Malawi’s urban centres: a collision path for democracy and tradition

In Malawi, chiefs are fighting a May 2015 government directive banning them from exercising their powers in towns and cities. The clash highlights a schism between traditional leadership and democracy.

“The traditional role of urban chiefs has been challenged by the democratic need to have elected leaders,” observes University of Malawi Constitutional lawyer, Professor Edge Kanyongolo. Since democracy promotes constitutionalism, it is unlawful to have chiefs in urban set ups, he says.

Traditionally, chiefs get into their positions through a family lineage that is rooted in shared traditions and culture. They oversee issues related to land and property, resolve disputes, and influence social, economic and political development of their areas of jurisdiction.

Urban chiefs also preside over urban cultural affairs such as funerals and weddings and provide leadership in governance and development for the welfare of their communities. Hereditary urban chiefs, like rural chiefs, lord over land and as such have significant power and status despite the National Land Policy reining them in.

The headship fight between the country’s chieftaincy and elected councilors has its roots in the introduction of multi-party politics in Malawi in 1994, explains Kanyongolo.

Kanyongolo’s comments come on the heels of a stretched debate that followed the directive by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to ban urban chiefs from exercising their powers in towns. The directive is in line with the provisions of the Local Government Act.

The directive has not been taken lightly by urban chiefs. In his reaction on behalf of other urban chiefs, Chief Makata of Ndirande, Malawi’s biggest and politically volatile informal settlement in the commercial city of Blantyre, challenge both government and proponents of the directive.

“Our chieftaincy spans years before any government was created and actually it is us who created this country,” he said, warning of unspecified action if government does not rescind its decision.

Directive suspended

Section 3 (5) of the Chiefs Act prohibits chiefs from exercising jurisdiction within cities, municipalities or towns without the written approval of the appropriate council established under the Local Government (Urban Areas) Act, which assigns jurisdiction of areas within a district or township to a Local Council designated under the Act.

President Peter Mutharika has suspended the ministry’s directive and set up a task force to weigh arguments for and against the directive. However, Kanyongolo, the constitutional lawyer, has checkmated the president saying he does not have powers to stop the law from operating.

As it stands, government is caught in confusion in cases where hereditary chiefs find themselves in urban centres where they work with ‘Block leaders’ — urban chiefs without traits of ‘royal blood.’ Block leaders are informal community leaders elected by communities after satisfying several characteristics including being working or retired civil servants, teachers, civil society leaders, church leaders, or are businessmen who understand community needs and are ready to work with the people. They are not recognised by either the Local Government Act or the Chiefs Act and do not receive an honorarium for their voluntary work.

Earlier, only hereditary urban chiefs were recognized as having formal power, as reflected by central government’s commitment to pay them their monthly honoraria, meant to help them carry out their duties. The government also issued them cards identifying them as chiefs. These chiefs were fully integrated into the hierarchy of traditional authority, as governed by the Chiefs Act, and are answerable to a senior chief. But despite retaining their authority as migrants penetrated into their settings, still the law does not recognize their legitimacy.

The role of chiefs

Chiefs in Malawi and most African countries have responsibilities ranging from carrying out traditional functions in line with customary law and preserving culture. They also preserve public peace, encourage taxpaying and oversee the general welfare of their subjects. As ex-officio Local Council members, chiefs are further entrusted with powers to set by-laws for regulating district operations.

Like councilors, chiefs both rural and urban mobilize communities in planning and implementing development initiatives. They are the ‘entry points’ to communities for both government and nongovernmental organizations intending to implement development projects. But, unlike councilors, urban chiefs preside over land boundary and property disputes, inheritance cases, domestic violence and witchcraft cases among many others that are also, in the new democratic dispensation, handled by courts of law.

Historically, town chiefs emerged as a result of political and economic circumstances during the colonial era, as townships grew and people moved in to live and work, according to a working paper titled ‘Town Chiefs in Malawi’ by Diana Cammack, Edge Kanyongolo, and Tam O’Neil, published by the Africa Power and Politics Programme.

After the influx of migrants into urban centres following independence, tensions between inhabitant populations and new settlers opened the gates for ‘Block leaders,’ who were required to help maintain law and order.

In his paper titled “Planning for sustainability in Malawian cities: A conceptual analysis of the missing links,” development planner James Gondwe observes that a mismatch between the high rate of urbanization and the low level of economic development requires grassroots leadership to overturn the tables.

“Malawi has failed to accommodate social, economic, political, environmental and physical changes which are taking place within the urban landscape,” notes Gondwe, pointing out that the country needs to strike a balance between using chiefs and elected councilors as grassroots development actors.

Social and political commentator, Humphreys Mvula observes that urban chiefs still have a role to play in the development of the country.

“In the absence of councilors, chiefs have been the engine for grassroots participation in social and economic development,” says Mvula, pointing out that chiefs have produced developmental outputs to communities that are otherwise under served.

As such, Mvula thinks the central and local governments should formally recognize urban chiefs. Without grassroots participation in the shaping of future policies for urban communities, development policies will continue leaving the needs of the poor unmet, he says.

Town Planner, Leslie Majawa agrees with Mvula that traditional community leaders have proved to be effective in community governance.

“Involving chiefs and the communities in planning removes the mistrust that exists between authorities and communities and creates ownership to development plans in their settlements,” says Majawa.

A consultative workshop held by the Special Law Commission in 2012 to review the Chiefs Act recommended changes to the Chiefs Act to reflect changes taking place in society. The Commission suggested the need to review the definition of a village and the manner in which villages are created as well as the jurisdiction of chiefs especially those in urban areas and the status of block leaders in urban areas.

Meanwhile, Professor Kanyongolo says Malawi has two options. “Either it follows the law and abandon[s] urban chiefs or it changes the law to allow the existence of urban chiefs,” he says.

Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.

Photo:  Malawi’s president Peter Mutharika. Credit: Malawi State House Press Office.


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