This is the first Brief in a series of Briefs which looks at the role of Traditional Leaders in African Countries.

This is the first of two briefs discussing the role of traditional leaders in African countries.  The second brief will consider Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.
Traditional leaders played a key role during the pre-independence period of the African countries, and still continue to, but the subject of traditional authority seems to have been neglected, as many of the previous roles have now been entrusted to local state officials. The relationship between local authority and traditional authority remains complicated and can be confrontational.
Loss of trust of the traditional authorities by citizens can occur, despite traditional authorities being the custodians of the African customs and values.  Overlapping responsibilities especially on the land has resulted in conflicts between the two authorities, local and traditional.

From Bechuanaland to Botswana

At the Symposium on Traditional Leadership and Local Government in Gaborone, in 1997, it was noted that some traditional leaders have legitimacy that precedes the colonial and current post – colonial state.  D.I. Ray clarified that ‘legitimacy’ is not about the monopoly of force, but why people respect and obey authority. Such legitimacy of the state and traditional authorities will bring about cooperation with citizens and development in certain areas of the economy, (Ray, 1997).
It was also highlighted at the Symposium that corruption, dictatorship, nepotism, misuse of resources and other forms of injustices from the two authorities would be a challenge to the integrity of both. This can be observed today in our communities, but the challenge still stands: How should we address such lack of integrity in our leaders?
The general consensus at the symposium was that traditional leaders should also have an active role in local government in their countries, but still the challenge was how they should be involved! It was agreed that the roles of traditional leaders in the local government should be recognised through the Constitution, just like those of the local authority, where the provisions (roles) are spelt out clearly in the Constitution.
The attendance of the symposium by several traditional leaders and local government officials meant that for development to take place in communities, the two authorities should jointly work together under Constitutional provisions. This should clearly spell out the roles of the two authorities on issues of service delivery, social change and transformation, governance, land control and other judicial functions.
As reported in a journal article by Ray and van Rouveroy (1996: 1-38), the participants concluded that traditional leaders can help bridge the gap between the state and the civil society in Africa. Traditional leaders can then cooperate with locally elected government officials on land allocation, dispute settlement, social and cultural change, and bringing transition between the civic society and community based organizations so as to bring about development.  Ray and van Rouveroy argue that “despite [this] being seen as an ‘anachronism’ in some instances, traditional authorities continue to play a crucial role in social, economic and cultural transformation at all levels” (Ibid).
Chiefs’ Councils therefore need to be constitutionally recognised, but the question is, does the post independent Botswana legally recognise the roles of traditional leaders in development? Do traditional authorities still provide guidance on issues of customs and traditional values and continue providing social cohesion and the maintenance of traditional values in the post independent regime of Botswana?
Some government in the colonial and post – colonial eras, have made traditional leaders ‘civil servants’, with the leaders losing their intermediary role between the society and the government.  Traditional leaders who resisted this change were shoved aside, and replaced by others who accepted to be agents of the government. Should traditional leaders be partisan? If so, would it not compromise their impartiality in their line of duties?
In Botswana, traditional leaders have been stripped of some of their powers and subjected to the government, and can be removed at will (Sharma, 2003). Despite this, Botswana has passed several laws to recognise the authority of traditional leaders.  These include:
- The Chieftaincy Act;
- The Customary Courts Act;
- The Tribal Territories Act;
- Marriages Act;
- The House of Chiefs Act, and so on.
The question is: are these pieces of legislation really upholding the role of traditional leaders? According to Dipholo K.B; Tshishonga N and Mafema E, in their article on “Traditional Leadership in Botswana ...” in the Journal of African and Asian Local Government Studies, one school of thought is that “traditional leadership is anchored on hereditary leadership which is incompatible with democracy and should become extinct” whilst the other school of thought is “holds that traditional leadership legitimizes participatory democracy at the local level”, but there’s a common appreciation of the role of traditional leadership especially in the aspects of rural life, (2011). Their aim was to find out how “traditional leadership could be adapted to enhance good governance and local development”, (Ibid).
Ndlela (2007: 34) confirms that traditional leaders continue to enjoy their role and recognition in the new dispensation, just like in other African states; and Good (2002: 3) argues that the system of traditional leadership in Botswana exists parallel to the democratic system of government and the challenge is of forging unity.

