Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law


(2001) JLP 46: 1-47





Ulrike Schmid




This contribution takes the case of a conflict about land to show how opportunities offered by legal pluralism can be used as a political instrument and how this threatens political stability and the practice of democracy. The analysis attempts to show that it is not an extensive legal pluralism in itself which has led to ‘ethnic’ conflict, but the practice of using law as a political instrument. The outline of the ‘ethnic clashes’ of 1991 between Gonja and Nawuri in Northern Ghana takes account of the historical, social and legal context to analyse the structural roots of the conflict and to point to its broader political dimension. It shows how colonial legal concepts of territorial rule and title to land were used by local leaders to deepen and consolidate already unequal inter-group power relations in their favour. It also analyses how these legal changes ‘loaded’ their relationship with a variety of meanings, suggesting in the social domain a relationship between masters and slaves and leading on the political level to an exclusion of Nawuri leaders from modern and hybrid institutions which would otherwise have provided a link to the ‘modern’ administration. The central questions are: Is it inevitable that law in multi-ethnic societies such as Ghana becomes a source of conflict? What role is played by the state? What is the impact of the state’s legal policy? And to what extent can so-called ‘traditional’ law be reformed and rearranged if it is understood as an element of culture? These questions are considered in the light of the perception that an open approach in dealing with a plurality of law is constitutive for a democracy which is guided by the idea of legitimacy and justice.