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Another History Lesson to Mamprugu from One of Their Own: Dr. A. A. ILIASU

In the article below “Another History Lesson to Mamprugu from One of Their Own” we delve into the insightful research conducted by Dr. A. A. ILIASU, a historian and former lecturer at the University of Ghana. This historical analysis, published in 1975, sheds light on how British colonial policies dramatically altered the dynamics of authority in Mamprugu, a region in Ghana, and its neighboring ethnic communities. Join us on a journey through history as we explore the impact of colonialism on traditional leadership and the intricate relationships between ethnic groups in this vibrant part of West Africa.

Dr. A. A. ILIASU was a lecturer at the Department of History at the University of Ghana, Legon back in the 1970s. Dr. Iliasu, a native of Walewale, published a paper on how the British subjugated Builsas, Kasenas, Frafras and Kusasis to Mamprusi rule. The paper, titled “The Establishment of British Administration in Mamprugu, 1898 – 1937” was published in 1975 in Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, June 1975, Vol. 16, No. 1, pages 1-28. In the paper, Dr. Iliasu gives a very detailed account of how British colonial policies extended the frontiers of Mamprugu to areas where Nayiri had no jurisdiction.

Dr. Iliasu starts by pointing out that Mamprusis never conquered the Builsas, Kasenas, Frafras or Kusasis. What happened, according to Dr. Iliasu, is that prior to the occupation of Northern Ghana by the British in 1897, small groups of Mamprusi immigrants were found in isolated areas across the present day Upper East Region. In the Kasena and Builsa areas, these Mamprusi settlers were not in touch with Nayiri and had no chiefs of their own. In the Kusasi and Frafra areas, however, the Mamprusi settlers had their community chiefs whose jurisdiction was solely limited to the small settler communities. These chiefs were not territorial chiefs. It was like having Dagomba or Mossi community chiefs in Ashanti.

Nayiri served as the elector of these community chiefs. What happened was that the settler communities will select one of their own as their chief, who will then travel to Nalerigu to be ritually enskinned by the Nayiri. The relationship between the Nayiri and these Mamprusi settler communities was, therefore, in Dr. Iliasu’s own words, more ritual than political and it was established solely because the Nayiri was the elector of the Mamprusi chiefships in the two districts. But as their elector, it is doubtful whether he had rights of jurisdiction over them. Nor could he, except for the customary fees associated with his electoral functions, either exact tribute or demand military service from them. In short, his electoral functions were far more symbolic of kinship and ideologicalties with the [Mamprusi] chiefs in the Frafra and Kusasi districts than of political authority over them (pp. 5-6).

Nayiri did not select the chiefs and had no political or judicial authority over the Mamprusi settlers. So, Nayiri’s relationship was purely limited to the Mamprusi settler communities, which was further limited only to the ritual of enskinment. The ritual of enskinment can be compared to swearing into office. Swearing someone into office does not always mean the one sworn into office is a subordinate of the one swearing them into office. According to Dr. Iliasu, “the peaceful
penetration of the two districts by Mamprusi immigrants never paved the way for military conquest. Consequently, the writ of the Nayiri only ran through the villages over which the Mamprusi immigrants were chiefs.” (p. 5) What this means is that, prior to British colonial rule, Nayiri had no jurisdiction over Kusasis, Frafras, Kasenas or Builsas.

Dr. Iliasu recounts how in 1912 the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Territories, C. H. Armitage, appointed the then Nayiri, Na Wubga, as Paramount Chief over Kusasis, Frafras, Kasenas and Builsas in Navrongo on 14th April 1912. To quote Dr. Iliasu: “With grudging approval from Accra, Armitage launched his policy during the months of August to October 1911. The North-Eastern Province, at the stroke of his pen, was constituted into the kingdom of Mamprugu with five sub-divisions -Mamprugu, Kusasi, Frafra, Gurunsi and Builsa” (p.7). Not a single Kusasi chief was a witness to this event which took place in the presence of Kasena, Builsa and some Frafra chiefs. So, the constitution of the Mamprugu Kingdom which included the Kusasi, Frafra, Gurunsi and Builsa people and their lands, was not by conquest but by the stroke of a pen in the hands of a colonial officer.

