AWUTU BREKU, GHANA -- It was with great solemnity that Amakuade Wyete Ajeman Labie II, paramount chief of the Awutu tribe, called his subjects together one day last month to impart some very important news.
"The light is coming," the ruler announced, standing before his people in a robe of green and gold. "The government people say they will bring wires to Awutu Breku and everyone will have power."
Murmurs of surprise and appreciation swept through the crowd of mostly corn and cassava farmers, whose wood-frame shacks in this coastal village 25 miles west of Accra, Ghana's capital, have never had either plumbing or electricity.
Then the chief held up his hand for quiet.
"If you want the light," he said sternly, "you will have to pay for it every month." And with that, leaving his people to ponder their pocketbooks, Amakuade strode back to his palace of painted mortar and stone, his kingly duty done.
In modern Africa, the life of a village chieftain -- the king, as he is also known here -- is not an easy or simple one.
Once upon a time, a Ghanaian king needed to know only a few things well -- how to lead his warriors in battle, punish miscreants, settle disputes between villagers and apportion the richest farmland fairly enough to keep most of the peasants happy. A wise chief also made sure there was enough liquor or fruit juice on hand to pour regular libations to the revered ancestors.
But nowadays, a chief must know how to lobby the state for public works, how to get emergency assistance in times of epidemics or other hardships and how to interpret and explain the government's policies to the people.
"You must not be a drunkard. You must not be a prison convict. You must be sober, wise, fearless and bold," said Amakuade, 55, calmly explaining the essential attributes of a good king as he sat one recent night in his palace in the glow of a kerosene lantern. "You must enforce customary laws of the village, but you also must understand the rules of the government."
He sighed. "As a chief, I have many worries."
This West African nation of 14 million people is one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa in which a concerted official effort has been made to integrate traditional methods of local organization and rule with 20th-century notions of statecraft.
On a troubled continent where tribal concerns and ancient practices often clash with the missions of modern government, sometimes with deadly results, this nation stands as a notable exception. Ghana's more than 75 distinct languages and major ethnic groups have been bound peacefully together with the help of some imaginative government policy.
In 1971, 14 years after independence from Britain, the nation's legislature passed the Chieftaincy Act, which constitutionally recognized and protected the powers of village chiefs in local matters, granted them authority to enforce customary tribal laws and established regional and national assemblies where they could discuss and govern their affairs.
In effect, Ghana set up a system of dual authorities -- one modern and state-centered, the other traditional and defined by blood ties. One system was responsible for the armed forces, the judiciary, the economy and other national matters. The other handled more customary concerns -- divorces, child-custody matters and land disputes -- while maintaining Ghana's cultural heritage and identity in the face of progress.
That was one way the newly independent state, acknowledging the powerful influence of old beliefs and values, set about using Ghana's 168 paramount chiefs as partners in development. Those chiefs, chosen by village sub-chiefs, preside over nearly 200 tribal districts in Ghana. More than 5,000 lower-ranking chiefs serve under them.
An added benefit of the Chieftaincy Act was that it unified Ghana's once war-prone ethnic groups in an offically recognized national forum.
"Ghana is a nation of many nations. The people have always recognized that," said J. Max Assimeng, a professor of sociology at the University of Ghana near Accra. "But the state is a pretty new concept. We are still trying to figure it out."
Since 1971, more than a half-dozen Ghanaian governments supported by a shaky, single-party system have been overthrown by the military, but the regional and national houses of chiefs have continued to function under the Chieftaincy Act. While the power of Ghana's governing political authorities has proved ephemeral during the nation's first three decades of independence, the popular influence of village chiefs has never waned. They remain virtually indispensible to the fabric of Ghanaian culture and society.
Although some friction has been inevitable between local government representatives and tribal leaders, Ghana has suffered little of the horrific ethnic strife that continues to afflict many other countries in Africa. "In the developing world, peace is a resource that very few countries enjoy," Assimeng said. "In Ghana, I think we have peace in abundance."
Certainly, many countries in Africa could do worse than to follow Ghana's example of dealing with ethnic diversity. The East African country of Uganda, for instance, is still reeling from the social and political shock of a bloody, state-sponsored effort in the 1960s and '70s to eradicate the rival power of the Kabaka, the traditional leaders of the country's Baganda people, and other tribal chiefs. Instead of unifying Ugandans, the catastrophic policies had the long-term effect of alienating the populace from the state and galvanizing rebel insurgencies.
