State, Society and Citizens




It is widely held that the absence of “good governance” is the bane of African economies. This view was captured in a World Bank report published in 1989 which stated: “Underlying the litany of Africa’s development problems is a crisis of governance.”[1]


Though “good governance” is largely perceived as the “product of globalisation and a market-oriented economic policy”,[2] it is important to recognise the contribution of some African scholars among who were Claude Ake, Nakhtar Diouf and Ali Mazrui in the preparation of the 1989 report.


Focusing on state-society relationships they argued that the main challenges of African development were establishing relations that are:  “(a) developmental, in the sense that they allow the management of the economy in a manner that maximises economic growth, induces structural change, and uses all available resources in a responsible and sustainable manner in highly competitive global conditions; (b) democratic and respectful of citizens’ rights; and (c) socially inclusive, providing all citizens with a decent living and full participation in national affairs.”[3]


This stemmed from the failure of authoritarian regimes (which until recently was the norm in most African countries) to ensure the development they promised couple with the excessive human rights abuses that characterised these regimes.


Besides, the high levels of corruption that witnessed under the newly elected “democratic” governments has also brought to the fore the demand for accountability in public administration.


It is for these reasons that the expression has become a key “conditionality” for financial and other assistance from our “development partners”. For instance, in March 2002, in Monterrey, Mexico, President George W. Bush in announcing an increase in U.S. development assistance to foreign nations by 50 percent in the next three years stated that for countries to qualify for the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) the governments must "govern justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom."[4]

However for good governance to really take root it is important that it takes into account the history and culture of the people for it is not enough to base good governance on Western perceptions of individual rights and state responsibilities. It must reconcile African traditions and institutions with “modern” ones.

It is for this reason that it is important to realise that the values and institutions indicative of “good governance” are not new to Africa. What is new are “western” or “modern” concepts of good governance. This paper examines state, society and citizens relationship for good governance from the African perspective, precisely Ghana with particular reference to the chieftaincy institution, a traditional leadership institution. And it suggests ways of reconciling African value systems, traditions and institutions with “modern” concepts of good governance.



Governance is the activity of managing society’s resources both human and material through state apparatuses. In pre-colonial times, traditional authorities were entirely responsible for governance, and chiefs played a leading role, in most places of the country. The advent of colonial rule introduced western forms of governance. Today, the western forms with their attendant political and administrative structures dominate at the national and regional level, but in the main, share the responsibility of governance at the district and community level with traditional authority, mainly chiefs. In rural communities (where most Ghanaians live) inadequate infrastructure and poverty hamper access to modern or state agencies of security, justice and health means the chief or the chieftaincy institution is a vital and strategic partner for development.


Governance may basically be categorised into economic, political and administrative. Economic governance involves the decision-making processes that affect a country's economy; political governance entails policy formulation; and administrative governance is the system of policy implementation.[5]

Governance transcends the state by including civil society organisations and the citizenry.


“Good governance” therefore requires an administration that is transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of society. In other words it must include:effective public participation, transparency, probity, accountability, the rule of law, and equity.


A major challenge for Ghana and indeed, for most parts of Africa is the quest for good governance. This quest has to reckon with the dual or “mixed” nature in the system of governance. On one hand is the western or European model institution of governance. On the other hand are the traditional or indigenous forms of governance, which evolved out of the history, tradition and culture of the people. Furthermore, the traditional governance operates, are defined and linked to diverse ethnic identities, and also, to the perceptions of governance held by the various ethnic groups.


Therefore any talk of good governance must address the peculiar values and needs of this institution.


To ensure good governance it is crucial that citizens and society particularly civil society is actively involved in the management of these resources for the development of its people.



Active civil society participation in good governance has become the focal point of good governance as legislations and public pronouncements by those entrusted with leadership positions over the years have made no appreciable impact on the quality of governance.


As the victims of a corrupt system, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to exert pressure on the state and its institutions that benefit from the system and as such are not usually inclined to reform it.  It is for this reason that focus has shifted to active involvement of society through pressure on the state to ensure good governance.



