There is a growing trend in Ghana of appointing traditional authorities with an international migrant background. This study shows that Ghanaian chiefs who have lived abroad are expected to draw on transnational networks and experiences to bring development and innovation to their areas. Some collaborate with international development agencies, NGOs, and migrants, and tour European and North American countries. ‘Return chiefs’ must balance ‘the modern’ and ‘the traditional’, and their practices in negotiating this tension are both local and global.
Early British colonial rulers brought Ghana’s traditional authorities into a system of indirect rule, but the leaders of independent Ghana perceived them as traitors and curtailed their power, claiming that traditional authorities were impediments to development and should be replaced by modern and rational institutions. Today, Ghanaian chieftaincy has evolved into an institution with both modern and traditional dimensions, backed by the state and the constitution.
The main functions of chiefs include dispute settlement, codification of customary law, arrangement of ceremonies and festivals, organisation of communal labour and promotion of socioeconomic development. Chiefs have been involved in the development of their areas since precolonial times. However, contemporary chiefs face new challenges such as demands for good governance, the introduction of information and communication technologies and expectations of international connections. In addition to royalty and seniority, education and access to powerful networks have become key qualifications for chieftaincy election.
There are differences in the degree to which chiefs can circumscribe tradition – more powerful chiefs have a greater say in which traditions should be considered useful or redundant. Return chiefs are in an ambivalent position, and endeavour to overcome this dilemma by emphasising their foundation in tradition as well as by using their professional and international experience to spur local development and modernise the chieftaincy institution. Interviews show that:
- Chiefs position themselves as having a solid foundation in tradition, sacrifice, and obligation, staging their public selves as chiefs through performing, dressing and adhering to the protocols of royal conduct and rituals.
- They also emphasise their professional leadership, describing themselves as innovative and internationally connected. They describe themselves as development actors with international experience and connections.