n Journal of African Elections - Traditional and modern political systems in contemporary governance in Africa

Volume 3, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1609-4700



This paper analyses the role of traditional and modern institutions of governance in contemporary Africa. It examines the traditional institutions in their historical setting and the way in which they negotiated with the modern political arrangements under colonialism and later during the post-independence period. Both the colonial and postcolonial authorities viewed traditional political institutions with disgust and suspicion, seeing them as backward vestiges of the past, but also as possible competitors for colonial and post-colonial political power. This uneasiness was ameliorated somewhat under the colonial system by the introduction of 'indirect rule' and the use of 'customary law' under 'Native Authorities', which were used as a neo-traditional colonial policy control mechanisms. Under the post-independence political order, traditional political institutions were either banned or tolerated to the extent that they were retained only as 'cultural' institutions. In Swaziland the neo-traditional colonial system came to dominate the modern party system and in Lesotho the traditional system existed side by side with the modern political party democracy. In Buganda and Ashanti the neotraditional systems were marginalised and banned.With the crisis of the African postcolonial states and the tendency towards presidentialism, there has been a resurgence of traditional political institutions in a number of countries. The result has been an attempt on the part of the political elite to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards them, while at the same time, using state patronage to woo them and make them part and parcel of the contemporary political party system as 'cultural' institutions. Such is the case in South Africa, Uganda and, to some extent, Lesotho. The real question is to what extent the traditional political systems can be reconciled with the modern political party system and to what extent these institutions can help heal the wounds of ethnic divisions and conflicts on the continent. This paper will try to provide some theoretical and practical approaches to how cultural identities and the institutions they represent can become the basis of new forms of African state formations under the African Union.

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