The Swazi monarchy is doing all it can to close out the political space for protesters seeking to gain momentum in the recent series of challenges. They’ve brought out teargas and rubber bullets, and pre-emptively detained protesters. But unlike in places such as Egypt, where citizens wanted to see the reigning despot completely out of power, out of town, and perhaps in jail, or dead, in Swaziland, there remains widespread attachment to traditional authority. Protesters are thus calling for a constitutional monarchy, which would include an unbanning of political parties, the granting of meaningful elections, etc., but in some type of hybrid with the current regime.
Despite the prevalence of democratic regimes throughout Africa, many foreign observers just don’t realize how important traditional rulers remain in the lives of ordinary citizens. And in many places, including in relatively modern and industrialized South Africa, traditional rulers have been granted a substantial degree of authority and autonomy in local affairs.
Unfortunately, I think this kind of dual authority structure is ultimately very limiting for democratic governance. It is difficult to see how the Swazi nation would be able to navigate its way to some type of true democratic arrangement, while the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful King remains on the scene in an official role. There would be too many temptations to intervene — either to heavy handedly structure the outcome of elections and/or to challenge policy directly.
For a long time, traditional leadership was seen as an old-fashioned and irrelevant subject for serious investigation. But as scholars and other observers have come to recognize the importance of traditional leaders (chiefs, headman, etc.), there will be closer and more thoughtful scrutiny. Kate Baldwin, currently at CSDP at Princeton is doing some interesting research on this question.
I did a quick analysis of Afrobarometer data — a survey that in the recent round covered 20 countries (but not Swaziland — as the survey targeted countries that are… or were… considered democratic in recent years), and looked at responses to the question, “How much influence do traditional leaders currently have in governing your local community?” And below I plot the percent of each country’s population that said “some” or “a great deal” — rather than “none” or “a little.”
Overall, more than 50 percent of respondents said that traditional leaders were playing a substantial role. Given that traditional leaders are very rarely elected, the question remains what kind of democracies are these? It’s not a rhetorical question, but one worth considering — if major decisions, including the resolution of major disputes and the allocation of resources are mediated through traditional leaders. If the Swazi people want free and fair elections, but they also want to maintain the monarchy, is the thing that they are demanding the same thing that we often call “democracy?”