Death and Politics: West Africa in the 1940s
Missing person or ritual murder? Richard Rathbone probes a cause célèbre from an age of colonial and tribal transition.
On August 21st, 1943, the king of Akyem Abuakwa state in Ghana, Nana Sir Ofori Atta I, died. With a population of about 250,000, it was a rich state whose wealth was based upon cocoa cultivation and upon gold and diamond-mining concession rents and royalties. Akyem's funerary rites are long drawn out and this drew to a close in February 1944. On the final day, the chief of one of the towns that comprised a politically salient group in the state, the Amantoo mmiensa, disappeared whilst in the state capital, Kyebi. Akyea Mensah's loss was reported to the Akyem Abuakwa State Council which comprised the senior chiefs in the kingdom and the state's senior bureaucrats; the loss was also reported to the local office of the Gold Coast police. An extensive hue and cry yielded nothing. In the following days the Gold Coast police received a number of anonymous letters alleging that he had been ritually murdered; the police, while being suspicious, were disinclined to act on rumour alone. Gossip was spreading. A week passed and the letters piled up. The people of Apedwa, the missing man's town, and those of the other Amantoo mmiensa towns as well as the Gold Coast press convinced themselves that the chief had been murdered.
On April 9th, a palace official went to a shrine in a nearby village and asked the priest for a specific to lay the ghost of the missing man; he confessed that he had been complicit in Akyea Mensah's death. On April 26th, the priest told the police of this. Further evidence came to light. Two witnesses said that they had seen Akyea Mensah cudgelled whilst sitting under a tree in a courtyard in the royal palace in the company of eight prominent men. Further enquiries by African police officers, largely in the vernacular, elicited another, more detailed, account from a court notable; he had seen the missing man in the courtyard with the same eight men. Akyea Mensah was dead when he saw him. Through his cheeks was thrust the slim dagger that executioners use. The dead man's blood was being smeared on the stool of the dead king by some of the eight men.
This act could have formed part of the rites which precede the ceremony which ends the long mourning following a ruler's death. What actually happens during this element of a ruler's funeral remains contested in Ghana today, a dispute not peculiar to this case. Part' of this rite, some authorities say, involves the 'washing' of the stool or throne. Others insist that washing the stool belongs to an earlier part of the funeral ceremonies. In polite society it is agreed that the stools of great kings are washed in soot and broken hens' eggs, and sheep's blood. This messy concoction of carbon, egg and blood is-charged with powerful symbolic overtones in Akyem as it would be in most societies. Many informants insisted that it was customary to wash a great man's stool with a mixture which included human blood.
Hints and whispers directed the police to a burial site behind the palace mausoleum. By night the police tried to disinter whatever was there but were interrupted by a night- watchman with a hurricane lamp, a grim scene redolent of Burke and Hare. The police returned to the spot next day and found the area freshly dug over; all they recovered was some human hair, evidence beyond the analytic competence of the Gold Coast's primitively equipped forensic pathologist. By July 1944 the police had been directed. to another spot, a bank of a river near Kyebi. They found a skull, a jawbone, seven limb-bones and a tooth. Whether these were the remains of the missing man was never satisfactorily resolved.
The eight men identified as being with the missing man by four eye-witnesses were charged with murder and, after a long process, found guilty. Ultimately three of the defendants were hanged, one died in prison of natural causes, and four had their sentences commuted to long periods of imprisonment. The details of the case, the numerous appeals which followed in subsequent years became important issues in the national politics of both Ghana and Britain. But what did these undeniably horrid events mean?
So far the story is in the worst mumbo-jumbo tradition of 1920s folk ethnography – a kind of picture beloved of missionaries rattling their collecting boxes. There is no element missing: benighted Africans in the superstition-ridden bush, carrying nut a harsh, pagan rite are scenes from the pages of Buchan, Haggard or Edgar Wallace. But let us look at the reality of where and who we are talking about.
Akyem Abuakwa state was rich. Wealth creation took place under the auspices of powerful African king- ship. Ofori Atta I who came to the stool in 1912, exercised strong leadership in a situation of very indirect 'Indirect Rule'. Such changes which took place in Akyem's political and economic structure were in almost all ways ordained by him and his court. Throughout the longest period of his kingship, Ofori Atta was to a large extent supported by a sympathetic colonial state when he needed it. Much of that support was to be found not in actual positive interventions but, rather, in giving Ofori Atta relatively free rein. The king worked hard to achieve room to manoeuvre; it was not a free gift from a genial colonial regime.
