast whose protestations to the colonial governor against the usurpation of his traditional authority eventually resulted in his deportation to Sierra Leone.
APRS, however, suffered from petty squabbles between the chiefs and the educated elite. The chiefs refused to give recognition to the elite whom they (chiefs) felt were usurping their legitimate authority, whilst the educated elite also had the belief that the chiefs could not claim to represent the people. To them, having traditional authority was different from receiving the political mandate and representation from the masses. This development led to the absence of co-operation by both sides and thus undermined the effective operation of the society.
It must not be forgotten that the Ashanti Empire also vehemently resisted colonial domination. It is said that when the British Kingdom offered to take the Ashanti Empire under their protection, Prempeh I refused such a request. In one of his replies, he said, “My kingdom of Asante will never commit itself to any such policy of protection; Asante must remain independent as of old, and the same time be friends with all white men.”
The introduction of Indirect Rule by Lord Frederick Lugard significantly compromised the powers of chiefs in the Gold Coast. According to Frederick Lugard, architect of the policy, indirect rule was cost -effective because it reduced the number of European officials in the field by allowing local rulers to exercise direct administrative control over their people. He believed that the system would minimise opposition to European rule from the local population.
The chiefs, however, were to take instructions from their European supervisors. The plan, according to Lord Lugard, had the further advantage of civilising the natives, because it exposed traditional rulers to the benefits of European political organisation and values.
Until 1939, when the Native Treasures Ordinance was passed, however, there was no provision for local budgets. In 1935 the Native Authorities Ordinance combined the central colonial government and the local authorities into a single governing system. New native authorities, appointed by the governor, were, given wide powers of local government under the supervision of the central government’s provincial commissioners, who ensured that their policies would be in line with those of the central government.
The provincial councils and moves to strengthen them were not popular. Even by British standards, the chiefs were not given enough power to be effective instruments of indirect rule. Some Ghanaians believed that the reforms, by increasing the power of the chiefs at the expense of local initiative, permitted the colonial government to prevent movement toward any form of popular participation in the colony’s government.
It was in this context that in 1948, Nii Kwabena Bonne Ill, a Ga Chief, organised a general boycott of all European imports. A series of riots followed the boycott in early February, 1948. The last straw that broke the camel’s hack was the famous February 28, 1948 incident. Unarmed ex-servicemen marched to the Christianborg Castle on that day to submit a petition to the Governor about their poor conditions. Superintendent lmray, a white officer, ordered the policemen at the Castle to shoot.
When the police refused to do so, Imray himself opened fire on the unnamed soldiers at the Christianborg Crossroad. Three of the leaders namely; Sergeant Adjetey, Private Odartey Lamptey and Corporal Attipoe fell dead. Thereafter, riots broke out in Accra leading the angry mob to loot European and Asian stores. The rioters forced open the Central Prison and set flee its inmates.
After the riots, the nationalist leaders in Ghana sent a strong-worded cable to the Secretary of State in London. They blamed the Governor, Sir Gerald Creasy, greatly. They called him “Crazy Creasy” because he had failed to handle the problems facing the country. The Secretary of State, however, blamed the nationalist leaders for being responsible for the disturbances in the country. Consequently, six of leading nationalists were arrested and detained.
The most significant contribution of our chiefs to the independence struggle is their insistence on not being “civilised” through the indirect rule system. Indeed our chiefs made sure our customs and traditions were intact. As a matter of fact we emerged out of colonialism virtually unscathed by the attempts of the white man to change our personalities and our way of doing things. These were some of the legacies bequeathed to the new generation, which the older generation expects us to carry on.
Today, Ghana still tides on the image of a country with a strong cultural heritage but the question is, how the country is using this to its advantage. When one talks of a “Ghanaian being proud, what does it mean? This is a clarion call to the teeming youth of Ghana; wake up from your deep slumber and embrace what is African and come up with innovative solutions tailored at solving our peculiar problems.
Traditional rulers have been very vocal and unequivocal in the discharge of their traditional authority. The right of chieftaincy to rule the people has not been compromised from the colonial era to date. They ensured that areas within their jurisdiction are properly administered to the satisfaction of all and sundry.
Ownership of land and administration featured prominently in the colonial era. The advent of the British colonialists and the introduction of their system of governance, christened “indirect rule”, were obnoxious to traditional authority during the colonial era.
Chiefs have all the time spearheaded moves to annihilate any form of imposition of alien authority that was obnoxious and will continue to do so.
The writer is an officer of the information Services Department.
Daily Graphic Page: 10 Tuesday, March 8, 2011