Cyprian F. Fisiy

General characteristics and evolution of chieftaincy in the North-West Province
The chief as landlord and ruler.
Modern uses of land by the chiefs.
Chiefs facing the state.


The recent upsurge in popular protest in most of Africa pursuant to the democratization process has refocused scholarly interest in the mechanisms of good governance. There are persistent calls for transparency and accountability in the management of public affairs. Moreover, the shift of emphasis from a development paradigm to one of democratization has led to a growing quest for alternative sources of authority and power that could be enlisted to provide more content to the democratization discourse. It is, therefore, not surprising that the holders of pre-colonial forms of authority, such as chiefs, have (or claim to have) new political roles within the context of the modern state. For all the various transformations of such institutions during the colonial and post-colonial periods, the present incumbents claim that they are the true representatives of their 'people'. Yet, the democratization discourse, predicated on the principle of elective representation, strikes at the heart of these customary institutions which are structured on the hereditary devolution of power.
However, the expectation that the chieftaincy would wither away, as elected officials assumed political power, has not fully materialized. In the colonial period, scholars were already predicting the demise of customary chiefs (e.g. Balandier 1972: 159ff). Despite such predictions, customary chiefs are still charting new spaces on the political landscape. It is therefore with very good reason that scholars have tended to highlight the ambivalence that characterizes this institution, especially as it seems to mediate between the past and the present by imaging itself as a 'symbol of tradition', and at the same time striving to serve as an agency for 'modern projects' (Geschiere 1993: 152). In short, the structures and institutional frameworks for 'inventing the future' (Davidson 1992: 241) are not solely reserved for the post-colonial state elite; other institutional sources also vie for political space.
Rather than treat elective representation as a sine qua non for democracy, the fundamental question is whether the democratization discourse, as propounded in the African context, provides the most appropriate framework for inventing the future, given the pluralistic composition of African societies (Young 1993; Fauré 1993; Throup 1993; Hart 1993)? In which case, to question 'whether the 'customary authorities' have retained sufficient prestige to function as vote banks in the new setting' (Geschiere 1993: 151) appears to contradict the very notion of elective representation; on the other hand it treats as axiomatic the idea that good governance can only be achieved through elective mechanisms.
The expectation that chiefs might function as vote banks raises the question as to whether such homogeneous political spaces really exist and, if so, can chiefs claim to speak on behalf of their people? What implications would such a scenario, with geo-political blocks, have on the democratization process? Might this be read as the segmentation of the post-colonial state into block vote areas, with the obvious implication that ethnicity lies at the heart of the political debate, despite the persistent rhetoric of national integration? However, this is not meant to imply that powerful chieftaincies are necessary crystallizing agencies for ethnic consciousness. The latter cannot be reduced to such local hierarchies.
Complex and dynamic patterns of socio-political interaction have resulted in the co-existence of different institutional frameworks from which contradictory discourses and agendas emerge. New institutions have appeared, some old ones have been substantially transformed, while others have simply atrophied. The institution of the chieftaincy has shown remarkable powers of survival. What factors account for its resilience? What is the power base of the chiefs and how is this is affected by broader political and economic change? In order to understand how the chiefs mediate between the past, the present, and the future, it is necessary to understand the relation between their control over people and over resources. For most rural communities, the control and management of land is at the heart of control over people.
In this paper, I focus on the chieftaincies of the North-West Province (NWP) of Cameroon, and the ways in which their control and management of land has provided them with the power to govern. Where such control over land has been whittled away, they have lost their grip over the people. However, in providing an alternative discourse at the local level, they have effectively obviated the imposition of state land law reforms and made the 1974 land ordinances appear subsidiary to customary tenure systems. They have effectively created a political space within which they can maintain their control over people and resources. State power is contested in the resulting legal and institutional pluralism. This has led the state to seek to co-opt and bureaucratize the chieftaincy in order to exploit the control it exercises over people and resources in order to capture local communities.
To understand how this contest is negotiated, this paper starts with the general characteristics of chieftaincy, it shows how the effective use of rituals and myths are central to notions of governance in a customary setting and then examines the strategies the chiefs use as they face the state. The conclusion re-examines the question of the institution of chieftaincy as an anachronism in the democratization process.

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