When the Namo Naa, Lord of the Drummer-Poets, senses in his spirit the rise of a new Yaa Naa, a new verse rises in his ears and he can feel the hairs bristle on the ancient skins of Sitobu.
He does not need to summon the Lunsi. They know to come when a new King summons all Dagbon. And this Friday, as great Allah wills, Yoo Naa Abukari Mahama shall mount the great Nam of Yani in a blaze of glory, as the 40th Yaa Naa.
His ankadi will bind the rain, dry the muskets of his chomfo nima and cherlan nima, and the Lunsi knows to sing his tributes from that sacred hour, when the Guma Naa cooks the holy yams to pacify the royal lips.
But what is the journey that has brought us here? To Yendi, to the great sambani and courtyards of Naa Gbewaa’s palace, and to this solemn moment?
The Lunsi’s drum-song cannot tell of this. For the King’s beginning on the Great Nam is the only beginning that matters. So, it is I, but a mere wayside chronicler, who must humbly bear this duty. I, who cannot sing when the gonje plays, yet it has fallen upon my mouth to tell this saga. I crave your ears.
It began with the formation, in 2003, of the Committee of Eminent Kings by President Agyekum Kufuor, himself a man groomed in the ways of royal ritual.
Three Kings were chosen from the most revered and ancient ruling houses of Ghana.
First, there was the Nayiri, whose great ancestor, Naa Gbewaa, is the ancestor also of the Dagbamba and the Nanumba. The Nayiri it is that from remotest history has resolved the conflicts among the Princes of the Mossi and Dagomba states, for the Mamprusi are the “elder brothers” of all the Mole-Dagbani. It is often remarked that even the Mogho Naba owes the Nayiri ritual courtesy from his seat in Ouagadougou. It was fitting and proper that the Nayiri be invited to this committee to do what his ancestors have so often done in history.
Then there was the Yagbonwura, whose great ancestor, Ndewura Jakpa created the other great Kingdom of Northern Ghana, the Gonja. It was the Gonja who drove the Dagbamba from Yendi Dabari to present-day Yendi (or Yani) and pressed them till in 1713, Naa Zangina and Naa Sigili defeated the Gonja armies and killed the Yagbonwura, Kumpatia, in retaliation for the earlier killing of Yaa Naa Darizeagu. That such fierce rivalry would eventually melt into peaceful accommodation can be seen as the source of an important metaphor, making the Yagbonwura an equally fitting mediator.
Lastly, but most intriguingly, was the Chairman of the Committee, the Asantehene, whose great ancestor, Okatakyie Opoku Ware, the second Otumfou of the much younger Asante Kingdom, had sent his generals soon after the last Gonja-Dagomba war, subjugated the Gonja in 1722, and in 1744 overrun the Tolon-Kumbungu garrisons to bring all of Dagbon to heel. The eventual treaty between Asante, on the one hand, and Gonja and Dagomba, on the other hand, would guarantee peaceful trade and diplomatic relations for more than a hundred years across the Oti. The Otumfou, by virtue of this ancient involvement in Dagbon affairs was a fitting Chair for the committee.
It was clear that the Committee of Eminent Kings was carefully composed to be a reflection both of cold realpolitik and liberal pacifism. War and peace were equal hues in its penumbra of history. It was clear in 2003, upon its inauguration, that it must be an instrument both of velvet and steel. But to fully understand why this was so poignant in the Dagbon peace process, it is necessary to travel further back in history. For this affair did not really begin in 2003 with the setting up of the committee, or in 2002 with the dastardly events that prompted its setup.
Everyone knows that the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Yaa Naa Yakubu Andani in 2002 originated in a quarrel between two royal Gates of Dagbon with equal, yet highly contested, claims to the overlordship of the Dagbamba. The modern-day manifestation of the conflict is best captured in a 19th Century pact among brothers.
