Case Studies

Customary Justice | Zimbabwe – Governance training for traditional leaders


In Zimbabwe, traditional authorities are the custodians of customary law and practice, and represent the crucial interface with the state for most of the population. The social importance of traditional leaders is formally recognised in state law, which empowers chiefs in matters ranging from land disputes to natural resources management and rural family life. The new Zimbabwean Constitution approved in 2013 further reinforces legal pluralism in the country.

In the context of widespread political violence and intimidation in electoral periods in recent years, traditional leaders have been often accused of aligning with and serving the interests of ZANU-PF, in power since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Pervasive tensions and violence at the community level lead one NGO, International Rescue Committee (IRC)/Zimbabwe, to initiate a two-year training programme for traditional leaders to remind them of their responsibilities under the law, and the basic standards of professionalism. The project was called Supporting Traditional Leaders and Local Structures to Mitigate Community-level Conflict in Zimbabwe. It was conducted for a period of 24 months between 2012 and 2014, with funding from USAID and carried out in conjunction with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF).

Entry point

Traditional leaders are strategic agents of change in their communities.  Given the allegations against some traditional leaders, the IRC/LRF project sought to address critical knowledge gaps through a capacity building initiative. The project targeted all leaders at all levels of the traditional chieftaincy system (chiefs, headmen, and village heads) in two rural districts, Mutare and Mutasa, in Manicaland province. Its main objectives were “to prevent violence and to promote positive relationships at the community level, by strengthening traditional leaders’ capacity to perform their role effectively, to make sound decisions, and to resolve conflicts peacefully”.

The activities involved two 3-day training sessions with groups of villages, conducted about three months apart. IRC ran five programs: two groups with village heads only; the other three including community leaders. The sessions were divided into the following six modules: the local government structure in Zimbabwe, leadership and communication, conflict resolution and management, gender and traditional leadership, the district assembly and local leadership and natural resource management. Modules were delivered through lectures, role plays and group discussions.

Lessons identified

The evaluation study, carried out by USAID, focused on two questions: is there a correlation between training and improvements in governance? And are there gains or losses in social peace within the community? The underlying issue is how effective are operations that aim at regulating traditional institutions, as many governments try to do?

Results showed a tangible difference between villages where only the leaders received the training, and villages where other community leaders were part of the trainees. The latter (broader training) was more effective in changing traditional governance in two ways. First, it created an individual within the village who could act as a check on the power of the village head. Second, the community leader was able to inform a larger number of community members of the legal framework governing traditional leaders.

As highlighted by the evaluation study, the main points emphasized by the village heads where extended training was given was that the community leader helped “remind” them of the law, thereby checking their powers, and the community leader effectively disseminated information on the legal framework, especially to groups – such as youth -- over which the village head had limited influence. At the same time, the limits of such activities were also documented on which behavioural measures suggest that traditional leaders didn’t become more consultative or deeply committed to inclusive governance. They “may have become savvier about surrounding themselves with people of similar views, choosing family members and people who do not express critical views to attend meetings.”

The study indicated two things. First, regulation efforts depend on how the regulation is structured; training sessions for village heads by themselves are likely to have little impact, but they have greater impact when other community leaders are involved, since “horizontal pressure” from these and other citizens after the training sessions is necessary for traditional governance to change. In other words, efforts to build the capacity of traditional leaders should also include mechanisms to strengthen accountability. Second, changes in the procedures of traditional institutions may increase inter-group conflict and reduce social trust in communities. Put simply, there may be trade-offs between fostering consultation and maintaining social cohesion.

The study also cautions against a narrow consideration of impact in capacity building projects. Gains in governance transparency imply as well a broader awareness of social tensions and differences in opinions amongst citizens. A careful consideration of power relations within the community, and the potential changes or challenges introduced by capacity building, is needed to avoid creating or exacerbating conflicts. Traditional institutions might become more respectful of good governance, transparency, and consultation, but the inherent policy changes will inevitably create winners and losers in the community.

Selected Resources

case study


Freedom Nyamubaya (1960-2015) : ZPSP and Security Sector Transformation in Zimbabwe

In 2010, Freedom Nyamubaya joined with several other prominent Zimbabwean figures from across the political spectrum to establish the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Trust (ZPST), whose aim is to contribute, through the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP), to the effective and sustainable modernisation and transformation of the security sector in Zimbabwe. Freedom passed away last Sunday at her farm in Chinhoyi. In this interview with ISSAT, conducted during a mandate in Harare, she reflects on the challenges to SST. Freedom, a former fighter and frontline commander in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, was also a well-known author. She brings her personal background into her analysis of crucial issues of legitimacy, sustainability and ownership in SST. The interview was recorded during a recent field mission by ISSAT in Zimbabwe as part of a mandate to document the ZPSP experience through the views of a broad range of stakeholders. As such, this short video by ISSAT is also a tribute to her legacy.


Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP)

This video is a collation of voices speaking on the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP), created under the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Trust (ZPST),  a wholly independent, legal trust established in Zimbabwe. The Trust aims to contribute, through the provision of impartial and professional technical assistance, to effective and sustainable modernisation and transformation of the security sector in order to enhance the democratic governance, security and the national sovereignty of the people of Zimbabwe.

This video is also part of the ISSAT Case Study on the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme.


Customary Justice in Zimbabwe

In this interview, Fortune Charumbira, the President Zimbabwe Chief’s Council, introduces the concept of customary justice within the context of Zimbabwe. He highlights the responsibility of the traditional leader to ensure the well-being of the whole community including the food security and the protection and maintenance of the environment. He identifies the players involved in the process of traditional justice and he stresses on the role of the traditional leaders to insure peace and harmony. He explains the role of the customary courts in solving the disputes along with the local formal judicial bodies which were set before the independence under the colonial government. He argues that traditional system of justice is mainly based on negotiation, reconciliation and mediation. He insists on the role of the formal police  and the traditional leaders in the local peace and security process. However, he points that the customary justice presents certain limitations and clashes of paradigm.


Overcoming Violence : Exploring Masculinities, Violence, and Peacebuilding

In a response to women's voices in the field, the Women Peacemakers Program initiated a pilot Training of Trainers (ToT) cycle for 19 male peace activists from 17 different countries in 2009 / 2010, entitled "Overcoming Violence: Exploring Masculinities, Violence, and Peacebuilding".
Upon returning home from that first training block, each of the male participants was linked to a female support person ("ally") from his own region and/or country who supported him in the development and implementation of his follow-up plan.
The ToT focused on the theory and practice of active nonviolence; facilitation and group dynamics; participatory teaching methods; conceptualizing gender and diversity; leadership; women's rights; important international instruments such as United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889; an introduction to and analysis of masculinities; and lobbying and advocacy.

For access to the full video, Overcoming Violence : Exploring Masculinities, Violence, and Peacebuilding, kindly follow the link. 


Policy and Research Papers

The Security Sector in Southern Africa

The Security Sector Governance (SSG) Programme of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) conducted baseline studies of the security sector in six Southern African countries, namely Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as the Southern African Development Community’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security (SADC Organ). The results of this research are reflected in this monograph.


Zimbabwe: Political and Security Challenges to the Transition

This briefing focuses on political party and security issues, as well as South Africa’s mediation. Subsequent reporting will analyse other topics vital to the transition, including
constitutional and legal reform, justice and reconciliation, sanctions policies and security sector reform.


SADC 2014 - 2015: Are South Africa and Zimbabwe shaping the organisation?

This policy brief discusses the chairing of the Southern African development Community (SADC) and its key institutions by South Africa and Zimbabwe, for the duration of their tenure from 2014 to 2015. It highlights the constraints and opportunities of their agenda-setting functions, considers change or continuity in the SADC institution and makes some recommendations on how both countries can shape SADC’s policy responsibilities.

It is argued that the relationships between domestic context, foreign policy organisational structure, leadership and political agency will determine Zimbabwe and South Africa’s performance in SADC in the coming year.

Read the Policy Brief


Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis

According to the International Crisis Group, Zimbabwe is floundering, with little sign of meaningful reform and sustainable, broad-based recovery. Governance deficits, political violence, corruption, electoral reform, human rights and rule-of-law violations are deep challenges that must be faced. Therefore, international actors should seek common ground and action that addresses these sensitive political challenges and also promote an inclusive, sustainable economic recovery. Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries – South Africa, in particular – have specific interest in ensuring Zimbabwe recovers its position as a lynchpin of stability and an engine for regional development. To do so, they, the U.S., UK, China, the European Union (EU), African Development Bank (AfDB), World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) should develop an engagement framework that has clear governance, rule-of-law, financial, and economic objectives and enables monitoring and assessment.

Access the full report on Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis by following the link. 


Other Documents

ZPSP - Lessons Identified

Lessons Identified doc

This document contains some twenty lessons identified by the ISSAT mission with the ZPSP, as part of the webpage dedicated to the programme. The lessons are organised broadly on process and on programme management.

This document is part of the ISSAT Case Study on the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP)

Other Document

ZPSP - Good Practice

Good Practice doc

This document sums-up good practice identified by the ISSAT mission with the ZPSP, as part of the webpage dedicated to the programme, where you can also access fourteen videos illustrating each of the elements described.

This document is part of the ISSAT Case Study on the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP)

Other Document

ZPSP - Narrative Report

Narrative Report doc

This narrative report explores how the ZPSP is fostering change in a context hostile to Security Sector Transformation (SST), and is part of the resources dedicated by ISSAT to the programme.

This document is part of the ISSAT Case Study on the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP)

Other Document