Academic journal article Africa

The Chief, the Mine Captain and the Politician: Legitimating Power in Northern Ghana

Academic journal article Africa

The Chief, the Mine Captain and the Politician: Legitimating Power in Northern Ghana

Article excerpt

The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be

found out. [Proverbs 10: 9, quoted as the bottom line of the Ghanaian

Chronicle, May 1997]

In a recent article on power, legitimacy and democratisation in contemporary Africa, Michael Schatzberg has set `power in the West' against `power in Africa'. `Power in the West', he contends, is `essentially transformative, or the ability to get someone to do something', whereas `power and politics in African society often have more to do with consumption than with transformation' (1993: 446). According to Schatzberg--and similar arguments have been put forward by Jean-Francois Bayart (1993), Achille Mbembe (1992) and other scholars concerned with the `post-colony'--African `power' is inseparably associated with metaphors of `food' and `eating', bears a profoundly spiritual face and is characterised by its `unity and indivisibility'. Behind a thin facade of parliamentary democracy (and in some countries not even that much), so the argument runs, political power in Africa (still?) lacks the essentials of `Western' constitutional governance, such as broad acceptance of the necessary separation of powers and strict rules of accountability. Hence the African `moral matrix of legitimate governance' differs more or less radically from the Euro-American paradigm, focusing on images of `father and family', promises of `nurture and paternal care' and the premise of a degree of generational rotation of power (Schatzberg, 1993: 450-3).

It is this stark opposition between `the West' and `Africa' and the reification of the concept of `legitimacy' against which I want to argue with a case study of strategies of legitimating power and wealth in Ghana. My first contention is simply that debates on the morality of power and desirable modes of governance are as complex in African states as they are in Europe or the United States. When analysing my northern Ghanaian data, I found, for instance, Max Weber's ideal types of domination and legitimacy or Bailey's (1969) cross-culturally construed distinction between `normative' and `pragmatic' political rules quite helpful, across any presumable boundary between `the West' and `the rest'. These ideal types are as useful--but also as limited in their ability to grasp the fuzziness of `real' life--for understanding, for instance, Jerry Rawlings's strategies of legitimation as they are for unpacking, say, Bill Clinton's skilful management of images of good governance. On the other hand, differences within Africa, between political cultures and styles of leadership, may be quite pronounced--and have attracted the attention of political scientists as early as the 1960s.

This brings me to my second contention, namely that Schatzberg and others tend to reify the concept of `legitimacy', as if `legitimacy' were a quality to be measured by percentage or degree. Is `legitimate governance' (or a `legitimate ruler') something that no longer attracts criticism? Who are the actors to confer `legitimacy' on, or deny it to, a regime? What if vocal critics regard the ruling Ministers as corrupt (by `Western' standards of accountability) while their cronies enjoy the spoils of corruption (`eating the power') and the majority are silent? Obviously, I shall not be able to provide ready-made answers to these questions, much less come up with a precise definition of `legitimacy'. Rather, I suggest that it is more useful to look at `legitimacy' as a process, a conflict-ridden and open process, in which `big men' and politicians as well as their audiences and `judges' intervene. If the construction of any ideal type of `power in Africa' or of a specifically African `post-colonial mode of governance' is at all a useful exercise (and there are good grounds to doubt that it is), it must proceed much more cautiously and on a much broader empirical basis than has become fashionable recently. By drawing on elite biographies and other data gathered during several years of fieldwork in northern Ghana, I hope to show, at least, that the analysis of power and legitimacy in Africa (and elsewhere) has a lot to gain from anthropological in-depth studies. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.