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Judith Verweijen

Vicky Van Bockhaven

February 19th, 2020

How colonial understandings of customary authority skew policy interventions

1 comment | 18 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Judith Verweijen

Vicky Van Bockhaven

February 19th, 2020

How colonial understandings of customary authority skew policy interventions

1 comment | 18 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The way we think about traditional forms of authority in Africa is often rooted in colonial biases on how political power works. A range of new scholarship is exploring these misunderstandings, which feed into how international donors approach the delivery of aid. So what can we learn from this scholarship to improve policy interventions?

In both scholarship and international aid interventions, there is growing attention on customary or traditional authority in Africa. A recent special issue in the Journal of Eastern African Studies examines engagements with this form of authority in Central and East Africa from the colonial era up to the present. The different contributions highlight the centrality of studying customary authority for a better insight into local socio-political orders and how public authority is constituted and operates. Yet the contributions also reveal that much of our knowledge of this form of authority is shaped by a number of biases that ultimately date back to the colonial era. These biases are also visible within development and peacebuilding interventions.

Within aid interventions, attention on chiefs started to grow in the 1980s, in conjunction with the orientation towards local participation’ in development assistance. The focus on decentralisation and democratisation that emerged in the 1990s further reinforced this trend. Donors were seeking to bypass atrophied central state institutions, believing that local leaders had more legitimacy and were closer to the so called ‘beneficiaries’ of aid. More recently, the local turn’ in peacebuilding has reinforced attention on the role of chiefs in transitional justice and peacebuilding interventions. Again, it is assumed that traditional authorities, through their putative legitimacy and proximity to the population, are able to efficiently promote donors’ objectives, such as fostering peace and stability.

There are significant parallels between contemporary donor engagement with customary chiefs and colonial indirect rule. In the colonial era, customary authorities were harnessed as intermediaries between colonial authorities and the population, perceived to be organised into ‘tribes’. Colonial authorities hoped to tap into chiefs’ legitimacy to develop systems of local governance and lower resistance to their rule, including by letting chiefs collect taxes. Yet in many socio-political orders, no clearly delineated ‘tribes’ existed nor was there always a paramount ruler. Moreover, many groups were territorially mobile.

To govern more efficiently, colonial authorities set out to organise ‘tribes’ into territorially fixed chiefdoms under a single chief, building on existing forms of socio-political organisation. To guide these efforts, extensive studies were undertaken to understand peoples, their language and customs, and their social systems and political organisation. Yet the production of this knowledge was imbued with biases, stemming from both colonisers’ political imaginaries and requirements of rule. Some of these biases were carried over into the postcolonial era, shaping aid interventions and – to a lesser extent – scholarship.

Three colonial biases about customary authority

In the introductory article to the special issue collection, we highlight several colonial biases, three of which will be discussed here. The first is that colonial authorities tended to see customary authority as solely invested in the institution of ‘the chief’, understood as a relatively fixed position. However, the authority of customary leaders was often co-produced by a range of other authorities, such as councils of elders, members of the royal family, diviners and ritual specialists, who could heavily constrain the authority of individual chiefs. Chiefs’ authority was also fluid, with people moving in and out of the position, depending on changing power constellations and conditions. These aspects were often overlooked, not least as colonisers preferred to deal with a single intermediary in a sustained manner.

A similar tendency is visible in contemporary aid interventions, which are sometimes singularly focused on chiefs. Consequently, they do not pay sufficient attention to how their authority is co-produced and, together with their legitimacy, waxes and wanes over time. This occurred, for instance, with interventions in Acholiland in northern Uganda, which profoundly re-shaped chiefs’ roles and authority. Consequently, after aid was withdrawn, chiefs had to redefine their position and strategies.

A second bias is that colonial authorities often saw chiefs primarily as ‘political authorities’, having a hereditary power position. Moreover, they were inspired by Enlightenment ideals emphasising the separation between Church and state. Therefore, they overlooked and were ill at ease with customary leaders’ ritual and spiritual assets and their role in the domain of public healing.

Social problems, such as poverty, war and famine were commonly seen to result from troubled relations with the spiritual world, which could be overcome through public healing. Thus, chiefs’ capacity to steward ritual institutions was often crucial to their legitimacy and authority. Yet such institutions, some of which used violence as a means to cleanse society, were also used to inspire awe and ward off opponents. For instance, in the northeastern part of the Belgian Congo, chiefs harnessed anioto or leopardmen killings to make people comply, purge society from threats and undermine opponents.

Aid interventions today do not always take the ritual and spiritual aspects of customary authority fully into account either. Many focus on chiefs’ roles in ‘public service delivery’, as understood in primarily Western terms. They therefore pay limited attention to services in domains such as public healing. This may also lead to obscuring the role of chiefs in instigating violence. In some areas of violent conflict, such as eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, customary authorities at times harness armed actors to pursue their own power projects, which raises questions about their contribution to peacebuilding. To understand contemporary forms of local order, it is therefore crucial to study the role of public healing in historically rooted political cultures.

In other donor interventions, such as those in the domain of transitional justice, chiefs are attributed a ritual role, but one that does not fully correspond to existing practices. In combination with the influx of aid money, this may lead to the ‘invention of tradition’, implying customs are reshaped to fit donors’ and chiefs’ agendas. A well known example is the external sponsorship for mato oput rituals conducted by Acholi chiefs, which contributed to these rituals being performed in new contexts and by chiefs with little experience with the practices in question.

A third bias inherited from the colonial era is an inaccurate understanding of women’s agency in the customary domain. One reason for this is colonisers’ narrow focus on the figure of the chief or king, which obscured the role of others. In Rwanda, colonial scholars paid limited attention to the highly influential figure of the queen-mother, whose position and political influence equaled that of the king. Another reason was the neglect of public healing, where women were often influential, for instance, as healers or spirit mediums. As illustrated by the Nuer prophetess Nyachol in South Sudan, this is still the case today.

The role of women in the customary domain continues to be a challenge for most aid interventions that want to engage with chiefs and ‘traditional’ justice and security mechanisms. Several customary practices, such as excluding women from inheriting land, are considered undesirable by Western donors. Yet there is considerable controversy around appropriate solutions. Some argue that codifying property rights for women may not necessarily improve women’s access to land. Codified regulations are less flexible and may pre-empt women’s capacity to negotiate and harness social relations to achieve desired outcomes. Yet others see a way forward in rights-based approaches. In order to find solutions, a better awareness of women’s roles, particularly in less visible leadership positions, is desirable.

While donor engagement with traditional authority has increased, knowledge of this form of authority continues to be anchored in colonial legacies. Fortunately, as the different contributions to our special issue show, there is a wealth of nuanced scholarship on customary authority. This work shows the remarkable variety in the nature and workings of this form of authority, not only between but also within different countries. Consequently, there are few generalisable lessons to be drawn for donor engagement. As always, there are no shortcuts for the painstaking work of understanding contexts of intervention.

Photo: ‘IDPs in South Sudan Appeal for Urgent Humanitarian Assistance’ by UN Photo/Isaac Billy is licensed under creative commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

About the author

Judith Verweijen

Judith Verweijen

Judith Verweijen is Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield (UK).

Vicky Van Bockhaven

Vicky Van Bockhaven

Vicky Van Bockhaven is a Lecturer and Researcher at the Departments of African Languages and Cultures and History at Ghent University (Belgium).

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