For someone who is a strong supporter of freedom and individual rights it might be surprising to hear that I strongly support a role for traditional Chiefs in the daily governance of rural African life. Why? Chiefs are unelected, they are a relict of the past and the customary law they enforce is oppressive and discriminatory. Right? My research show that it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’ve been looking at issues around the legitimacy of traditional institutions as part of my responsibilities as Research Fellow in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. The research is funded by a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation and looks at the role of chiefs and traditional institutions in peace and conflict in south-central Africa. It’s clear that Chiefs and the institutions they represent are becoming more popular in many African countries. Chiefs have a de jure role in local government in at least twenty African countries and they are the de facto local government in many remote rural areas where central government fails to penetrate. Indeed, it is the failure of the state in Africa to create local government that delivers meaningful change to peoples lives that is partly responsible for the popularity of Chiefs, traditional courts and customary law. They get the job done. Despite this, we still hear concern from the development aid community about the lack of representation in traditional institutions. I find this concern misplaced. These same development aid organisations routinely work with NGOs to deliver on development projects – NGOs who are not democratically elected in any way. In addition to this, there is a problem when those who are responsible for initiating profound changes in the lives of rural people take almost no interest or time to understand how traditional institutions function. It seems the development community who criticise traditional institutions for their lack of democratic representation fail to understand the subtleties of how these institutions work. There are often controls on how the chief wields power and there is a common saying in many African languages that translates as “A chief is a chief by the people”. In Zulu this is “nkosi yinkosi ngabantu” and there are some important implications contained in this expression for the exercise of power in the community.
Chief Mukuni lives near the tourist town of Livingstone and people who identify as Toka-Leya under his chieftainship are spread over a large area downstream of the Victoria Falls and inland in some of the most dry and inhospitable country in Zambia. The area is poor, access is restricted to a few very rough roads and the telecommunications infrastructure is patchy at best. It’s a difficult area to lay down an effective local government and perhaps partly due to this problem, the Mukuni Royal Establishment is the de facto local government. They have taken the unusual step of developing a very clear guide to how the different individuals in positions of power interact with each other and with the chieftaincy. I’m not going to go into too much detail here because it gets a bit tedious unless you are really interested, but suffice it to say that there are individuals in every village who represent their people and who have the power to express dissatisfaction which will be heard at the Chiefs palace in Mukuni village. In addition there is a system of matriarchy which provides for women to criticise the chief and other men who occupy positions of power. At the highest level the Bedyango (Matriarch) in collaboration with the Mwendambeli (Prime Minister) are authorised by traditional custom to eliminate the Chief by poisoning if he becomes widely unpopular. Things would have to be very extreme for this to happen, but in terms of people power it cannot be described as unrepresentative. In Africa the Chief rules, but not without the consent of the people.
The way that Chief Mukuni has structured his royal household and the organisation which is responsible for development, the Mukuni Development Trust is innovative and represents an important model for how Chiefs and traditional institutions may be brought into development. A board of 21 representatives run the organisation and most of these are from the upper echelons of the Mukuni Royal Establishment. The chief himself does not sit on the board and this is a conscious decision so as to avoid problems with how he may exercise power and possibly intimidate the board. There are also 12 representatives from the tourist and hotel industries, local government and parastatal organisations. The reason the board has senior members of the Mukuni Royal Establishment is important because it underpins the legitimacy of the organisation. The legitimacy of the traditional institution comes from the acceptance by the people of the traditional right to govern which is claimed by the Mukuni chiefs, the religious and spiritual association that the traditional leadership claims, as well as the acceptance of the customary law which is used to decide how to allocate land, regulate personal relationships and prosecute offenders. More serious cases of assault or theft will be referred to the police in Livingstone and dealt with in the courts but the chief and his traditional institution performs a valuable function in providing quick, cheap and effective justice which is widely accepted by the Bene Mukuni (people of Mukuni).
Development aid organisations would seek to replace this with a democratically elected structure which in my opinion, does not seem to be a solution which will gain the respect of the people. The Mukuni Development Trust has the trust, respect and legitimacy which comes from being embedded in the culture. Parachuting a Western democratic model of representation into this situation is a recipe for failure. However, Chiefs and traditional institutions are not perfect. Many chieftainships do not have any separate structure which handles development issues and do not look after the interests of their people. Many Chiefs are corrupt. But the problem with corruption is not restricted to Chiefs and traditional institutions. The democratically elected government departments in Zambia have a massive problem with corruption and I think this points to a problem with ownership and respect of the institution of government. I’m not sure how to get Zambian civil servants to take ownership of their institutions, but what I am increasingly sure of is that when you structure a traditional institution correctly so that it takes into account issues of transparency and accountability, and has the legitimacy that comes with its links to the traditional authority, then you potentially have a powerful combination of factors that will make the institution work.
Chiefs and traditional institutions also need to accept change. They have been changing for hundreds of years, so change will not be new and it has the potential to revitalise the institution. They need to move away from a tribal identity and accept that anyone who lives in their area is a valid member of the community. They need to change some of the traditions around how women inherit wealth following a husbands death. In some cases they have already changed their views on sexual relations in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but they probably need to do more. They need to accept that transparency with respect to funds for development is essential to avoid corruption. I do not think they need to change their model of representation to a Western style democratic system because many chieftainships have systems which allow the voice of the people to be heard without Western style democracy. Where this is not the case, solutions need to be found which are legitimate within the communitarian cosmology of African society that values consent and takes into account religious and spiritual beliefs.
This is all hard work. It’s difficult and it takes time. It totally contradicts the way current funding cycles and delivery objectives are structured in the development aid community – which is probably why there are so many failures. I’d like to see an anthropologist working for two years before any proposals are made for change to the traditional governance arrangements. I’d like to see a proper account of history that does not cite the supposed magic bullet of colonial influence to undermine the legitimacy of chiefs and traditional institutions. They are legitimate today if they are accepted as such by the people. We are seeing a slow acceptance of these ideas, but we really need faster adoption of a revised strategy that starts to deliver meaningful change to people’s lives. Whatever solution emerges will have to be suited to the local context and not rely on generalisations about colonialism and compression of complexity that assessment of problems in Africa has suffered from in the recent past. It’s not only the Chiefs who need to change – the development community needs to change too.