Traditional Institutions and Governance in Modern African Democracies

THE FUTURE OF AFRICAN CUSTOMARY LAW, Fenrich, Galizzi, Higgins, eds., Cambridge University Press, 2011

27 Pages Posted: 12 May 2011

See all articles by Paolo Galizzi

Paolo Galizzi

Fordham Law School

Ernest K. Abotsi

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: May 9, 2011


In most African countries, constitutionally established authorities exercise the power of government alongside traditional authorities. Executive, legislative, and judicial functions are generally attributed by most modern African constitutions to presidents and prime ministers, parliaments, and modern judiciaries.

However, almost invariably the same functions, whether or not formally defined and characterized in the same terms or exercised in the same manner, are also performed by traditional institutions and their leaders. Chiefs administer land and people, contribute to the creation of rules that regulate the lives of those under their jurisdiction, and are called on to solve disputes among their subjects.

The relationship between traditional leadership and inherited western-style governance institutions often generates tensions. In Ghana, for example, local governance is an area where traditional leadership and the constitutional government sometimes “lock horns.” Traditional leaders often feel left out when the government takes decisions affecting their people and land without their consent or involvement. Chieftaincy is further plagued with its own internal problems, including issues of relevance, succession, patriarchy, jurisdiction, corruption and intra-tribal conflict. Challenges confronting the institution of chieftaincy have continued from the colonial era into recent times. The role of chieftaincy within post-colonial African countries continues to incite lively debates, as the case of Ghana exemplifies.

This chapter examines traditional leadership within the context of the emerging constitutional democracy in Ghana. After examining the history, challenges, and opportunities for the “institution” of traditional leadership within a modern democracy, the chapter considers the effect of the current constitutional guarantee for chieftaincy and evaluates its practical workability and structural efficiency under the current governance system. The chapter further examines the dabbling of traditional leaders in the political process in spite of the proscription of the institution from mainstream politics and, in this context, analyzes the policy rationale for attempting to detach chieftaincy from partisan politics. It then analyzes the implications of the dual allegiance of the citizenry to chiefs and the government. In this context the chapter further touches on the compatibility of the institution of chieftaincy with constitutional principles such as equality, accountability, natural justice, good governance, and respect for fundamental human rights. Finally, the chapter considers the future of the institution against the background of the many issues and challenges considered.

Keywords: Legal Pluralism, African Customary Law, Traditional Leadership, Chieftaincy, Formal Legal System Relationship With, Human Rights, Traditional Norms

JEL Classification: K00, K33, K49

Suggested Citation

Galizzi, Paolo and Abotsi, Ernest K., Traditional Institutions and Governance in Modern African Democracies (May 9, 2011). THE FUTURE OF AFRICAN CUSTOMARY LAW, Fenrich, Galizzi, Higgins, eds., Cambridge University Press, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Paolo Galizzi (Contact Author)

Fordham Law School ( email )

33 West 60th Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

Ernest K. Abotsi

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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