KING OPOKU Ware II was the 15th King of the Ashanti, or Asantehene. The Asantehene has succeeded in wielding traditional power over the Ashanti people of Ghana, who number some 30 per cent of the population, while at the same time managing to coexist with President Jerry Rawling's National Democratic Congress government.
This was achieved despite the fact that the Ashanti region has supported the largest opposition party, the New Patriotic Party, and its candidate in the last presidential election, John Kuffour. The role of traditional leaders is entrenched in Ghana's constitution, in return for ceding political power to the elected government. In order to carry out this delicate balancing act the apolitical king drew strongly on the tradition of the Asantehene.
The Ashanti kingdom was founded during the 18th century by Opemsuo Osei Tutu who unified the Ashanti states through allegiance to the Golden Stool, or Sika Agua Kofi, which mystically symbolised the soul of Ashanti nationhood. Through bravery and skill the Ashanti dominion expanded from their central Ghanaian homeland, bringing them into conflict with the strongest colonial power at the time - Britain.
A series of wars culminated in 1873 with the capture of the Ashanti capital of Kumasi, which was looted. Some fine examples of regalia from that period are still on display at the British Museum and the Wallace Collection in London. A series of colonial administrators and further uprisings eventually led to a reconciliation between the parties, and the establishment of a British protectorate, which became part of the Gold Coast colony.
By this time the role of the Asantehene had been resurrected by King Prempeh, who was succeeded by his nephew, Prempeh II, in 1931 as the occupant of the Golden Stool. During his reign the Gold Coast colony was transformed into the independent nation of Ghana in 1957. The royal succession process of the Ashanti is a matrilineal one, which meant that when his uncle Prempeh II died in 1970, Opoku Ware II (as he became) was one of several potential successors to the Golden Stool. He was subsequently nominated by the Queenmother, or Nana Asantehemaa, and accepted by the Ashanti people.
The Asantehene was born Jacob Matthew Poku in Kumasi, central Ghana, in 1919 into the Ashanti royal family, and was educated at Anglican school before attending Adisadel College, Cape Coast. He worked as a building inspector and later with the Public Works department between 1937 and 1943 and then trained as a surveyor in Ghana, working on the Kumasi Traditional Council Hall and the Kwame Nkrumah University. He married his wife Victoria, also from Ashanti royalty, in 1945. In the 1950s he studied law in the United Kingdom and was called to the Bar in 1962. He later became known by the Ashanti name Barima Kwaku Adusei.
On his return to Ghana, Adusei worked as a lawyer in Accra, before setting up a private law practice in Kumasi. Increasingly successful and respected in Ashanti politics, he was appointed to the National Liberation Council's executive board in 1968, as the Commissioner of Communications.
Adusei's life was changed inestimably in March 1970, when shortly after he was appointed the ambassador-designate to Italy, his uncle Prempeh II died. His distinguished legal career and record of public service, along with the support of his wife and family meant that he was officially enstooled in July 1970 as Asantehene, and given the added sobriquet of Otumfuo, or "the highest". Reports speak of his belief at the time that the role of Asantehene was even more important to him than representing his country, in that proper guidance for the Ashanti would lead to progress for all Ghanaians.
In his tenure as Asantehene Opoku Ware concentrated on local affairs and in implementing traditional tribal justice, rather than taking on a national political role in opposition to the government. This was evidenced by the support of the then President, Ignatius Acheampong, concerning disputes over the costs of the Asantehene's traditional palace in the 1970s. The Ashanti people, however, have remained active in Ghanaian national politics at all levels, particularly in opposition, and are viewed by some in government with trepidation, due to their disproportionate wealth and influence.
During the mourning period, the process to succeed Opoku Ware II has already begun, with several candidates vying for the position. In the 19th century, the funeral of the Asantehene would have meant live burial for his entourage. While that custom has been abandoned, the ritual spilling of blood on to the stool will still take place, and the funeral itself will exhibit the finest Ashanti traditions of cloth and jewellery making.
Opoku Ware was unique in that his wife, Victoria, ruled almost as an Ashanti First Lady until her death in 1995, following the celebrations for the Asantehene's Silver Jubilee. Their three children will not be considered as candidates, although his son, Prince Akyempe-Hene, may be consulted. It remains to be seen if Opoku Ware's successor will follow his low-key example or attempt to formulate a more high-profile role for traditional leaders in Ghanaian politics.
Jacob Matthew Poku (Barima Kwaku Adusei), barrister and traditional ruler: born Kumasi, Ghana 30 November 1919; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1962; enstooled 1970 as King Otomfuo Opoku Ware II, 15th Asantehene; married (one son, two daughters); died Kumasi 26 February 1999.
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