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The African Continent


As the African continent gained its independence, countries hoped for booming growth and expected rapid changes. This however did not happen. So after the independence, economists, journalists and researchers started examining the causes of those failures. They have been doing so for over four decades and the situation on the continent does not seem to be much better than it was.

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Since it is a complex and definitely the most urgent issue of the region, I consider this paper as an opportunity to analyze and discuss possibilities for improvement. In order to limit my scope to a reasonable size, I would like to focus on one particular country – Zambia, as the country was a subject to similar, but much briefer analysis I have done and therefore I already have some background information. Since the country is generally underdeveloped, this condition affects all areas of life. That is why it is necessary to work on social, economic, political, environmental and other policies to foster development. Even though these fields are interconnected, I would like to focus on Zambian local governance system in this paper.

According to my topic, I assume that the state may be having troubles to fulfill its role since its institutions and ways of governing were created from the elites downward; its system should be adjusted to find more links between itself and its citizens. The hypothesis is that Zambian local governance institutions are not effective as they could be, it would be favorable to use their potential better.

My goal is to find out improvements or adjustments for the present system into a more efficient scheme, more suitable to the society and its customs. For this I will start with examining how the society used to regulate its own members, predominantly in small units, throughout the centuries, how it evolved and what were the contributing factors that shaped its present form. For this I would like to start as early as possible – in the pre-colonial period. It may seem just “too long ago”, but that was the longest period with fewest outer influences building foundations that last until now. Later it is indispensable to see how the western civilization attempted to shape the people to the western image, what marks it left and how the states coped with these two ways of life for the last few decades to bring about growth and stability. If there is any viable way of the traditional type of governance I would like to use it as a building brick. In this part, I will rely mostly on Alex Thomson’s Introduction to African Politics.

Subsequently I will have to come up with a way to incorporate those traditional elements into the present network. To be particular, I would like to focus mainly on the issue of local chiefs and the incorporation of their authorities into administrative system. Resources supporting my conclusions and helping me understand the African reality better are among others blog platforms Zambian Economist, House of Chiefs, and Fareed Zakaria’s book Future of Freedom.

I. Traits of the society

Present African society is a blend of two different realities – a traditional way of life that had been evolving throughout the centuries of its pre-colonial existence and a modern way of life brought first by the colonization and impacting the continent from the outside more intensely as driven by the globalization process. It is not only a melting pot of different entities, but it is a place where two different lifestyles mix and to some extent clash. Therefore to understand the structure and traits of this society we need to know those two currents that form its foundations.

Pre-colonial period

The continent has ever been diverse just as it is right now, but there are some general characteristics that applied to the most of the region. Africa had been spotted with so-called non-hegemonic states. Their nature was fundamentally different from that time Europe. Pre-colonial African states were not led by all-powerful governments that administered a part of delineated territory. The abundance of land allowed people to move away, further from the unfavorable authority, splitting, merging, and creating new polities. This type of governance is also way different from today’s perception of a state that has, after all, evolved from a European model. As Alex Thomson notes in the Introduction to African Politics that is one of the explanations, why some of the African states did not succeed in building a governing state authority (Thomson: 10).

Other trait he mentions is the importance of lineage groups. An individual is always a member of a larger community (e.g. extended family) and as this member adopts the scheme of customs and rules that determine his or her life. Identity of a person is therefore determined as identity of the group. In return this scheme provides welfare and security to its members (Thomson: 10).

With these rules, the chief has a significant deal of power over his clan, because the individuals will generally behave as they are expected to. Clans or extended families are able of self-containment. These facts add up to the conclusion that this is a model of society that is able to manage itself well in small units.

Colonial Period

The above mentioned structures were something different from the European perception of a state and state power. Therefore with the colonization, the Europeans were trying to “civilize” the African people. In their meaning it was to categorize them into some predefined and clear categories so they became nations just like the European ones were. Repeatedly criticized arbitrary boundaries have split nations apart and left various different nations closed in one state. This division put barriers to earlier loose transition of an individual from one community to another and lay foundations of hostility towards each other.

