The role of traditional leaders in modern Africa, especially in modern African democracies, is complex and multifaceted. The debate is defined by “traditionalists” and “modernists.” Traditionalists regard Africa’s traditional chiefs and elders as the true representatives of their people, accessible, respected, and legitimate, and therefore still essential to politics on the continent. “Modernists,” by contrast, view traditional authority as a gerontocratic, chauvinistic, authoritarian and increasingly irrelevant form of rule that is antithetical to democracy. Using Afrobarometer survey data, we can better understand popular perceptions of traditional leaders, how they are formed, and how they relate both to perceptions of elected leaders, and to support for a democratic system of government. Our findings are clear: positive attitudes toward chiefs are not incompatible with democracy – and vice versa. Even more startlingly, far from being in stark competition for public esteem, local traditional leaders appear to draw their sustenance and legitimacy from the same well as elected officials. The paper finds that African societies are often quite adept at integrating seemingly incompatible institutional structures, such as traditional institutions. The strongest explanations come from the performance evaluations of other leaders, particularly with respect to trust of local government councillors. Country effects provide the second most powerful category of explanation.
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