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Traditional Governance and the Maintenance of Peace in Sub-Saharan Africa

Traditional Governance and the Maintenance of Peace in Sub-Saharan Africa

Photo credit: USAID/A Luyoyo. 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Mustasilta, K. (2018). Including chiefs, maintaining peace? Examining the effects of state-traditional governance interaction on civil peace in sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Peace Research, 56(2), 203-219.

Talking Points

In Sub-Saharan Africa: 

  • Traditional governance, including local chiefs, kings, or conflict resolution mechanisms, can play a powerful role in maintaining peace if it is integrated with the public administration of the state (a scenario called “institutional hybridity”). 
  • Institutional hybridity is associated with a 60% decrease in the risk of armed conflict outbreak. 
  • Short of institutional hybridity, other types of interactions between traditional governance and the state do not appear to play a significant role in maintaining peace. 
  • The colonial legacy of sub-Saharan African countries matters: the main finding of a 60% reduced risk of armed conflict appears less robust in former British colonies. 


This article offers new insights into the prevention of civil wars in sub- Saharan Africa by examining the role that traditional authority (TA) plays in supporting outcomes for war or peace. The prevention of civil wars is among the top concerns for international peace and security practitioners. Much of the previous research on this question has focused on state capacity, theorizing that a strong centralized state is key for establishing peace. Yet, this is not always the case. Many sub-Saharan African countries with “limited” state capacity are still able to maintain peace. Such anomalies could be explained by how and under what conditions the state and TA interact. Do they operate as parallel structures with little to no interaction? Or, do they coordinate, even integrate, public administration activities?

Traditional Authority (TA)

“context-specifically constructed and identified authorities, rules, and institutions” that include “a wide variety of public authority figures (e.g., chiefs, kings, and headmen) and procedures and institutions (e.g., conflict resolution mechanisms and land management practices).” In the sub-Saharan African context, these traditional authorities may have links to pre-colonial times.

In Malawi, the author finds an exemplary case where local chiefs were instrumental to the transition from single-party rule to multi-party democracy in the mid-1990s. Chiefs in Malawi have had constitutionally recognized roles in the state’s public administration before and after the transition to democracy. During the transition, local chiefs played a stabilizing role when “the dissolution of the old state structures and the malfunctioning of the new local government structures created a governance vacuum at the local level.” TA played similar roles in Ghana and Mozambique. To better understand the relationship between TA and the state, the author developed an analytical framework and a unique dataset.

The analytical framework developed four types of interaction between TA and the state that ranged from the exclusion of TA to the inclusion of TA in the government’s public administration (institutional hybridity). Between these two extremes, the state might provide symbolic recognitionto TA or formally acknowledge its existence as a parallel authority (institutional multiplicity).

This framework generated two hypotheses. First, concordant interactions should lead to a lower rate of intrastate war than discordant. Second, TA inclusion in the state’s public administration (institutional hybridity) should decrease the likelihood of armed conflict onset more than all other types of interactions. The logic here is that concordant interactions are likely to encourage coordination between the two entities. By improving coordination between the state and TA, competition is minimized, as is the incentive to take up arms.

A unique dataset was developed looking at 44 sub-Saharan African countries from 1989 to 2012 and coding whether or not a country experienced the outbreak of armed conflict during that time period. Additionally, each country-year is coded for whether or not there is an “explicit recognition of traditional governance as a parallel structure of governance or part of public administration” and, separately, which of the four interaction types best characterizes the relationship between TA and the state. Several control variables were added, including former colonial status (British colony or not), political regime type, per capita gross domestic product, market dependence on primary commodities, population size, ethnic fractionalization, and years since last armed conflict outbreak.

The outbreak of armed conflict is rare, happening in only 53 out of 835 country-year pairings. When considered in relation to institutional type, the outbreak of armed conflict is rarer in country-years characterized by institutional hybridity (2%) than in country-years characterized by symbolic recognition (13%), exclusion (8.5%), or institutional multiplicity (4.8%). After running statistical tests to assess the relationship between institutional type and armed conflict, the author found that concordant interactions are associated with a decreased likelihood of the outbreak of armed conflict in relation to discordant types—from 11% (discordant) to 4% (concordant). Holding everything else constant, the author finds that institutional hybridity decreases the risk of armed conflict outbreak by 60%.

