I have always been fascinated by the protocol that is required to deal with royalty. I am not at all sure I am a believer in the concept of the divine right of kings and blue blood and all that, but I am happy to play along with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with royalty.

Some of the quaint procedures try my patience. I find the bowing and curtseying a touch ridiculous, but I don’t feel strongly enough about it to make a fuss and so I go along with it. I curtsey and bow with the best of them.

If you are in politics in Ghana, you cannot avoid dealing with royalty. It is one of the paradoxes of Ghanaian life in which we all agree to pretend not to see the live elephant in the room we occupy. We all know that a chief is a politician.

The Constitution, however, says a chief shall not take part in active party politics. The Constitution also says that notwithstanding this seemingly clear prohibition, a chief may be appointed to any public office for which he is otherwise qualified. My non-legal interpretation of this legal mumbo jumbo is that the chiefs are allowed to take part in PASSIVE politics, like the rest of us. 

It is worth remembering that even the President of this Republic does not see himself as a full-time politician. You would recall the famous BBC interview in which he was asked if he had ever taken a bribe and he asked if the reference was to him as President or as John Dramani Mahama.

The truth, of course, being that the majority of Ghanaians, ordinary Ghanaians, are passive participants in politics and this prohibition on the chiefs means nothing and nobody takes it seriously. You only need to listen to the chiefs, especially during the political season to see that we are all engaged in a big make-believe game. 

First of all, you have to appreciate that it takes a lot of skill to be able to manoeuvre the intricacies of the palace ritual and chiefs are past masters at the art.Those of us who are very much into active party politics see it every day when we try to deal with chiefs who are not allowed to participate in active party politics. 

I don’t think there is any rule, but normal practise is that before the active party politicians can enter a town or village to canvass for votes, they have to go and pay a courtesy call on the chiefs. The manufacturers of Schnapps and Gin must surely be the only ones who are producing at full capacity and maybe even doing extra shifts. An alarming amount of gin is involved in the palace ritual. 

A message is sent to the chief to alert him that an active politician is coming to see him and that requires two bottles of Gin. When the active politician and his entourage arrive, they will be late getting to the palace, and they will have more bottles of gin with them. The journey time is always underestimated because the roads are always in a worse state than you would ever imagine.

The chief’s palace is always crowded during the visit, and it is always a scrum when the active politician’s entourage tries to enter. You cannot abridge the protocol. You cannot hurry a chief, or so I am told. 

Everybody in the group must shake hands with everybody seated and standing around the chief. The elaborate handshakes don’t mean the greetings have been done. The chief now sends his linguists to come and shake hands with the active politicians who then ask permission to start the formal greeting. It is a charade that has to be played out in minute detail each time. 

“As our elders say, even if you know, you have to ask, and therefore, may we ask what has brought you here to this palace”. The rigmarole starts and we all play our allotted parts. Often the chief has a prepared speech which has been crafted to suit what type of active party politician has come to the palace that day. This speech would be full of praise and can be interpreted as endorsing the candidature of the visiting active politician of whichever political party. 

When the accompanying journalists report that the chief has pledged his support, the chances are this will be vigorously denied when the opposing party candidate comes calling a few days later. 

I have worked out how to interpret the various speeches and other events that take place in the palaces. When the chief goes to extraordinary lengths to employ proverbs and complicated language in his speech, it means he is not supporting you. When the person pouring the libation goes at a certain tempo, the palace is with you. If they go into history beyond eight years to find examples to back up what they are saying, they are not supporting you. 

We really must do something about the dress code. The chiefs are always well decked out in their best and the active party politicians would often arrive looking dishevelled in spite of their best efforts. The campaign rally gear is not exactly kente and gold. 

I must confess I haven’t been able to work out what the influence of the chiefs are in our politics. Do people really vote a certain way because the chief has so decreed? I have also not been able to work out why the chiefs bother to offer their support and then try to deny having done so.

If we all seem to think that the chiefs are that important in the political arena, why are they supposed not to take part in active party politics? And since there is never enough time when the politicians come visiting, could we agree on which parts of the rituals we could cut out without affecting tradition? 

The scene would go something like this: it is understood that the politicians will be an hour late; when they do enter there will be no apologies for being late; the initial handshakes, the return handshakes, the ‘amanee’ and the introductions will be merged into one round of handshakes and the active politicians will each call out their names when he/she shakes the chief’s hand.

The chief will not have to give the welcome drinks to the visiting politicians, seeing as these are always given back to the palace. Most important of all, it will be taken for granted that the chief supports and endorses the candidature of whoever is visiting. 

There would, therefore, be no need for the inevitable denials. When the elections are over, we the politicians shall visit the chiefs at leisure, we shall be well dressed and there will be no pressure to endorse. Then we can have a proper conversation and the chiefs can feel free to talk in the clear unambiguous language and the poor journalists can report what they hear.


Elizabeth Ohene was a former editor of BBC Focus on Africa. This article was first published in November 2016.