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

PI:Katharina Holzinger
Funding:Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung
Period:1.10.2011 - 31.03.2014
Team:Florian KernDaniela Kromrey
Student Assistants:Maximilian Brunn, Pirmin Stöckle



Database of the Constitutions in Sub-Saharan Africa

Project Description:

Most African countries suffer from three interdependent problems: lack of economic development, lack of democracy and personal freedom, and lack of domestic peace, up to the level of state failure. In post-colonial times, many efforts were undertaken to foster economic development, from both inside and outside Africa, but with far less success than in Asia or Latin America. Similarly, we seemed to witness a "third wave of democratisation". However, many of the new African democracies collapsed and fell back into authoritarianism and dictatorship. Finally, after the liberation wars of the 1960s, Africa experienced a great many inter- but even more intra-state wars. During the 1990s in particular, there was a rise in the number of civil wars and violent conflicts. Many explanations for either one of the three problems have been proposed, such as the history of colonialism, the climate, lack of resources, patronage systems, corruption, the rentier state, neo-patrimonialism, poverty, ethnic diversity, the resource curse, greed and grievances, and so on.

There is one factor, however, that is still remarkably under-researched, namely the traditional political institutions of African societies. The so-called traditional leaders, courts and authorities still play an important role in Africa and these forms of governance affect large parts of the population. The Afrobarometer surveys, as well as some prominent examples, such as the Gacaca courts in Rwanda or Ubuntu principles in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, indicate that traditional political and juridical institutions even seem to gain momentum. Research interest in these traditional institutions has consequently grown in the social sciences, whereas in earlier times indigenous African societies and their rules were the subjects of ethnologists and legal anthropologists. In particular, there are now studies of the potential traditional practises have for the resolution of conflict or in transitional justice.

However, an analytical line has not yet been drawn from the traditional political institutions to Africa’s big challenges, although it seems more than plausible that the widespread practise of these rules and customs will affect both the economy and the state. There have been no systematic attempts to analyse the relationship between traditional political institutions and democracy, nor its influence on peace and conflict. We thus suggest an innovative approach in peace research by introducing a traditional institutions perspective.

Focussing on peace and conflict, it is the aim of this project to generate systematic and deeper knowledge about the effects of traditional political institutions on domestic peace. Does the presence and practise of traditional governance contribute to domestic peace or does it rather stir conflict between indigenous communities and the state? More specifically: To what extent does the formal integration of traditional practises into the political and legal system of a country enable a peaceful social life? What is the effect of the informal interactions between state and traditional institutions? Does the coexistence of such different political institutions as democracy (or autocracy) at the state level and the various traditional institutions at the community level endanger a peaceful living-together? Is the similarity or dissimilarity of the respective institutions at both levels important when it comes to the question whether the co-existence is a more peaceful or more conflict-ridden one?
As the state of research is not yet far developed in this respect, the project has necessarily a somewhat exploratory character. We aim at answering the above questions with the help of a comparative case study design. Four countries shall be analysed which show variation on four important variables in our research design: Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Namibia.

The main two variables according to which these countries have been selected are the formal integration of traditional institutions into constitutional or state law, one the one hand, and the dependant variable of the study, domestic peace, on the other. Uganda and Namibia show both a high level of formal integration, but in Uganda domestic peace seems endangered, which is not the case in Namibia. Nigeria and Tanzania have their traditional institutions not formally integrated, but again, Nigeria exhibits inner conflict, whereas Tanzania does not. Moreover, in order to learn something about the difficulty of co-existence of similar or dissimilar institutions at state and community level, we strive for variance with respect to the types of traditional political institutions. Finally, the significance of traditional institutions for the population varies over these countries: according to the Afrobarometer it is high in Uganda, low in Tanzania, and ranks average in Nigeria and Namibia. We distinguish four types: age set and village kinship (consensus systems) and absolute and restrained chief systems. In two countries we find important traditional institutions that are similar to the state system (Tanzania, Uganda), whereas in the others dissimilarity prevails (Namibia, Nigeria).

In each country we will in a first step analyse the formal integration of traditional institutions by observing international agreements on indigenous rights ratified, constitutions and national administrative law. It will be important whether and which legal rules govern traditional institutions at the decentralised level (mostly local). Second, the similarity and dissimilarity of state and traditional institutions has to be analysed in more detail. In a third step we strive to find out to what extent traditional institutions are actually practised – by which share of the population and in which intensity. Fourth, and most importantly, we inquire the interaction between traditional and state institutions at the central and local level with a view to the degree to which it causes conflict or supports peaceful cooperation. This serves also to find out what happens beyond formal integration rules. 
Methodologically, we rely on the analysis of law and other official documents in the first step. For the other steps we plan to do interviews with state representatives on the one hand and representatives of traditional institutions on the other. This includes both the central level (the executive and/or parliamentarians, justices, chiefs) and the local level (local administrations, chiefs, population). At the local level we will select groups that represent different types of traditional governance and are both relevant in terms of population size and political significance.