Traditional governance is characterized by a variety of forms and institutions. These include priestly authority, female traditional authority in the form of Queen Mothers, female chiefs and priestesses, traditional military companies, indigenous health delivery, agricultural and commercial authority. At the apex of these structures of governance is the institution of chieftaincy which permeates all through the forty or so ethnic groups, limited only in power and influence by the history, tradition and culture of the various communities where the authority is exercised.



The most basic principle of good governance is that the political institutions be democratic. The democratic process must be free, fair and inclusive. This means elections devoid of government coercion, interference or manipulation; and elections open and transparent to all people without discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, religion or ancestry.

The chieftaincy institution could be said to have elements of democracy by the nature of the traditional political set-up e.g. among the Asante. Through the process of nomination, election and installation a chief’s legitimacy is derived from the people he is to lead. This stems from the fact that he is the choice of the people asthe electors (Electoral College) who are representatives of the various segments of the community have to consult popular opinion before arriving at a candidate.


Whilst one concedes that elections alone, is not indicative of democracy and there is no democracy that is open all members of society (there is some level of restriction for example through age etc), the electoral process in the traditional setting is too narrow. One central theme common to most traditional areas is the fact that to be eligible one has to trace his descent patrilineally or matrilineally (depending on the succession mode of the particular ethnic group) to the founding ancestor or ancestress of the kingdom or the stool or skin.

Secondly there is no open ballot or adult universal suffrage for all the “royals” but the choice is limited to a selected few and the choice of who leads the nation restricted to the kingmakers who also are representative elders of the stool family which comprise heads of the major family groups i.e. the principal members of the stool family directly descended lineally from the founder of stool. This has implications for good governance as some people feel excluded from the choice in the management of their collective resources.



The rule of law and of course an independent judiciary to preserve it is another cornerstone of good governance. Inherent in this is a fair legal framework that is enforced impartially.

As a lawmaker, the chief together with his elders passed laws affecting the everyday life of his subjects. The chief was not limited in any sphere in the making of laws affecting his people. The chiefs’ judicial powers were expressed in the chiefs’ court which served as formal machinery for maintaining law and order. These laws however stemmed from the customs and traditions of the people as embedded in their world view. And in the discharge of these duties the supreme interests of his people were paramount and as such these have to be done with the assistance and consent of the representatives of the people, his elders. As noted by Busia, “the chief had to keep strictly the injunction that he was to act only on the advice of his elders.”[6]


Presently, the chief lacks that authority to enact laws and even enforce his decisions. Citizens are at liberty to answer summons to a chief’s court and have a choice to have their cases tried in the “formal” courts. However in the absence of access to these courts by majority of the people there have been calls for chiefs to be empowered to carry out these judicial functions. As it stands now whatever power chiefs have over their people is derived more from customary allegiances and traditional courtesies accorded them rather than from legal statutes. The traditional authorities have no legal authority to have their judgments enforced.



The institutions responsible for the welfare of the people must be participatory, in effect allowing the citizens to have a voice in decision-making, either directly or indirectly through their elected representatives or other legitimate institutions that represent their interests.

As earlier noted chiefs had to act in consultation with the elders and in fact failure to heed the advise of his elders constituted valid grounds for destoolment. There are some other avenues for public participation through such institutions as the e.g. the asafo companies among the Fantes.



Apart from the major criterion noted, one had to be honest to qualify to ascend the ancestral stool. As explained by Dzobo, the etymology of fia,the word for chief in Ewe is “fia”, teach or show the way and so therefore a chief was expected to lead his people through his exemplary life. This was expressed in the Ewe proverb “Fia maƒonu ƒe du de wogbana” literally meaning “The chief who does not talk (teach) will have his chiefdom come to ruin”.[7] A chief’s political clout therefore, to some extent, rested on his moral integrity.



The intrinsic value of his code of conduct is the continual reminder that he is answerable to his people to whom he owes his position as contained in the oath “Ne woyכme le dzome, tsidzame, ndi alo ototome matכna mi. Ne nye me tכo ke me ka atamu”. This literally means “I will respond any time you call me whether rain or shine, night or day and if I fail to respond to your call then I have broken my oath of office”.


The threat of the destoolment of a chief for failing to abide by his oath of office serves an instrument of holding chiefs accountable to their people.