Importantly, the author concludes, “countries seem to gain the added value of traditional authorities only by incorporating them into the state administration rather than recognizing their authority alongside the state administration.”

Other notable results include the effect of British colonial legacy. Excluding traditional authorities in former British colonies showed a conflict-inducing effect. And institutional hybridity had a decreased effect on the outbreak of armed conflict in former British colonies. In other words, the main finding of this article that showed a 60% reduced risk of armed conflict in countries with institutional hybridity was less robust in former British colonies. The author theorizes that British indirect colonial rule maintained traditional governance structures, making those structures more resilient and in a better position to collaborate with the new state structures after decolonization. As a result, institutional hybridity was more common in former British colonies. It’s unclear why colonial legacy matters here, and the author calls for additional research.

Informing Practice 

Questions of governance, state capacity, and peace are core to the debate on effectiveness in foreign aid. Brookings reports that, since the early 1990s, foreign aid to recipient countries “has tended to support domestic policy reform efforts” and that “economic policies matter for aid effectiveness, but at least as important as determinant of aid effectiveness are good governance and corruption control”(1). Many academics and practitioners alike affirm linkages between good governance, international development aid, and the prevention of war, arguing that these key components can work in harmony to support prosperous and peaceful countries. For instance, the USAID FY 2018 budget requested $92 million in “Transition Initiatives funding to address opportunities and challenges to prevent conflict, stabilize emerging democratic processes, and respond quickly to urgent, unanticipated crises in countries critical to US foreign policy”(2).

This approach, linking funding  to state capacity and good governance to support peace, is not inherently wrong. As this author notes, much of the previous academic literature on this topic has demonstrated this relationship (see Continued Reading). However, this article demonstrates that state capacity and good governance are not necessarily linked to centralized states—meaning that supporting peace does not always go hand in hand with simply increasing the authority and legitimacy of national governments.

This article provides compelling evidence for why this might be the case especially for sub-Saharan African countries, where state capacity can be hamstrung by a wide variety of factors (extreme poverty, developing economies, or corruption, for example) and local traditional governance often garners legitimacy.

The implications for foreign aid are questionable. Foreign aid is as politically motivated as it is oriented towards broader impact because it is one of the many tools in a country’s proverbial diplomatic tool shed. Maintaining good relationships between national governments is fundamental to diplomacy. However, if countries conceptualize the prevention of civil wars as one of their many foreign policy goals (as the “Transition Initiatives” in the USAID budget implies), then the incorporation of traditional authorities in the public administration of recipient countries may be a new component of “good governance” to support through foreign aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

Continued Reading

On State Capacity and Civil War

Fjelde, H. & de Soysa, I. (2009). Coercion, co-optation, or cooperation?  State capacity and the risk of civil war, 1961-2004. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 26(1), 5-25.

Gleditsch, K.S. & Ruggeri, A. (2010). Political opportunity structures, democracy, and civil war. Journal of Peace Research, 47(3), 299-310.

Hegre, H. & Nygard, H.M. (2015). Governance conflict relapse. Journal of Conflict Resolution,59(6), 984-1016.

Hendrix, C.S. (2010). Measuring state capacity: Theoretical and empirical implications for the study of civil conflict. Journal of Peace Research, 47(3), 273-285.

On Traditional Governance in sub-Saharan Africa

Ajayi, A.T. & Buhari, L.O. (2014). Methods of conflict resolution in African traditional society. African Research Review,8(2), 138-157.

Uwazie, E. (2011). Alternative dispute resolution in Africa: Preventing conflict and enhancing stability. African Center for Strategic Studies. Retrieved from

Holzinger, K.; Kern, F.G.; & Kromrey, D. (2016). The dualism of contemporary traditional governance and the state: Institutional setups and political consequences. Political Research Quarterly, 69(3), 469-481. 


Cultural Survival:


Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC):

Keywords: traditional governance, sub-Saharan Africa, civil wars, conflict prevention

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.

1. Kaufmann, D. (2009). Aid effectiveness and governance: The good, the bad and the ugly. Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

2. USAID. Fiscal year 2018 USAID development and humanitarian assistance budget. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from


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