In Ghana, the government of Chairman Jerry John Rawlings, who came to power in a military coup nine years ago but vows to return the government to freely elected civilian rule, regards the influence of the nation's village chiefs with such respect that he has endorsed an idea of giving one-third of the seats in a new Ghanaian legislature to "traditional leaders."
While some critics view chieftaincies as a wasteful and anachronistic impediment to national transformation, supporters argue that the system provides much needed cultural and social continuity.
"A nation without a culture has no soul. We are the custodians of our culture," says Nana Kwame Nkyi XII, paramount chief of the Assin Apimanim tribe of central Ghana, who serves as president of the central region's House of Chiefs.
"The people know their chief better than any government official," said T.K. Boakene, clerk of the central house. "That is why the government cannot do away with the system. The chief is everything in the community. He is judge, economist, planner; he is the link between the ancestors and the future."
Amakuade, paramount chief of the 70,000 Awutu people of Ghana's central coast, certainly sees himself that way. When asked to name a few of his predecessors, the chief promptly rattled off 15 names, some of them dating back to the arrival of Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Upon invoking each hollowed name, the chief poured a drop of gin onto the floor of his office as an expression of respect.
A former stenographer who was chosen chief in 1956, Amakuade ensures the observance of customary laws, such as the provision of two fowls by a father to his neighbors exactly eight days after the birth of his child. But Amakuade says the modern tasks are more difficult. For two years, the chief has been trying to get the government to send a machine to dig out and empty the village's two overflowing and useless latrines, but without success.
Like most of the world's monarchies, Ghana's village aristocracies are laden with symbols of prestige and privilege. A chief just is not a chief without a scepter sculpted from the finest wood, a crown and pendants made of gold and other jewels and, most important of all, the painted wooden stool, which is handed down from previous generations of chiefs and symbolizes ultimate authority. Upon the stool, only a king may sit.
But unlike most other monarchies, a village chieftaincy does not necessarily mean material wealth. Each year during harvest festivals, the faithful sub-chiefs donate funds to their paramount leaders, but the donations usually do not amount to more than token living expenses. Indeed, many of Ghana's paramount chiefs, including Amakuade, seem to live humbly and labor in the fields as long and hard as any commoner. The power and respect they command from their followers seem to derive from their intelligence and wisdom and the model of behavior they set for the community.
Amakuade, for instance, lives in a fairly simple house that is not much different from or more comfortable than neighboring dwellings but is nevertheless called a palace because he lives in it. A gentle man, with sun-wrinkled skin and rough, calloused hands, Amakuade, who is known affectionately as Nai Odefi, or Old Chief, and says he is the father of "about 15" children, works six days a week in his corn field.
And while one's candidacy for the chieftaincy is usually determined by blood-line -- most often matrilineally -- a remarkably democratic procedure is generally followed in choosing a chief from among the contenders.
"There are many who believe that the traditional system of chieftaincy in Ghana was more just and more democratic than any modern form of government that has ever come to power in Africa," said sociology professor Assimeng.
A chief, he said, traditionally was chosen by a panel of elders. Those elders acted as advisers and served as a counterbalance to the chief's authority, a relationship much like that between the U.S. Congress and the president. "The chief was ultimately in charge, but he never acted alone. He had to consult the elders," Assimeng said.
"If a chief ever acted against the interest of the village or behaved unethically or irresponsibly," he could be dethroned, or in the case of Ghana's chiefs, "destooled," as Assimeng put it. Today, lunacy, theft and adultery represent a few of the leading grounds for a chief's certain dismissal by his people.
Assimeng calls the chieftaincy "a dynamic institution" but says it can only survive if it changes with the times. To that end, Assimeng regularly travels to various parts of the country to speak to seminars of village chiefs about their role in development. "I try to impress on them the inevitability of change and the need for them to take part in it," he said. "I also stress that if anything is to abolish the chieftaincy, it's the chiefs themselves and their behavior."
Assimeng pointed in particular to the old way of chiefly behavior, such as traveling with huge retinues and siring dozens of children. Assimeng says those customs should have no place in modern Ghana.
Recently, during a trip back home from Cape Coast, a port city 100 miles west of Awutu Breku, Amakuade sat in the back seat of a car, pondering the history of Ghana's chieftaincies and the nature of tribal identity here. "The people of Ghana can tell the exact village a man comes from just by his accent and the sound of his name," he said with pride. "That's what makes us what we are."