Abdulai and Andani were occupants of the Mion and Savelugu skins respectively and it is in their time that the tradition of alternation of succession between the Abudu and Andani Gates of Dagbon following the death of Naa Yakubu, Yaa Naa, in 1839, started to assume the particular contentious form that we have become familiar with (though disputes among Dagbon princes have been a permanent feature of the monarchy dating back to its earliest roots). Abdulai ruled from 1864 until 1876, whilst his brother served as Yoo Naa, Lord of the Namship of Savelugu.
One of the major constitutional developments that remain to this date had been promulgated by Nayiri Atabia in 1700, in the same year that Osei Tutu Opemsuo, Asantehene, welded the Asante Kingdom. The Nayiri had, during royal arbitration among Dagbon princes, ruled that only full-blooded princes who occupied the gate skins of Mion, Savelugu or Karaga could succeed to the Nam of Yani, and become Yaa Naa.
Throughout the period of Asante dominion, this rule merely established the baseline for manoeuvring among the princes of the great Gates, who became adept at manipulating Asante power to advance their own interests. As part of the treaty that freed Yaa Naa Gariba from Asante custody, an Asante Satrap had been installed in Yendi, and a new regiment, the Kambonse, established as standing infantry to give teeth to diplomacy.
A serious disruption occurred in 1874 when the British broke the back of Asante power and removed this elaborate interplay of diplomacy and realpolitik from the fray of Dagomba affairs. This was a seismic event that dramatically altered the nature of succession struggles in Dagbon.
Even before the British intervened, however, new strains on the Dagbon polity had emerged in the form of the Zabarim, a group of Muslim mercenaries and caravan runners whose presence was growing rapidly in Karaga. But in the year following Asante’s defeat, all hell literally broke loose. Here is how it happened.
After the death of Na Yakubu, around 1839, Asante preoccupation with coastal-early colonial politics, had begun to effect a growing vacuum in the power politics of Dagbon. The Zabarima mercenaries soon established what amounted to garrisons in Karaga and imposed themselves as an important factor.
In 1864, a semblance of normalcy returned when finally Abdulai II, one of Yaa Naa Yakubu’s four sons became Yaa Naa. But when the Yoo Naa (Lord of Savelugu and another of Ya Naa Yakubu’s sons) tried to suppress the Zabarima, a great massacre ensued, which even today is the subject of great taboo. Yaa Naa Abdulai II was succeeded by his brother, Yaa Naa Andani II.
In the 11th year of the reign of Yaa Naa Andani II, the Abudu Regent and Yoo Naa, Mahami, would also clash with the Zabarima, this time led by the bloodthirsty Babatu, who would do far worse by killing both the Yoo Naa and his Lunga Naa – tthe chief drummer. Accusations that the Andani gate failed to send warriors to avert this calamity sowed the seeds of discord between the two gates most easily recognised in its modern form.
When the Germans arrived on the scene in 1888, they found a kingdom wracked by princely distrust. Less than a decade later, in 1896, tired of the endless political machinations and intrigue, and the Gbewaa Palace’s preference for British policy, the German Askari overpowered the royal armies and razed Yendi to the ground. It was a great calamity. On Yaa Naa Andani’s deathbed in 1899 he watched in anguish as his kingdom was torn asunder into a German half and a British enclave to the West joined up with British possessions in Gonjaland.
This began the first of the specific lines of succession struggles that led directly to the coup d’etat and assassination of Yaa Naa Yakubu Andani in 2002.
For the British-imposed Yaa Naa, Darimani, also a son of Yaa Naa Yakubu, was chased out of the great Palace by German Askari. Whilst this history is amply documented by the written records of the era, the drum-histories of Andanis and Abudus give competing accounts, of the treachery of the other side, and discounts the rule of Darimani completely in order to sanctify the doctrine of alternating succession.
What is, without doubt, is that two years after these events, British power gradually outstripped German power in much of the geographical North of Ghana and removed lingering French influence. We have all heard of the escapades of a certain Ekem Fergusson. It would take World War I however for Britain to seal its dominion completely. In fact, when Yaa Naa Alhassan died in 1917, the British simply constituted a cabal of local bureaucrats and favoured elders into a kingmaking committee – in total defiance of Dagbon custom, and convinced the Andani frontrunner to hand over the Namship to a favoured Abudu Royal, Abdulai II, perpetuating nearly 40 years of Abudu rule. British dominion was now absolute to the point where several subordinate skins were appointed directly through the intervention of district commissioners.