From the Gold Coast to Ghana

In several African countries, the state developed an antagonistic relationship between itself and traditionally organised society, as it lacks the power to reorganise the society, a typical weakness of both the colonial and post-colonial states.
In Ghana chieftaincies survived after the end of colonial rule, as the chiefs remained a powerful authority in the mediation between the state and the communities. After independence, Ghana continued with colonial administrative boundaries and the chiefs maintained the role and power at local level especially in rural areas, (Lentz C, 2000), hence the title of his article: Chieftaincy has come to stay!
The colonial government did not succeed in changing traditional ways as it encountered resistance.  When the Convention People’s Party (CPP) came to power in the 1950s, the government revised the system by removing the Native Courts, in an attempt to reform the judicial system. The aim of the post-colonial regime was to destroy the independence of chiefs.
The Minister of Local Government used several strategies to remove chiefs from the Native Courts, replacing them with office bearers from CPP ranks. In this way the CCP managed to get rid of chiefs, whilst those who became loyal to the Party were reinstated into the Native Courts. Chiefs became puppets of the ruling party in Ghana. This was successful because there was no strong opposition to the CPP at that time, but when the National Liberation Movement (NLM) came into being, CPP was challenged by chiefs, (Ibid).
The relationship between the government and the chiefs became antagonistic.  James Currey (2000), researched this relationship and came up with a report which showed the struggle chiefs had with the post-colonial regime.  Points he made include:
- Whilst the government wanted to change the relationship between the state and the chiefs, and to change the system, a problem was that the chiefs could not adapt to the new system.
- The chiefs were the ‘grass’ on which the two elephants were fighting: the outgoing colonial government and the incoming CPP government.  Some of the chiefs used this conflict to their advantage.
- The CPP government could not coordinate the two authorities – the local and the traditional councils, hence the offensive attack on chiefs by the CPP government in 1950s.  This was then seen as authoritarian, and the CPP lost popular support.
- In turn, this led to the chiefs gaining support.  Hence they were able to survive in the post – colonial regime in Ghana, and remained a strong force.
Despite the wrangles between the state and the traditional leaders, in Ghana traditional leaders, after standing firm to fight for their recognition, they now have the following roles in local governance and development:
- Custodians of natural resources, as land;
- Fighting for social development of their people;
- Dispute resolution in communities; and 
- Guardianship of traditional heritage as norms, values and principles.
Even so, are chiefs in Ghana exercising their powers without the ruling party’s intervening to manipulate them? Are chiefs serving in post – independent Ghana because of their loyalty to the ruling party?


From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, chiefs are said to have “a connection to the land in the eyes of the public and are often seen as the traditional custodians of the land, customs and societal values.’’ Chiefs have been accorded several roles which include:
i. Protecting the land against deforestation and degradation;
ii. Preparing traditional rituals for the rains with the communities;
iii. Protection of species of wild animals of the land in their areas; and 
iv. Preserving holy groves in the forests in the country; and so on, (Dodo: 2013).
The Colonial government deprived the indigenous people of their land and allocated it to white colonial settlers, alienating chiefs and their subjects in the process.
The post-independence government continued colonial practices and further removed the chiefs’ rights, allowing them only the arbitration of domestic disputes and to sit on village development committees. The chiefs’ environmental authority was not recognised, and the chiefs could no longer function as custodians of the land.  They could neither allocate it nor protect it from any form of degradation. It was a popular concern that some traditional leaders were corrupt and acted like political activists of the ruling party in order to retain their positions, whilst others were considered as affiliated to the opposition.  In both cases, partiality entered in the exercise of their duties, especially in the rural and remote places of the country. Realising the importance of the traditional leaders in the country, especially as custodians of customs, culture and values, the government of Zimbabwe is now giving back power to traditional leaders to restore their dignity and role in the communities, especially in remote and rural areas, but their compensation still is determined by each chief’s loyalty to the ruling party.
The Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Ecologists (AZTEC) has been established to empower traditional leaders again with the responsibility of controlling rural land, and protecting against deforestation and degradation, as well as preserving species in the forests. Programs like the National Tree Planting Day (1st December every year) have been launched through government initiatives, and chiefs given fore-front roles in their communities, including protection of water resources and wild life conservation, and teaching people to be stewards of the environment. As a result, there has been increased cooperation between chiefs and the local government on development, especially on communal lands management, (Daneel, 1996).
People in Zimbabwe oppose the manipulation of chiefs by the ruling party, not only during local, provincial and national elections, but on respect of other programs which are supposed to benefit all people, for example grain and foodstuffs distribution to farmers in rural areas and in poor communities. Land reform is considered an essential program especially if it is meant to address the inequality of land ownership, due to the discriminatory system of the past colonial regimes.  Chiefs have been used by the ruling party and the liberation war veterans, to forcibly take back the lands from commercial farmers and to redistribute them to the rural communities for their subsistence farming and grazing land, in order to regain the people’s confidence against opposition parties.
This has been seen in many African countries, as the traditional leaders have been used by the post-colonial regimes for the party gains and hence people have lost their faith in traditional leaders in executing their roles impartially.
In Zimbabwe, traditional leaders are selected by their families through rules of succession (Dodo O, 2013) and eventually endorsed by the executives, land were later incorporated into the government system through the Traditional Leaders Act (Lutz and Linder, 2004).According to Dodo, properly elected traditional leaders command profound respect among their subjects.


