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International African Institute Chieftainship in Modern Africa Author(s): L. P. Mair Reviewed work(s): Source: Africa: Journaly : Cambrid g e Universit y Press on behalf of the International African Institute Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/01/2012 10:30 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Cambridge University Press and International African Institute are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. " id="pdf-obj-0-2" src="pdf-obj-0-2.jpg">

International African Institute

Chieftainship in Modern Africa Author(s): L. P. Mair Reviewed work(s):

Source: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul., 1936), pp.


Accessed: 13/01/2012 10:30

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

International African Institute Chieftainship in Modern Africa Author(s): L. P. Mair Reviewed work(s): Source: Africa: Journaly : Cambrid g e Universit y Press on behalf of the International African Institute Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/01/2012 10:30 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Cambridge University Press and International African Institute are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. " id="pdf-obj-0-47" src="pdf-obj-0-47.jpg">

Cambridge University Press and International African Institute are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Africa: Journal of the International African Institute.























T HE contemporary development of African chieftainship is a

question of considerable practicalimportance. The attitudewhich it will adopt towards the native chief in his relations with his own

people is one of the major questions of policy which every colonial

government has to decide. Some hold

that a native society can only be

satisfactorily ruled by-or


power is to free its native

through (the words are not quite synony-

traditional head; others that the first duty of the civilizing

subjects from the oppression


tyranny of

their own rulers; others make it their aim to steer a middle course, and

preserve the native authority in

his traditional position while


his functions to the requirements of the present day. All have in fact

considerably altered by

their mere presence both the nature and the

basis of the chief's authority.

Yet they have so far been

content with a very incomplete knowledge

they uphold or condemn. To the advo-


of tradition that creates the

of the political systems which

cates of Indirect Rule, it is the

claim to obedience, and for that reasonthe traditionalchief is the ideal

instrument for moulding native society in the form that civilization

demands; to its opponents,

authority in native societies rests on one-


arbitrary use of force. Neither

sided privileges maintained by


of thought recognizes that such an institution as the chieftain-

'Africa' : the Journalof theInternational Institute of African

Languages and Culturesis

published by the Institute,but except whereotherwise stated the writers of the articlesare

alone responsiblefor the opinionsexpressed.



ship depends for its maintenanceon a

complex series of relationships

which cannot be reducedto a single attribute. Thus, those who are for

destroying it ignore altogether

the question of the considerationsof

subjects to accedeto the chief's

their own advantage which prompt the

claims upon them; while those who wish to preserve it are often in

danger of overlooking the degree to which modern circumstancesare changing its nature.

There are before us then two complementaryquestions-what were the forces in native society which madethe chief's power effective, and

in what sphere did he exercisethat power

? That it consisted, not only

in exacting the performance of duties from his subjects, but also in

rendering servicesto them, is, I would suggest, the

standing tortion which it



to his heredity


of this institution both in its normal


to a realunder-

working and in the dis-


and has

has undergone in modern times. I propose to

the chieftainship as it exists,

this theory in connexion with

existed, in Centraland SouthernAfrica.

summarizethe sources of the chief's authorityby saying

that it depended in part only on the supernatural sanctions attached

and in part on the due

performance of his functions. failureor abuse was instantly

By this I do not mean to suggest that any


revolt and deposition, but

rather that there was sufficient

flexibility in the relations between governor and governed for dis-

content to make itself felt in ways

interest to disregard, while there

checks on the abuse

which it was against

the ruler's

were in practice often considerable




of an authority which was

In the area with which I am concerned the functions of the chief

might be of three kinds, magical, political,

and economic, and his

privileges can be closely correlatedwith the exerciseof these functions.

