Chieftaincy – Election or selection


In The Gambia, chieftaincy, as an institution, evolved from heads of kingdoms being transformed, through colonial rule, into an institution that not only embodies traditional values but exercises judicial functions representing the symbol of unity within society. As such, they have had a unifying role of representing the traditional view of society (even in Parliament) which varies from one community to another, a citadel of our traditions and acting as a cohesive bond in these communities. Such a role include, inter alia, adjudications over land matters, disputes in marriages, ownerships of property, inheritances and so forth. They were also the main source of traditional administration – collecting taxes, maintaining discipline in accordance with the values of the community, mobilising the community for collective participation and decision making on issues of traditional society, disseminating information on development matters and so forth. The institution, like all aspects of tradition, is not immutable.

Thus the role of the chief evolved over time. In more recent times, this role has been abused by recruiting them into the political arena. The role of chiefs as a source for mobilising the community has been blatantly abused and misused to the effect that it became the bone of contention in elections. Generally, they have worked hand-in-glove with government against other opposition parties by mobilising their communities in favour of the ruling party. This has been an open secret. They have been openly seen in political rallies and have delivered political statements with an undiluted show of allegiance to the ruling party. This state of affairs naturally stirred in the opposition, the reaction to castigate the institution. As a result, opposition parties advocated for a drastic transformation of their framework of existence.

Prior to and during the colonial period, chiefs have been selected from specific ‘clans’ within the community. In other words, in every society there is a kunda or family from which chiefs have been selected – Sanyang Kunda of the Kiangs, Faraba and Koina; Bojang Kunda of Brikama; Sonko Kunda of Niumi; Kintehs of Baddibu and so forth, from Kartong to Koina. That has been the tradition and a very entrenched part of our culture. This framework was maintained during colonial days. When there was a vacancy for a position of chief, the Senior Commissioner, mainly based at Mansa Konko, would make a shortlist of names from the relevant clan. Each name on the shortlist would be assessed based on certain criteria, foremost among which was common ancestry. The shortlisted names were then forwarded to the Governor who then decided on the successful candidate. This modus operandi existed and was passed on to the independent state we are in today.


However, in some rare incident, which has become an oft-quoted incident as if it was to become the misconstrued norm in later instances, the then ruling party of the time found itself in the dilemma of choosing between two party stalwarts each of whom had a strong following. In what I consider was a rather cunning decision, the party in government decided to refer the matter to the yard owners of the community to vote on who was to be the chief. It should be noted, it was not originally a vote by universal suffrage but limited to yard owners as a way of passing the onerous responsibility of selection. After that instance, the continuous use of selection was generally maintained and continued to be the tool of designating the position. However, as earlier mentioned, the original refined and structured process became abused and diluted to ensure political loyalty. The clan was by passed in favour of party supporters and respect and considerations of tradition were deliberately neglected or blatantly ignored as a way of reward to or punishment of communities affected.

This state of affairs culminated into our current predicament of public debate on whether to democratise the process of designation of the institution and the abrogation of the traditional process of selection. It is important to first and foremost identify the underlying factors that have led to this line of justified thinking – i.e. the use of the institution to garner political support by the ruling party. In other words, the role of the chief as an institution within the governance framework has become politicised.
The question is – should the misuse of the role of the institution or more precisely the institution becoming politicised, warrant a change in the mode in designation? It is, however, important to differentiate between the role and the mode of designation.

There are certain aspects of human life that are a very much part of mankind’s existence. Rituals and traditions are very much part of our everyday existence in our continuous efforts to maintain our identity and distinction in society. Rites are very often the most prominent form of exhibiting religious belief and practice as a way of inculcating moral values, establishing modes of expressing relationships and defining ways of interactions in a society. Rites are not limited to moral principles and spiritual practices only. At the mundane level, such rites are expressed in the way we greet each other such as shaking hands, hugging, rubbing noses and a variety of other ways. They are also expressed in our eating habits, dress, talking in certain circumstances and so forth. Most of these rites become so routinised that we tend to forget their significance. It is, therefore, important that rites are recognised as the very expression of human existence as a society.

