Who takes precedence– the constitutional president or the customary chief?


In recent weeks, various videos have been circulating on social media suggesting that President Nana Akufo-Addo has instructed some chiefs to show reverence to him by standing up before extending a handshake at public events. These videos have generated discussions, with several Ghanaians accusing the president of disrespecting the traditional rulers/local chiefs. Others have argued that it is an act of discrimination since he makes no such demands in the presence of other chiefs in other jurisdictions, particularly the Asantehene and Okyenhene.

The opposition party communicators have extensively condemned the president’s actions, describing it as rude and uncalled for. While denouncing the president’s actions on TV3 NewDay on April 30 2024, Malik Basintale, deputy communications officer for the National Democratic Congress (NDC),  advised the president to desist from such acts because it is demeaning and disrespectful to the chiefs.

“We are appealing to Mr Akufo-Addo to respect our traditional authorities. When you go to Rome, you do what Romans do. When you go to his palace, and he sits on his skins, there is a reason why they sit on the skins, or they sit on the stools,” he said.

Are the orders/ actions from the president a reaffirmation of the Ghanaian traditional norms or justified by the constitution? DUBAWA decided to highlight what takes precedence at public functions. Is it traditional norms or powers of the constitution?

What Ghana’s Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs says

To clarify the controversy, the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs presser on April 30,  2024, stated that article 57 (2) of the 1992 constitution of Ghana states that “the president takes precedence over all other persons in Ghana.” The press release further noted that the president’s request for chiefs to stand and greet him is a reaffirmation of Ghanaian cultural values.

“The request for Chiefs to observe this tradition, especially at public events, stems from our commitment to upholding and preserving Ghanaian cultural values, including respect and hierarchy. It is important to note that the president’s position on this tradition is intended as a reaffirmation of cultural norms that underpin Ghanaian society,” the presser stated.

What does the Ghanaian law say?

The 1992 Constitution of Ghana subjects everybody, including the President, to the law. In furtherance of this objective, the Constitution under Article 17 (2) proscribes all forms of discrimination based on gender, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed, or social or economic status.

Despite the crosscutting equality provision in Article 17 (1) and (2) of the 1992 Constitution, the Ghanaian law elevates the country’s President above any other person.

Clause (2) of Article 57 of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana provides that:  

“The president shall take precedence over all other persons in Ghana; and in descending order, the Vice-President, the Speaker of Parliament, and the Chief Justice shall take precedence over all other persons in Ghana.”

Interpreting the provision of Article 17 (1) in the case of Nartey Vs Gati, the Ghanaian court profoundly noted that:

“To our mind, it is clear what Article 17 does not mean. It certainly does not mean that every person within the Ghanaian jurisdiction has, or must have, the same rights as all other persons in the jurisdiction. Such a position is simply not practicable. Soldiers, police officers, students, and judges, for instance, have certain rights that other persons do not have.”

According to the Ghanaian Supreme Court, the fact that Article 17 (1) of the 1992 Constitution subjects every citizen to the law does not mean everyone has the same rights in the country.

The learned Ghanaian judges were clear: “In simple terms, equals must be treated equally, while unequal treatment must be different. The law must be able to differentiate between unequals and accord them the differentiated treatment which can enable them to attain the objective of equality of outcomes or fairness.”

However, the Ghanaian law recognises the authority of traditional leaders across the country as the custodians of history, tradition, and customs.

In Article 11 (1) of the 1992 constitution it is provided that: 

“The laws of Ghana shall comprise:

  1. this constitution; 
  2. enactments made by or under the authority of the parliament established by this constitution;
  3. any Orders, Rules, and Regulations made by any person or authority under a power conferred by this Constitution;
  4. the existing law; and 
  5. the common law.”

In defining what customary law means, Clause 2 of Article 11 defines common law as comprising “doctrines of equity” and “rules of customary law.” Clause (3) of Article 11 of the 1992 Constitution further provides that:

“For this article, “customary law” means the rules of law that, by custom, apply to communities in Ghana.

Also, Article 277 of the 1992 Constitution defined a chief to mean: 

“A person who, hailing from the appropriate family and lineage, has been validly nominated, elected or selected and enstooled, enskinned or installed as a chief or queen mother under the relevant customary law and usage.”