To ensure that the decisions taken by the leadership are the genuine manifestations of the citizenry there must be a free exchange of information and ideas. The guarantees of freedoms of speech and expression provide that the citizenry actively participates in decision making and administration.


One such modes of freedom of expression is the apo festival of the people of Wenchiwhere the subjects can say whatever they want to say about their leadership (even insult) without any form of recrimination whatsoever. The Ga of La also have a similar festival.


There is however the need for other avenues for the constant expression of ideas. The presence of a vibrant press might serve this purpose. Together with civil society groups have a responsibility to educate the people on voting, electoral reforms and problems facing society that needs to be addressed. They also need to take politicians to task on how they intend to address them as well as highlighting the performance (or non-performance) of elected representatives. This hopefully would ensure that public officials and institutions or people seeking political offices do not make empty promises to the electorate and get away with it as is usually the case. They must always remain accountable to their people.


There must be effective collaboration between the media and civil society to guarantee freedom of speech and expression. The media has to serve as the mouthpiece of civil society especially when the insti­tu­tions of civil society are threa­te­ned. But civil society in reciprocal support of the media must exercise a critical control of the media so as not to deviate from serving the interests of the people.



Another aspect of freedom of speech and a free media is transparency in the access to information. The state must ensure the free flow of information by making it easily and directly accessible to those concerned to monitor and evaluate them.

In traditional societies most issues are shrouded in myths and taboos making it difficult for the people to know what exactly is happening.

Something akin to a Right to Information Law is one such requirement needed to put ensure transparency in government transactions. This calls for a radical change in the world view of the people.

The present abuse of traditional office holders in the misuse of public funds i.e. stool revenue for personal use calls for assets declaration of public officials before they take office and when they leave office.



The institutions must also be responsivei.e. serve all stakeholders as well as be effective and efficient. Governments in pursuance of good governance owe it to their people the responsibility of putting in place structures and the enabling environment that preserve and enhance the welfare its citizens.  This requires devoting resources to health, education, and wealth creation in an equitable manner. The peace and security of the people is also paramount in order that these gains are not wiped out.


The chief’s present predicament as the ruler and caretaker of his peoples’ interests yet lacking the political power and economic resources to fulfil these tasks call for a serious overhaul of the chieftaincy institution if chiefs are to play a more effective role in the administration of their areas and invariably the country. are worth considering. This will not only to ease the pressure on the courts but make justice more easily accessible to the people.


A two-pronged approach from both the stools and the central government could be adopted to generate revenue for implementing developmental projects in the various communities. One is increasing the percentage of shares of royalties from natural resources paid by the government to the local communities. Secondly, the communities should engage in economic activities to generate revenue. For example, in Volta Region the tourism potential of these communities could be tapped by developing and marketing these tourist attractions. Other economic activities such mechanised farming and aquaculture could be embarked upon not only to generate wealth for the stool but also provide employment for the people.


Society can complement the efforts of government by investing in the economy to generate employment. As part of their civic duties citizens must assist the security agencies in the discharge of their duties by reporting social miscreants and by being law abiding. They could set up neighbourhood watch committees to police their communities.

Society must also discharge its civic responsibilities to the state such as the payment of taxes to make available more funds for developmental projects.



Good governance needs to address the issues of equitable development and democratic governance that guarantees and upholds the fundamental and universal human rights of its people and is all-inclusive. As noted by P.K. Doraiswamy, “Democracy is not a spectator sport (though politicians make a spectacle of themselves!).”[8]


It is the position of this paper that for good governance to impact positively on the lives of the people it needs to integrate traditional governance into constitutional rule because majority of the people as note earlier live in rural areas where the most visible political authority is the chief. Its integration into mainstream governance will maximize the utilization of traditional leadership which represents a rich human resource.


This calls for deepening the traditional institutions of good governance since these institutions and values are already present and are the most visibly political institutions and easily accessible to majority of the people. This could be done by:

  • Opening up the electoral process by starting with putting up all “royals” up for direct election by members of the society.


