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African citizens’ message to traditional leaders: Development, not politics

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – On average, people see their chiefs as collaborating rather than competing with elected leaders and as focused on advancing the interests of their communities rather than their personal ambitions, the writers say.

By Carolyn Logan and Kelechi Amakoh

The proper role for unelected “traditional leaders” or “chiefs” in modern African societies has been debated for decades. Once written off as anachronistic, irrelevant, and anti-democratic, especially after the democratic openings that swept across the continent in the 1990s, chiefs have been resurgent in recent years, establishing themselves as an integral part of the fabric of local governance in many countries.

The unelected chieftaincy has not just coexisted but thrived alongside the practice of democracy, elections, and multiparty competition. In many places chiefs work in tandem with local councillors to allocate land, resolve conflicts, and govern communities. Most recently, chiefs have been called on to reinforce national battles against the Covid-19 pandemic (Sanny & Asiamah, 2020).

New survey findings from Afrobarometer confirm that the position of traditional authorities is still strong, or even strengthening. Chiefs get consistently higher citizen ratings for trust and performance, and are seen as markedly less corrupt, when compared to elected leaders and government officials, and the gaps are widening. Chiefs find support not only among elderly rural men, but also among women, urban residents, youth, and the most educated.

They wield significant influence in their communities, especially when it comes to governance, conflict resolution, and land allocation. Moreover, people generally think they have the interests of their communities at heart and are effective in cooperating with local councillors to promote local development. In fact, by a 5-to-1 margin, Africans would prefer to see their influence increase.

Africans want their chiefs to work with elected leaders to bring development to their communities, and they even believe that the engagement of traditional leaders helps to strengthen rather than to weaken democracy.

But one area where chiefs’ influence is not welcome is electoral politics. Although much has been made of the potential role of chiefs as “vote brokers” who deliver the votes of their community members to whichever political candidate or party wins their favour (Holzinger, Kern, & Kromrey, 2016), only one in five Africans say chiefs have a lot of influence on people’s votes. And they have a clear message for their chiefs: Stay out of politics.

Key findings

How chiefs stack up against other leaders:

* Across 31 countries, traditional leaders consistently receive significantly more positive ratings – on trust, performance, listening, and lack of corruption – than their elected counterparts (presidents, members of Parliament, and local government councillors).

* While high trust extends across many countries, there are outliers. Fewer than four in 10 citizens express significant trust in traditional leaders in Tanzania, Sudan, Morocco, and South Africa.

* Trust in traditional leaders is much higher among rural respondents, increases with respondents’ age, and decreases with education, but pluralities express trust across all key demographic groups.

* Men and women express nearly equal levels of trust, despite the patriarchal nature of most traditional leadership institutions.

* Across 17 countries tracked since 2008/2009, trust in traditional leaders has held steady while trust in elected leaders has dropped substantially, leading to a widening trust gap between chiefs and other leaders.

The role traditional authorities play in community development:

* Citizens see their chiefs’ most significant role as solving local disputes (68 percent say they have “some” or “a lot” of influence in this area), but majorities also say they are influential in local governance (58 percent) and in land allocation (52 percent). Far fewer say they influence how people vote (38 percent).

* Across 31 countries, a majority (54 percent) believe that traditional leaders mostly serve the people in their communities, rather than their own interests (23 percent) or the interests of politicians or government officials (16 percent).

* But majorities disagree in Ghana, Cameroon, Malawi, Mozambique, Sudan, and Morocco, and pluralities disagree in South Africa, Angola, and Zimbabwe.

Across 18 countries, the public is confident (67 percent) that chiefs are doing an effective job of cooperating with elected leaders to get things done, rather than competing with them for resources and power.

Chiefs, politics, and democracy:

* Most people say chiefs don’t influence their vote – and shouldn’t try. Two-thirds (67 percent) say traditional leaders should stay out of politics and let people make their own voting decisions.

* A plurality (42 percent) of respondents say chiefs’ participation in governance strengthens democracy, and another 35 percent say they don’t affect it; just 14 percent think the presence and influence of these unelected leaders undermine democracy, though this view is much more prevalent in Morocco, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

In sum:

* Even as African societies continue to urbanise, modernise, and entrench the regular conduct of elections, many people want to see more of their traditional chiefs, not less. A majority (51 percent) want the role of chiefs in governing their communities to increase, compared to just 13 percent who say they should play a lesser role.