Everywhere the paramount

special relationship to the


chief or king is believed to stand in a

land, and in virtue of this relationship he

performance of rites upon which the

he can satisfactorilycarry

frequentlyresponsible for the

fertility of the land depends

out. It is especially

and which only

in connexion with these magical duties that his

hereditaryposition, linking him as it does with the spirits of his pre- decessors, is of importance in validating his authority. Where the

chief stands in this

unique relationship to the supernaturalpowers

which control the fortunesof his people, he might seem to hold all the



trumps. Yet, in at least two tribeswhere this is the case,anthropological inquiry has found that in the political field his actions are circum-

scribed by

the existence of councils of various kinds in which he does

not hold a preponderantposition, and whose authority is equal

to his

own.' Such facts emphasize the importance of looking for the source of political power not in the person of some individual who may seem

to possess certain attributes of supremacy, but in the whole system

which works to

make authority effective in those spheres where

authority is required. The king's hereditary status is certainly an element in maintaining

respect for his authority even where, as with the Baganda, he has no

magicalpowers. Here his

connexion by descent with



founder of the kingdom at the same time justified his claim to absolute

ownership of the country and everything in it and guaranteed his

adherence to the tradition which


was formally reassertedat his ac-

traditionwhich, it is worth mentioning, laid down not only

the supremacy of the king but his duty to respect certain rights of his

subjects. But tradition and


remain as ultimate rather than im-

authority. It is not to them that everydayacceptance of the chief's

mediate sanctionsfor obedience to we must look for the bases of the

position and performance of the subjects' duties. That is to be found

ratherin the

reciprocal nature of their relationship-in the interpreta-

tion of the subjects' duties as returns for benefits received. I do not

mean to suggest that this was a conscious attitude, still less that tribute

or labour were

renderedout of spontaneousgratitude, but ratherthat

advantages to the

the maintenanceof political authority carriedwith it


sufficientto make them acquiesce in the burdens which it

imposed upon them.


were these advantages? They vary of course with the exact

political organization


question. I can only speak in

Baganda. With them hierarchyappointed

pleasure, consisted

nature of the

detail of the tribe which I know at first hand, the

the political functions of the chiefs, who formed a

by the

king and dependent for their position

on his

mainly in the administrationof justice and the organization of warfare.

  • I refer to the Swazi and Bemba, who have Schoeman and Dr. Audrey Richards respectively.

been investigated by Dr. P. J.


    • I have myself heard an old peasant say that God showed the Baganda


favour in giving them chiefs to settle their quarrels. Warfare

with them went beyond the mere organization of defence, in itself

a service of some importance, to constitute, in the form of raids on neighbouring tribes, a speedier way of increasing their material pos-

sessions than

any more conventionally economic activity.

In economic matters authority might seem at first sight to have

carriedwith it a position of pure privilege. In the first place, the sub-

ject's right to occupy land, and hence his

theoretically on the king

he attached himself.

entire livelihood, depended

and practically on the chief to whose village

For failure to render the customary services, as

for any other action displeasing to the chief, he was liable to eviction.

Those who see in African chieftainshipnothing but arbitrarytyranny

may seem to find here an argument


analysis of the working of the

for their point of view, but for

institution what is relevant is that

the services rendered by the peasant are not given in a one-sided sub-

mission to supernaturalpower or physical

rights of fundamental importance.


by moving

gave him

this right

The rights

gourd of




of wealth in the

force, but in return for

To the Muganda there was no

in the fact that these rights were not unconditional. More-

dissatisfactionwith his chief

over, he had a ready means of expressing

a motive for

to another village, and since the chief's economic privileges

desiring to attractand retain a large following,

was an effectivecheck on tyrannous behaviour. At the same

which a chief could

beer in every brew, a considerable portion

offence tried by him,

time, the chief's rights of eviction and of physicalpunishment certainly

were an element in securing the

obedience of his followers. claimfrom his subjects consisted of a

of the goods paid and services when

over in compensation for any

required in the building

them. He received

of his houses and the fence which surrounded

also his share of the taxes collected through his

and on the returnfrom a raiding

at the command of the king,

expedition it rested with him to

the spoil capturedby

had selected his share and, of

thought fit. But this system

distribute among his followers that them which was left when the king

course, to retain as much of it as he


did not mean a constantlyincreasing

hands of the privileged few, for the

simple reasonthat



in the native economy satiation point was reached early, and when it

was reachedthe rich man turned from the enjoyment of possession to

the enjoyment of munificence. Generosity was expected of a chief and was the best way to increase his following; and on the size of his

following depended wealth, prestige, and promotion to the control

over a wider area.