So much so that three decades – or barely a generation – later, the Yaa Naa had been placed on the British Government payroll (about £15 a month – roughly 10,000 GHS in today’s money) and his Kingdom in all but name conjoined with Gonjaland.
But then independence came, and the consequences of all this succession politics in the colonial era had to be managed by the new Power in the Land, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah. After trying to accommodate the infinite intrigues, cultural intricacies, and machinations of Dagbon gate politics, Osagyefo resorted to fiat. He had his Parliament pass legislative instrument 59 codifying the succession rules by imposing the contested notion of “alternation between the two gates”; the rule established by the Nayiri that only princes who occupy the great Gate skins can succeed to the Namship of Yani; and also the prescription that the Gate Skins must be permanently split among the two grand Gates of Dagbon.
A year after Osagyefo’s overthrow, in 1967, the reigning Yaa Naa passed away and the Military Government moved in to declare the enskinned successor a usurper, which point was moot as the successor passed away barely four months after his ascension to the Great Nam.
A succession dispute then arose until the Progress Party Government decided to more or less impose Yaa Naa Mahamadu Abdulai through its influence over the kingmaking committee established pursuant to the 1948 grand compromise. And, of course, by virtue of its control of the security situation in Dagbon.
The return of a CPP-affiliated military government swung the mood back in favour of Andani hegemony, and Yaa Naa Mahamadu Abdulai was deposed. Yaa Naa Yakubu Andani found favour with the oracles and his much-contested reign began.
In 1986, the Supreme Court attempted a creative resolution by recognising Yaa Naa Yakubu Andani as the reigning Yaa Naa, delegimising the rule of Yaa Naa Mahamadu Abdulai (now deceased), and then inventing the concept of an “emeritus Yaa Naa” for the deposed monarch, which entitled him to a royal funeral, but which the reigning Yaa Naa, Yakubu Andani, could not countenance as it could trigger a succession crisis of its own.
The schism between the House of Abudu and the House of Andani now seemed complete, a degeneration considerably deeper than historic Gate politics. The Bolin Lana and major Abudu princes had begun to resort to honouring divisions not seen in Dagbon since the days of the Anglo-German struggle for control.
It was in this context of competition for royal legitimacy that the Fire Festival created the spark that in March 2002 led to the invasion of the Gbewaa Palace, the decimation of the Katin’duu, the violation of the sacred regalia and shrines, and the regicide of Yaa Naa Yakubu Andani.
It was, without doubt, the failure of the Rawlings and Kufour governments to recognise that leaving Dagbon politics to court intrigue and the legalistic argumentation of Dagbon court scholars have never resolved the vexed and ancient quarrels of the royal succession among the Dagbamba. The ascension to the Namship in Dagbon has always been through the operation of the steel of realpolitik tempered only judiciously by the velvety diplomacy of princely interests.
To emphasise, since 1700, the succession to the Nam of Yani has always been determined by realpolitik, never by scholarly disputations nor court intrigue. By leaving matters to fester for so long, the Rawlings administration, but also the Kufour administration (following the regicide), broke with the clear record of history by not intervening more forcefully, and more artfully.
The Committee of Eminent Kings, in the first decade of its existence, tried to let court intrigue and the arcane methods of ritualistic arbitration drive the outcomes. Then it slowly began to see the light: it is not really about native jurisprudence, the longwinding recantations of customary law and procedure. By 2017, the Otumfou now saw clearly the true nature of Dagbon succession and recognised the importance of realpolitik.
He moved to more decisively sideline the Kampakuya-Naa, and to begin the process of managing a decisive political outcome.
