It’s now widely acknowledged that one of the key reasons for the failure of many economic reforms is poor understanding of the historical and cultural context to which they applied. The context helps us understand the various “seats of power” in society, the distribution of resources and the extent to which many other unobservables may influence policy outcomes.
In that sense our quest to understand how Zambia should develop, must include a full understanding of the various elements of its culture or traditions. In many respect our culture or traditions are best captured in our traditional authorities which embody the memories of the past.
In this first of a series of blogs on traditional leadership, I want to briefly cast our eyes on where we are coming from, beginning with the colonial era. The discussion in this brief post cannot do full justice to the richness of this topic, but I hope it can spark discussion on what lessons can be learned from the pre-independence era as we move forward. This is particularly pertinent as we consider the capacity of chiefs to be agents of social and economic change within the current democratic system.
The Zambian colonial experience, like many other countries in the region, is one of British indirect rule. The colonial state, through the local administrative centres or local “bomas” worked through traditional authorities (native authorities) to govern the populace. That is to say these native authorities were go-betweens between the colonial state and the people, a system which was immediately modified after Zambia gained independence in 1964, as shall discuss in the next blog in the series.
Native Authorities came into existence in colonial Zambia in 1929, through the enactment of the Native Authorities Ordinance (NAO). Over time the Native Authorities were amalgamated into bigger and supposedly more efficient structures. Indeed, by the end of colonial rule in 1964, there were about 60 large Native Authorities, with 233 senior and junior chiefs.
In the early years of their formation, a typical Native Authority comprised of a chief, court clerk, assessor and a number of ba Kapasu (Native Authority policemen), with responsibility for collecting tax and maintaining law and order. With the increased emphasis on rural development, during the post war period, the Native Authorities quickly developed into super structures with responsibility whose functions included education, health, and delivery of public works. In fact by the time of independence, these activities had expanded to such an extent that a typical Native Authority employed around 20 staff, with larger ones having as many as 50 staff. In addition, all Native Authorities were supported by numerous village headmen.
The general picture therefore is one in which local chiefs were presiding over significant and influential authorities, in their capacity as go betweens between the colonial state and the populace. This view is broadly shared by many Zambian historians. Much of historical discussion therefore focuses on how chiefs used this new found responsibility. This is particularly important as it gives us some insight on how traditional authorities have tended to use administrative power, and the extent to which that depends on the incentives they were facing. Indeed, some might even argue that the extent to which ordinary Zambians place social value on the role of chiefs within a modern setting, is partly shaped by the extent to which many believe the “colonial experience” with chiefs was largely positive or negative, given the wider circumstances they were facing.
There are essentially two views on the nature of this “go-between” role. The conventional view, largely perpetuated by European historians, is that Native Authorities in British Africa were largely captured in their positions only to serve colonial governments, with little regard to the interests of the people they served. In this distinctly European narrative, the chief is portrayed as a self centred ruler who did little to advance the interests of his / her people, stereotypes which still pervades modern Zambian thinking. In particular, this scholarly approach shaped people's social and political attitudes towards traditional authorities. It has led to the natural tendency to view any proposal that increases role of chiefs in governance with suspicion. The view of a self centred chief is deeply ingrained in our thinking.
However, the empirical evidence for exploitative colonial chiefs now been largely questioned by African historians. In Zambia, at least, the work of Samuel Chipungu and others paint a very different picture. Far from being weak instruments of the state, increasing evidence shows that chiefs attempted to balance their official duties as agents of the colonial state with expectations of rural Zambians. This fine balance and traditional flexibility is readily seen in two areas.
First, chiefs exercised great care in matters of revenue collection. Native Treasuries were a key part of the Zambian colonial state from 1937, when they were created in Native Authorities and through the first and second world wars proved critical in providing salaries, financing public works, offer loans and advances to staff and other deserving local individuals. By the1950s Native Authorities were building primary schools, clinics, dams and even purchasing equipment for showing films.
