In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Traditional Authorities

  • Introduction
  • Continuity and Change

African Studies Traditional Authorities
Lauren Honig
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0236


Traditional authorities (TAs) are leaders that draw legitimacy from tradition, custom, ancestry, and/or indigeneity. Examples of traditional sources of authority include linkages to historical kingdoms and membership in the first lineage to settle a community. However, TAs often also derive authority from their connections to the colonial and contemporary state. In many African countries, they have important roles in politics and local governance, including conflict resolution, management of land or other natural resources, and public goods provisions. In some countries, traditional leaders have official roles and state recognitions of their authority; elsewhere, they have informal influence. TAs’ proximity to local populations makes them effective intermediaries with the state. In addition, their succession to power is often hereditary; as such, they function as unelected local leaders. The terms chiefs, customary authorities, and traditional leaders may be used synonymously in the scholarship on traditional authority, but the specific terminology for different positions of authority varies by country.

Traditional Authority in the Modern African State

Traditional claims to power are often construed as independent of and antecedent to the modern state. Yet, in practice, many traditional authorities are highly integrated in governance and the exercise of state power. Given the symbolic contrasts between traditional and statutory, in countries with state boundaries and administrations imposed by colonization, a large area of scholarship has investigated the connections between state actors and traditional authority. Key themes within this literature are the resilience of chiefs and their sources of influence in the modern state, hybrid or plural authority structures, and the strategic interactions of chiefs and the state.

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