STREAM: Political Legitimacy and ‘Customary’ Rule in Local African Contexts

STREAM: Political Legitimacy and ‘Customary’ Rule in Local African Contexts

Scholarship on African politics has often focused on national-level states-people and elections. Instead, this stream will examine how local leaders have negotiated or in some cases failed to negotiate their legitimacy in local contexts. We are particularly interested in paper proposals dealing with the ways in which African leaders have deployed discourses relating to ‘custom’ to maintain or acquire power in local contexts in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. We are particularly looking for papers that dig deeply into the pre-colonial and colonial foundations of chiefship and other forms of local authority, and address a range of different questions and themes about local politics including but not limited to: what kind of idioms do leaders deploy to gain ‘customary’ power in local communities? Why do those seeking power choose to use some expressions of ‘custom’ above others? To what extent do local economies shape articulations of custom? How do and how have churches and missionaries influence(d) ‘customary’ authority?

We are also interested in the ways that ‘customary’ authority intersects with national-level political debates and policies, such as in the most recent and devastating violence in the Kasaï province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Given the importance of this topic to the stream, we are interested in papers that examine how national governments and NGOs have tried to interfere with or alter local interpretations of ‘customary’ rule. We are also interested in receiving paper proposals that examine how much national and international policies account for ‘custom’ when working in and with chieftaincies. The issue of violence and ‘custom’ will be equally significant in these discussions of customary rule. For example, in what contexts do violent contests over custom occur? Does ‘customary’ rule encourage or prevent violent contests for power?

We expect panels to cover a range of different local contexts and historical periods in order to do justice to the wide repertoire of political expressions of the ‘customary.’ Although we are especially interested in historical examples of discourses surrounding contests about local political legitimacy, we would also be open to hearing from those who have worked on present-day examples such as the crisis in the DRC’s Kasai Province, or on examples from elsewhere.

If you have any queries or suggestions please contact Hein Vanhee ( and Reuben Loffman ( . For panel and paper submissions please follow the instructions on the website 

Photo credit: © The University of Birmingham Research and Cultural Collections. 

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