Forceful African rulers are no novelty in African history. But Ofori Atta was unusual. He was the Western-educated son of an evangelist of the Presbyterian Basel Mission. Before his accession Ofori Atta had been the governor's interpreter, a Sergeant in the Volunteer Force in the 1900 Asante campaign and an articled clerk to one of Ghana's most illustrious lawyers. Colonial law dominates the history of Akyem Abuakwa under his kingship. He recognised the significance of this resource in his largely successful attempt to recast the scope of kingship in the colonial situation. He had the acute perception that he could use colonial law with its sensitivity to property rights and title to assert his control over land in the kingdom. He used the developing colonial legal code, whilst playing a very full part in its development, to claim that he and his court had the final say over land alienation in the kingdom.
Ofori Atta's overt policy after 1912 was to prevent the alienation of land by sub-chiefs to immigrants. Here there was a whiff of chauvinism most apparent in his public pronouncements which stressed the abomination of losing Akyem lands to 'strangers'. Beyond the rhetoric the evidence suggests that he countenanced alienation so long as he and his Council were rewarded for granting leave to sell land to strangers.
On the face of it there was ample substance in Ofori Atta's ideological justification for increasing central control of land and land sales; he sought to safeguard Akyem resources in the face of the many immigrant farmers and African and European concessionaires. But he used his powers to command the probably entirely 'untraditional' central control of all Akyem land. The king thus achieved a significant share in the profits of land commoditisation and commercialisation by rent-taxation and by taxing the land sales of others.
By the late 1920s some sub-chiefs had learnt about the force of colonial law and began to use it to resist the king's exactions. In two chiefdoms diamonds had been discovered shortly after the end of the Great War. Both chiefdoms used the civil courts to attempt secession from the control of the king, thus to avoid paying taxes an the royalties from concessions they had sold to mining companies; the dispute was not settled until l 958. The case cost the cross-litigants at least £180,000 in lawyers' fees. Considering the present value of such sums it is clear that any lingering image of 'bush kingdoms' is very wide of the mark.
Ofori Atta and his State Council also acquired more and more power over the election and 'destoolment' of minor and increasingly dependent chiefs in the Akyem Abuakwa state. His power within the Akyem state and his growing ability to influence policy within the Gold Coast – he was a member of the Gold Coast's Parliament, the Legislative Council, and one of the two first African appointees to the Gold Coast Executive Council – transformed his local initiatives into a colony-wide enactment, the Native Administration Ordinance of 1927; he played a major role in the drafting of this Bill and it was, until the local government reforms of 1951, to give unprecedented power to paramount chiefs. Ofori Atta was favoured by the colonial administration because of his enthusiasm for the development of chiefly rule, a cornerstone of indirect rule policy, as opposed to the demands of many, largely coastal, intellectuals for more local democratisation; Ofori Atta was skilful in parleying that favour into local power.
In this process he alienated some of his subjects. Divisional (:hiefs, who sat on the State Council, were for the most part content to accede to his project of centralisation. They were so because the system of taxation of rents and licensing led to the division of such income within the State Council. Treasuries were unaudited before 1939 (and only cursorily audit- ed after then); such income was personal and tax-free income. But commoners and their ancient associations, the Asafo companies, shared in little of this – or perceived that they did not. In 1917-18 major unrest broke out occasioned in part by a serious bottleneck, caused by official shipping-space policy, in cocoa exports. This hit hardest at the least well capitalised and; most indebted farmers.
Amongst the most active in this agitation were the eight small towns or villages of the Amantoo Mmiensa. The dissidents' ambitions included the ousting of Ofori Atta. They failed . But it was not their first challenge. They had been inserting themselves into the state structure, by confrontation, in the half-century before colonial rule overlaid Akyem Abuakwa. Throughout the late nineteenth century they had attempted to secure a more powerful position in the evolving constitution of the state; in some of these struggles they gained new prerogatives; in others they lost. Unsurprisingly in the 1927 Ordinance, drafted by Ofori Atta, they found themselves excluded from any statutory political role in the state.
Their resentment re-surfaced in the negotiations about who was to succeed Ofori Atta I. Amantoo Mmiensa elders, including Akyea Mensah, opposed the nomination of the candidate who eventually was to succeed Ofori Atta I in September 1945 and supported another nephew, Amantoo Mmiensa opposition to the ruling house was thus a combination of perceptions of political, as well as economic, exclusion from the rich man's table. Those close to the palace regarded them as trouble-makers whether or not they made trouble. These details might be important; they equally might be red-herrings. The missing man was one of the three Elders of the Amantoo Mmiensa. Two of the major witnesses at the trial were from his town of Apedwa; and much of the ensuing bitterness was certainly a continuation of the longer-term conflict between the royal house and the Amantoo Mmiensa.
