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The role of traditional rulers in contemporary Cameroon governance case study Kupe-Manenguba

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political science
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International: $20
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1.1. Background to the study

        For centuries before the advent of colonial rule, governance in different parts of present – day Cameroon was synonymous with traditional institutions and their rulers. Traditional authorities have remained instrumental in the administration of local communities in Africa in general and Cameroon in particular. Their role in governance is not a new development as it has been part and parcel of the peoples‟ existence (Crook, 2010). Prior to European colonization, ethnic nationalities or groups in Africa had well established traditional political institutions that took care of the social, economic and political needs of their people. These were manned by traditional rulers who were well noted for the preservation of peace in their communities, customary legal adjudication and also as custodians and preservers of ancestral lands. However, the colonization of Kamerun by the Germans in 1884 saw the dwindling authority of traditional rulers as they became axillaries of the colonial administration. They acted as tax collectors, recruiters of labour for the German plantation, kept peace and order and dispensed justice. Though given authority in the management of local affairs, traditional rulers were answerable to colonial administrators and their decisions could be rejected or adjusted to fit colonial policies (Mbassi, 1994: 15)

           Traditional authorities occupy an important place in Africa’s life, and historically, in the body politics of Cameroon. These authorities embody the preservation of culture, traditions, customs and values of the African people, while also representing the early forms of societal organization and governance. Although traditional authorities represent early forms of governance, they have also been found in contemporary democracies. In Cameroon today, traditional authority is exercised at the grassroots level and is governed by Decree No. 77/245 of 15th July, 1977, organizing the chiefdoms. This has not always been so, prior to independence, the present Cameroon was made up of centralized societies in especially the grassfields and acephalous groupings in the southern part of the country (Nyamnjoh, 2002).

         It is significant that today all traditional authority in Cameroon is subject to uniform legislation. Especially, it is submitted that this “uniformization” renders findings of studies on traditional authorities in centralized chiefdoms useful to the same authorities created by law in the acephalous parts (Ayee, 2006). Cameroon has, however, been undergoing institutional reform since Law No. 96/06 of

January 1996 introducing the new Constitution. In its section 55, the latter

         Constitution ushered in decentralization whereby the decentralized authorities would be regions and councils. The latter structures are mainly charged with the task of local development under section 4(1) of Law No. 2004/17 of 22nd July, 2004, on the Orientation of Decentralization. The constitutional provision is silent on any consideration of traditional authorities (organized by law) as decentralized bodies. Also, traditional authorities do not formally constitute part of the deconcentrated institutions of the republican administrative machine that is made up of divisions and subdivisions (Kendie and Guri, 2004: 156).

          In recent years, controversy has ranged over the role of traditional authorities in contemporary Cameroon government. This controversy has been fueled by the promulgation of the 1996 constitution, which limits the integration of traditional authorities into the contemporary Cameroon government system. In pre-colonial times, traditional authorities in Cameroon were entirely responsible for governance and chiefs played a crucial and leading role in most communities in Africa. It is an established fact that traditional leadership has been the basis of local government administration in most of Africa throughout history (Rugege, 2003). According to Kendie and Guri (2004), traditional authorities formed the leadership structures within the community, and their functional role ensured compliance with rules, norms and beliefs on the part of the populace. The advent of colonial rule introduced western form of governance that with their accompanying political and administrative structures, dominated at the national and regional levels in most African countries.  Historically, the institutional of traditional leadership has performed various governance functions, most especially, at the community level.

          It is believed that meaningful development can only be achieved when traditional authorities work in partnership with government institutions, especially at the local level where traditional leadership is deeply rooted and state agencies are seen only as axis for development. This is evident in the study conducted by the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (CIKOD) and the Center for Development Studies (CDS). The purpose of this study is therefore to investigate the relevance of traditional rulers in contemporary Cameroon governance. 

1.2. Statement of the problem

Chieftaincy as a traditional form of political authority in local government administration in Cameroon predates colonial rule. The position that Cameroon’s traditional rulers occupy and play in local governance has been the subject of debate in recent years. Traditional rule represents the indigenous and authentic African form of governance, because it has been with the people throughout


        The quest for authority between the chieftaincy institution and the political structures of modern governments has not only deprived traditional leadership of its authority but also set in motion a new society whose structures and norms of leadership continue to challenge the authority, status and functions of traditional political leadership. The contest with the formal governmental system symbolized by the political authority of the central government and its representative structures in the regions and the districts pose the greatest challenge to the political authority of chieftaincy. Whereas the central government has usurped the political authority of chieftaincy and deprived it of its economic resources, it continues to demand from chiefs, roles and functions which chieftaincy in its present state cannot perform because it has neither the political authority nor the economic means (Akrong, 2006)

         Not much work has been done concerning the relationship that exists between the traditional authorities and the state institutions in regarding decision-making on development matters. Traditional authorities have been voicing their discontent at the way they have been neglected by the state in decision making, especially, at the local level (Crook, 2005). The diminishing authority and resources of chiefs caused by the activities of central government and its local agents and bodies have not made it possible for the chiefs to respond to the demands of the people.

       The demands on chiefs to play leadership roles in development by their people in spite of their diminishing authority and resources shows that the prestige and legitimacy of chiefs are deeply engrained in the consciousness of the people. The increasing erosion of the role of traditional authorities by the state and the tensions that this has created between these two established institutions presents a situation that this study seeks to examine.

1.3. Research Questions

1.3.1 General research question 

From the foregoing, the following research questions will guide the study.

  • What are the roles of traditional rulers in contemporary governance in Cameroon?

1.3.2.Specific research question

  • What are the challenges faced by traditional rulers in contemporary governance in Cameroon?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between traditional authorities and local government agencies?
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