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Review of Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch, The Politics of Chieftaincy: Authority and Property in Colonial Ghana, 1920-1950


By John Nott

The Politics of Chieftaincy: Authority and Property in Colonial Ghana, 1920-1950. Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch. University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 2014. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781580464949 (hb). £55

Accra has long been an important entrepôt for Europeans in West Africa. Positioned on the outer edge of the continental slave trade and caught between the gold-laden Akan forests and the ocean, the Ga inhabitants of Accra and its environs were primed to become the arbiters of trade between inland groups and merchants from the Atlantic. Portuguese traders arrived in the fifteenth century and were soon followed by Dutch, Danish and British concerns. Established as the formal capital of Britain’s Gold Coast Colony in 1877, Accra was eventually transformed from a cosmopolitan port town into a seat of colonial authority. This development, the expansion of colonial authority over Ga land and the effects of colonisation on pre-existing systems of land tenure, form the primary concerns of Sackeyfio-Lenoch’s rich and remarkably thorough study of city whose history is still poorly understood.

Though offering some discussion of the periods before 1920 and after 1950, Sackeyfio-Lenoch’s tight temporal focus is the thirty-year ‘high colonial’ period following the consolidation of British rule and prior to the urban unrest which fermented the growth of Ghana’s independence movement. Internal conflicts over land were at their most fraught during these years, as immigration and commercialisation made the previously vague question of land ownership much more valuable. Under pressure from the colonial government and the expanding urban population, chiefs, priests, townspeople, educated elites, family heads and landowners were drawn into conflict over land rights which were now central to the future affluence of Ga communities. Backgrounded by the knotty high-politics of chieftaincy in colonial Accra, Sackeyfio-Lenoch fluently explores the ways that vying groups of Ga power-brokers exercised their authority or redefined the bounds of tradition in order to suit their own ends. The limits of colonial knowledge, even in the centres of government, can be readily seen in this study. British administrators focussed upon chiefs as the sole mediators of land in the Ga ‘state’, ignoring the authority of priests over the ritual aspects of Ga land as well as the ownership of the individual families whose forebears had initially cleared the land. Imposing an Akan conceptualisation of state centralisation which was alien to the Ga, the power of the chiefs was bolstered during these years. The expansion of chiefly authority was not, however, unquestioned and, by extension, nor was colonial control. Litigation in indigenous and colonial courts presented a new avenue for the contestation of traditional rights and this study forms part of a valuable recent trend which has drawn compelling conclusions from the wealth of court records. These were complicated affairs and Sackeyfio-Lenoch’s nuanced conclusions reflect this.

This strength of this study lies in its tight focus, something which is, perhaps, belied by the title. The reader is left with no doubt as to the value of a spatially and temporally specific political analysis. This, however, also proves to be its weakness. Although explaining that Ga society was never centralised, the focus on Old Accra, on James Town and Usher Town, brushes over the politics of more peripheral Ga areas during these years. Although immigration is central to this story, there is also less detail on Ga-foreigner interactions in those migrant areas which are, perhaps, more relevant for the history of a multi-ethnic city. From a more practical point of view, the profusion of Ga-Adangme and Akan terms and titles would have also made a glossary a useful addition.

While perhaps lacking a degree of breadth, this study grants important historical context for those studying the modern city, where large swathes of Ga land have been targeted for privatisation since the onset of Structural Adjustment in the late 1980s. It also provides an interesting counterpoint for histories of urbanism elsewhere in Ghana and West Africa. More importantly, though, The politics of Chieftaincy is a valuable addition to the small number of histories which primarily concern Accra. Sackeyfio-Lenoch has shown the city’s wealth of history and the fertile ground for future work.

[From Leeds African Studies Bulletin 78 (Winter 2016/17), pp. 191-92]


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