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Ghana: Consequences of refusing a fetish priest or chieftancy position, and whether there is state protection available

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Publication Date 16 August 2012
Citation / Document Symbol GHA104154.E
Related Document(s) Ghana : information sur les conséquences pour une personne qui refuse de prendre la fonction de prêtre fétichiste ou de chef; information indiquant si une protection est offerte par l'État
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ghana: Consequences of refusing a fetish priest or chieftancy position, and whether there is state protection available, 16 August 2012, GHA104154.E, available at: [accessed 23 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In 1 July 2012 correspondence with the Research Directorate, an Associate Professor of anthropology at York University in Toronto who has conducted field research in Ghana indicated that to his knowledge, the following information, which he provided to the Research Directorate on 1 August 2006, is still accurate:

Some people in the community cannot become chief/priest because they are not a member of the inheriting/"owning" kin-group; because they are circumcised; because they re not literate enough, etc. There are rules, at all levels of chiefship, these chieftaincies increasing in import[ance] as one moves upwards in the social organization, from (a) village chief/odikro; (b) clan head (abusua panyin); (c) sub-chief in the traditional ethnic-group's political organization; to (d) paramount ("tribal") chief (and some groups, all the Akan and some others, also have the position of "queen-mother" …).


It's a major honour and duty to become such a personage: because you are embodying, for good or for ill, depending on how you carry out your duties, the well-being and reputation of your group, including affecting their spiritual well-being too. The "consequences" of refusing/misbehaving, then, increase with the greater level of chiefship concerned.

On the personal level, a person refusing/turning-down such a position … may be socially ostracised (they are putting their kin group and community at disadvantage and risk, and may also be costing them economic benefits, so life thereafter for that person may be quite unpleasant), perhaps driven away.

In 14 August 2012 correspondence with the Research Directorate, the Associate Professor further explained the socio-economic consequences that may result from someone's refusal to accept a chief or priest position. According to the Associate Professor, chiefs or priests and their "kin group" are seen by the community as "owners" of a god, fetish, and/or shrine, and as such they receive money and gifts from pilgrims (Associate Professor 14 Aug. 2012). If a designated person refuses to take on a chief or priest position, members of the community "may question the legitimacy" of the shrine, the god or the fetish in question (ibid.). As a result of this lost of "credibility," the pilgrims may turn to "competing" shrines, depriving the "kin group seen as owner of the god/shrine" from the money and gifts usually received from pilgrims (ibid.). The Associate Professor stated that therefore, someone's refusal to accept a chief or priest position has an impact on the whole community (ibid.).

However, the Associate Professor mentioned that there may also be "community-acceptable" reasons to refuse a chief or priest position, citing one case he was aware of:

I knew a man who stepped down from a major chiefship and the community, with regret nevertheless accepted the decision, because they saw the merit of his "reason," which was that he did not have much formal education, was illiterate and felt that put h[imself] and his people at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other chiefs, people and government. (ibid. 1 Aug. 2006)

The Associate Professor added the following about the consequences that may result from someone's refusal to accept a chief or priest position:

[F]urther[more], even if they themsel[ves] are ... Christian or ... Muslim, from cultural belief, they can reasonably expect to be subject to spiritual/health "punishment" for not doing their duty. [For example], they can be "worried"/anxious/stressed-out in the likely fact that their clan's ancestors will seek to punish them, and/or that certain shamans/gods may seek their downfall, and/or that "witchcraft" may be worked against them ... and preying on their mind, even should they travel far away, to "get away from" their group and duty. [T]heir action may also cause family splits, [that are] not easily repaired. Any such individual "decision" has serious community effects and implications, in this world and in the realm of spiritual powers. Such a person may in fact be "scared to death" of the consequences. (ibid.)

In 18 July 2012 correspondence with the Research Directorate, an instructor of sociology at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia, and former senior lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana indicated that to his knowledge, the following information, which he provided to the Research Directorate on 27 July 2006, is still accurate:

The choice of a clan head, or chief, based upon ancestor homage, is different from the choice of a priest or priestess, literally a possessed person, based upon a god "choosing" new medium. Usually a god, or the office of priest and the paraphernalia, is owned corporately by a clan, and the god will "choose" (possess) a member of that clan. The end result, therefore, is a huge similarity in selection of successor.

Succession for [the] head of clan is by election by the elders of that clan who choose among several candidates on the basis [of] which one can bring the most resources to the stool (symbol of office).

That is why, today, the more important and powerful offices are filled by educated and wealthy persons, including successful lawyers and other professionals, senior civil servants, and business owners.

The holding of office is time consuming, and certainly takes resources, as an elder or chief must provide refreshments for visitors and subordinate office holders, and must spend long hours hearing sometimes complicated cases of dispute.

Therefore, there is a resistance by young persons, especially those who are still studying and those have not reached what they consider the pinnacle of their professional career, to accept an offered office, and that reluctance is greater for lower positions in the overall hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the elders seeking an office holder want the most highly educated, and potentially wealthy and powerful candidates, in their own right, to be the office holders.

Most other excuses for a person refusing an offered office, such as being Christian and not wanting to participate in traditional ancestor homage and recognition of local deities, are less important in the overall scheme of things. The people of Southern Ghana are notable syncretists, being able to accommodate many, often incompatible (in our eyes), religious beliefs.


