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.

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