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.

The stream keynote speaker is Professor in Modern African History, Justin Willis. (


Customary Law as ‘Living Law’

Convenors: Betty Okot, Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education, Kampala, and Pnina Werbner, Keele University

It has become almost a truism to argue that customary law is ‘living law’, responsive to changing circumstances (see Fombad 2004: 183, 191; Himonga and Moore 2015). The question is, however, whether changes in unwritten law are effected through customary judicial deliberation in court regarding notions of contemporary morality – of ‘fairness’, equity and reasonableness, in response to changing circumstances, as Gluckman, for example, argued (1955, 1963)? Some legal anthropologists studying customary law have envisaged it as consisting of an unsystematic “loosely constructed repertoire” (Comaroff and Roberts 1981: 18) of rules, habits, and norms, often contradictory or ambiguous. According to this view, litigants may and do formulate multiple interpretations (“paradigms”) in their defence, as they engage in negotiations, alliance-making, and individual political maneuverings. Hence in this view, the whole range of customary rules, norms, and values is constantly being constructed and reconstituted. Against that, others have argued that contemporary customary law must incorporate the current state of prevalent statutory legal and constitutional assumptions. This implies, among other things, that customary law has a historical trajectory: at any given time, although largely unwritten, a corpus of more or less agreed customary law does exist for any particular place, so that customary judges are not simply dealing with an amorphous body of unwritten ‘custom and law’, even if this is what they often claim. A second question this session will address concerns the re-invocation of customary law after a period of conflict or civil war as in the case of the recent conflict in Uganda. How is customary law re-instated as legitimate and binding in these circumstances?

  • A Case of Inheritance: From Citizens’ Forum to Magisterial Justice in Botswana’s Customary Courts, Pnina Werbner (Keele University, UK) and Richard Werbner (University of Manchester, UK)
  • Heritage as Living Law: The Return to Te-Kwaro (Tradition) among the Acholi after the Civil War in Northern Uganda, Betty Okot (Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education, Uganda)
  • Breaching-the Yard: A Filmed Case of Adultery, Moremi Court, Botswana, Richard Werbner (University of Manchester, UK) 
  • Contemporary challenges to the application of customary law in Botswana, Bonolo Ramadi Dinokopila (University of Botswana, Botswana) 
  • Customary Law: The Living Reality of the People of Northern Uganda, Tenywa Aloysius Malagala (Gulu University, Uganda) 
  • Palavers And Rituals For Conflict Resolution In Bas-Congo (DRC), Sophie Kottanyi, (Freie Universität Berlin ‎, Berlin, Germany)


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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