Q: President Joyce Bandaâ€™s first public engagement was with chiefs on Wednesday, April 25 2012, where she advised them not to allow themselves to be used for partisan political ends. What did you make of that?
A: Two observations stood out. Firstly, the President projected the assumption that it was chiefs who were to blame for their partisan involvement in politics. Secondly, and probably building on the said assumption, the President did not spell out concrete policy measures and institutional reforms that would liberate chiefs from the centre of partisan politics.
Q: Who, then, is to blame?
A: The main culprits have been ruling politicians and not the chiefs per se. They have preserved and used the 1967 Chiefs Act to compel chiefs to collaborate with State elites in order to broadcast and consolidate the power of incumbent politicians in ways that do not augur well for democratic governance.
While some analysts have, in the past, called for complete abolition of chieftaincy, I argue that chiefs and a democratic political system are incompatible, but there is evident need for institutional reforms to streamline the roles of chiefs, realign them with democratic principles and contain their political agency. The entry point for the reforms is the amendment of the Chiefs Act.
Q: Is there a link between the Chiefs Act and the consolidation of patrimonial politics?
A: The Chiefs Act, which was enacted in 1967, and its design best suited the aspirations of a one-party State. Its application in our times is inconsistent with the aspirations of the democratic political system as spelled out in the Constitution. That no attempt has been made to reform it reflects the increasing returns that it has so far yielded for State elites even though at the expense of democratic consolidation.
The Act ensures the personal loyalty of chiefs to the president in many ways. There are a number of areas. One, Section 3(3) of the Act, the president is at liberty to alter territorial boundaries of any chieftaincy and to create new offices of paramount chief, chief or sub-chief.
Two, Section 4(1) empowers the president to appoint to the office of paramount chief or chief such person as he shall recognise as being entitled to that office.
Three, Section 10 (1) the president is at liberty to appoint such other person as he may think fit to the office of paramount chief, chief or sub-chief if the holder of the office is unable to fulfil the functions of his office accordingly.
Four, Section 16 chiefs are entitled to such remuneration as the President may, from time to time determine for the purposes of enabling the chiefs to maintain their status and to carry out the functions of their offices in a diligent and proper manner.
Q: So, what do you make of the provisions?
A: It is clear that the President enjoys a surfeit of authority and discretion over chiefs. In practice, this translates into a patrimonial logic that has characterised the relationship between the presidents and chiefs.Â A key issue is that the survival of any chieftaincy depends on the incumbent chief becoming a personal retainer of the president. Thus, chiefs are indirectly but visibly co-opted into the ruling party through their rule-based relationship with the president who straddles as head of State, head of government, and head of the ruling party.
The continued fusion of the state, the government and ruling party makes it impossible for chiefs to streamline their relationship with political authorities.
Q: What do you think should be done, then?
A: This 1967 Chiefs Act has outlived its usefulness as it is at variance with, and irrelevant to the democratic aspirations of Malawians. We need reforms. Reform efforts for democratic consolidation should focus on modernising chieftaincy by freeing it from the overarching patrimonial powers of the State president and delimiting their roles as key players in local governance.
Q: Particularly, what should be reformed?
A: The power and rights of the president over chieftaincy should be removed. A chieftaincy is an institution of traditional authority. Each ethnic group has its own cultural rules for creating more chieftaincies if they are needed, for elevating them in the hierarchy of traditional authority and for managing succession. These rules are known to tribal elders.
There is no reason why a State president should have the unrestricted right to create chieftaincies, make appointments, suspend incumbent chiefs, promote those he or she likes and dismiss those who disagree with him or her. The possibility that the president may exercise these powers over any chief, forces the chiefs into political compliance even on questions that are wholly undemocratic.
Q: But what about their pay structure?
A: Compensation for chiefs, like that of other public servants, should be regularised with a clear pay structure. It should be removed from presidential discretion which in the recent past has clearly been used for purposes of political patronage.
Q: Any last words?
A: Chiefs are institutionally forced to engage in partisan politics in favour of ruling parties. Containing chiefly political agency will require systemic reforms that must be championed by State elites including the President herself. Reforms should aim at ensuring that there can be politics without chiefs being agents of the ruling party; without chieftaincy being at variance with the institutions of a modern State; and that the role of the presidency towards chieftaincy can be limited or removed.
Given the deep-seated interests and the increasing returns the current institutional set-up has afforded ruling politicians and chiefs themselves, there is no reason to hope naively that such a reform agenda will be easy to push through.