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Conflict between nation state and ethnic state

By Elia Kisembo

The role of cultural leaders needs to be revised to cater for both the traditional and modern states.

Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of pre-colonial political institutions across Africa. The governments of both Uganda and Ghana took a lead in constitutional reforms in the 1990s restoring traditional leaders. In South Africa some 40 per cent of the population is now ruled in part by 800 traditional chiefs.

Chiefs have also seen their role increase in Mozambique and Benin. In Tanzania, traditional sungusungu grassroots associations have taken over police and judiciary roles while in Cameroon’s Northern Province, the sultan of Rey Bouba manages militias and prisons.  The `Bami’ chiefs have also set up a political organisation in the South Kivu region of Congo. In Somalia, for a long time clans have replaced the state as instruments of collective action.

However, the challenge in Africa is of building nation states from the many pre-colonial nations. The construction of the modern civil state is not yet complete in most countries. There is still a conflict between the ethnic nations and modern civil states. This has created divided loyalties of citizens between the ethnic nation and the modern states made-up of different nations.  Unlike in the Western societies where personal security in terms of access to medical care, education etc is provided by the state, in African the value of state legitimacy derived from service delivery is very minimal. This has caused many citizens to look inward to their families, and people of their ethnic nations for relief. This has made it hard to construct a new nation state from many nations since most modern states cannot be looked at as the provider of personal needs. This contributes a lot to the use of ethnicity as a tool for social insurance.

With the challenges of nation building in Africa, the role of traditional authorities need to be renegotiated in a constructive approach so as to create a win-win situation for both the traditional institutions and the modern states. The role of traditional authority, whether constitutional or extra-constitutional, can be crucial in providing African states with a dose of stability at a time of rapid change and institutional weakness. The incorporation of traditional structures in contemporary state systems could improve the governance of African states by building upon the legitimacy of pre-colonial institutions that is being enjoyed in Africa.

In Uganda, however, the visions of the central government and traditional authorities seem not to be harmonised. It is unclear how the kingdoms can maintain the momentum of their revival and the allegiance of their subjects in view of the limited material benefits these institutions provide to their subjects. Already the monarchists are finding it difficult to translate the symbolic appeal of kingdoms into actual mobilisation for development, shedding doubts on one of the main justifications for the rebirth of kingdoms. What is at the centre of contention between the Central Government and kingdoms is the struggle to make kingdoms materially relevant to their subjects. That is, how can the kingdom help people to develop, to access better health and education in the context of its changing roles?

There is a realisation among the traditional authorities that mere affection for institutions may not alone provide a sufficient foundation for their sustainability. In several ways, while ordinary subjects display substantial affection for the king and the kingdom, they nevertheless remain aloof from their political projects and display a relatively strong allegiance to the national state.  The kingdoms therefore face a particular challenge in translating their capacity for symbolic mobilisation into political and developmental agendas .This is what is informing the interests of federalism in Uganda today.

However, this is not an easy process since any economic improvement of kingdoms may be translated into political power that may undermine the authority of the Central Government. There is a genuine fear that interests of kingdoms like Buganda may create a clash with the competing notion of sovereignty of the Central Government.  Also kingdoms like Bunyoro are now looking forward to a share of the oil revenues.

The challenge before traditional institutions is that of forging a successful future through structures of delivering services to  their population and how to improve and constructively work with the Central Government on a negotiated position that gives both of them  a win–win situation.

The rest of the country needs humility to recognise and appreciate that the Buganda Question has been here longer than most of us. It has outlived individual governments and presidents. Only  an honest negotiated settlement can provide constructive solutions in our process of nation building as we integrate the roles of traditional institutions to co-exist and complement the modern state.


Elia Kisembo is a political commentator and social critic.

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