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Ethnic Land Rights in Western Ghana: Landlord–Stranger Relations in the Democratic Era


  • Catherine Boone,

    1. is Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin (Batts 3.128, A1800, Austin, TX 78712, USA; e-mail: She is the author of Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice (Cambridge, 2003) and a book manuscript entitled Property and Political Order: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics in Africa.
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  • Dennis Kwame Duku

    1. holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra. He is now Senior History Teacher and Coordinator at the Roman Ridge School, PO Box GP 21057, Accra, Ghana; e-mail:
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We would like to acknowledge support for this research from the Long Chair in Democratic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and from the American Council of Learned Societies, which provided funding that launched the project in 2006. Professors James Essegbey of the University of Florida, Gainesville, and Beatrix Allah-Mensah of the University of Ghana provided invaluable support. The authors thank those in Western Region who gave their time and effort to further this work, as well as the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript for their excellent contributions. Thanks also to Dr John V. Cotter of St Edward's University in Austin, Texas, who drew the map.


In Citizen and Subject (1996), Mahmood Mamdani denounced the ‘bifurcated nature’ of the African state which, in his account, imposed ethnic hierarchy and chiefly despotism on rural dwellers while reserving democratic citizenship for the urban minority. Have twenty years of ‘decentralized democracy’ in many countries washed away these distinctions? This article takes up this issue in an analysis of the politics of land allocation and landlord–stranger relations in Western Ghana. An analysis of historical trajectories, and our own field observations and interviews in two Western Region districts, suggest that at the local level, the bifurcated character of political authority that was identified by Mamdani persists in the domain of economic rights. The record also shows that state policies and institutions, rather than working to chip away at ethnic hierarchy and chiefly authority, work at least in part to reproduce these features of the local political economy. In both non-democratic and democratic eras, Ghana's central government has played an important role in shoring up chiefly and ethnic privilege in the land domain. These local hierarchies influence the practical meaning of democracy and economic liberalization for rural citizens, and should be explored more systematically in future studies of democratic and electoral politics in Ghana and elsewhere.