This examination of 2008-9 Afrobarometer survey data finds intense support for traditional authority across 19 African countries and all socio-demographic groups: large majorities believe that the institution should still play a significant role in local governance. Africans place considerable value on chiefs’ role in managing and resolving conflict, their leadership qualities and their accessibility. Traditional leaders also seem to play an essential symbolic role as representatives of community identity, unity, continuity and stability: they seem to derive their support at least as much from who they are as from what they do. As long as chiefs continue to produce (especially intrinsic) benefits for their communities, they will continue to be perceived as important players who must remain active in local governance if it is to function effectively.
Traditional leaders still exercise public authority in, at least, the rural zones of most of sub-Saharan Africa, and often well beyond. In many countries they have also frequently succeeded in carving out new political space for themselves, especially, though not only, in local governance.
Analysts have proposed many possible explanations for this. They draw sharply different conclusions, most notably regarding whether they believe that traditional authorities survive and thrive because of the preferences of the mass public, or only at the behest of the state, in opposition to the popular will.
Most of this research has relied on a case study approach. However, Afrobarometer data allows more systematic exploration of these hypotheses. It finds that, while Africans see traditional leaders as flawed, they nonetheless feel that these authorities have an essential role to play in local governance. Specific findings include the following:
- Respondents’ sociodemographic characteristics have little effect on their opinions. Differences in people’s economic status, gender, and urban/rural location have no effect.
- People who are inclined to identify with their ethnic groups more than their national identity are marginally more likely to support strengthening traditional leaders. However, those who believe their own group has been treated unfairly are no more likely to support chiefs than others.
- Support for traditional leaders is stronger in more legitimate states.
- There is no significant association between support for expanding the influence of traditional leaders and the performance of either local or central governments.
- The public willingly accedes to a chiefly role in governance, and while chiefs’ responsibility for allocating land in their communities is a significant explanatory factor, the effects are relatively marginal in comparison to other factors.
- Bearing responsibility for managing local conflict is one of the most effective predictors of the perceived importance of chiefs: it is their most highly valued function.
- The more traditional leadership people already have, the more they want, and vice versa: the factor with the strongest explanatory power to predict how much influence people think their chiefs should have is the measure of how much influence they currently wield.
- No evidence was found of any association between commitment to democracy or a preference for elections, and support for traditional leaders.
These findings suggest a need to question some common assumptions. Those who insist that traditional leaders do not enjoy popular support appear to be missing the core reality on the ground: in almost all of the countries studied, solid and at times overwhelming majorities of Africans affirm that traditional leaders continue to play an important role in their societies, and that this is desirable. Further:
- Support for chiefs is far more intrinsic than instrumental. Performance plays at best a minor role in keeping them relevant.
- Traditional authorities are not fundamentally in competition with the state or with elected leaders. While it is not unimportant that chiefs are, at present, perceived as better leaders than local government councillors, this is not necessarily key to their survival.
- Whether they enjoy the backing of the state or not, chiefs do not depend on state support.