Akan Political Organization

Nana Osei Tutu II
The King of Ashanti
Photo credit: G. F. Kojo Arthur
Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems
The Akan political order provides a classic example of a chiefdom or segmentary state. The best known of the Akan polities was Ashanti, which in spite of its wealth and power reflects a persistent decentralized structure in which regions and localities retain substantial autonomy and a potential for internal conflict and fragmentation.

The administrative structure of Ashanti involves territorial subdivision on four separate levels. The kingdom itself was not a unitary structure but a confederation composed of six separate chiefdoms. Each was ruled by a paramount chief who held his position according to his membership within a local royal lineage and served as an advisor the king, the Asantehene, on the state council. Paramount chiefs administered their own courts and led their own armies. Chiefdoms were further subdivided into four military zones, each of which was lead by a division chief, selected again within a local hereditary unit, with his own set of military and judicial rights and responsibilities. Further subdivisions of a similar nature delineated the towns, located within the divisions, and the lineage based wards that made up the towns.

Aside from their governmental functions, the chiefs occupied central ritual positions in the ancestor cult. The Akan believe in the immortality of the soul and in the intervention of the dead in the lives of their descendants. Lineage heads make periodic sacrifices to these spirits on behalf of family members. Chiefs, as descendants of royal ancestors, commune with the ancestral spirits of great and glorious predecessors for the benefit of the town, division, chiefdom, or confederation, depending upon the rank of the office. Accordingly, they perform monthly adae and annual odwira ceremonies by making sacrifices and praying to the dead within large public gatherings marked by dramatic drumming, dancing, and pageantry. This special ritual status involved a few drawbacks. The chief's mobility was restricted, (the Asantehene was not allowed to cross the Prah river) and the individual incumbent had to be a remain free from physical blemish. In addition his neither his bare feet or other part of his body was supposed to touch the ground. Accordingly, in cases of deposing a chief, his sandals were removed.

The Asantehene and the chiefs of various ranks obtained the resources which supported their power through the stool's control of long distance trade, which was closely tied to the military organization, both because of the importance of slaves as a commodity and the need to protect trading routes and caravans. Wealth was measured in terms of the main exports, gold and slaves, and the imported luxuries received in return. However, the chiefs had no control over the ownership and disposition of agricultural land or farm crops. However, naturally occurring products, including gold and hunted and gathered resources were considered the property of the stool.

In spite of the hereditary nature of political office, chiefly tenure was subject to popular controls. After the death of an incumbent, his stool could be filled only by a member of the appropriate lineage but several candidates had to compete for office and campaign among the "kingmakers" on the local council and among the public at large. Furthermore an unpopular chief could be destooled.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 2001