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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Case for A Stronger House of Chiefs

Chola Mukanga

President Sata’s decision to create a ministry dedicated to traditional affairs provides a unique opportunity to review the constitutional position of the House of Chiefs and how it fits in with broader national development. Under current arrangements the House of Chiefs continues to be merely an "advisory body" that carries no weight. The Republican Constitution states under article 130 and 131:

There shall be a House of Chiefs for the Republic which shall be an advisory body to the Government on traditional, customary and any other matters referred to it by the President.
Notwithstanding [Article 130], the House of Chiefs may : (a) consider and discuss any Bill dealing with, or touching on, custom or tradition before it is introduced into the National Assembly; (b) initiate, discuss and decide on matters that relate to customary law and practice; (c) consider and discuss any other matter referred to it for its consideration by the President or approved by the President for consideration by the House; and (d) submit resolutions on any Bill or other matter referred to it to the President, and the President shall cause such resolutions to be laid before the National Assembly.

The House of Chiefs has no legal tooth and serves mainly as a talking shop for chiefs. This underlines the criticism once expressed by Chief Puta that the failure by the then MMD administration to take seriously recommendations by the House of Chiefs had reduced it to a “mere white elephant”. As currently constituted the second chamber is not functioning as it should and in fact continues to drain resources from the national coffers that could be better channel in fighting poverty.

The absence of credible power has also had another unintended effect. It has created a situation where very few credible chiefs take House of Chiefs matters seriously, leading to a de facto house of lemons. The poor reputation of the House of Chiefs has led to good chiefs staying outside because it is not worth their time and effort, despite the enticing allowances. The exit of credible chiefs from the second chamber has given way to corrupt and illiterate chiefs who are attracted to the chamber in equal measure. In short it’s a classic “market for lemons”, with only the bad eggs left in the business. It’s no surprise therefore that over the last decade the House of Chiefs has largely been dominated by corrupt and politically captured chiefs. Corruption is always rife in advisory bodies because such entities are used by the Executive to reward political friends in exchange for staying in power, as was witnessed under the MMD rule with its many electoral endorsements from traditional leaders.

The case for reform has never been more urgent. However in reforming the House of Chiefs we must first ask a broader question – what role, if any, should there be for culture / traditions in Zambia’s development model? Answering that question requires us to first define what we mean by “development” and then assess the role that “culture / traditions” should play, if any, in shaping that development. 

The standard approach to development issues has tended to see economic improvement as the essence of development. Economic growth expands choices and improves social welfare. Development comes essentially to mean higher and higher growth.  A large amount of time is spent finding ways in which national economic growth can be enhanced. Current consensus points to the need to develop “open institutions” that are much more suited to higher quality growth e.g. greater democratic institutions. Under this largely “western” model there’s no special role for cultural or religious functions. Where such exists, these must necessarily be subservient to higher ideals of national growth. There’s certainly merit in the standard model that Zambia has unreservedly embraced over the last two decades. However, for development to be meaningful to our people it must be owned by them. Stated differently, it must have an intrinsic Zambian definition, especially at the local level

The problem with the standard western centric development model is that it presupposes the nature and meaning of “development” for every Zambian and seeks to realign national institutions accordingly to deliver those ideals (i.e. high quality growth). However, it is quite feasible that an alternative definition of development may command different requirements on the type of local institutions that delivers that development. It is arguable that until that is done Zambians will never see development. Indeed, the reason why people are not experiencing the benefits of current national growth spurt is not only that the growth patterns are unequal, and increasing, but also that Zambians have inherently different expectations of what development means to them. Real development is not something that can be delivered from the top down, it must be defined from the bottom-up. It is not something that can be defined by bureaucrats in Lusaka. It must emerge from our villages in Kashikishi and other places. It requires an explicit local approach.

Development therefore rightly understood is the increase in the freedom of local communities to determine their own destiny, consistent with their cultural and social beliefs. To have genuine development Zambia needs to put in place policies that allow each locality to maximise these developmental freedoms. This requires two important steps. First, each district / constituency needs to define its vision of development is and how it would like to see that delivered. Secondly, each locality needs to ask itself what local institutions it wants to put in place to help deliver that development. 

Now it might be the case that Mwansabombwe residents may see “development” in terms of greater emphasis on traditional norms (e.g. less democratic openness) combined with participatory budgeting, but with minimal emphasis on economic growth. Mufulira residents may have the opposite view (more democratic openness and growth, but erosion of traditional forms), with Kapiri Mponshi residents opting for a mid way house between two extremes.  The important point is that we should allow each area to define their vision of development and the appropriate local institutions that accords to their goals. It should not be the role of central government to super impose its world view on local people. Such an approach does not deliver development because only local people really know what development means for them. In some cases, they will reject democratic openness and in some others they’ll embrace it.

This approach raises the inevitable question of how we integrate the constituent parts to form a meaningful whole.  The starting point is that we must start with a basic affirmation:  strong societies are those societies which are supported by a tripod of strong markets, strong democratic foundation and religious or cultural institutions.  Despite the limitations of markets high quality growth at the national level is necessary for delivering increased choices that improves social welfare. Culture plays a strong and dynamic role in creating durable societies. Equally, we hold that democracy has 'intrinsic value' and is important in its own right. The question is: how do we ensure that our vision of local people driven institutions support the emergence of this strong national apparatus?  

