The diminishing role of traditional authorities

09 October 2015

The role of traditional authorities in Namibia has increasingly come under the spotlight post-independence.

Namibia, like the rest of the African continent, has a dual society with a modern form of governance mixed with elements legalizing certain traditions and cultural priorities, and it is important that we have defined roles of traditional authorities vis-à-vis that of the state.

Of late, the thinking has been that traditional authorities have been reduced to mere ceremonial figure heads with no real power over their “subjects” despite government spending millions of dollars on their salaries, cars and administrative expenses.

Traditional authorities are now seen by many as mere agencies of the ruling party, whose important function is to canvass votes for Swapo and ensure election victory with any authority over the land or the people living in their areas, defined and tempered by national Constitutional laws.

While such a view might be considered harsh and extreme, events obtaining on the ground points to weakened roles of traditional authorities as their powers are being usurped by either regional councils or the Land Boards.

An interesting 2001 study by a Unam student Ndiyepa  Kaenda on the role of traditional leaders in Namibia’s decentralization policy argued that the role of traditional leaders as provided for in the decentralization policy is rather minimal.

Kaenda concluded that traditional authorities have been made to subordinate to the authority of regional councils.

A representative of the Maharero Traditional Authority spoke rather candidly this week about the diminishing role of traditional authorities.

Speaking in a radio interview on NBC, the representative said traditional authorities in Namibia have not been effectively used by government as they should in the promotion of good governance.

He complained that the annual meeting of the Council of Traditional Leaders which was held this week was a waste of time and resources as nothing concrete ever comes out of the meetings.

He said for years now, the traditional leaders have been discussing the same things without any progress and government does not really take them seriously.

As an example, he said the agenda of the meeting comes from government without any input from delegates and that the agenda is only given just before the start of the meeting.  He argued that this leaves little room for meaningful debate to take place at the meetings because the delegates would not have fully prepared for the discussions.

As a result, real concerns by the various communities across the country are never addressed at these forums. The result has been that these leaders are losing the respect of their communities who now see them as lame duck leaders with no real authority.

The situation has been worsened by the daily infighting amongst members of the various traditional authorities interested in the perks that comes which such titles.

With the proclamation of many settlements across the country, we believe there is an urgent need for robust debate on the future role of traditional authorities in a modern day Namibia.

Such a debate should discuss whether the traditional authorities still serve their purpose that they were created for in the first place.  This is a debate worth having.



The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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