other peoples the accumulationof wealth

in the chief's hands has been found to serve even more obvious social needs in an even more direct and obvious way, for example in forming

a reserve against famine or providing for the maintenanceof a standing army. This very summary account of the relations between chief and

people in Baganda society

indicates the mutual dependence which

political organization. To the peasant

formed the basis of the native

the chief was the ultimate source of his livelihood and a more im-

mediate source of material


benefits; he also represented the authority



and the success-


which shows

leadershipnecessary for orderly

ful organizationof war. To the chief his followers brought wealthand

prestige provided he dealt fairly with them-a

how the institution contained within itself checks on the abuse of

a privileged position. A furthercheck existed in the system of succession. The hereditary

principle did not mean that certain individuals were destined by birth

alone to succeed to authority.

There was always a certain range of

choice, which madeit worth while for persons who lusted for power to

show themselves fit for it. Any son of the

king might

be selected to

succeed him; while in the case of a chief the choice was even wider,

extending to the sons of his brothers: moreover, under the Baganda

system in which chiefs could be transferred by the king from one dis-

trict to another, a chief's heir did not necessarily succeed to the dead

man's position. If this was important, a more experienced man might

be appointed to it

while the young heir was given a smaller village

until his merit was tried.

A featureof the




limited the action both


side with the

of the king and the chiefs was the existence, side

theoretically supreme authority, of a counsellor whose influence

carried very great


While the heir could disnmisshis father's

counsellor, he was not normally expected to do so; so that the new



holder of any political position, from the king downwards, usually entered upon his office subject to the advice of an older and more ex-


step was

man. This counsellor'sadvice was asked before any drastic

taken, such as the deposition of a chief by the king or the

eviction of a peasantby the chief; and in the case of the chiefs he was

the recognized channel through

which peasants who considered that


were unfairly treated could

express their grievances.

In describing this system I have not been guided by any sentimental desire to idealize a vanished past. I do not mean to present it as in-

capable of improvement or to suggest that the principles of govern-


which Europeanpowers

have set themselves to introduce have

no advantages. Clearly it left room for many acts of oppressionagainst individual subjects and gave to the rulers a wider scope for the in-

dulgence of personal

approve. I have been

abuse of power,

the political

have their

feelings and desires than carefulto say, not that the

Europeans in theory system prevented the

but that it set limits to such abuse. Canwe say more of

institutions of the most advanced civilizations? They

flagrantperhaps only because of my analysis, however, has

abuses, too, which seem less

they are more familiar. The main aim

been to try to give a more complete picture than that usually painted

of a native system of

government in operation, and by doing so to

indicatethe kind of phenomena which ought to be taken into account

by those who set out to modify such systems, particularly if their aim

is to utilize them as part

direct Rule has been

of an organization on European lines. In-

defined as the progressive adaptation of native

institutions to modern conditions; but I have

many administrationswhich purport to have

have not looked beyond one single

suggested already that adopted Indirect Rule

factorin the native institutionscon-

have supposed that by

cerned, namely the hereditaryprinciple. Some

merelypreserving the hereditaryprinciple they have fully respected all

native rights;

others have believed that provided they employ


the purpose an hereditaryauthority

any orders,



rather superficialconception

resulted in a general failure to

chief's position has

they can induce natives to obey

however burdensome or unwelcome, that the European

may decide to issue.