Also, the institution of Chieftaincy is established by customary law under Article 270. “The institution of Chieftaincy, together with its traditional councils as established by customary law and usage is hereby guaranteed,” Article 270 (1) of the 1992 Constitution has said.

With these different provisions of the Constitution and the powers accorded each one of the institutions or offices cited, it is important to find which of the offices takes precedence when there is an intersection between the office of the president and that of a chief.  

Which law takes effect in a particular event/ occasion? Expert Reaction/ Interpretation of the laws. 

At a discussion of the issue on JoyNews’ AM Exclusive, Professor Raymond A. Atuguba, Dean of the University of Ghana Law School, observed that the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs statement is skewed and might have worsened the situation.

“There are two competing constitutional provisions in this regard, and it is unfortunate that the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs chose to focus on just Article 57(2) of the constitution.” 

“There is also…270 (1) which states that the Institution of Chieftaincy as established by customary law and usage are guaranteed. The usages of customs and Chieftaincy include the scenario where when you come to the domain of a chief,  the chief sits in state, and everybody else comes to greet or pay homage.”

“It is situation-specific, during a state or  formal function, Article 57(2) is operational where the president takes precedence over everybody in Ghana including the biggest chief followed by the vice president, then the speaker of parliament and the chief justice.”

He continued that in a traditional setting Article 271 takes precedence because, at that point, the president himself/ herself becomes a stool or staff or skin subject. He explained further that chiefs or traditional authorities have jurisdiction over people, and in their land, they have obeisance from their people. As a result, once an individual goes to a customary setting or event, Article 271 applies.

“If you do not want it to apply to you, you need to get out of the event because once you are there, no matter your formal position, you become either a stool or staff or skin subject or a visitor amongst the people and under the jurisdiction of whoever is chief in that area. You need to obey the usages and customs as long as those usages do not contradict allowable practices,” he stated. 

Prof. Atuguba added that the “smallest or littlest chief” in Ghana, when he or she presides over a traditional ceremony, is ‘boss,’ and even the president within that ceremony is subject to the chief.”   

On the other hand, he said that the situation changes when the event is formal or a state event/ function. Under Article 57(2), at such functions, no one takes precedence over the president, the vice president, the speaker of parliament, and the chief justice.

“At that point, all the chiefs, including the biggest chiefs in Ghana, must rise for the president and others in the order of precedence,” he said. 

In a similar view on TV3 NewDay, Yaw Anokye Frimpong, a historian and legal practitioner, stated that Ghanaian traditional customs direct that when one visits a chief, the chief shares and enforces the customs and traditions, and not vice versa.

“I am trying to say that a chief, whether from Tolon to Kugumpu in the North or from Ahanta or Fante in the South, they have the same recognition and then the same customs, and then the reason is that we have been together, for nearly one thousand years long before we became Gold Coast. They were trading and fighting  among themselves, and then various tribes were putting together things that one was learning from here and the other, so eventually, all crystallised into one chieftaincy custom.”

He added that the various customs in Ghana have an act where all individuals who are supposed to attend a function are required to be present and seated before the arrival of a chief. As the chief arrives, we have songs of appellation that welcome the chief to a public function. With the songs of appellations, individuals are ordered to stand up for the chief’s arrival.

“Nobody can ask a chief to get up. It is when he wants to get up. And when you visit a chief, remember, the chief did not come to you at Flagstaff House, you went to him so he is your host. You do not tell a host what to do… so whether you are a president or whatever, when you visit a chief, you are not the one to instruct him to get up,” Mr Anokye Frimpong said.

“It is not written anywhere in the laws of Ghana that when a president or a minister or anybody gets to any chief, the chief is supposed to stand up so that there could be decorum,” the historian said.


Although Article 57 (2) states that the president takes precedence over “everybody” in Ghana, taking precedence at public events or programmes is situational or scenario-specific. In a traditional event, the traditional ruler/chief takes precedence over the individuals present. However, in a state or formal event, the president, vice president, speaker of parliament, and the chief justice take precedence over the people present.

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