The impact of modernity

As the decolonization process has brought the independence to the continent, the new countries and their leaders attempted to catch up with the developed world within few decades (or a single one). The simplest way of doing that was to adopt modern ways of governing the state. Longing for the developed state, the countries wanted to hurry up, so what got adopted the quickest were the most visible signs of the modern world, without adjusting them to the African society. Constitutions, parliaments, voting rights, all of that was included without having people understand them, or without having even the leaders understand the principles of these systems. There was industrialization without considering economic capabilities. George Ayittey calls that development by imitation (Ayittey: 87).

Nowadays Africa is a melting pot of clans, families, tribes, and nations that fully realize their identity. Compared to the pre-colonial period however, the changes and overlaps are not as loose anymore. Needless to count how many times in Africa has the group solidarity been abused as a means to escalate a conflict. It is very easy to divide people – on the basis of something that does not really impact their everyday life – such as race or ethnicity.

Current conditions

In the previous parts of this work I have described the pre-colonial inheritance of the society. Extended families (or other entities) in which individuals behave according to customs and their social status, gives the entities ability to rule themselves effectively. This creates an informal structure and makes the unit of family or a similar community a suitable building brick for the wider structure and allows for a bottom-up strategy.

In spite of some conditions that formed African society and left a mark on it until the present times, certain conditions have changed. What has changed has not only been people and their minds (as a result of colonial rule or modernization), but there have been changes also in the outer conditions. What has once been a continent with abundant land and low population density is now a bit different. The number of people inhabiting the continent has multiplied over the past few decades. The land has shrunk relatively; with growing density of population the land is becoming more important. Apart from the higher density there are now rigid borders that do not allow people to move freely wherever they want. Boundaries that are known to be artificial and illogical have existed for about half a century so nowadays they are starting to work. Despite any border conflicts, irredentist movements and spillovers they cannot be adjusted or removed.

II. Zambia – overview

This landlocked country in the south of the African continent is not much of an exception from other African countries considering its GDP, HDI (or respectively HPI) rates. It is one of the poorest countries in the world; ranking 164th out of total 182 included in the UN HDI statistics.[1]

Political system: It is a presidential republic (the president is both head of state and head of government). The cabinet is chosen from the members of the National Assembly and is appointed by president. Tthat gives the president quite strong power over the country.

Ethnicity: Major ethnic groups include Bemba, Tonga, Chewa, Lozi, Nsenga, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Lala, Kaonde and Lunda.[2] Nine largest groups add up to approximately 90 percent of the population. Apart from these, many people, predominantly in towns and cities see themselves as Zambians.[3] Speaking of ethnicity, the country has avoided serious ethnic conflict issues yet.

Administration: The country is divided into 9 administrative provinces. Further there areis 72 local authorities which will be described in the next chapter.

III. Proposals

As I have mentioned before, people in remote rural areas do not identify themselves with the administrative system and have maintained a parallel system of managing their communities. To advocate the importance of traditional authorities, it is necessary to gain the inside look. Since it is hard to acquire from the Czech Republic, I would like to use the words of Chola Mukanga, a Zambian economist, posted on his blog. As he writes about majority of people living in rural areas where they do not rely on the government system maintaining social order, he describes the role of the customary governance: “The chieftaincy therefore serves a critical function in promoting economic development, when it fills this critical gap in maintaining social order.” Although he admits a weakness: “Equally the chieftaincy may be seen to stand in the way of economic development where it’s system of administration appears to restrict the expansion of stronger reforms of social order e.g. expansion of formal state structures with greater accountability, all things being equal.”[4]

The biggest challenge therefore is to make one system out of the two of them. If the existing system is perceived as an alien element it is a reason why it should be abolished.

Administrative System

Western way of governance counts on clearly delineated boundaries. Border inviolability and territorial integrity are two of the conditions that define a sovereign state nowadays. The same principle is projected inward to the country, since it is subdivided into the smaller units. To have the administrative system working properly, it is necessary to ensure the balance of the geographical division.

