SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AFTER THE RESTORATION OF ASANTEMAN
Wilhelmina J. Donkoh (Dr.), KNUST, Kumasi
31st January 2010 marks the 75th anniversary of the restoration of Asanteman (Asante nation). What was the reason for the restoration? The rationale for the restoration of Asanteman could be traced back to British economic and political interests on the Gold Coast, now Ghana when the historic Asante state founded by Osei Tutu under the spiritual guidance of Okomfo Anokye was perceived to be a threat. The bedrock of British interest was to dominate and appropriate resources in the region of modern Ghana to its own advantage. Asante, by then the most dominant traditional state in the region that became the British-controlled Gold Coast, was seen as an arch rival that had to be either eliminated or tamed. Revealingly, after the prosecution of the Sargrenti War (1873-1874) between Asante and Britain, rather than immediately cashing in to directly colonize Asanteman, the British elected to pursue a policy aimed at weakening and undermining the integrity of Asanteman by encouraging and supporting secessionist activities within Asante.
However, when by the early 1890s, this approach seemed not to be achieving the desired objective, the British charted a new course based on direct engagement. The new approach involved inducing the Asante to voluntarily accept British protection which implied accepting a British representative who would be resident in Kumase. Further implication of such acquiescence was the loss of sovereignty. Asantehene Agyeman Prempe (1888-1931) , the incumbent firmly resisted these British overtures in various ways. First, he responded directly in official correspondence. Nana Prempe’s response to Governor William Bradford Griffith’s offer of British protection quoted below, for example, is quite illustrative of this point.
“The suggestion that Ashanti in its present state should come and enjoy the protection of Her Majesty the Queen and Empress of India, I may say this is a matter of very serious consideration and which I am happy to say we have arrived at this conclusion, that my kingdom of Ashanti must remain independent as of old, at the same time to be friendly with all white men. I do not say this with a boastful spirit, but in the clear sense of the meaning. Ashanti is an independent kingdom and is always friendly with the white men; for the sake of trade we are to bind to each other, so it is our Ashanti proverb that what the old men eat [sic] and left, it is what the children enjoyed.”
The response above was an unambiguous assertion of Asante’s sovereignty and also the central principle of Asante philosophy towards Europeans. This principle was further evinced by Nana Prempe’s invitation to the French firm, Côte d’Or Company Limited to modernise Asante through development of such infrastructure as railway lines and roads and the installation of western-imported equipment and machinery in the mining sector under the aegis of the Asantehene himself. Besides, an official delegation was sent to London in 1895 to present Asante’s position at the Court of St James. The delegation spent about a year in England without being given formal audience by the British Government. Before the Asante delegation could disembark on the Gold Coast, the British Government had surreptitiously dispatched an expedition into Asante, under the guise that Asante had failed to comply with the terms of the Treaty of Fomena that concluded the Sagrenti War. The expedition reached Kumase on 18th January 1896. The British accused the Asante of, among other things, failing to pay the indemnity that the treaty imposed and also persisted in carrying out such inhuman practices as human sacrifice and slavery. Nana Agyeman Prempe and his principal advisors including his mother Asantehemaa Nana Yaa Akyaa, his father, Nana Akwasi Gyambibi, his younger brother and then heir-apparent, Abakomahene Nana Agyeman Badu were abducted and exiled by the British. The abducted Asantehene, his close relatives and advisors were sent first to Elmina for about one year, then to Freetown until 1900 when upon the outbreak of the Yaa Asantewaakoo they were sent to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. The exiles were moved about because the British feared the Asante would react violently to the imposition.
A cardinal effect of the British intrusion and imposition was the dismemberment of Asanteman. The British dealt with the constituent aman as independent units. For four years Asante accommodated the British with the anticipation that their sovereign would be returned to them soon and the political situation would normalise. However, Governor Frederick Hodgson’s miscalculated demand for the Asika Dwa in 1900 muddied the waters and ultimately resulted in the last Asante war inspired by the Edwesohemaa Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Although Asante was eventually defeated in this war, it could in a sense also be viewed as the commencement of the vigorous but long and arduous process of the repatriation of the Asantehene and other Asante exiles from the Seychelles. This process was contributed to by Nana Prempe himself from exile and by parties within Asante such as the chiefs and the Asante Kotoko Society (AKS), as well as chiefs and Legislative Assembly members in the Gold Coast Colony. The British instituted a system whereby some of the exiles, including some of the wives and children of the Asantehene himself and dependents of chiefs who died, were repatriated. Nana Prempe and the other survivors were repatriated in 1924. Although the British recognised him as a private citizen, Mr. Edward Prempe, the Asante acknowledged and treated him as their monarch. To appease the Asante, the British established for him the official capacity of Kumasehene in 1926, a position he held till his death in 1931. This was the same position that his successor, Nana Osei Agyeman Prempe II inherited in May of that year. The underlying factor in the creation of the office of Kumasehene was the British refusal to recognise Kumase’s pre-eminent position as primus-inter-pares dating back to the foundation of Asanteman that incorporated such polities as Kokofu, Bekwai, Dwaben, Nsuta and Mampon towards the end of the seventeenth century.
The chiefs and people of Asante, under the leadership of Nana Prempe II and in close collaboration with the educated people, championed by the AKS, relentlessly fought for the restoration of Asanteman. On 31st January, 1935, within the scheme of indirect rule, Asanteman was “restored” after almost forty years of external meddling but only as a Native Authority with the key function of maintaining law and order. Nana Prempe II as the first Asantehene of the restored Asanteman and particularly for his personal role in the process, earned himself the title, Otumfuo, [Almighty or the Powerful One] which has since been adopted by his successors as the official form of address for the high office of Asantehene. The restored Asanteman operated through the Ashanti Confederacy Council which perceived its role to be wider than provision of security and order. In fact, the Council rather defined its core function to include improvement of material and social conditions within Asanteman. Thus, for example, in 1935, recognising the low level of education provision and lack of other social services in Asante, the Council proposed to government the establishment of an endowment fund to provide scholarships to deserving young people, social services and infrastructure for the people. The proposal was to generate funds by levying six pence per load of cocoa sold in Asante to be collected by government on behalf of Asanteman. The Governor refused the Council permission but eventually yielded in 1942 and authorised the establishment of the “Ashanti National Fund”. Every male Asante resident within Asanteman was to be levied two shillings and one shilling from their female counterparts. One-third of the levy was to be paid into the coffers of Asanteman while two-thirds was retained in the Division in which it was collected. The monies thus generated became the principal source of funding for Asanteman Secondary School in Kumase, the Kumase State School and the Division Schools throughout Asanteman that were renamed Local Authority Schools after 1951. Besides, between 1946 and 1952 the Ashanti National Fund also provided scholarships for training hundreds of young Asante in Secondary Schools, Teacher Training Colleges and Universities both locally and abroad to enhance the quality of human resource base in Asante. The passage of the Local Government Ordinance of 1951 resulted in Asanteman shedding its local government duties in the larger interest of forging the modern nation state of Gold Coast. The Ashanti National Fund wound up in 1952.
Asanteman has survived for seventy-five years in spite of numerous challenges that it has had to grapple with including the complex relationship between it and central government; increasing waves of modernisation and external influences. Despite being a traditional body Asanteman continues to chart a course of innovation often commended and emulated by others. These innovations include the creation in 1985 of the office of Nkosuohene, interpreted as Development Chiefs by some and the establishment of the Otumfuo Education Fund in 2000. In spite of the wind of change, the leaders of Asanteman have endeavoured to preserve the most valuable aspects of the culture of its people.