Rites are transmitted from generation to generation through tradition. Tradition is the medium of transmission of such systems of beliefs and values that is so much part of our way of life and that continuously reemphasises our distinction as to who we are. A common saying that one should know where one comes from in order to know where one was going is no more than an expression of the importance of traditions which transmit such rites that are so much part of our living. Such become the customs in society, the sum total of which forms the body of our culture. Culture gives us the meaning to our lives and the experiences we encounter through which we formulate the attitudes we possess – in interaction, survival, life style and generally the way we live. It is a way of our life.

In the political arena, we are made aware of the misuse of certain aspects of our culture in unbalancing the field of political competition. This legitimate claim, no doubt, has had a great influence on the outcome of rivalry as mentioned above. Chieftaincy has been a long surviving institution that is very much part of human culture – with bits and pieces of changes in the functions and paraphernalia, but nonetheless surviving in its basic framework as an embodiment of traditions at certain levels of society. It should be noted with emphasis that it is an institution that is not unique to The Gambia alone albeit with differing nomenclature in various societies and communities around the world – be it in UK as the Queen, in northern Ghana as the Ashantehene, northern Nigeria as the Emir of Kano and Sultan of Sokoto. Even communists (or shall I say socialists, and societies with a revolutionary past) are considering the gradually revival of this institution. Indeed, it is a recognised institution that has evolved in its role but no doubt has been preserved in its fundamental framework of designation, existence and continuity.

In all these countries, the institution existed and has survived to the present day. The role certainly evolved overtime but the mode of designation has remained intact (though may have changed in its aspects of the rituals only as measures of reinforcement and enhancing visibility of the tradition). The fact is, the designation has never been democratised in these societies. The point of emphasis is that in our case, we should focus on the role rather than the process of designation which if democratised equates to an overhaul of our tradition and culture in the name of democracy. In all these countries that maintain similar institutions, democracy is also their framework of governance – in the UK, Ghana, Nigeria, Monaco, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Japan, etc.
However, our past experience of misuse of the institution seems to cloud our analysis of the situation. The argument is fully justified but the solution seems incongruous. We should be able to dissect and understand the problem in order to come up with an appropriate solution. The previous incident of mortgaging the responsibility of selection to yard owners culminating into a democratic process should be noted that it was initially not by universal suffrage and it looked like an abdication and shying away from responsibility to uphold and maintain tradition.

Paradoxically, exposing the institution to a democratic process of voting is as matter of fact politicising it, the very reason from which the dissatisfaction emanated! Consider this – in the democratic process, aspirants will be fielded in by political parties (we mustn’t pretend that that would not happen). Thus a person elected in the office with an affiliation of or affinity to a political party would (or should be obliged to) do the bidding of that party since he or she ran on that party ticket. Even where we pretend that they would not run on a political party ticket, politicians will no doubt have a hand, covertly or otherwise, in getting their ‘man into the position’ – naturally. Have several institutions not been politicised in requiring them to play a significant role in politics – the civil service for one – but nobody thinks about having them elected but rather, I am absolutely sure that, it is their role that would be considered for a more apolitical definition.

Therefore, it makes more sense to me to consider the redefinition of the role of the institution of chieftaincy in the same form of apolitical definition and let tradition continue to dominate the designation process. If I may even go further, the designation process should be augmented and more ritualised to give it prominence and enhanced visibility as being done in other countries. This way, and proverbially, we would know where we come from and discern with better clarity where we are going. We may even send feelers to other countries with similar institutions, just as we are doing with other aspects of our governance to find out how they were able to maintain the designation but transform the roles within a democratic dispensation. I don’t think we should discard a longstanding culture and tradition that is not unique to us and has been carefully preserved by the rest of the democratic world.
(May I conclude that, from the part of the country that I come from, I am not from a ‘clan’ that has been chiefs in that community).

Lamino Comma served as a senior civil servant in both the First and the Second Republic. He is now a consultant and a keen commentator on socio-economic issues.