The revenue came principally from three sources - "native tax", "court revenue" and "licences and permits" (e.g. dog licences). Although significant attempts were made by Native Treasuries to collect the revenue from the populace, after all the wages of the staff came from the collected revenue, chiefs tried hard to distance themselves from the more unpopular sources of revenue and mechanisms designed by the colonial state to collect revenue. This was especially the case for the dog and gun licences, and fish and livestock levies. Among many chiefs who spoke bitterly against such licences include Chiefs Bunda Bunda and Mukobela.
Secondly, in matters of law and order, chiefs were generally reluctant to prosecute cases that were likely to make them widely unpopular, contrary to colonial state expectations. This was especially when such cases related to matters of revenue collections like dog and gun licences and abuse of NAOs (a careful balance had to be struck here, because revenue collection was also a private source of funds as I discuss later on). NAOs where particularly notorious for the populace as they included requirement of regular attendance for school children, payment of various levies, and maintenance of footpaths, restrictions of specified areas and even cleanliness of villages. For many chiefs such measures provided an ideal opportunity for them to create a populist stance among the rural dwellers. The challenge for chiefs was always to maintain relative autonomy for fear of alienating themselves from the rural populace, in order to further legitimise their authority. Hence, they rarely pursued application of colonial laws to their fullest extent, but just enough to meet the legal requirements of the colonial government.
As great as these achievements were, I believe their unheralded achievements were even greater. In many respects, the greatest contribution of the traditional authorities during this period was in the way they leveraged their new power to the advancement of economic and political change. In particular, their ability to use state revenue to the development of rural entrepreneurship and political activism that eventually led to independence.
Its well documented that local chiefs and their officers in the Native Authorities used Native Treasuries to enrich themselves. The revenue from the treasuries became sources of capital which they invested in productive ventures (and presumably non-productive as well, though this aspect is not well documented in Zambia). The investment patterns generally tended to follow regional specialisation. A couple of examples:
- In Southern Province, chiefs and their Native Authority staff tended to investment in agriculture and related ventures due to the pre-emenince of peasant agriculture there.
- In Luapula Province, chiefs tended to invest in fishing through the purchase of fishing nets and boats. As the demand for fish on the copperbelt increased, owners of boats and fishing-nets stepped up their catches by employing the services of a number of fishermen
- Where Native Authorities covered areas teeming with game, local chiefs and their officers tended to invest in hunting gear, particularly in guns. Game meat could even be sold, even in cattle-keeping areas, as the slaughter of cattle was often reserved for important occassions. But of course, the most important product was always ivory, which was still in demand by urban based exporters. In Kabwe, for instance, Chief Chipepo was renowned for elephant poaching in the 1940s, and this was partly while he was removed from Native Authority office in 1948.
- In areas where Native Authorities were along major roads and railways, or close to urban centres, chiefs and their officials operated light delivery trucks, stores and groceries, and ran hawker businesses. Chief Sandwe in Petauke District, for example, combined his official duties as head of a Native Authority, member of the African Provincial Council, and Provincial Education Authority with running a family store business at Sinda.
Local chiefs were able to engage in these activities because they depended less on their wages for day to day sustanance. As chiefs they did not have to pay rent or other expenses as these were given to them as tribute from the people, in line with existing traditions. When we combine this with the higher wages they were getting from the colonial government, it basically allowed them to convert their Native Authority salaries into significant investment capital.
In addition, besides the Native Authority salaries there were other sources of income available to them e.g. loans and other surplus funds from Native Authority projects. We can’t also forget their prime source – embezzlement of public funds. Many used Native Authority funds to enrich themselves. Poor controls within the Authorities led to significant misappropriation of funds, especially with court revenue. Many of them also introduced levies and fines outside the legal framework and collected money for their benefit. Here we find a startling problem they faced. On the one hand the incentive was strong for them to keep revenue collection to a minimum in order to preserve their relevance, on the other hand weak controls provided an opportunity to extort money from the populace. It was therefore always a balancing act.
