Traditional Institutions in sub-Saharan Africa: Endangering or Promoting Stable Domestic Peace?

Type Report
Title Traditional Institutions in sub-Saharan Africa: Endangering or Promoting Stable Domestic Peace?
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2017
In many countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, institutions of traditional governance influence
everyday politics. Traditional authorities engage in dispute resolution, land administration,
or the provision of local security. As case evidence suggests, the parallel structure of state
institutions and traditional governance is not without its tensions. However, scholars have
rarely compared how conflicts play out in different countries, and for differently organized
traditional institutions.
In this report we provide such a comparative analysis. How does the presence and
practice of traditional governance affect conflict at various levels? We employ a broad
concept of conflict that includes but is not restricted to violent conflict. It includes manifest
contestation between actors at three levels, each involving Traditional Governance
Institutions (TGI): (I) conflict between state authorities and traditional leaders; (II) conflict
between ethnic groups led by traditional leaders; and (III) conflict between constituents of
an ethnic group and their traditional leaders. We pay particular attention to six factors that
we presume shape if and how TGI affect conflict: (1) the social and organizational
significance of TGI in each country and ethnic group; (2) the level of democracy of the
state polity; (3) the legal integration of TGI in each country; (4) the ethnic composition of
each country; (5) the similarity of TGI and state institutions; and (6) the political relevance
of a group.
Based on available data on the six dimensions we select four countries (Kenya, Namibia,
Uganda, and Tanzania) and eight ethnicities (Kikuyu, Abawanga, Nama, Ovambo, Maasai,
Sukuma, Baganda, Iteso) to maximize variance. We base our analysis on 139 semistructured
in-depth interviews conducted with individuals representing traditional
governance institutions, state authorities, experts and local population.
The findings of our study can be summarized as follows: (1) TGI are not involved in largescale
political conflicts. Only the Buganda Kingdom is in a continuous conflictive relation
with the Ugandan state. While the Kikuyu in Kenya were involved in post-electoral violence
in 2007-2008, our interviews did not reveal a particular role of TGI in these events. We do,
however, find a surprising number of internal conflicts – e.g. regarding the succession of
chiefs in office – but these tensions are usually solved peacefully. (2) High social and
organizational significance of TGI is a prerequisite for their involvement in conflict on all
levels. (3) In democratic political systems we find fewer conflicts between the state and
TGI than in states with autocratic government. (4) A relationship between institutional
similarity of the state and TGI with the level of conflict is not evident. Yet, we observe that
TGI move toward greater “stateness”, and these endeavors are partly supported by the
state. (5) The existence of formal legal rules integrating TGI within the state apparatus is
not necessarily related to more or less conflict between the state and TGI. Rather, we find
that legal regulations must be unambiguous to reduce conflict potential. (6) Ethnic
polarization and ethnic dominance within a country does not seem to cause severe
conflicts between political relevant ethnic groups with significant TGI. (7) Internal conflicts
between TGI and constituents are as likely to emerge in more autocratic traditional polities
as in more participatory and democratically organized ethnic groups.

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