In This Review

The Paradox of Traditional Chiefs in Democratic Africa
The Paradox of Traditional Chiefs in Democratic Africa
By Kate Baldwin
Cambridge University Press, 2015, 253 pp

Across contemporary Africa, modern states coexist with traditional institutions such as chiefdoms and kingdoms. Some of these predate colonialism, such as the kingdom of Buganda in Uganda. In other cases, colonial powers looking for clients to help them assert control, particularly in rural areas, elevated the status of existing traditional authorities or even simply invented new ones. Post-independence governments initially promised to eliminate what they viewed as retrograde, antidemocratic institutions. But most chiefdoms have survived, and in many cases, they have even gained in stature and legitimacy. As Baldwin notes in her exceptional new book, the region’s democratization in the last two decades has paradoxically strengthened unelected traditional chiefs. With her creative use of different types of evidence, Baldwin argues convincingly that voters have come to appreciate how traditional chiefs serve as “development brokers” who lobby politicians for more social services and better infrastructure. For their part, politicians rely on chiefs for help in carrying out development projects. Baldwin is a bit vague on the motivations of the chiefs themselves but argues that they generally avoid self-dealing out of a sense of commitment to their communities.