of the natureof chieftainship has

recognize that the entire basis of the

been altered by the very advent of European



government. What was in many areasone of the most important func-

tions of the supremeauthority has been completely removed. I mean

the organization

a system of

of war, which in some African societies has justified

government much more autocraticthan that which I have

described among the Baganda. Even where he has retainedhis judicial authority the modern chief has lost the right to inflict severe punish-

ments for offences against himself. Where new systems of land tenure have been introducedthe fundamentaleconomic relationship between

chief and people is broken. Christianity and the obsolescence of

public ritual have

affectedthis relationship on the religious side. On

the other side, authority rests now, not on popularity or on the render-

ing of specific

services to the governed, but on the power of the

European government, which, though it may remove chiefs from office, seldom does so for the reasonswhich would causenative opinion

to desire such a step. It is for this reason-because it has


the chief

out of reachof the sanctions with which he had formerly to reckon-

that a government which maintainshis authority without understand-


its realnature may well be condoning abuses of it which could not

in the past have been committed with impunity. Moreover, modern economic conditions create the possibility of abuses which could not in the past have been committed at all. The possibilities of turning

one's economic privileges to direct personal advantage are now un-

limited; yet


most superficially literal conception of Indirect Rule

involves the maintenanceof the chief's traditional privileges. Because

they have dissociated these privileges from the corresponding re-


those in authority have sometimes failed to see that

coming to be just

under modern conditions tribute paid to chiefs is

that one-sided burden that it was sometimes thought to have been

before. Yet these sameconditions make any effective protest out of the

question. This is one way in which the nature of the chief's position as one


of a

reciprocalrelationship has been misunderstood. The possi-

the other party-his subjects as a body,


one of them-


to do his due part have been removed; for

government through the chief altogether

who have


retaliating for his failure

it is only those who reject

and propose to replace it by democracy on Europeanlines,

concerned themselves with the subjects'point of view, and they only


misinterpret it by forgetting as duties. By removing the

again that the subject had rights as well

checks on the chief's action at the same

in kind into a money payment,

time that they converted his payment


administrationshave shown that in the long run traditional

sentiments and ethical standardsdo not prevail where the ruler has a

clearinterest in

disregarding them, and perhaps that such standardsdo

not even appear to be applicable in a situation so new as that created

by the presence of the European

other the accumulationin the

trader on the one hand, and

on the

chief's possession, not of cattle, maize-

cobs, beer, or garments, but of that currency with which European



can be obtained. the same time that they have altered the basis of the chief's

the balanceof power in his favour, even

authority in a way which tips though he may no longer be

able to asserthimself by the use of physical

have assigned to him many duties

Some of these, such

violence, European governments

which did not form

part of

his functions before.'

as the collection of census figures, enforcementof regulations for the

destruction of old cotton plants,

the killing


encouragement of such activities as

of rats, might be describedas neutralin their effect on the

But others, those which involve

between chief and subject.

the use of the chief's authority in calling upon his subjects to enter

distastefuland arduous pursuits

which bring them no apparent


advantage and throw out of gear

inevitably produce a complete

of course, to the

use of the




the whole routine of their lives,

distortion of that relationship. I refer,

chief in obtaining labour for European

conscription is in force,

and sometimes in

or recruitsin those colonies where

collecting taxes imposed by the government,

the cultivation by

natives of

commercial crops. Where

an instrumentof by the natives as

these are among the duties

the superior government such. It may be true that


of the chief, he is simply

and is plainly recognized

his prestige and generally dominant position

him an obedience which an agent sent from outside would not

but it is quite

mistakento inter-

obtain without resort to actualforce,

pret this as meaning

that the hereditary status of the chief justifies his

every action in his subjects' eyes, and to conclude that in order to

  • I This situation is admirably described by Professor N. De Cleene in his article


Chefs indigenes

au Mayombe',

Africa, vol.

viii, no.