There are three factors that might influence balance among administrative units:

  • ethnicity – not to repeat the disaster of African boundaries, ethnic conflicts and subsequent civil wars
  • population density and its demographic estimate to the future – to keep the system viable and balanced in long term
  • resources, wealth and overall economic level – to prevent conflicts emerging from regional disparities

However, for any adjustments of the administrative division, it is necessary to have thorough statistical information. For any successful plan that is to be implemented, it is necessary to know the starting conditions perfectly. The trouble with creating a picture of a Sub-Saharan country is a dismal state of any statistical data to base plans and proposals on. There is either lack of information or the researchers warn against inaccurate and misleading data that often poorly reflects reality.

Apart from the geographical adjustments, there is more that can be changed in the division of power and overall structure. Bornwell Chikulo offers a comprehensive description of the present system and the following analysis is based on his review: [5]

There are 72 local authorities countrywide:

  • 4 are designated as City Councils
  • 12 are Municipal Councils
  • 56 are District Councils (comprised of smaller rural-based local authorities).

The composition of councils is as follows:

  • All elected councillors in the district
  • All members of parliament in the district
  • Two representatives appointed by all chiefs in the district – as a means of involving traditional rulers in local governance.

The weakness in this scheme is lack of participation of the locals – the councilors that are elected to hold quite large powers, moreover they are not responsible to any of the local powers, but solely to the government. Two chief representatives that are members of the council representing something like “voice of the people” however cannot be chiefs themselves, as chiefs are prohibited by constitution to hold any public office. Moreover, the evidence shows, the way they are able to discuss and solve the local issues is to talk and cooperate with their members of parliament. This is exactly where the problem is, either the chiefs or their representatives have troubles cooperating with the MPs.


The issue of chieftaincy is lively discussed in Zambia, also in the wider regional level, since the situation in surrounding countries is similar. Although the traditional center of local power – National Authorities – were bequeathed soon after the independence, president Mwanawasa brought these authorities back in 1996 when the House of Chiefs was established. It consists of local chiefs that are respected within certain areas, some of them called kingdoms. By the constitution they are forbidden to hold any elected office while holding their functions as chiefs. The main issue can be comprised into the question: To what extent should the chiefs be considered and subsequently incorporated as political authorities?

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It is important to add that Zambian Chola Mukanga sees chiefs as not only a tradition that has prevailed until now, but as an element that is demanded: “It goes without saying that the existence of traditional authorities is essentially a function of history and current demand for their services. That chiefs exist is clearly because their existence is demanded. But it was in the area of court administration where significant problems emerged which has continued to fuel significant demand for customary justice as mediated through traditional courts. This demand has principally emerged from two critical sources: insufficient capacity by central government to provide appropriate court capacity and necessarily expertise to adjudicate cases. This is despite the fact that traditional courts (and customary laws) have no formal status and exist parallel to the formal legal system.”[6]

This view clearly indicates that two representatives for the districts are just not enough. It is not about the number, but also about their power. Even if they are respected by the people and often serve as the judiciary system, they cannot promote much development in their district. It is always the parliament members that vote for the budget and decide on the amount and structure of the transfer money they receive from the government. The MPs also vote on the legislation and their vote is not subjected to any feedback from the chiefs (or currently their representatives) other than a friendly discussion. If the MPs do not reflect the local demands “for the love of the people”, the chiefs have practically no ability to change it.

Appointing special chief representatives is another factor that hinders the process of change and development. Not only it means extra costs, but it also is an extra element in the chain of decisions. The decisions travel from the people to the chief – from the chief to the chief representative – from the representative to the MP – and finally to the parliament. This contains too many members and therefore leaves gaps for possible conflicts. If the structure existed in order to provide, what can be called checks and balances, than it would have an advantage of being stable. However, the power is not distributed evenly among all the agents, but it is still concentrated in the top – the parliament and centralized. From Chikulo’s review as well as from other articles it seems that even though local council exist, they lack decision-making autonomy and are dependent on the central budget.