Firstly, it was clear that the vaunted rotation between the two gates was unlikely to be palatable. Considering, however, that it is Abudu royal jurisprudence that is most receptive to the idea of non-rotation, it is likely that the use of a kingmaking committee in line with 1948-settlement principles would have to disfavour the Abudus. That is to say, the Abudus could be granted their preferred process whilst the Andanis get their preferred outcome.
Secondly, the Eminent Kings shrewdly recognised that for the above mechanism to be viable, the more elderly claimant on the Andani side had to win. And certainly not the Kampakuya Naa, the Andani Regent. This leaves the possibility of an Abudu succession through the Bolin Lana open whether by recourse to the rotation principle or another managed political outcome.
But to set any of the above schemes in motion, it was essential that the Yoo Naa, also clothed with additional capacity as Head of the Andani Gate, be comfortable with the strategy to isolate the Kampakuya Naa.
More sensitive was the question of the Kuga Naa, Lord of the Bagisi, Custodian of the Dagbon constitution, a non-royal courtesan of particular distinction in kingmaking matters. To the extent that non-rotation was to be viable, the only alternative would be a mixture of oracular divination entrusted to a kingmaking committee along the lines of the 1948 compromise, which Abudus tend to tolerate and Andanis tend to despise. The complication is that the Kuga Naa, whose pedigree is unmatched in this particular line of custom, has been keeping his cards very close to his chest, and in recent times had been heavily courted by the Kampakuya Naa, the Andani Regent.
To isolate the Kampakuya Naa, a rift between him and the Kuga Naa had to be cleverly engineered by publicly reminding the Kuga Naa that he, not the Regent, is titular head of the two Gates in an interregnum.
This was the political masterstroke that sealed the realpolitik. When the Otumfou publicly criticised the Andani Regent and forced the latter to overplay his hand by refusing to come to Manhyia to endorse the roadmap, the trap had already been laid.
The Asantehene intentionally invoked the ancient tributary treaty by referring to certain Dagbon royals as his “children”. This was obviously provocative, considering that Dagbon is nearly 300 years older than Asante, but it was meant to play back Manhyia’s ancient pact with Naa Ziblim and send coded messages to key actors within the Dagbon establishment: the steel axe is falling; realpolitik is here.
In the end, the Regent was forced to make a cringeworthy climbdown and all but disqualify himself from the succession, after the Kuga Naa abandoned him. The latter would in fact proceed to oversee and endorse the process by which the Yoo Naa would emerge victorious. Realpolitik once again had prevailed in a Dagbon succession.
What now? The biggest challenges ahead are in two main forms: a. The transfer of all substantive and titular powers from the Regent to the new Yaa Naa, including custodianship of lands and various privileges that are now in limbo; and b. The enskinment of Chiefs to occupy several vital vacant skins. In fact, some recent enskinments done by the Regent without sufficient consultations may even have to be reversed.
Ensuring that the spoils of great and lesser skins are shared amicably between the Abudu and Andani gates would be critical given the nature of Dagbon’s highly regimented aristocratic system, whereby Princes either progress through the ranks or see their entire line of the royal tree atrophy and die.
In such a system, aristocratic progression is a matter of life and death. If the Yaa Naa wishes to reimpose total royal oversight over the accession to sub-sovereign Nams in Dagbon, and to reduce the temptation for the likes of the Bolin Lana and other grand aristocrats to continue appointing successors to certain vacant skins within their jurisdiction, without the consent of the Gbewaa Palace, he must show the right combination of accommodation to diverse interests and the iron mastery of realpolitik.
But that is for next week, next month, and the year hereafter. For now, beasts and birds and men and gifted lunsi cry out in unison: Long may Dagbon flourish; long may Yaa Naa reign!
A leopard and a hyena do not combine to create a Lion. There is but one Yaa Naa. And his name is Abukari Mahama, Naa Nyagse’s successor, ruler over all Dagbamba. Till Faako Naa himself calls him unto his bosom.
*This irreverent blogpost draws shamelessly from Ibrahim Mahama’s The History & Traditions of Dagbon and Emmanuel Forster Tamakloe’s A Brief History of the Dagbamba People.