Soon after his appointment as Paramount Chief over the North-Eastern Province (which corresponds to present-day North-East and Upper-East Regions), the Nayiri demanded that his sub-chiefs pay annual tribute amounting to between “two and six heads of cattle or one to two horses according to the condition of the chief.” The head chiefs of Bongo, Navrongo, and Tallensi were required to pay four to six head of cattle; those of Wungu and Sandema four each, and Binduri, Bawku, Binaba, Kugri, and Sekoti, etc two each. It was also stated that other chiefs were to contribute between twenty to sixty basketfuls of either guinea corn or millet. Over time, Nayiri also insisted on appointing chiefs directly for these areas instead of his symbolic ritual role of enskinment. As far as Dr. Iliasu is concerned, “the scale of the tribute, or its mode of collection had no traditional precedents.” Prior to 1911/12, “tribute for the Nayiri had formerly come largely from the Nalerigu province in particular and Mamprugu in general. Therefore, for the Nayiri to have extended the payment to practically all chiefs, even in Frafra and Kusasi, and to have insisted upon payment at a fixed time each year, seems to show that he was taking undue advantage of British over-rule” (p. 11). The two markers of subjugation are conquest and tribute. From Dr. Iliasu’s account, the people of the Upper Regions were neither conquered nor paid tribute to Nayiri prior to the arrival of the British.

Dr. Iliasu explains why there was no open opposition or revolt from the people to the imposition of Nayiri over them: “There was no overt opposition to the Nayiri’s paramountcy because the few years of colonial rule in the protectorate had convinced most people that it was futile and foolish to question the administration’s decisions however arbitrary these might be. However, beneath the apparent stability and conformity with the Armitage scheme of local administration, lay deep undercurrents of resentment.” (p. 18) The British used brute force and violence which included killing of civilians and burning of houses to subdue the Frafra area in particular. With these still fresh in the minds of people, they avoided open confrontation.

Nevertheless, what Dr. IIiasu calls “Armitage’s paper scheme” which imposed Nayiri’s rule in the North-Eastern Province started unraveling with the introduction of Indirect Rule in early 1930s. The new system of administration was preceded by serious ethnographic studies on local histories and traditions of the people. As a result of the new insights, Kasena-Nankanni and Builsa people were formally freed from Mamprusi rule on 31st July, 1940. Kusasis started agitation in the 1950s and regained their sovereignty on 6th June 1957. As at now, only a handful of Frafra areas still go to Nalerigu for enskinment. And for some of us, it is not a matter of if this too will come to an end, but when it will happen to put a stop to Mamprusi colonialism over other ethnic groups which should never be tolerated in an independent Ghana.

Prof. John Azumah

President of Kusaug Peoples Congress

History Lesson

History Lesson

  1. Q: Who was Dr. A. A. ILIASU, and what was his role in history?
    • A: Dr. A. A. ILIASU was a lecturer at the University of Ghana who published a paper on British colonial policies in Mamprugu.
  2. Q: What is the paper “The Establishment of British Administration in Mamprugu” about?
    • A: The paper discusses how the British extended the influence of Mamprusi rule over neighboring ethnic groups.
  3. Q: How did Mamprusis establish authority over neighboring communities before British rule?
    • A: Mamprusi settlers in various areas had their own chiefs who were ritually enskinned by the Nayiri, but this authority was limited.
  4. Q: Did Mamprusis conquer the Builsas, Kasenas, Frafras, and Kusasis?
    • A: No, there was no military conquest. The extension of Mamprusi authority was more symbolic and ritualistic.
  5. Q: How did British colonial policies impact Mamprusi authority?
    • A: The British appointed the Nayiri as Paramount Chief over neighboring ethnic groups, altering the traditional power structure.
  6. Q: Was there resistance to British colonial rule in these areas?
    • A: There was underlying resentment, but open opposition was avoided due to the use of force and violence by the British.
  7. Q: When did the imposition of Nayiri’s rule start to unravel?
    • A: The unraveling began with the introduction of Indirect Rule in the early 1930s, leading to the eventual release of Kasena-Nankanni and Builsa from Mamprusi rule.
  8. Q: When did Kusasis regain their sovereignty?
    • A: Kusasis regained their sovereignty on 6th June 1957.
  9. Q: Are there still areas where Frafra people go to Nalerigu for enskinment?
    • A: Yes, as of the writing of the article, some Frafra areas still followed this tradition.
  10. Q: What is the main message of the article by Dr. A. A. ILIASU?
    • A: The article highlights how British colonial policies changed the dynamics of authority in Mamprugu and neighboring regions.
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