The Role of Traditional Governance in Africa Today

The Role of Traditional Governance in Africa Today

In 2016, Africa saw a number of democratic elections and experienced mostly peaceful political transitions or continuations. In 2017, Quartz Africa listed 5 political elections to watch in Africa including Kenya and Liberia where incumbents will step down making way for new political seasons. It’s such milestones that have arguably signalled Africa’s ‘political maturity’ and increasing democratisation modelled on Western democratic ideals.

Despite this background, however, throughout Africa traditional governance in the form of Kings, Queens, Chiefs and Elders remain a staple part of the socio-political life of many, especially in rural areas. In fact, according to The Washington Post, most *rural Africans live in communities led by unelected traditional Chiefs.

This begs the question: Can democracy and the African Chief co-exist? 

This is a question increasingly relevant yet so under-explored. In September 2016 my dad became the Chief of Ahwiam village – a small, rural village in his home province of Sefwi in the Western Region of Ghana. This juxtaposed with Ghana’s election campaign which was well underway at the time. Before we left I honestly expected a small ceremony, maybe even a celebration on the scale of a hall party. Instead, we were met with 3 solid days of ceremony, celebration and custom in the village palace. The first day: the ‘“installation”, consisted of the formal selection, nomination and acceptance of the Chieftaincy. My dad was carried in by his ”subjects” and placed on a Stool – a symbol of royalty in Ghanaian culture. A number of traditional customs were performed including the killing of a ram (a symbol of homage to the ancestors) and the reciting of the Chieftaincy rites. For the rest of the day, the people were invited to come and greet their new Chief and celebrate with music and dance. On the second day my dad had to remain indoors to receive homage and greetings and on the final day, he swore an oath of allegiance to the Paramount Chief – the Omanhene and the rest of the incumbent Chiefs of various towns followed by a long day of music, dancing and parades.



The persistence of custom, the preservation of the sacredness of tradition and the engagement of the local community demonstrates to me just how significant traditional institutions remain. It suggests that they can and do co-exist with increasing democratisation on the Continent. At first glance, it would seem that traditional customs would be greatly at odds with the staples of democracy and some observers are concerned that their continued power undermines it. In particular, traditional leaders are unelected persons who inherit governmental authority or position mainly by virtue of membership of a particular family or clan and largely remain in power until death. However, according to Survey data collected by the Afrobarometer, Africans who live under these dual systems of authority do not draw as sharp a distinction between hereditary chiefs and elected local government officials as most analysts would expect. In fact, it’s suggested that Africans live under a sort of ‘hybrid’ democracy where traditional leaders work to support democratic government structures and programmes – particularly in the realm of development.

According to my Dad, “as a Chief, you are a development agent and custodian of the land and it is your job to lobby and liaise with the formal government for your developmental needs- similar to an MP.” For instance, his first order of business as Chief will be to raise funding for the installation of boreholes and other water facilities to replace mostly defective manual wells.

My father’s experience as Chief coincides with research undertaken by Yale Assistant Professor, Kate Baldwin. She finds that surprisingly, traditional African Chiefs help ensure rural citizens are better represented by their governments because they are, “uniquely positioned to get policymakers to respond to rural voters – not despite being unelected, but because of it.

How? Firstly, due to their natural connection with their respective communities, traditional leaders have the ability to lobby and coordinate their communities for development projects better than central governments who often have weak administrative arms. Secondly, traditional leaders possess unique knowledge and expertise about their rural communities which are often misunderstood. Finally, being unelected traditional leaders this often means they do not have a political incentive but rather have a personal investment. As with my dad, Chiefs govern over their home towns and villages and govern for life. Therefore they can think further ahead than the next election and are willing to make long-term investments in building and maintaining community institutions.

In addition to development, the Chief also takes on a mediator role, resolving lower level disputes to do with land, marriage and family – all things that could go to court but instead, the Chieftaincy acts as a form of alternative dispute resolution. In this way, it not only works to support democratic governments but also alleviates pressure on central court systems.

Importantly, the role and the remits of traditional leaders will vary across the Continent and have changed throughout the years to keep up with modern life. Interestingly though, in most cases, customary law is recognised and upheld by a country’s constitution – as is the case in Ghana**. For instance whilst my dad no longer has the power to order the punishment of death he does have the power to banish people from the community (I know, very Nollywood), a punishment that would be recognised by Ghanaian constitutional law.



Despite their resilience, traditional leaders have been met with criticism in recent times. For instance in South Africa taxpayers have often questioned why traditional leaders are paid so much whilst the communities they head remain undeveloped and their people continue to live well below the poverty line. It’s reported that Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu the reigning King of the Zulu nation alone received R54.2 million for the 2014/2015 year in payments from the government. Such concerns are reasonable and alleged mismanagement and/ or misappropriation of funds in any political institution – democratic or traditional – should be challenged. However, in most African nations, the government fails to allocate funding and/or support to traditional leaders, who are left to raise their own resources by whatever means. As I have mentioned my dad’s role consists of lobbying the government for his village’s needs like an MP, but unlike an MP there is no formal allocation of funding from the central government or any other governmental institution and he must, therefore, find alternative ways to fund development e.g. personal investment, diaspora contributions, farming, aid, etc. .

The government does indeed expect traditional leaders to support government structures and programmes. Yet it makes no financial allocation to traditional councils, which paralyses them from initiating or supporting even the most beneficial development programme.”

Inkatha Freedom Party (South Africa) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi for The Star newspaper.

There is clearly a need for reform on both sides if traditional institutions and democratic governments are to not only continue to co-exist but are to further Africa’s social and economic development effectively. Central governments should work to further integrate traditional leaders into the developmental sphere and change the practice whereby traditional rulers are left out of the planning and management of projects at the community level and take advantage of their unique and personal knowledge. At the same time, the reality is that governments have limited resources. Therefore traditional leaders should as far as they possibly can, further their own engagement. For example, his Royal Majesty Otumfuo Osei Tutu II Asantehene (King of the Ashanti Kingdom of Ghana) took his concerns about the social conditions of his people to the World Bank which led to the establishment of the project called the Promoting Partnership with Traditional Authorities Project its main purpose being to “substantively integrate and improve deprived remote and rural communities’ involvement in development activities.” As well as lobbying for a $4.5m grant to fund water and sanitation facilities for 1000 communities in five regions of Ghana as a supplement to Government interventions.

On current record, I cannot see how Government interventions alone can solve the problems of Ghana. Any such belief is illusive and indeed a “feel-good opium” which does not reflect the realities of today’s global economic environment.”

King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II 

Traditional leaders remain relevant and even essential to development in Africa where most still live in rural areas. Socio-economic development would be more successful when rooted in these widely shared cultural institutions – further integration is therefore needed.

*The rural population in Sub Saharan Africa was last measured at 62.26% of the total population in 2015.(World Bank)

** (According to the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, “The institution of chieftaincy, together with its traditional councils as established by customary law and usage, is…guaranteed”.)

What are your thoughts on traditional governance on the continent? Should they be further integrated? Comment below.


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