Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Chiefs, Chieftaincy & Tribal Government in West Africa

This is just a very general overview that gives us a peak into the system of chiefs in West Africa, with has its own nuances from one country to the next. It may raise more questions than it answers!

Chiefs in Benin
Photo Credit: Willem Heerbaart (CC- Adapted with overlay)

Tribal government in West Africa is a long standing tradition that has adapted over the years through ancient history, colonialism, independence and modern day. It's found at varying degrees throughout much of West Africa.

In ancient times, each tribe had its own ruler who reigned over his area, be it a handful of small villages or across the country. These rulers governed with a council of elders, who were local village chiefs, and in times of war called on the loyalty of their villages. Before colonization, a tribal chief had power over all aspects of life and law.

Generally these days, tribal chiefs have power over tribal matters and traditional customs. They can enact bylaws, just as long as they don't contradict with state laws. There's a hierarchy within the tribal government and various protocols that range depending on the level (and area). They have the power to judge over matters of inheritance and land ownership. Local initiatives must be cleared by the chief, and are often organized and overseen by them.

Look through an incredible photostream of portraits of African Kings and tribal rulers here.

Because they are closer to the people, chiefs generally exercise more influence than the government, which is a power in itself. A chief's endorsement is often sought after from politicians and business people. Chiefs may or may not have other employment. 


In especially remote areas and small rural villages, it's important one's first stop is to the local chief. Etiquette requires that your hat be removed, your legs be crossed and your hands stay out of your pockets in his or her presence. Unless the chief invites you for a handshake, do not offer your hand, and be sure to bring a small gift as an offering (kola nuts or money are especially appreciated.

Niger, Sierra Leone, Burkina Fason & Benin are West African countries with strong tribal leaders. Here is some information specific to a few countries:


Chiefs in Ghana in ceremonial kente cloth and regalia
Photo Credit: Sweggs (CC)
During colonization, the British accepted a chief's rule about tribal matters. However, if these matters threatened to turn into a war between the tribes, they went to British court. Chieftaincy has continued along these lines since independence in 1957.

There is now a House of Chiefs where land rights, appointment and succession of chiefs are determined. The Ashanti paramount chief of Kumasi, known as the Asantehene (Ashanti King) is like a high king, and has the most power within the hierarchy. His position is protected by the constitution in Ghana. Foreign guests of state usually visit both the president and the Asantehene.

Burkina Faso

The most powerful chief in Burkina Faso, the Moro-Naba (emperor of the Mossi) has so much influence that the government still makes a show of consulting before making any major decisions. This takes placed during the Moro-Naba ceremony, a very formal ritual that lasts about 15 minutes every Friday morning at the palace. Prominent Mossis arrive, greet each other and sit on the ground according to rank. The Moro-Naba appears, dressed in red (symbol of war) with his elaborately decorated horse. A cannon is shot, he retires and reappears dressed in white (symbol of peace). His subjects are then invited into the palace for a drink. He then gives audience and his verdict on local disputes and petty crimes. 


A village chief in Nigeria
Photo Credit: Bill and Nelle (CC)

Tribal rulers continue to have political and economic influence in many communities in Nigeria. They have an important role in negotiating between the people and the state, and they help resolve minor conflicts. There are four ranks: the royal chiefs, noble chiefs, religious chiefs and common chiefs.

There's a lot of competition from those eligible for royal seats, a role that has a few perks. Once appointed they receive an official certificate from the state and a car. They can also gather an "administration" that includes honorary titles - titles that wealthy businessmen and politicians often seek out. 


Guidelines for the behavior of chiefs:

  • They must keep their head covered in public
  • They must not be seen drinking
  • The chief is considered the communicator between this world and the world of the ancestors
  • Traditionally, they are not to see the face of a corpse - they can only take part in a funeral after the corpse is buried or inside the coffin.

There's no question that there are various monarchies throughout West Africa, the question I can't seem to answer is with its relationship to chieftaincy. The head of the royal families are tribal rulers, and it seems there's competition with the royal families and bloodlines for chieftaincy. It seems that not all chiefs are royalty. (To be fair, I haven't done extensive research on this).

In Niger, there is a Queen who can speak to people but no one is allowed to see her. Her role is to weigh in on private matters.

Over the course of my readings over the year, I've come across multiple mentions of chiefs that are women especially in Nigeria and Ghana, but I can't find much information on whether or not there are major differences in matters of influence or power.


  1. Interesting. I always find the countries/tribes/groups that have a group of people who can become "king" interesting, it seems a much wiser idea to me than a hereditary king. But, I suppose it also means you frequently have wars or struggle as you choose the new one.

    1. The "kings" themselves have to be from a royal hereditary lineage, but not so the sub chiefs (I think!)


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