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Unelected African chiefs make their countries more democratic. Here’s how.

- June 10, 2016
Incumbent Zambian President Edgar Lungu addresses tens of thousands of supporters in Lusaka as he launches his reelection campaign in May. (Salim Dawood/AFP/Getty Images)

In April, a traditional chief caused a stir in Ghana when he expressed support for the incumbent president, John Mahama, in the country’s upcoming presidential election. The same month, two-dozen chiefs from northern Zambia allegedly endorsed the reelection of the Zambian president, Edgar Lungu.

Most rural Africans live in communities led by unelected traditional chiefs, and traditional leaders often endorse candidates in African elections. How democratic can countries really be if citizens are still governed by unelected chiefs? Can chiefs pervert the democratic process by coercing voters into supporting their preferred candidates?

These questions motivated the research released in my new book, “The Paradox of Traditional Chiefs in Democratic Africa.”


Surprisingly, traditional African chiefs help ensure that rural citizens are better represented by their governments

Traditional chiefs have power by virtue of their association with community customs. They are typically selected from within local ruling families and rule for life, so some observers are concerned that their continued power undermines democracy.

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But I find that traditional chiefs often improve, rather than harm, democratic representation. African chiefs are uniquely positioned to get policymakers to respond to rural voters — not despite being unelected, but because of it.

This surprising claim makes more sense in light of a few facts about African politics. First, most rural voters want their elected representatives to deliver basic infrastructure and public services. They demand schools, health clinics, boreholes and roads for their communities.

Second, most African governments are weak. Their administrative presence and power are limited, especially in rural areas. Their budgets are tight. On their own, they are not very good at providing the basic infrastructure projects and services that voters want.

Enter traditional chiefs. They can fill the gaps in the process of translating voters’ priorities into projects on the ground.

Specifically, chiefs often lobby for government projects and organize community contributions that complement government investment. Chiefs can organize local volunteers to assist with construction projects or monitor the activities of contractors. With these efforts, more local projects succeed. In this sense, democratic representation is improved.

Here’s why chiefs can bring in government services when others cannot

But why are chiefs uniquely able to coordinate communities to demand and facilitate local projects? Why can’t elected councilors or members of parliament do this as effectively?

Traditional chiefs typically have stronger local-level institutions that they can use to organize collective community actions. They have networks of sub-chiefs and village headmen to help them mobilize villages, and they run traditional court systems that can discipline non-contributors. Most elected politicians have no comparable local organization to assist them.

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As unelected leaders, chiefs have little political incentive to act in the interest of the majority. But local chiefs often have strong economic and social ties that align their interests with their communities. Chiefs too benefit from local development projects, so they make efforts to broker them even without electoral incentives.

Furthermore, traditional chiefs have stronger local-level institutions than elected politicians in part because they can think further ahead than the next election. Chiefs are willing to make long-term investments in building and maintaining community institutions because they expect to rule for life. Elected politicians aren’t as likely to do this. Their tenure in office is more precarious and they are less likely to reap the long-term rewards.

Paradoxically, democratic representation works better through unelected local leaders in rural Africa.

That’s why chiefs’ political endorsements can be useful

Because they are so central in local development projects, chiefs’ political endorsements can also be constructive. A chief can more effectively lobby for resources and collaborate with the government if his (or, rarely, her) preferred candidate is elected. Voters may want to know their chief’s preferred candidate so they can elect the politician who will end up serving them best, as I argued in this article.

My book is full of evidence that chiefs can make democratic governments more responsive to rural communities, drawing especially on the case of Zambia. For instance, after chiefs die but before new leaders step in, fewer new classrooms and boreholes get built. Communities receive more classrooms and road rehabilitation projects when chiefs have stronger relationships with elected politicians. And politically sophisticated voters rely on their chief’s endorsements to assess which political candidate will deliver the most to their community.

Traditional chiefs should not be romanticized; they are just as self-interested as elected politicians. But, in Africa’s fledgling democracies, their efforts are far more constructive in helping elected politicians serve rural constituents than observers often assume.

Kate Baldwin is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and the author of “The Paradox of Traditional Chiefs in Democratic Africa.”

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