By 2010, it has become clear that in most of Africa, traditional authorities are a resilient lot, just as much a part of the “modern” political landscape as any constitution, legislature or local council. Analysts have proposed a wide array of possible explanations for this phenomenon, focusing variously on sources of legitimacy, issues of performance or function, and leadership qualities. They draw sharply different conclusions, most notably with regard to whether they believe that traditional authorities survive and thrive because of the preferences of the mass public, or only at the behest of the state, and in fact in opposition to the popular will. Data collected in 19 countries during Round 4 (2008-2009) of the Afrobarometer allows us to explore these hypotheses more systematically and on a larger scale than previous analyses. The findings are somewhat startling in the intensity of the support for traditional authority that they reveal, presenting a stark challenge to those who still argue that traditional leadership is an unabashedly negative and decidedly undemocratic force in Africa. While Africans find these leaders to be flawed, they nonetheless believe that traditional authorities have an essential role to play in local governance. They place considerable value on the role traditional authorities play in managing and resolving conflict, and on their leadership qualities and their accessibility to ordinary people. There is also evidence to suggest that traditional leaders play an essential symbolic role as representatives of community identity, unity, continuity and stability. In fact, the evidence suggests that traditional leaders derive their support at least as much from who they are as from what they do.
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