The Akan Group
The Akan people occupy practically the whole of Ghana south and west of the Black Volta. Historical accounts suggest that Akan groups migrated from the north to occupy the forest and coastal areas of the south as early as the thirteenth century. Some of the Akan ended up in the eastern section of Côte d’Ivoire, where they created the Baule community.
When Europeans arrived at the coast in the fifteenth century, the Akan were established there. The typical political unit was the small state under the headship of an elder from one of the seven or eight clans that composed Akan society. From these units emerged several powerful states, of which the oldest is thought to be Bono (also called Brong). As a result of military conquests and partial assimilation of weaker groups, well-known political entities, such as Akwamu, Asante, Akyem, Denkyira, and Fante emerged before the close of the seventeenth century. Asante, for example, continued to expand throughout the eighteenth century and survived as an imperial power until the end of the nineteenth century, when it succumbed to British rule.
The coastal Akan (Fante) were the first to have relations with Europeans. As a result of long association, these groups absorbed aspects of British culture and language. For example, it became customary among these people to accept British names as family names.
The primary form of Akan social organization is the family or the abusu–the basic unit in a society based on matriclans. Through the exogamous matriclan system, local identity and individual status, inheritance, succession to wealth and to political offices, and even basic relations within the village community are determined. Every lineage is a corporate group with its own identity, group solidarity, exclusive property, and symbols. The ownership of a symbolic carved chair or stool, usually named after the female founder of the matriclan, became the means through which individuals traced their ancestry. These lineages have segmented into branches, each led by an elder, headman, or chief, but a branch, although it possesses a stool, is not an autonomous political or social unit. Possession of the ritually important stool is seen as vital, not only to the existence of the abusu but to the group as a whole.
Despite the matrilineal focus of Akan societies, most traditional leadership positions are held by men. Male succession to inherited positions is, however, determined by relationship to mothers and sisters. Consequently, a man’s valuable property is passed on not to his children, but to his brother or sister’s son. A man may also be expected to support the children of a maternal relative, whether deceased or alive, an expectation that may conflict with the interests of his own children. Matrilineal succession to property has been the cause of much litigation. There have been instances of wives and children turning to the courts for redress. In 1986 the government passed a number of laws that sought to bring the traditions of inheritance in line with changes that had occurred in the country. These laws, which included the Intestate Succession Law, the Customary Marriage and Divorce (Registration) Law, the Administration of Estate (Amendment) Law, and the Head of Family (Accountability) Law, recognized the nuclear family as the prime economic unit. Provision was made, however, for the identification of collective properties that belonged to the extended family.
Notwithstanding the 1986 legislation, the matriclan system of the Akan continued to be economically and politically important. Each lineage controlled the land farmed by its members, functioned as a religious unit in the veneration of its ancestors, supervised marriages, and settled internal disputes among its members. It was from the lineages and the associations they cultivated that the village, town, and even the state emerged. The Akan state, therefore, comprehended several kinbased units, one of which, usually the most prominent lineage, provided the paramount chief, who exercised at least some authority over incorporated groups. Every one of the incorporated groups, lineages, or territorial units had some autonomy under its own headman, chief, or elders. In any case, all chiefs were subject to removal from office if they acted in any manner that alienated a substantial number of people, especially influential ones.
The relative homogeneity of Akan cultures, languages, and authority structures has not led to political unity; the most important conflicts of the Akan in precolonial and colonial times, for example, were with other Akan groups. This is understandable if the state is seen as the arena of political life and as a set of institutions concerned with power, especially for internal regulation, and for the defense of its component members. The development of the Asante Empire, for example, was largely at the expense of the independence of the surrounding Akan, who were quick to reassert their autonomy, especially after 1896, when Asante was defeated and its king, the asantehen (king of Asante), was exiled to the Seychelles by the British. In the struggle for independence and in the period since then, political alignments have followed local interests rather than any conception of Akan ethnic unity.