satisfy European interests without disintegrating native society, it is

sufficientto make the chief their mouthpiece. The natives

may con-

tinue to obey, but the chieftainship ceases to be a native institution,

and they are as well aware of that fact as any anthropologist. This last interpretation of Indirect Rule is one which would never

be acceptedby the original exponent of a theory whose basic principle is that the development of native society must not be subservientto the

demands of the European market. But it contains elements that are

also present in the popular attitude

towards Indirect Rule sincerely





example to be either a matter

some positive



conceived as the best vehicle for such a

is argued

that civilization can be made acceptable if it is introduced

a half-truth. It is

chief often leads his subjects to imitate

without sudden mass con-

through the chief, and again the argument is only

true that the


of the

him in following European ways. Christianity itself has sometimes

been adopted in this manner, not always

version from one sect to another. But for the chief's

effective, the

innovation must be in something which is

of indifferenceto the people or else appears to offerthem

advantage. And

further, the apparentadvantages may not always


consistent with the effective

tions taken as a whole.

synonymous with

of the complex of native institu-

It is

just as easy for progress to become

hereditary chief is made its apostle


if an

as it is where the native who claims to have become civilized is en-

couraged to reject the chief's authority-though the process of dis- ruption may be less obvious.

I am

not meaning to suggest that Indirect Rule is a chimera, that in

conditions the chieftainship has gone through such changes

longer recognizable as an African institution at all and

something more efficient and more con-

government. On the contrary, I hold

the successwith which


that it is no

might as well give place to

sonant with modern theories of

that the future of

African society dependsupon

continuity and its attendant stability can be maintainedin the process

of transitionwhich it is now

passing through.

My argument is that the


link which unites the chief with

his ancestors is not by itself

enough to bind the present to the past: that what is needed is a full

understanding in every


case of what

chieftainship has meant and what

can mean in terms of authority and leadership. Certainly it has to


acquire a new meaning, for the spheres in which leadership is demanded

are no longer

the same; the emphasis has shifted from the waging

of war to the construction of public works, and the redistribution of revenues received is now a matternot of personal generosity but of

budgetaryexpenditure. The fundamental necessity for the constructive development of

native administration is, as I have suggested, an

understanding, not

only of the nature of the claim to authority, but of the reasons why

authority was in fact obeyed and above all the duties which authority

involved. Such

an understanding would give

a sounder basis than

the chance of administrativeconvenience for the modificationsin the chief's status which modern circumstancesrender necessary. It would make it possible to meet the criticism that Indirect Rule means the

maintenanceof obsolete tyranniesby the power of alien arms, by cur-

tailing those privileges

which, divorced from

the responsibility which



regions where



allotting minor

but one of a determineits





throw his not as an

whose general

formerlyaccompanied them, have in fact become tyrannous. It

dispel the illusion that chiefs can be made the instrumentsof interests

inimicalto those of their own

people and native political organization

remain intact; and the more insidious illusion that in

native society has been systematically reducedto dependence on

labour for Europeanemployers

administrativefunctions to

it can be recreated by

hereditary chiefs.



With this understanding there must go a recognition that the chief-

is not in

any society an isolated phenomenon

of interdependent institutions which combine to

sphere of influence. The commandsof a native chief are as

tional as those of a modern


the sense that he takes for

granted the whole social organization of which he is a part.

as his power may be in personal

limits of a traditional system of

not to modify. Thus when he is invited


matters, it is exercised within the

law which it is his duty to uphold and

by the Europeangovernment

on the side of an innovation desired by them, it is

autocratwhose word is law that he makes his influence effective, but

either as their recognized instrument or as a person

prestige entitles his counsels to respect. Indeed,

mental alterationsin the structureof

the belief that funda-

any society could be made by a



mere word of commandrests on a quite unreal conception of the nature

of authority and of society itself.

