Can democracy and the African chief co-exist? This study from Michigan State University analyses Afrobarometer survey data to explore popular perceptions of elected and traditional leaders. It finds 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. African societies are adept at integrating seemingly incompatible institutional structures, such as traditional institutions.
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.
Both traditionalists and modernists, however, often see traditional authority and elected political leaders as competitors. The struggle between the two for political power and legitimacy is seen as a zero-sum game. Whatever authority a traditional leader wrenches from the state is treated as a loss for state leadership and vice versa.
However, there has been the lack of empirical evidence concerning popular perceptions of traditional leaders, how they are formed and how they relate both to perceptions of elected leaders and to support for a democratic system of government. It is now clear that:
- 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.
There are no simple solutions to the question of how to define the role of chiefs and elders in African political systems. Individual local context is important. Some of the study’s implications are that:
- As far as democracy and traditional rule is concerned, there is no evident conflict between supporting traditional leadership and being a committed and active democrat.
- Rather than finding themselves trapped between two competing spheres of political authority, Africans have adapted to the hybridisation of their political institutions more seamlessly than many have anticipated or assumed.
- There is a particularly strong connection between traditional authorities and local government leaders – far from competing for public support, the fates of each appear to be inextricably linked.
An updated version of this article will appear in the Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 47, no. 1 in March 2009.