Secondly, one recommends a radical transformation in the whole process of eligibility and who the kingmakers are.Culture it is said is dynamic and must evolve to meet the needs of the people.Eligibility to rule should not be derived from the circumstances of one’s birth but be based on one’s abilities to perform in such a capacity and of course by the acceptance of the majority of the people to act in such a capacity. Thus the situation where one could only become a chief becomes the privilege of a particular family otherwise known as the royal family flies in the face of the principles of equal access to opportunities in this case rulership.


Thirdly, the position like the presidency of the nation should be limited to a specific term. This life-long position has been the cause of civil strife as the next generation or those in line to occupy the position consider their chances whittling away especially if the occupant stays too long on the throne.       


  • The bane of the chieftaincy institution, succession disputes or problems associated with accession to political office could be addressed by conducting researches into the histories of these stools with the aim of identifying who qualifies to occupy the stool and those that have the power to nominate, select/elect and install a chief and the reasons for this. Though it is argued that researches might not necessarily solve the problem and may in fact worsen it by opening a Pandora’s Box, it cannot be denied that it is only based on our knowledge of the past can we understand the present and consequently make informed decisions about the future.


The importance of records to the chieftaincy institution is clear to a nation which could have avoided a considerable number of conflicts associated with traditional governance and culture if records had been kept properly for posterity. The information gathered should be stored in a database easily accessible to all in the interest of transparency and accountability.


It is crucial that the research is conducted by credible and objective institutions. One wonders if for instance the National House of Chiefs tasked under the constitution to codify customary laws and document qualified occupants to stools/skins is the appropriate body to carry it out since they have a vested in the institution as occupants of these stools/skins.


  • Education and orientation of traditional leaders on the need to modify the institutions to suit modern demands. It will be helpful to make them understand that if they are be given more powers to carry out as it were their pre-colonial functions then it is important that they open up the institutions to meet the demands of the modern nation-state.


  • A well-resourced institution to effectively discharge the functions of the decentralised government which the chiefs perform at the local level. This could come in the form of legislative backing and training to carry out the dispensation of justice which they in any case dispense to the majority of the populace who cannot access our law courts.


  • Political will to carry out these reforms. Governments have vacillated on this issues because of the fear of losing the support of the people and hence votes.


  • This reformed traditional institution could then serve as the basis of our decentralised political administrative machinery for the traditional authority system still remains the de facto governance system at least at the local level. The other trappings of chieftaincy however should be maintained to portray our rich culture.



Good governance calls for collective decision-making as opposed to top-down approach or Western-imposed values and concepts. It behoves all to reconcile differing interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interests of the state and its people as this ensures collective ownership of the institutions, processes and outcomes.


The way forward is “collaborative governance” involving state, society and citizens integrating both traditional and “modern” values for good governance. They must have a “strategic vision” on good governance and how it needs to be achieved.

Modernity and change have ensured governance its fair share of challenges. Whereas the institutions of governance in the adopted from the West have, comparatively, been able to adjust to some of the challenges following in the wake of modernity and change, traditional forms of governance have been slow to respond. This “modernisation” must however take into account the history, culture and worldview of the people if these values are to be collectively owned by the people.


[1]World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth: A Long-Term

		Perspective Study(1989) 

[2] Abstract on Globalisation, Governance And The Pacific Islands A conference to be held at Old Canberra House, Australian National University, 25th to 27th October 2005 accessed 20th September, 2007.

[3]Thandika Mkandawire (Director of UNRISD). Good Governance: The Itinerary of an Idea. The present viewpoint appears in "D + C Development and Cooperation", Volume 31, Number 10, 2004. accessed 20th September, 2007

[4]Paula Dobriansky (Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs) Principles Of Good Governance  Accessed September 17, 2007

[5]Governance for sustainable human development. A UNDP policy document.   Accessed on September 22, 2007.

[6]K.A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1968), 15.

[7]N.A. Dzobo, The Chief and his Elders among the Ewe of Ghana and Togo (Kumasi: High Calling Publishers, 2001),5-6.


[8]P.K. Doraiswamy “The role of civil society in good governance” The Hindu Online edition of India's National Newspaper Sunday, Aug 26, 2007

Accessed September, 24, 2007.