The usual method for a person who does not want to accept an offered office is to travel so as to avoid the possibility of being offered the position. The elders are quite aware of this method, and incorporate it into their deliberations. [In] their minds, it is preferable that not many contenders, who will have different groups of supporters within the clan, are around to mess up the replacement process (e.g., enstoolment). To maintain their pride and face, the persons running away will exaggerate the danger to themselves of refusing a proffered office. ...

There is no practice of punishing persons for running away before being offered a position as chief or elder, including female positions such as Queen Mother. If the chosen person is not bright enough to run away, and wants to refuse office, the usual practice is for him or her to offer a sheep to sacrifice to pacify the annoyed ancestors, and that is the end of it. There is no need for state protection because there is no punishment. The disappointed elders may express their irritation, but it happens so often, they usually sigh and are resigned to the fact.

In 4 July 2012 correspondence with the Research Directorate, a researcher in social and cultural anthropology affiliated with the Department of Social Research at the University of Helsinki provided information specific to the Akan ethnic group, derived from his field research in Ghana and his examination of pertinent literature. The Akan ethnic group, the largest in Ghana, constitutes 45.3 percent of the population (US 20 June 2012). The researcher said that the information he provided "cannot be directly applied to other ethnic groups in Ghana although there are numerous similarities and linkages" (researcher 4 July 2012). According to the researcher, among the Akan, the term "fetish priest" may refer to two different positions: okomfo (pl. akomfo) and obosomfo (pl. abosomfo) (ibid.). He provided the following information about the okomfo position:

An okomfo is an intermediary who conveys messages from deities to people. … The position of an okomfo is not hereditary and both men and women may occupy it …. A person is called to become an okomfo, when a deity suddenly possesses him/her or reveals himself/herself in a dream or in a real life encounter. A person who has received such a call can become an okomfo by undergoing a lengthy training process supervised by a senior priest. The training ends with a test, which determines whether the trainee is actually capable of mediation with the deities. Since functioning as an okomfo depends on the person's ability to become possessed by a deity, I do not think that anybody can be forced to become one. However, I have been told about fears that some people have about getting possessed against their own will. Initial fear of and resistance against the deities is also a recurring motif in the stories that akomfo tell about the beginning of their calling. Some akomfo have converted to Christianity, given up their calling, and burnt their shrines. This might be viewed with hostility by some members of the community. (ibid.)

I am not personally aware of any actual case in which a traditional priest has been subjected to mistreatment or violence because he/she has converted to Christianity. However, I do think there is a risk of that because the negligence of ritual observances and the destruction of shrine objects are considered a violation of customary norms. Then again, I assume the degree of risk would vary from case to case, depending on how committed the members of a given community are to the deity served by the priest. (ibid. 14 Aug. 2012)

The researcher at the University of Helsinki provided the following information about the obosomfo position:

An obosomfo differs from an okomfo in that the former does not fall into akom [a trance-like state], but he/she has alternative methods of communication with the deities. His main duties are pouring libation and offering sacrifices to the shrines. It appears that the successive abosomfo of a deity often come from a particular kin group in the community. As for the negligence of duties or abandonment of office, I would assume that much the same applies here as in the case of akomfo.

The selection of a chief (ohene, pl. ahene) among the Akan combines both prescriptive and elective elements. On the one hand, there is a group of people known as the royals who are all, given the certain restrictions of sex and age, genealogically qualified to occupy the chiefly office vested in the ruling lineage of a community. On the other hand, a candidate has to be suitable, not only in terms of genealogy, but also in terms of character, intelligence, health, physical fitness, and so on. In addition to these personal qualifications, a candidate has to have support among the so-called kingmakers of the community (i.e., the divisional chiefs or headmen kin groups). Conflicts in a selection process mostly arise from competition between two or several candidates, but in some cases, which in my experience are much more rare, a person, who might be the most (or only) eligible candidate for the office, refuses the candidacy and is pressured by his community to accept it. Some of the so-called born-again Christians reject chieftaincy because of the ritual duties involved (i.e., offering sacrifices to the ancestors and deities). Such cases have been around since the early days of Christian conversion (19th and early 20th centuries). More recently, I have talked with immigrant men who refuse to visit their home towns or villages in Ghana, because allegedly they would be "kidnapped" and installed as chiefs against their own will. In these cases, the chiefly title is seen as something that would restrict their movement. (researcher 4 July 2012)

Information on availability of state protection could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, York University. 14 August 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

_____. 1 July 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

_____. 1 August 2006. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Instructor, Camosun College, Victoria, BC. 18 July 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

_____. 27 July 2006. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Researcher, Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki. 14 August 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

_____. 4 July 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

United States (US). 20 June 2012. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "Ghana." The World Factbook. [Accessed 19 July 2012]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: The following did not respond to requests for information within the time constraints of this Response: Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Irene Odotei Foundation in Accra, Ministry of Chieftaincy and Culture of Ghana, professors at University of Michagan, University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh and University of Cape Coast.

Internet sources, including: Africa Confidential; Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP); AllAfrica; Amnesty International; BBC; Factiva; Freedom House; Ghanaian Chronicle; Human Rights Watch; Pambazuka News; UNICEF; West Africa Review.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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