Monday, July 15, 2024

Giving more powers to Chiefs; what are the implications?

This week I want to briefly look at what seems to be a call to reform and/or restructure our traditonal institution and have it gain a more visible and constitutionally entrenched role. I would not go into the details of merits or demerits of what a more visible and powerful Tribal Administration would mean for an inherently republican based democratc dispensation, but would for now restrict myself to the structural implications of such a reform measure. We are increasingly hearing voices of dissatisfaction and calls for giving our chiefs more powers and by implication more functions than they currently undertake and it is the late aspect that I want to reflect on. What implications it would likely have on the current structural set up as it pertains in our local governance system?

At the risk of saying the obvious, let me just provide context of our local governance sysytem as provided for by parliamentary statutes. Any discussion of Botswana’s local government system mentions the known four local institutions of District and Town Councils (including townships), Land Boards, Tribal Administration and District Administration. The creation of mainly District and Town Councils as well as Land Boards as per the respective statutes, invariably meant the altering of the structure and functional responsibilities of the oldest of these four institutions, being Tribal Administration. The functions of management of tribal land, rural roads, community development, management of Matimela cattle, revenue collection and many others, were taken away from the control of chiefs and transferred to the new institutions. This transfer effectively reduced the powers and authority of chiefs with respect to the performance of these functions.

Additonally, a republican government further introduced a district administration system, led by the District Commissioner‘s office, that was to be a major focus of government’s exercise of its administrative aouthority in the districts. This combination of allocation of responsibilities and change of the locus of the exercise of administrative authority and power was the one that effectively stripped the powers from our tribal leaders. In the context of the above, current calls for more powers to the chiefs imply that, firstly, there be a very detailed and extensive appraisal of the spread of all responsibilities and functions currently exercised by all the four local institutions. Secondly, it also means that government must look at the local government structure as it pertains today and determine what any shifts in the functions would mean to the current relational patterns amongst and between these institutions. Lastly, any shift of functions and responsibilities invariably means the re-aliagment of powers and authority required for the performance of such functions.

The immediate implication of the above is that giving more powers to the traditional institution necessarily means in part taking away some of those functions from the other institutions, including central government shedding off some of its administrative authority as currently exercised through district administration. If we were to understand these ramifications purely from the perspectives or current global trends on the role and status of local governments, democratic practices and overall good governance patterns, these calls would then seem to be a major shift or exception from a global perspective. The global world is pushing for local reform measures that entrenches the visibility of local governments in the overal democratc practices of today’s modern democracies and this is intrinsically linked to issues of civic engagement, consensus built public interest, rule of law observance, openness and more importantly openness to competition for leadership positions.

The biggest question we may wish to reflect on is how would a more visibly and presumably powerful traditional leadership in Botswana tilt and reshape relational patterns governed by the values and norms of republican based democratic practices. As an extension of this concern, can we shift power relations and grant more of such to chiefs without necessarily risking the known power patterns of dominant chieftainship institutions? Put differently can we rationalise the allocation of responsibilities and functions with related power and authority to perform such without inadvertantly bringing back some of the old values and norms of chieftainship, such as its known suppression of competition for leadership positions? I don’t necessarily have answers to all these questions but at a general level, any move that re-introduces feudal type of relations will certainly be an affront on modern democratic practices, let alone polarisation of where exactly should the locus of power be in a democratic setup such as ours.

Interestingly, in all the more progressive democracies whose constitutions are also seen as in line with modern day good governance and democratic practices, there is, strangely, no visible role of traditional leadership beyond some token appreciation of their limited functions and very dimeaned powers. It would be interesting to see how we as a country can rationalise the importance of chieftainship and provide a more visible and entrenched role for this institution, without disturbing current trends on what national governments in particular are expected to do in maintaining accepted governance practices that upholds all known principles of human rights and more importantly modern types of leadership and its relational dictates according to the values, norms and evolved leadership trends.

I have thus far deliberately avoided mention of the more contentious issue of rationalising the power relations between central government and traditional leaders, simply because it is a topic of its own ramifications, but for now I can only say that this is going to be the context of any possible realignment and reform measures that would give more powers to chiefs and the resultant additional functions beyond what they are currently incharge of. It will be imperative that redefining the structural patterns of Botswana’s local administration system will have as its base, how the central government designates and allocates the locus and use of power with respect to rationalised functional responsibilities. It is probably inconceivable that any modern day governmet would locate any meaningful power within a traditional insititution that inherently still allocates power and leadership roles purely on the basis of one’s lineage and or birth.

I therefore would be surprised to see this government, or any in this country, effectively accede to giving more powers to chiefs, for as long as those powers would shift the locus of power and subject political leadership to a surbordinate position under tribal leaders. It is simply a no go area, assuming that we adhere to all that has so far been said to be the virtues of democratic and good governance practices.

Dan Molaodi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana

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