Africa’s dual governance system

The great African theorist Peter Ekeh in the 1970s, called this phenomenon the “dual publics”, postulating there are often dual or multiple ‘publics’ and rules operating in African countries, with the formal, or ‘official’ ones, often at odds with the informal, but ‘unofficial’ ones.

In the 1970s, Ekeh called the formal and ‘official’ laws, institutions and values, the ‘civic’ public realm; and the informal and ‘unofficial’, the ‘primordial’ public realm, which are essentially the pre-colonial African traditions, institutions and norms.

Many Africans, according to Ekeh, may sometimes operate simultaneously in both these two realms. In their private lives they may act according the rules of the ‘primordial’ realm, embracing African traditional norms, while in their public life they may embrace the ‘civic’ realm.

Others may totally reject the ‘civic’ realm and only embrace the ‘primordial’ realm in both private and public life. Yet, others again may similarly reject the ‘primordial’ realm, and only embrace the ‘civic’ realm in private and public life.

Having two parallel governance systems operating in one country often undermines economic development, growth and building viable African democracies.

Since Ekeh’s originated his classic African theory in the 1970s these two realms remain existing in parallel in many contemporary African countries. The challenge for our times is how to create a new democratic public realm for Africans, which straddles both the ‘civic’ and ‘primordial’ realms postulated by Ekeh.

Such a democratic public realm must govern both public and private life. The basis of such a new envisaged joint-up common public and private realm for Africans must be that the elements of ‘patrimonial’ structures which undermine individual human dignity, value and rights must be either be abolished immediately or reformed.

The ‘primordial’ public realm has been distorted and reconfigured by both colonial, apartheid and white-minority regimes, but also by self-interested African traditional authorities. Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments in Africa deliberately run a dual governance system, as African scholars, such Mahmood Mamdani, Akin Mabogunje and Mamadou Dia have pointed out.

Whites were served separately by the colonial, apartheid and white minority governments. The ‘natives’ were separately served by traditional authorities, chiefs and customs, on behalf of the colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments.  Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments ‘chose’ the traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders, or if they were absent, or not pliant enough, created new ones. These traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders ruled the natives on behalf of the colonial, apartheid and

Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments ‘chose’ the traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders, or if they were absent, or not pliant enough, created new ones. These traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders ruled the natives on behalf of the colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments according to ‘traditional’ rules.

Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments would often endorse or reinforce the most autocratic elements of ‘traditional’ customs. In some cases traditional authorities invented their own new African “customs”, “traditions” and “cultures” to either cover-up wrong-doing , shield criticisms or to shore their political support political base – and so their ability to secure patronage – among the poor, uneducated and uninformed communities.

Sadly, at the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, African liberation and independence movements have adopted the dual system from these regimes, this time allowing traditional authorities to rule their local ‘subjects’, on conditions they get their ‘subjects’ to vote for the independence or liberation movement governments.

This means that in the post-independence period the dual publics that Ekeh talked about continued in many African societies.

Informal alternative social, cultural power structures, social relations, norms and values, especially in the rural areas, which are antithetical to democracy, inclusive development and individual freedom, continues to dominate both the public and private realms of many African countries.

Post-independence African governments have created new formal overarching national institutions, such as parliaments, judiciaries and laws, which can call ‘civic’ structures. However, traditional, but informal, the ‘patrimonial’ realm – institutions, cultures and power structures regulate the behavior of most citizens, rather than the formal ones.

The informal governance structures that often dominate real day-to-day lives of Africans include the “traditional institutions for regulating land tenure, family formations, labour relations, inheritance laws, credit institutions, and traditional guild organisations”.

In return for having untrammeled feudal power, African traditional chiefs and authorities, made sure that their ‘subjects’ voted for the ruling party.

However, traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders more often than not abuse such powers for their own enrichment, turning the vast majority of Africans living in rural areas into feudal ‘subjects’ eking out lives in abject poverty, as well controlling almost every part of their lives, even who their ‘subjects’ should vote for.

In many African countries, under the patrimonial realm, ordinary individuals often do not have equal power in social relations with cultural, religious and traditional authorities. This lack of individual  power, reduces the ability of individuals to empower themselves socially, political and economically.

Some of these traditional institutions, rules and customs, on occasion may be undermined by both development and democracy; others can be adapted and harnessed to support both; and many others will have to be abolished.

Our challenge is that ‘patrimonial’ structures which undermine individual human dignity, value and rights must be either be abolished immediately or reformed.

The debate over what is appropriate African “traditions” for our times must be wrested away from those who argue culture for purely opportunistic reasons, self-enrichment and to shore their own influence and bank balances.

China is one country, where the dual realms were formally abolished, in favour of one ‘civic’ realm, which governs both the private and public realms, albeit a communist one. China equalized the social relations between supposed traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders and ‘subjects’, taking away the power, of the former to be the arbitrators of culture, or to be the governors of the ‘patrimonial’ and private realm.

But also as important, the Chinese government abolished the power of the traditional chiefs and authorities, whereby they have control over land, patronage and the social values. The Chinese set out a program to equalize the status between traditional leaders and authorities and ordinary peasants, setting new common rules of behavior.

Giving all citizens equal value is a prerequisite for African development. Furthermore, making the fundamental rules, institutions and behaviours – no matter traditions, religious or cultures – applicable to all citizens of African countries, are crucial for development.

*This article featured in the African Independent and can be viewed by clicking here.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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