That introduces the murdered man and says something about the late king whose final funeral rites were the occasion for this tragedy. What about the alleged murderers? These were not run-of-the-mill 'goodfellas'. The first accused was the State's Chief Councillor. His co-defendents included two State Drummers, the superintendant of the native authority's local police force; another was the senior clerk in the palace bureaucracy and another the gaoler of the Akyem Abuakwa's local prison. All but one were Western-educated and Christian; one was an ex-serviceman and another a Freemason. But more importantly than that, all eight were ‘sons of the stool’; all were either sons of the late king, or sons or grandsons of one of his predecessors. Akyem Abuakwa is an Akan state; both descent and inheritance is matrilineal. None of these men could succeed to the stool. But all were major beneficiaries of the considerable patronage of the stool.
To get back to the murder: we know who the victim was and some ' of the proximate detail about the protagonists. I have also suggested some of' the fault-lines in this volatile African kingdom. In doing so I have perhaps unfairly suggested why the murder might have taken place or, conversely, why a frame-up might have taken place. But either of these impressions is misleading. These data do not explain what was going on. To begin with, did a murder actually take place at all? Certainly no authenticated trace was ever found of Akyea Mensah, alive or dead. That it was murder, and ritual murder at that, is believed in the Amantoo Mmiensa towns today.
The royal family still insist that it was a frame-up. But the African and British police officers involved believed that it was murder. One might expect such certainty in public; but that conviction is as apparent in their, then secret, paperwork. As the most important elements of the investigation such as the interviews were almost entirely in local African hands, this case cannot be easily seen as intentional or unintentional cross-cultural misunderstanding. The prosecution, carried out by an African lawyer who rose to be attorney-general, convinced a jury, six out of seven of whom were African. The royal family claimed that the colonial government sought to incriminate them; but there is no evidence which suggests that they were. More compellingly the colonial authorities had no motive for destabilising an African state and besmirching a ruling family who had been bywords for co-operation. There is no detectable malice amongst the police officers toward the royal family, although the idea of humbling the wealthy must have appealed to these poorly-paid men. In any event, once the case came to the courts, their evidence was open to the rigours implicit in any adversarial system. Evidence was subjected to cross-examination over a period of weeks by no less than five African defence attorneys, the cream of the Gold Coast Bar. There is no evidence which suggests bias on the Bench. The committal was handled by a prominent African magistrate. The most significant unsuccessful local appeals were heard by African judges. Another suggestion made by the royal family at the time, that it was a colonial attempt to impugn all Gold Coasters as 'barbaric' was not believed by the African members of the Legislative Council nor by much of the largely African-owned and edited local press.
Because the charges were bizarre it is important to press on with the royal family's accusation of a frame-up. If you can be convinced that the colonial administration were insufficiently bright, let alone motivated, to conspire, were the Amantoo Mmiensa clever enough to get back at their enemy in this fashion? Although I have not the space to share the vast amount of material which was used – and in some cases not used – as evidence, its baroque quality was beyond even the cleverest conspirators' capacities. From what we know of the Amantoo Mmiensa Elders in this period, such an extensive, convoluted conspiracy was beyond even their considerable manipulative capacities. There were dirty deeds going on behind the scenes; there is clear evidence of attempts by both sides to suborn witnesses and to muddy the waters but this activity was essentially marginal.
But if those arguments are plausible, what actually happened? Why did eight well-connected, well-heeled, and lettered aristocrats murder this man in this way or in any other kind of way? The dead man had been the Registrar of the State Tribunal until 1936. There is no evidence of a rift with the king in the copious palace records; even had there been a row, it would hardly have warranted such a fate. As he left his palace post in 1936 it would have been an extreme example of revenge being a dish best eaten cold. Did Akyea Mensah 'know too much' to be allowed to live? There is no contemporary evidence which supports this, even if an assistant superintendant of police had clearly heard such rumours when he wrote:
Akyea Mensah had the confidence of Sir Ofori Atta and knew how and where he had placed his money... he had nothing to gain by keeping his mouth shut; on the contrary he stood to lose.
But the king died in August 1943. If Akyea Mensah was going to reveal all, he had had a full six months to spill the beans before he disappeared. So far as motive is concerned, this is not persuasive. There is no evidence that he had shared valuable information with the other Elders of the Amantoo Mmiensa. Throughout they uttered little more than vague rumours and, had they possessed more damaging information, they would have used it. They do not present as a group of people in possession of dangerous knowledge. There is no evidence which suggests that his murder was punishment for breach of trust.
But whatever the scuttlebutt, what was in it for the murderers? There are easier ways of killing an enemy. Murder was a common crime in the colonial Gold Coast. Had I wanted to get rid of this man I should have thought about a traffic accident, a mishap while hunting in the forest or the more commonplace resort to poison before contemplating icing him at 8.00 in the morning in a small town bursting at the seams with people who had come in for the old king's last rites. Could it have been a dire warning to the Amantoo Mmiensa, the royal family's enemies? Murder merely served to exacerbate this internal friction at a time of political uncertainty and at best could have been seen as dangerously unstatesmanlike.