The next step

that needs

to be taken, in the constructive interpreta-

tion of Indirect Rule, is an appreciation of the chieftainship as part of

this complex whole which

will enable those responsible

to judge the

value to the society concernedof the modificationswhich they propose

to make through the agency of the native authority.I Given such an understanding this system could make possible a more satisfactory development of African society than it has sometimesachieved hither- to, and could refute some of the criticisms brought against it by those most interestedin native welfare.



An admirable study of native



institutions from this

point of view has volume, Anthro-

been made

Messrs. Gordon Brown and Bruce Hutt in their

Iringa District of the

pology in Action: An Experiment in the

Iringa Province, Tanganyika

Territory, Oxford University Press, for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, London, 1935.




LA situation qu'il faut accorder aux chefs africains dans l'administration coloniale


est un probleme


de politique indigene pratique. II souleve de

nombreuses controverses

entre les

partisans de l'administration


forme de


indirecte et ceux Des deux c6tes

qui soutiennent que la chefferie est une

on considere la chefferie comme essentiellement fondee sur un caracttre sacre



de cette

institution est rarement poussee plus loin.

Les questions

cruciales reclamant

une reponse sont: quelles ont etC les forces


domaine a-t-il exerce cette derniere ?

qui ont soutenu l'autorite du chef et dans

Un point frequemment omis dans la discussion c'est que le chef usait de sa puissance

non seulement


obliger ses sujets a accomplir certains devoirs, mais aussi pour


de la fonction

etait une source d'auto-

leur rendre des services.

rite aussi

bien que les sanctions surnaturelles correspondant a la position hereditaire

du souverain.

Les fonctions



se classer dans trois






de rites essentiels


Les magiques




Dans l'ordre

bien-etre du peuple

et la fertilite

du sol.




si nous prenons un



dans la civilisation




roi et


par lui etaient responsables

de l'administration

la justice et de


celle-ci etait pour ce peuple le moyen le plus

hierarchises nommes

efficace d'accroitre leurs biens materiels.

En matiere


la balance semble


en fa'veur des


Les paysans dependaient de leurs chefs pour leurs droits fonciers et pouvaient etre


chasses lorsqu'ils ne remplissaientpas

toute autre action


tirait des

les obligations coutumieres et meme pour


par contre un paysan pouvait

pas satisfait, et


comme celui-ci

mettait effectivement

cultivateurs une part



pour les

ayant deplu en toute occasion le chef dont il n'etait


a leur chef.

d'une large clientele, le droit du

proces juges


en etait





en echec les actes de

chaque fois qu'il


pour constructions part des taxes

a la



tyrannie. etait brasse de

tous les

Les chefs recevaient des

la biere; on leur


des biens en

par eux, on leur devait des services

besoin; mais les du roi et une

chaque fois

paysans recevaient une aussi du butin



percuespar eux pour


dans l'ensemble il

accumulationde richesses dans les mains

etait une



hierarchie privilegiee parce que la generositd

chez le chef, c'etait aussi le meilleur

de biens retournaient-ilsaux

pour remplacer

moyen d'accroitresa clientele. Aussi sous forme de dons.

sur un certain nombre de

paysans Le systeme de successions mettait par ailleurs un frein a la

un chef




tyrannie. Le choix


d'autre part le souverainavait a cote de lui un conseiller, son subordonne en theorie,

mais qui

Dans la

avait le droit de faire entendre ses avis dans


actuelle le chef a


les questions


non seulement

beaucoup disparaitre aussi beaucoup

de ses fonctions

des freins

traditionnelles, mais les circonstancesont fait



demande d'accomplirpour




moderaient son autorite. L'administrationactuelle en outre lui

elle certainsactes





a sa


tout ordre de

considerant que son autorite hereditaireest telle

doit etre obei.


etre un instrument effectif doit se baser sur

pour des institutions de la chefferie. Ce travail montrera comment et dans



cas les nouvelles activites reclameesau chef peuvent se fonder sur des sanctions


cas ces activites ne peuvent etre demandeessans detruire

traditionnelles, dans

les institutions indigenes.