IN THE MODERN STATE: AN INSTITUTION AT THE CROSSROADS OF DEMOCRATIC CHANGE
recent upsurge in popular protest in most of Africa pursuant to the
democratization process has refocused scholarly interest in the mechanisms of
good governance. There are persistent calls for transparency and
accountability in the management of public affairs. Moreover, the shift of
emphasis from a development paradigm to one of democratization has led to a
growing quest for alternative sources of authority and power that could be
enlisted to provide more content to the democratization discourse. It is,
therefore, not surprising that the holders of pre-colonial forms of authority,
such as chiefs, have (or claim to have) new political roles within the context
of the modern state. For all the various transformations of such institutions
during the colonial and post-colonial periods, the present incumbents claim
that they are the true representatives of their 'people'. Yet, the
democratization discourse, predicated on the principle of elective
representation, strikes at the heart of these customary institutions which are
structured on the hereditary devolution of power.
the expectation that the chieftaincy would wither away, as elected officials
assumed political power, has not fully materialized. In the colonial period,
scholars were already predicting the demise of customary chiefs (e.g.
Balandier 1972: 159ff). Despite such predictions, customary chiefs are still
charting new spaces on the political landscape. It is therefore with very good
reason that scholars have tended to highlight the ambivalence that
characterizes this institution, especially as it seems to mediate between the
past and the present by imaging itself as a 'symbol of tradition',
and at the same time striving to serve as an agency for 'modern
projects' (Geschiere 1993: 152). In short, the structures and
institutional frameworks for 'inventing the future' (Davidson 1992:
241) are not solely reserved for the post-colonial state elite; other
institutional sources also vie for political space.
than treat elective representation as a
for democracy, the fundamental question is whether the democratization
discourse, as propounded in the African context, provides the most appropriate
framework for inventing the future, given the pluralistic composition of
African societies (Young 1993; Fauré 1993; Throup 1993; Hart 1993)? In
which case, to question 'whether the 'customary authorities'
have retained sufficient prestige to function as vote banks in the new
setting' (Geschiere 1993: 151) appears to contradict the very notion of
elective representation; on the other hand it treats as axiomatic the idea that
good governance can only be achieved through elective mechanisms.
expectation that chiefs might function as vote banks raises the question as to
whether such homogeneous political spaces really exist and, if so, can chiefs
claim to speak on behalf of their people? What implications would such a
scenario, with geo-political blocks, have on the democratization process?
Might this be read as the segmentation of the post-colonial state into block
vote areas, with the obvious implication that ethnicity lies at the heart of
the political debate, despite the persistent rhetoric of national integration?
However, this is not meant to imply that powerful chieftaincies are necessary
crystallizing agencies for ethnic consciousness. The latter cannot be reduced
to such local hierarchies.
and dynamic patterns of socio-political interaction have resulted in the
co-existence of different institutional frameworks from which contradictory
discourses and agendas emerge. New institutions have appeared, some old ones
have been substantially transformed, while others have simply atrophied. The
institution of the chieftaincy has shown remarkable powers of survival. What
factors account for its resilience? What is the power base of the chiefs and
how is this is affected by broader political and economic change? In order to
understand how the chiefs mediate between the past, the present, and the
future, it is necessary to understand the relation between their control over
people and over resources. For most rural communities, the control and
management of land is at the heart of control over people.
this paper, I focus on the chieftaincies of the North-West Province (NWP) of
Cameroon, and the ways in which their control and management of land has
provided them with the power to govern. Where such control over land has been
whittled away, they have lost their grip over the people. However, in
providing an alternative discourse at the local level, they have effectively
obviated the imposition of state land law reforms and made the 1974 land
ordinances appear subsidiary to customary tenure systems. They have
effectively created a political space within which they can maintain their
control over people and resources. State power is contested in the resulting
legal and institutional pluralism. This has led the state to seek to co-opt
and bureaucratize the chieftaincy in order to exploit the control it exercises
over people and resources in order to capture local communities.
understand how this contest is negotiated, this paper starts with the general
characteristics of chieftaincy, it shows how the effective use of rituals and
myths are central to notions of governance in a customary setting and then
examines the strategies the chiefs use as they face the state. The conclusion
re-examines the question of the institution of chieftaincy as an anachronism in
the democratization process.
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