* But while positive perceptions of traditional leaders and their role and influence are generally widespread, they are not universal. Several countries – most notably Morocco, Tanzania, and South Africa – reveal markedly more negative perceptions of chiefs.

Whom do you trust?

Afrobarometer findings have long established that Africans hold traditional leaders in higher regard than elected leaders (Logan, 2009, 2013), and this continues to be the case. Even compared to presidents – who tend to be the most popular among elected leaders – traditional leaders are more trusted by 10 percentage points, seen as less corrupt by 17 percentage points, and assessed as performing better by 8 percentage points, on average across 28 countries.

The margins are also wide – 18, 12, and 16 points, respectively – when traditional leaders are compared to local government councillors, their closest counterparts in government. And while only 42 percent think that traditional leaders do a good job of listening to ordinary people (vs. 51 percent who disagree), this is more than double the number who say the same about local government councillors (19 percent), and more than three times as many as those who rate members of Parliament as good listeners (12 percent).

And the margins are increasing over time, in some cases very substantially. Across 17 countries where trust in all four institutions has been tracked since Afrobarometer Round 4 (2008/2009), trust in traditional leaders has fluctuated a bit, but continues to cycle around an average of about 62 percent (Figure 2). Meanwhile, trust in elected leaders has declined significantly over the same period.

While traditional leaders were only modestly more trusted than presidents in 2008/2009 (by 2 percentage points), the gap has now grown to 10 points because of a 9-point drop in presidential trust. Trust in MPs is also down 12 points, so an 8-point gap in 2008/2009 has more than doubled to 19 points. Local government councillors have not lost quite as much ground, with trust declining a more modest 5 percentage points since 2008, but they now lag behind traditional leaders by a margin of 16 points, compared to 12 points in 2008/2009.

Serving whose interests?

Critics of chieftaincy have also argued that chiefs are instruments of the state, serving the interests of national political masters rather than those of their local communities (Mamdani, 1996; Ntsebeza, 2005). But ordinary Africans don’t agree. A majority (54 percent) believe that traditional leaders “mostly look out for what is best for the people in their communities,” including majorities in 20 of the 31 surveyed countries. More than seven in 10 feel this way in Ethiopia (79 percent), Botswana (75 percent), Guinea (74 percent), and Mali (72 percent).

But there are notable exceptions. In nine countries, pluralities believe that chiefs either serve political leaders and government officials or themselves, rather than their communities. The gap is especially wide in Morocco, where a sizeable majority (61 percent) see traditional leaders as primarily self-serving compared to a mere 13 percent who think they put community interests first. Just 25 percent of South Africans and 33 percent of Angolans believe they prioritise their communities.

Competition or cooperation?

Another question about the role played by traditional leaders is whether they compete – for resources or influence – with elected officials or whether they serve as “development brokers” whose efforts complement and enhance those of local government (Baldwin, 2015).

Our respondents overwhelmingly view the interaction between chiefs and elected local authorities as complementary rather than competitive. Across 18 countries, two out of three respondents (67 percent) report that traditional leaders mainly “work in cooperation with elected leaders to get things done,” rather than competing with them “for resources, power, and influence”. Even in Malawi and Ghana, where people voice scepticism about whose interests chiefs serve, majorities (78 percent and 57 percent, respectively) see chiefs as co-operating rather than competing. Angola (46 percent) and Tanzania (42 percent) are the only countries where this view is shared by a plurality rather than a majority.

Traditional leaders and democracy

We have already seen that most people do not believe that chiefs play a dominant role in influencing vote choice in their communities. But should they? The answer is a resounding “no”. Two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) reject the idea that “traditional leaders have a better grasp of political issues than ordinary people” and should therefore advise people on how to vote, saying instead that chiefs should “stay out of politics and leave people to make their own decisions about how to vote”.

