Anthropologist as Problem Solver
Maxwell Owusu and Democracy in Ghana
SINCE ITS INDEPENDENCE from Britain in 1957, the West African country of Ghana has alternated between civilian- and military-controlled national governments. When the most recent military government (1981-1992) allowed elections in 1992, the Fourth Republic of Ghana emerged, based on a new constitution with a foundation in democratic principles.
An influential actor in that process was Ghanaian born political anthropologist Maxwell Owusu of the University of Michigan. Owusu served as a consulting member of the Constitutional Experts Committee, which drafted the 1992 constitution proposals. Owusu has been a staunch critic of autocratic and repressive leadership in post-independence Ghana and other African nation-states. He is an advocate of popular participatory democracy. But as an anthropologist, he understood the problems of imposing foreign political models -such as Western-style democracy with competing political parties-on African societies with different histories and indigenous political traditions. As he has written (Owusu 1992-384), "African democracy may require the integration of indigenous methods of village co-operation with innovative forms of government, combining the power of universal rights with the uniqueness of each district’s or nation's own customs and respected traditions."
A viable solution, Owusu insisted, is to create a decentralized state in which local authorities, primarily chiefs. which relies upon decentralization of power toward headmen, and lineage heads, participate directly in state processes and decision-making. The advantage is that local leaders can better identify the needs and priorities of villagers while being more accountable to their members and communities than are bureaucrats in a state apparatus. The 1992 constitution put this insight to work, creating "District Assemblies as the basic unit of national government, two-thirds of which are elected and one-third appointed, the latter being mostly traditional leaders or their representatives (Owusu 1992). Owusu observed that, far from making chiefs and other non-state political leaders obsolete, these changes have put traditional leaders at the forefront of political change in the nation-state as a whole (Owusu 1996).