Book chapter

Traditional Institutions of Governance in Africa (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Most African countries are characterized by parallel institutions, one representing the formal laws of the state and the other representing the traditional institutions that are adhered to more commonly in rural areas. The parallel institutional systems often complement each other in the continent's contemporary governance. Oftentimes, however, they contradict each other, creating problems associated with institutional incoherence. Why the traditional systems endure, how the institutional dichotomy impacts the process of building democratic governance, and how the problems of institutional incoherence might be mitigated are issues that have not yet received adequate attention in African studies. The evidence suggests that traditional institutions have continued to metamorphose under the postcolonial state, as Africa's socioeconomic systems continue to evolve. Despite such changes, these institutions are referred to as traditional not because they continue to exist in an unadulterated form as they did in Africa's precolonial past but because they are largely born of the precolonial political systems and are adhered to principally, although not exclusively, by the population in the traditional (subsistent) sectors of the economy. Subsequent to the colonial experience, traditional institutions may be considered to be informal institutions in the sense that they are often not sanctioned by the state. However, they are not merely customs and norms; rather they are systems of governance, which were formal in precolonial times and continue to exist in a semiformal manner in some countries and in an informal manner in others. Another issue that needs some clarification is the neglect by the literature of the traditional institutions of the political systems without centralized authority structures. In general, decentralized political systems, which are often elder-based with group leadership, have received little attention, even though these systems are widespread and have the institutions of judicial systems and mechanisms of conflict resolution and allocation of resources, like the institutions of the centralized systems. Careful analysis suggests that African traditional institutions lie in a continuum between the highly decentralized to the centralized systems and they all have resource allocation practices, conflict resolution, judicial systems, and decision- making practices, which are distinct from those of the state.