At least eight in 10 respondents take this position in Lesotho (87 percent), Gabon (83 percent), Togo (82 percent), Malawi (80 percent) and Morocco (80 percent). The only countries where this is not a majority view are Nigeria (48 percent) and Angola (39 percent), where people are evenly divided on the issue, and South Africa (48 percent) and Tanzania (38 percent), where those who reject vote influence still far outnumber those who support it.

But even if chiefs aren’t influencing most voters, they are still almost always unelected. Given that elections are such a core feature of democracy, does the influential role of traditional leaders in community governance stand at odds with democracy, perhaps even posing a threat to it? Or can chiefs work with elected leaders to make democracy work better?

When asked whether chiefs strengthen or weaken democracy, 42 percent of respondents say they strengthen it, three times as many as those who think they weaken it (14 percent).

Another one in three (35 percent) say that their involvement in governance doesn’t make a difference to the level of democracy.

The proportion who think traditional leaders weaken democracy falls below 20 percent in all but five countries: Togo (21 percent), Eswatini (24 percent), Zimbabwe (28 percent), Sudan (29 percent), and Morocco (33 percent).

Only in Morocco and Sudan do those who say chiefs weaken democracy significantly outnumber those who say they strengthen it, while in Zimbabwe and Eswatini people are evenly divided between these two positions. But in all of these countries except Zimbabwe, even more people say that engagement of traditional leaders in governance makes no difference to the level of democracy in their country. In short, there is no country where more than one-third of the population believes that traditional leaders have a negative effect on democracy.

More or less power to the chiefs?

The public’s overall assessment of traditional leaders – including how trustworthy they are and whether they play a positive or negative role in governing – is probably best captured in one additional question: Should the amount of influence that chiefs have in governing local communities increase, stay the same, or decrease?

Large majorities across every surveyed country except Tanzania either want the already substantial influence of chiefs to stay the same (29 percent on average) or to increase (51 percent). Fully four out of five Ethiopians (81 percent) and Malians (79 percent) want to see a larger role for traditional leaders in governing their communities, and majorities agree in 20 countries.

A preference for decreasing the power of traditional leaders is a small minority position (less than one in five) everywhere except in Sudan (21 percent) and in Morocco, where a plurality of 44% would prefer to see chiefs’ powers reduced.


In most of the 31 countries covered here, citizens regard traditional leaders in a largely positive light, especially for their roles in conflict resolution, governance, and development.

On average, they see their chiefs as collaborating rather than competing with elected leaders and as focused on advancing the interests of their communities rather than their personal ambitions. Perhaps the most telling finding is that there is substantial demand for chiefs to play a larger role in governing communities across the continent.

Most ordinary Africans do not agree with critics who say that an unelected chieftaincy is anti-democratic. In fact, people are much more likely to believe that chiefs strengthen democracy rather than weaken it, perhaps because of their effectiveness in working with local governments and communities to get things done. But there are also clear limits to what people want from their traditional authorities: They value chiefs’ engagement in community governance but reject their engagement in electoral politics.

Do these largely positive reviews mean there are no problems with the chieftaincy, no need for change? Clearly not. While traditional leaders are rated more highly than their elected counterparts, more than half (51 percent) of citizens say chiefs don’t listen well to ordinary people – hardly a resounding endorsement. And as with elected leaders, stories of corruption, abuse of power, sexism, and discrimination are not difficult to find.

Moreover, there are clearly countries – most notably Morocco Tanzania, South Africa, Angola, and Sudan – where publics are much less satisfied with the role and performance of traditional authorities. And it is especially important to note the extent of popular concerns about whether chiefs are focusing on their own personal or political interests rather than looking out for their communities.

But if the continuing importance of traditional authority teaches us anything, it is that these institutions are resilient and adaptable. So alongside stories of discriminatory or self-serving behaviour among chiefs we can also find examples of chiefs acting as forces for progressive change, advocating education for girls, combating child marriage, or promoting public health measures in the face of a pandemic (African Union, 2019; GhanaWeb, 2021; Xinhuanet, 2021; Haro & Gosmane, 2020).

Given their ability to understand and connect with their communities, their potentially positive role in tackling critical challenges should not be undervalued.

Carolyn Logan is director of analysis for Afrobarometer and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University. Kelechi Amakoh is a data analyst for Afrobarometer and a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.

This article was first published on Afrobarometer