The institutions of traditional leaders in many African countries have persevered and resisted invalidation. They have been entrusted with responsibilities as settling disputes of minor cases and other ceremonial duties, whilst they are ignored in local government processes. As a result, some communities now consider traditional leaders as helpless, (Dipholo, 2007). 
But traditional leadership is critical, and cannot be ignored. Traditional leaders play a social role in rural communities and therefore help in rural community development through stimulating participation in development programs. There is a need for traditional authorities to be recognised through the Constitution in the same way the local authority is recognised, to allow tradition and local authorities to work together without overlapping responsibilities, for the good of the society in general. On the other hand chiefs, who are not elected officials, should avoid executing their roles on political party lines, and become partial (manipulated by the ruling party), as this will result in the loss of trust by the communities to which they are accountable.
It has been observed that the role of traditional authorities is dynamic; it has changed through from one regime to another, as under colonialism and in the post-colonialism. In all the three countries considered in this article, traditional authority remains legitimate, and a source of organization in the countryside, despite the fact that their functions differ from one country, depending on government policy.
Matthew Augustine


1. Currey J, (2000). Rathbone, Nkrumah and the Chiefs: The Politics of Chieftaincy in Ghana, 1951 – 1960, London.
2. Daneel M. L, (1996). Environmental Reform: A New Venture of Zimbabwe’s Traditional Custodians of the Land, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law: Special Issue on The New Relevance of Traditional Authorities to Africa’s Future, pp. 347-376.
3. Dipholo, K., Mafema E and Tshishonga N, (2011). Traditional Leadership in Botswana: Opportunities and challenges for enhancing good governance and local development; The Journal of African and Asian Local Government Studies, p. 17, 19-25.
4. Dipholo K, (2007). Reducing Dependency and promoting community participation in Development: Case studies of participatory rural appraisal and community action plans in Botswana (unpublished).
5. Dodo O, (2013). Traditional Leadership Systems and Gender Recognition: International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, 1(1), June, pp. 29 – 44, Bindura University of Science Education, Zimbabwe.
6. E.A.B. van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal, (1996). States and Chiefs: Are Chiefs mere puppets?, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law; ... The New Relevance of Traditional Authorities to Africa’s Future, pp. 37 – 39; 39-78.
7. Jackson P & Marquette H, (2000). The Interaction Between traditional Systems and Local Government Systems: Sub-Sahara Africa; Department of International Development, University of Birmingham.
8. Lentz C, (2000). Chieftaincy Has Come To Stay! [Paper on Chieftaincy in the societies of North Western Ghana], Cahiers d’etudes africaines, Vol. XL, No. 159, 2000.
9. Rathbone R, (2000). Native Courts, Local Courts, Chieftaincy and the CPP in the 1950s; Journal on African Cultural Studies, 13(1), pp. 125-139.
10. Ray D I, (1997). Commonwealth Local Government Forum: Policy Questions for Consideration, 23-26 Sept, Gaborone, Botswana. 
11. Ray D I & van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal, (1996). Journal on Pluralism and the Unofficial Law: The Relevance of Traditional Authorities to Africa’s Future ... Reflections of Chieftaincy in Africa; pp 1-38, Gaborone, Botswana.
12. Ray D. I, (1996). Divided Sovereignty: Traditional Authority and the State in Ghana, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law: Special Issue on The New Relevance of Traditional Authorities to Africa’s Future, 37-38, 19pp, pp. 181-202.
13. Sharma, K.C., (1997), “Mechanism for Involvement of TRADITIONAL Leaders in Promotion of Good Governance” in Ray D. I., K. C. Sharma, and I. May-Parker (eds.), Traditional Leadership and Local Government, Report of a Symposium organised in Gaborone by the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, London. 
14. Sharma K C, (2003). “Role of Traditional Structures in Local Governance for Local Development, The Case of Botswana” Prepared for Community Empowerment and Social Inclusion Program (CESI), the University of Botswana, Gaborone; []
15. Von Trotha T, (1996). From Administrative to Civil Chieftaincy: Some Problems and Prospects of African Chieftaincy,  Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law: Special Issue on The New Relevance of Traditional Authorities to Africa’s Future, pp  37-38; and 79-107.