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THE YAGBON SKIN
Chiefs of Northern Ghana sit on a pile of skins unlike their southern counterpart. It is therefore customary in Ghana to refer to the skin polities of the North where Chiefs are 'enskinned' or enrobed rather than 'enstooled', as is the case in southern Ghana.
The biggest Skin of the Gonja Kingdom is the Yagbon Skin which is widely revered by the people of Gonjaland. All the Paramount Chiefs of the divisions owe allegiance to the Yagbon Skin which is not subservient to any other Skin in the Kingdom.
The influence of the Yagbon Kingship is felt across the Gonja Kingdom which is the biggest for a single ethnic group in Ghana covering a total Land mass of 16% of Ghana and over 53% of the Northern Region.
The occupant of the Yagbon Skin is the Yagbonwura and so the Paramount chiefs who head the divisions refer to the Yagbonwura as their father. The Yagbonwura’s position and that of other Chiefs is traditionally well defined.
The Yagbonwura is the political head of the Gonja state. He wields executive and judicial powers and is assisted in the administration of the state by the Council of State Elders.
The Yagbongwura keeps his position of reverence and awe because he is regarded as a deity and the direct representative of Ndewura Jakpa whose spirit is believed to live in him. The skin of Yagbon is a quasi-sacred office which was hedged with several prohibitions.
All the Divisional Chiefs call the Yagbongwura “father” even though he is not their putative father and all sub-chiefs call him their “grand-father.” A Divisional Chief who is brother of the Yagbongwura will address him or refer to him officially as “my father” and not “my brother".
This description of designation of the Yagbongwura as “father” by the Divisional Chiefs has its origin the first Divisional Chiefs being the sons or nephews of Lata Jakpa.
In contemporary times we have the Gonja Traditional Council made up of the Council of Elders, Divisional Chiefs and sub- Chiefs with the Yagbonwura as President. The Council meets periodically to deliberate on issues of great importance in the Gonja state.
Some of the Council of elders and the divisional Chiefs are in charge of the administration of the divisions or provinces and are often consulted by the Yagbonwura on important issues on their area or intervenes especially on settling disputes.
All divisional skins pay homage and renew their allegiance to the Yagbonwura every two years at the Damba of the Yagbonwura. This is done by filing in order of seniority and lying flat before the Yagbonwura. The sitting positions of Gonja Chiefs at every gathering as well is according to hierarchy of seniority.
Yagbonwura’s are held in high esteem and are highly respected within the Gonja Kingdom and even beyond. Even though Ghana’s constitution is silent about the role and their powers of Yagbonwura’s, their words carry weight in the Gonja Kingdom. Moreover, there are customs, traditions, conventions and usages that spell out their functions and powers.
The deposition of a Yagbonwura is quite unknown in the Gonja State however the Yagbonwura in consultation with the Traditional Council can deskin any Divisional Chief who acts contrary to the tradition and laws of the land.
The diviosnal Chief on the other hand are responsible for the enskinment and the deposition of the sub-chiefs within their respective divisional areas.
As Sumaila Ndewura Jakpa, the founder of the Gonja Kingdom embarked on the conquest of the current vast Gonjaland and even beyond, he cultivated the practice of installing his sons in what has come to be known as divisions.
These divisions which have survived conflicts, European rule and even modern governance are Wasipe (Daboya), Kpembe, Bole, Tuluwe, Kong, Kadia and Kusawgu.
The Gonja Kingship system started with seven ruling houses, and then circumstances reduced them to five. Kong and Kadia were expelled from the Kingship in the course of history. That therefore reduced the divisions from seven (7) to five (5) which is Wasipe, Kpembe, Bole, Tuluwe and Kusawgu in order of seniority.
Chieftaincy occupies an important place in the lives of the people of Gonja. Succession to chiefships is based on patrilineal descent. Such offices circulate among the descendants of Ndewura Jakpa, the reputed founder of the state.
The process involves rotation and circulation between town, village or clan gates. Gonja society is not however exclusively patrilineal. Patrilateral and matrilateral norms are at play in the affiliation of individuals to kin-groups
The Gonja system of Chieftaincy does not fully exemply a system that provides for heirs-apparent. It operates gates within gates and rotations within rotations. Fortune could smile on the lucky individual who few years previously was a nobody but who speaks just at the right time.
He comes into a low level title at a time when the incumbent of that office is due to ascend the next higher office which is a gate to a division that is next in line to provide a candidate to ascend the paramount skin.
Presently there are about twenty royal gates at the grass root level from Wasipe, Kpembe, Bole, Tuluwe and Kusawgu, each eligible to produce a King (see Hierachy of Chiefataincy in the Gonja Kingdom in the middle pages). The Chieftaincy system of the Gonja Kingdom does not allow a prince to succeed his father immediately at any level.
A prince, in a typical life cycle situation, has to go back to the lowest level in hierarchy to begin his chieftaincy voyage even if his father was a Yagbonwura.
With prayers and destiny he could move through the ranks to achieve his late father's feet. A prince has no option than to be patient, tolerant and prayerful in this journey. This never happens in months, it could take decades.
In Gonja, the skins adopt patrilineal or matrilineal succession but the patrilineal skins are more important than matrilineal ones and those who have equall opportunities to choose prefer the patrilineal skins.
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