Modern African societies comfortable with traditional leadership

29 October 2010

A rare empirical study of popular perceptions about elected and traditional leaders in Africa has unearthed surprising findings. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Michigan State University survey found no evident conflict between supporting traditional leadership and being a committed and active democrat. Even more surprisingly, “...far from being in stark competition for public esteem, local traditional leaders appear to draw their sustenance and legitimacy from the same well as elected officials.” The paper concludes that African societies are often quite adept at integrating seemingly incompatible institutional structures, such as traditional institutions.

Can democracy and the chief co-exist in modern Africa? Contrary to conventional wisdom, a recent Michigan State University survey found no evident conflict between supporting traditional leadership and being a committed and active democrat.

Traditionalists regard Africa’s traditional chiefs as the true representatives of their people, accessible, respected and legitimate and therefore still essential to politics on the continent. Modernists view traditional authority as a gerontocratic, chauvinistic, authoritarian and increasingly irrelevant form of rule that is antithetical to democracy. This debate has intensified in the last two decades as efforts at democratisation and decentralisation have increased competing claims to power and legitimacy, especially at the local level.

A recent Michigan State University study analysed Afrobarometer survey data to explore popular perceptions of elected and traditional leaders. It found that positive attitudes toward chiefs are not incompatible with democracy – and vice versa. Furthermore, positive perceptions of chiefs and of elected leaders are strongly linked. The key findings of the study are:

  • Traditional leaders, chiefs and elders still play an important role in the lives of many Africans: only religious leaders are contacted more frequently by ordinary Africans in their efforts to solve their problems or express their views.

  • In many countries traditional authorities play a pre-eminent role as mediators of violent conflict.

  • There is considerable cross-country variation in the status and importance of African chiefs and elders.

  • The sharp distinctions outsiders draw between elected local government officials and hereditary chiefs are not made by most of the Africans who live under these dual systems of authority.

  • Far from being in competition with elected leaders for the public’s regard, traditional leaders and elected leaders are seen by the public as two sides of the same coin.

  • Popular evaluations of both traditional and elected leaders depend on the leader’s leadership capacity. An individual’s level of modernisation plays a much smaller role in shaping perceptions of traditional authority.

The full text of Logan, C., Traditional Leaders In Modern Africa: Can Democracy And The Chief Co-Exist?, 2008 Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 93. (Source: Governance and Social Development Resource Centre)

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