Not all revenues went into private businesses, some of it was channelled to the nationalist cause. The rise of nationalism in the post WWII, posed significant challenges for local chiefs, with ANC and UNIP spearheading the fight for independence. The colonial government was uncomfortable with nationalism and worked hard to suppress those that championed nationalist cause. Native authorities were expected by the State to arrest, fine or imprison party functionaries.
However, it is widely acknowledged that the colonial government’s effort to use Native Authorities in its struggle against nationalism largely failed. Native Authorities generally tended to adopt the attitude of non-cooperation with the central government against agents of nationalism, some even going as far funding these agents or taking a dual position as both agents of the state and the nationalist cause.
For example, many local chiefs only tended to arrest local politicians only in the presence of central government officials who directed the exercise, even though central government preferred arrests to be frequent. Examples of this include Chief Katuta, Chief Mapanza and many other chiefs in the Tonga Plateau.
Indeed it was the realisation that Chiefs were less than helpful as allies in the struggle against nationalism that led to the increasing reliance of the colonial government on the Mobile Police Unit, a law enforcement organ designed specifically to deal with riots. The unit was famously put to work in 1961 against the Cha Cha Cha militarism in rural areas, particularly in Luapula Province where there was significant destruction of schools, bridges and other symbols of government presence.
So what drove chiefs to this apparent acceptance of nationalism and its exponents? Three reasons have been suggested in Zambian literature:
- First, nationalism produced local leaders lacking rigid connection to either ANC or UNIP, who headquarters were in urban areas. Therefore the rulers did not confine themselves to defined party lines, which led them to develop political agendas replete with rural -based grievances which chiefs wished to champion.
- Secondly, many chiefs feared allienation from local populace that had embraced nationalism and therefore did not want to weaken their traditional authority further. Support of nationalist cause was therefore a way of preserving their authority.
- Thirdly, the growing influence of education. Where chiefs were educated, as was the case in Southern Province by the 1950s, they argued for tolerance of the politicians, as they understood their role as that of balancing the forces of progress and those of tradition. Where chiefs were illiterate it was the educated Native Authority employees who tended to champion the course for official caution towards local politicians and nationalism. Senior Chief Mushota in Luapula, for example, appears to have neen influenced by the more politically conscious Silas Chama, his Chief Councillor.
To sum, the general picture of chiefs in colonial Zambia can be viewed in two ways. First, the "middle man" role required them to provide a balancing act between the needs of the state and the local populace. Something that they generally accomplished very well. Secondly, chiefs were quiet, but active players in the emergence of an economic and political independent Zambia. They used their Native Treasury positions to spearhead entrepreneurial spirit and most importantly used their influence to support the nationalist cause.
I believe that that a careful and thorough study of this period provide three distinct lessons for those seeking to understanding how best to incorporate traditional leadership in Zambian development:
- Traditional authorities are a broader part of our historical, political and economic heritage. Many of the benefits we enjoy in terms of entrepreneurship, and some which were immediately crushed under one party state, can be attributed to them.
- Rightly viewed, traditional authorities have always adapted and changed with the times. Our traditional authorities were not static institutions, but rather institutions that saw opportunities and always looked at how best to create a win-win situation between the people and the government of the day.
- Incentives matter even for traditional authorities. We have seen that chiefs reacted to both good and bad incentives. Where controls were weak, chiefs moved to exploit those controls and amassed wealth for themselves, albeit with positive spillovers for the oppressed populace and future Zambian generations. Where cultural incentives were strong, chiefs put the maintenance of culture and local traditions before obligations to the state. This was particularly the case in matters of revenue collection and maintenance of law and order.
In the next post in this series, we’ll turn our attention to discuss how the role of Chiefs was substantially modified after independence, consigning them to the peripheral of economic and political life, and the reasons for the reversal. A full list of the seven topics which are being covered in this series can be found here.
(I hope that future posts would be much shorter! In putting this piece together I have excluded references because there are so many, but it should be obvious that I am deeply indebted to the work of Chipasha Luchembe, Mwelwa Musambachine, Samuel Chipungu and many other Zambians historians who continue to shed new light on pre-independence experiences. )