Some opinions indicate that often the politicians from the central apparatus are corrupt and therefore afraid of the power the chiefs have. That is why the politicians want to prevent them from the official power.[7]

So even if the traditional ways of governance prevail in the society and are popular it should be clear that it is favorable to use it as a means to make the administrative system more effective and comprehensive. It would be the act of “bringing the power closer to the people”, just like the motto of the reforms that had been done in the early years of independence. With this act the motto would finally apply. However, the problem does not lie in the obsolete or primitive structure of the society, but in the unwillingness of those that have the power and the means of changing it.


This paper definitely discusses a complex topic. Although I lack direct experience as I have never been to Africa, I wanted to gain a deeper look into the problems of the Sub-Saharan countries. My conclusions might omit some important factors that otherwise are a part of the reality in Africa. Having read some amount of literature, attempting to present Sub-Saharan Africa however precisely and accurately, still does not make up for the real experience from the region. Therefore I stress that any of the presumptions I have made are based solely on someone else’s observations.

For people that are not familiar with the topic the root of all the problems often seems very simple. It is easy to put all the blame either on the colonialists for having exploited their colonies during their rule, or the present political leaders for exploiting their countries now, or even the people of those countries for their supposedly insufficient education, inertia, intolerance, or anything else. Even though that my work criticizes few elements of the state and its governance, I hope I have stayed away from prejudices in my work.

I have found out that a fair deal of promoting development depends on few people. It might be a challenge for those that have that power to change the system which is beneficial for themselves. American political scientist Fareed Zakaria concludes, in a very general, but very point-blank way – Africa needs good governance more urgently than democracy (Zakaria: 120). I have whatsoever no sympathy for any autocratic governments and I have no intention of taking democracy away from the countries that have it. My point is that no one has found a system of government with perfect balance of powers that does not leave a slightest gap for corrupt intentions. Until Zambia gets closer to this model, at least on track to catch up with the western world, it needs a leadership that will not abuse its power; a leadership that will take responsibility for its actions done on purpose as well as those unintended and one that will be able to face the consequences; a leadership that will show every citizen that the things just work smoother when everyone plays by rules. But these wishes are perhaps utopian for most of the developed countries as well.


  • AYITTEY, George: Africa Unchained, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, Chapter 3, The Postcolonial Elite Development Model
  • CHIKULO, Bornwell: Local Government Reforms in Zambia, 2009, retrieved: Dec 18, 2009, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ComJlLocGov/2009/7.html
  • THOMSON, Alex: An Introduction to African Politics, Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge, 2004, Chapter 2 – History
  • ZAKARIA, Fareed: Budoucnost svobody, Prague, Academia, 2004, 1st editionCIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/za.html
  • MWANANGOMBE Lewis: ZAMBIA: Let our Chiefs Govern, Lusaka, published Dec 21, 2009, retrieved: Jan 12, 2010, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=49771
  • MUKANGA, Chola: Zambian Economist, http://www.zambian-economist.com/2010/01/chiefs-and-economy-economic-institution.html, published Jan 3, 2010, retrieved Jan 12, 2010
  1. United Nations: Human Development Reports: retrieved on Jan 14, 2010, http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/
  2. CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/za.html
  3. KVÁCA, Vladimír: Africa in International Relations, class handout
  4. MUKANGA, Chola: Zambian Economist blog, retrieved: Jan 12, 2010, http://www.zambian-economist.com/2010/01/chiefs-and-economy-economic-institution.html
  5. CHIKULO, Bornwell: Local Government Reforms in Zambia, 2009, retrieved: Dec 18, 2009, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ComJlLocGov/2009/7.html
  6. MUKANGA, Chola: Zambian Economist blog, retrieved: Jan 12, 2010, http://www.zambian-economist.com/2010/01/chiefs-and-economy-economic-institution.html
  7. The complaints are not difficult to find in the internet. Web platforms like Zambian House of Chiefs (http://www.houseofchiefs.com/) or Zambian Economist (http://www.zambian-economist.com/2010/01/chiefs-and-economy-economic-institution.html) contain a number of articles discussing this problem. African Inter Press Agency brings related articles every once in a while as well. Recent publishing dates indicate that similar complaints are quite frequent.

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