The most interesting question is how one understands the invocation of a ritual element in all of this, an invocation strongly resisted by the governor who consistently stressed that it was a straightforward murder (as if murder can ever be straightforward). Some informants stressed that the monumental quality of Ofori Atta's power and personality necessitated, in his kinsmen's eyes, a commensurately huge 'washing' of his stool. But there is more to it than that.
The death of a king in an Akan polity ushers in a politically and cosmologically uncertain time. That uncertainty is emphasised by the sanctioned anarchy which follows such a death which is again unleashed during the final funeral rites; this is a period in which the Akan world is quite suddenly and frighteningly turned upside down. And above all Ofori Atta I's death ended a very long reign of thirty-one years in. which political, social and economic well-being had been created, for those close to power, by the extraordinary force of a remarkable man. The accused were not merely kinsmen but clients. The king's death exposed them to the ultimate terror of where their next meal would come from. But as kinsmen they also worried about the omission of a 'proper' traditional valedictory. The king's stool had not been appropriately washed; they owed their master's shade this ultimate tribute. This was not 'jus t' a political murder, a 'simple' assassination. Akyea Mensah was done to death; and that murder was carried out in an albeit botched attempt at 'ritual', a disastrous attempt to keep faith with a royal vision of the past. We are left with an explanation which rests on grief, fear and uncertainty, coupled with a sense of traditionally unfinished business.
The case divided Akyem Abuakwa and continued to deepen its fault lines. In the November 1992 presidential elections in Ghana, Akyem Abuakwa voters split, as they have done in every election since 1951, along royal and anti-royal, traditional and radical lines, divisions that also inform the two opposed accounts of events in 1944. But there was more than a local dimension to the case; two months after three of the accused were executed and the royal family's defence case was finally defeated, the country's first post-war nationalist political party, the United Gold Coast Convenition, was launched in Saltpond in 1947. Three of its founder-members were Ofori Atta I's half brother, one of his sons and a son-in-law who was also one of the defence lawyers.
This is a period piece. It could not have occurred either much earlier or significantly later. Thirty years before it would have been more obviously a conflict between colonial and African values of which there are many examples in the early colonial period. By the 1940s many colonial values and institutions had been re-assembled for more obviously local use; it is no accident that virtually all the actors in this story are African. The case suggests, in part, a struggle between differing African views and interests but not quite a clash between classes because power still derived from a messy amalgam of achievement and ascription.
It could not have happened later because Ofori Atta's death coincided with the end of an era. Within eight years of his death, the power of aristocracy was dramatically curtailed, shorn of power by the political energy of 'commoners' which found institutional form in the rise of the Convention Peoples' Party after June, 1949. Royal power was also eroded by the gradual 'democratisation' of native authorities. By the mid-1940s colonial policy makers had concluded that while rural conservatism kept a cheap peace of sorts, it did not generate more exports and hence more foreign exchange. After 1945, a Labour Government was to extend something like the elective British system of local government on the public grounds that it was democratic and on the private assumption that 'modern' institutions would stimulate 'the rural economy'. Where chiefly authoritarianism was under attack, as it was in Akyem Abuakwa, it tended to be swept aside by a new generation of Ghanaians-to-be, exercising the vote for the first time.
From 1951 local patronage began to slip from the hands of kings into the hands of elected local councillors and members of the Legislative Assembly. Chieftaincy did not die, as the CPP hoped it would. It fought a rearguard action in some parts of the country and in some cases did so quite successfully. But in Akyem Abuakwa the contestation over the power of the stool, which came to a climax in Akyem after February 1944, ran out of steam; central authority and the elective principle were to do more damage to monarchy than the Amantoo Mmiensa had managed to do in the previous century.
For Further Reading: The wider Ghanaian political context can be followed in the first two chapters of Dennis Austin's magisterial Politics in Ghana, 1946-1960, (Oxford University Press, 1964). Nana Sir Ofori Atta I's half brother, Dr J.B. Danquah, the great scholar-lawyer and politician who orchestrated the defence case, wrote what remains the best book on the kingdom The Akim Abuakwa Handbook, (Forster Groom A Co., 1928). One of the senior detectives involved in the case, A. Nuamah, wrote An Account of the Kibi Murder Case, (Educational Press and Manufacturers Ltd., Accra, 1985) shortly before his death; it provides some vivid insights as does the colonial governor, Sir Alan Burns' memoirs Colonial Civil Servant, (Batsford, 1949).
Richard Rathbone teaches history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies where he is also Dean of Postgraduate Studies. He is author of the two volume Ghana in the British Documents on the End of Empire series, (HMSO, London, 1992). The above article has been adapted from his book, Murder and Politics in Colonial Ghana (Yale, 1993).
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