It is in answering that question that the role of the House of Chiefs becomes important.  Having recognised that the notion of development and culture are interlinked, the next step is to ensure that nationally there’s a greater affirmation of our traditions by bring them to centre of decision making. If this logical connection is accepted then, the chieftaincy that are the very heart of our cultural traditions must be recognised as having a primary role in shaping national life. This would be most viable through reinforcing the chieftaincy in local government and ensuring that the House of Chiefs becomes a credible second chamber that links local preferences on traditions to national ideals on high quality growth.

The local role of chiefs would be dictated by how localities define development and the level of emphasis they place on using existing cultural institutions to foster development. For some areas, the role of chiefs may open up the possibility of a new model that improves on role they played during colonialism as “native authorities”, working hand in hand with local administrators and representatives. The problem at the moment is that everyone in the village runs to the chief for justice administration and economic sustenance (more on this in future essays). Unfortunately many chiefs have no financial budget or clearly defined role in meeting these needs. The travesty of colonialism is that it reduced the chieftaincy which prior to that period had served the people so well to an irrelevant spectator. The local government apparatus has continued that parallel approach (government imposed system and traditional authorities) and with it a huge and inefficient struggle in delivering local development. 

Two important legitimate concerns may be raised regarding this “traditional infusion”. The first relates to the problem of corrupt local elites in league with traditional leadership who usurp local rules. This issue of course is present in any arrangement, though slightly amplified in this context. However, it does point to the importance of participatory approaches in local governance arrangements. The model suggested above accomplishes this through fiscally devolving power to the local people which allows them to prioritise spending and make their own decisions – based on areas they believe are vital to their development pursuit.
The second relates to the issue of universal rights. Would the new local apparatus lead to discrimination against other tribe and, women? Could it lead to perpetuation of tribalism and national disintegration? The issue of universal rights is handled through national legislation and relate to observance of rule of law e.g. legislation on the ‘bill of rights’.  The suggested reforms do not change the need to uphold these areas. The question of “tribalism” is more challenging and demands solutions at the local and national levels, as part of the broader debate on tackling corruption and its many variants.

At the national level, the key is putting in place a much stronger House of Chiefs. A second chamber, also drawing in religious leaders, would provide checks and balances to Parliament. This would be similar to the House of Lords in the UK. However, unlike the British version, chiefs would have direct link to the grass roots since they would operate both through chiefdoms and within a revised and integrated local government system. By moving the chieftaincy to the legislative centre, it would enhance democracy rather than weaken it. For example, under the proposed model land redistribution and reform of customary law would be easier to undertake because chiefs would be connected to the centre and with real administrative power, they would not feel ‘threatened’.

Opposition against a stronger House of Chiefs centres on the “undemocratic” nature of such reforms. This position is misguided because it essentially suffers from the illusion of pervasive democracy. Much of what affects our every day existence is thrust on us by unelected people. The entire bureaucracy of government that drafts legislation and builds complexity upon complexity in our laws and policies is not elected. Indeed, in Parliament we continue to have unelected nominated parliamentarians.  The argument also fails because it is built on a presupposition of democracy as a means to an end.  As noted the goal is to have a stronger society, of which the democratic aspect is an important supporting leg. If we can have a less democratic second chamber that helps deliver that strong society that is development.

The vision above neatly fuses modern principles of governance within a traditional framework. In the end Zambia will never achieve political or economic independence until it develops a distinctly Zambian idea to solving its economic problems. We are struggling to achieve local development because there’s no local idea of development and no vision of what institutions can deliver a more harmonious route to getting there.
The institutional reforms proposed can in the long term be supplemented by a structural shift in inter tribal relations built on broader education, language and communication reforms. Education needs to embrace differences, but at the same time teach the new generation how to communicate and relate to one other. Compulsory languages of other tribal languages and cultural lessons are particularly vital. Indeed, such a move must come with erosion of English as the single national language. The colonial adoption of English as a single national official language does more harm than good. Although it was predicated upon the desire to foster inter tribal unity, it has done so at the expense of reinforcing the dominance of rich Zambian elites. 
More worryingly, the measure also prevents many people in our villages from communicating with their government. In the words of Wangari Maathi, it has effectively turned the requirement into “the strongest form of discrimination, and indeed, means of oppression and exclusion”. A possible solution is to follow South Africa’s approach and adopt a suite of national official languages. To bind this together, there’s a greater need to support initiatives towards greater promotion cheaper forms of communication e.g. development local language radio stations, which although they may have the capacity to inflame tensions, in an open dialogue framework system suggest, it is likely to give local people greater voice to be heard by political leaders.
Until Zambia takes these broader sets of reform, Chief Puta and the others will continue to be a wasted resource and the ultimate victim will be the poorest in society, who will never be reached with a non-Zambian centred idea of development.

Chola Mukanga is the founder of Zambian Economist which exists to encourage development of “Ideas for a better Zambia

Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2011

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