Africa’s chiefs are more trusted than its politicians
Seated by the roadside in the Ghanaian town of Kyebi, Kwame Asiedu explains how for seven years he employed 500 people as illegal gold miners. A stout man in a leopard-print shirt, he says he gave up the business two years ago after growing closer to the local monarch, Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin, who had campaigned against illegal mining for years (though was powerless to halt it until the state cracked down).
The king, known as the Okyenhene, is revered. This is not unusual. An Afrobarometer survey of 36 African countries in 2014-15 found that 61% of people trusted local chiefs. Among state institutions, only the army was trusted more. Faith in ancient power structures has increased as people have grown more wary of modern and democratic institutions and politicians (see chart).
One reason is because the state is often absent. It is far quicker and cheaper to ask a chief than a far-off court to dispense justice. And because he is local, his ruling may be better informed. Some chiefs also fund health care and education. The power of the chiefs has increased because they provide things the state does not, says George Bob-Milliar of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana.
Another reason may be that they are seen as less corrupt, even though they tend to follow unwritten customs rather than written laws. A survey of 28 African countries for Transparency International, a watchdog, found that 21% of respondents thought “all” or “most” traditional leaders were corrupt. That may seem high, but a hefty 38% said that government officials were, and 47% said policemen were on the take. Only religious leaders scored better. (Even so, 15% of respondents said they were also crooks.)
The trust that chiefs command is enough to give them sway over national politics. Candidates clamour to be photographed with the most powerful chiefs at election time. Governments seek their favour. In May 2017 Ghana doubled the monthly stipends the state pays to senior chiefs and queen mothers to 1,000 and 800 cedis ($222 and $177) respectively.
Yet their formal powers are narrow. The Okyenhene says he can bar rule-breakers from important events like funerals, for instance, but not much more. “We have no coercive force,” he says. Perhaps this explains why Ghana’s chiefs work so hard to keep their people’s trust.
The Economist, Dec. 23rd, 2017