Studying Traditional Governance in Namibia
I spent nearly all of July and August of this year travelling across Namibia. This time, my goal was not to enjoy a long vacation, though I did enjoy my time in Namibia. I traveled to the country of my wife’s birth to advance my dissertation research which centers on traditional institutions of governance. Although they are rare in North America and Europe, traditional leaders do a great deal of governing in Africa and the developing world in general. In fact, in many African countries, traditional chiefs are the go-to governing institutions for rural residents. They allocate land, adjudicate local disputes, organize local communities for development, and serve as an informational link between their villages and national governments.
To be sure, not all traditional institutions and their leaders are alike. In some countries and regions, traditional leaders are exceedingly powerful as they run local courts and sometimes even oversee prisons and militias. In other regions, the influence of individual traditional leaders barely spans the area of their village. Importantly, traditional leaders in much of Africa remain very popular, more so than elected governments. Given that many African countries still struggle with engendering effective and efficient governance, it would be useful to know exactly how traditional chiefs manage to govern while modern governments, modeled after their Western counterparts, often fail. Furthermore, why are some traditional polities and their leaders better at governing than others?
This is where my dissertation comes in. I attempt to answer the above question in the context of Namibia where there is great variation in the degree to which traditional chiefs are involved in effective local governance. Particularly in the north of the country, chiefs remain very powerful. In the south of the country, not so much. The long and complicated history of Namibia seems to have a lot to do with this. While the north is suitable for sedentary lifestyle and agriculture, the south is very arid and more amenable to pastoralism. This in turn likely explains why chiefdoms in the north show greater degrees of precolonial stateness. Because the southern landscape did not favor large settlements, southern chiefdoms were organized more as family clans rather than as early states.
Another important aspect is German and later South African colonialism. Where Europeans settled, native Namibians suffered. They lost their land and animals and were forced to move to areas where few would choose to go voluntarily. These violent changes uprooted early political formations and significantly damaged whatever traditional governance infrastructure existed. Furthermore, European colonizers attempted and sometimes succeeded at removing native chiefs and replaced them with “their” people. In some chiefdoms, Europeans tampered with rules of succession, sowing seeds of present succession disputes that in some cases last years and lead to poorer governance outcomes. It is no surprise that traditional chiefdoms that are embroiled in internal disputes find it hard to govern their communities effectively.
To shed additional light on how precisely the complicated history of individual traditional chiefdoms shapes their governing capacity, I devoted this year’s research trip to interviews with traditional chiefs themselves. Together with a local research assistant, we conducted in-depth interviews with twenty-two Namibian chiefs. Each interview lasted about two hours and covered a variety of questions. We asked what chiefs do on a daily basis, whether they allocate land, how they assumed their office, or how their community will choose a successor once the current chief dies. In total, we drove over 7,800 kilometers and learned an immense amount about Namibia and its people.
Although careful analysis of the data I collected will consume the next several months, it suffices to say that we discovered a rich diversity of institutional differences among Namibian chiefdoms. While some traditional chiefs make many key decisions nearly alone, others rely on a number of councilors. Where some chiefdoms rely on the authority of the chief, others emphasize consensual decision-making. Some chiefdoms exhibit fairly clear separation of their governing powers. The chief is responsible for executive functions but does not interfere with rulings issued in customary courts. In a great many chiefdoms, the chief is deeply involved in both the executive and judicial spheres of power.
To supplement our data with views of ordinary citizens, we also conducted a small pilot survey which centered on those Namibians who live under the authority of traditional chiefs. Although our small sample does not allow us to reach representative conclusions, we were surprised by how many respondents could clearly identify where their traditional chief lives. It seems clear that for many of the people we spoke to, seeking help from their traditional leader was a natural inclination.