Panel 31

Legitimacy, family and political power in East Africa, c1800-present

Panel organiser: Rachel Taylor, Northwestern University, USA

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Stories connecting political power and households come in many forms, from oral histories that explained political success and failure as the result of how precolonial chiefs fulfilled - or failed to fulfil - their obligations as husbands, uncles, sons-in-law, fathers, to colonial court records critiquing chiefs’ marriages, to rumours about politicians’ behaviour.  They presented narratives not just of what it meant to be a good leader, but also what it meant to be a good husband, son, father, or uncle.  In exploring these varied stories and debates, this panel sheds light on the ways in which gendered expectations are reinforced or contested, and how they shape access to political power.

This panel explores the ways that the legitimacy of individuals’ political power in Eastern Africa has long been debated through stories, rumours, and arguments about the actions of powerful men in forming, destroying or sustaining families.  The connection between political power and gathering followers has long been recognised by Africanist historians and anthropologists through the concept of “wealth in people” (Guyer & Belinga.)  More recent work has highlighted that, in contrast to the operation of European colonial states, precolonial political state-making depended upon the strategic deployment of households as political assets (Osborn.)  But powerful men’s households were not only a form of wealth - they were also a site of struggle, creating expectations and responsibilities that men might not fully uphold.  In addition, while the nature of the connections between households and political power in East Africa has shifted over the past two centuries, they have not disappeared and are particularly visible in debates about the legitimacy of an individual’s power. 

The papers in this panel consider how we might rethink powerful men’s relations with their households as sites of failure, where a man’s unsuitability for political power becomes manifest.

1. Destroying families, destroying states: Narrating defeat in nineteenth-century East Africa

Author: Rachel Taylor (Northwestern University, USA)

Why did a chief die?  Why was he unsuccessful in war?  Why did his followers turned against him?  In narratives seeking to answer these questions, East and Central Africans repeatedly focused not on external political events but instead on internal family dynamics.  They told stories of chiefs who provoked their wives’ wrath through breaking promises or violating social norms.  The wronged wives called on warriors from elsewhere, and the disloyal husband was defeated.  In other accounts, wives revealed husbands’ weaknesses to their enemies, or disputes over women caused allies to split.  Such accounts are not just stories about the potential hazards and treachery of women, although they are often read as such.  They are also stories of the difficulties of “wealth in people”, of the ways that powerful men could fail to live up to the expectations of their followers and could lose their ability and right to rule as a result.

For this paper I draw particularly from written versions of oral histories associated with the Nyamwezi of Tanzania and with related groups, including the Yeke in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, but such narrative tropes can be found in stories over a much wider area.

2. Rethinking indigenous legitimacy and political power: A case of the Lugbara society in Uganda, 1900-2010

Author: Agatha Alidri (Gulu University/ Makerere University Uganda) or

This paper explains the role of indigenous society in grooming political leadership. Indigenous apprenticeship could supplement leadership skills in contemporary African states. The historical study among the Lugbara explored the effect of the interface between indigenous and modern law, order and judicial system on society.  Personal and group narratives were used to get opinions and experiences of clan elders, elderly person, retired and active civil servants, politicians; and the youth.

Indigenous society is key in socializing and mentoring members into responsible persons in the family, clan and society. Gendered societal norms developed from indigenous wisdom were used to enforce social order and regulate social behaviour. The patriarchal nature of society strengthened the male power position. Although women were not given social space in the higher hierarchy, they received respect based on their reproductive role. The elderly women had voices as originators of the clan.

Colonialism witnessed the neglect of cultural standards and socialization as means to access political position. It ‘invented’ chiefs who by their salaried employment, worked to the service of the colonial masters rather than the people. Persons without cultural legitimacy ascended to power and relied on connections to sustain their status quo. The colonial law upheld the patriarchal power structure that left women as ‘natural subjects’. The failures of post-colonial leadership among the Lugbara was attributed to the inheritance of the colonial system and the weakening of indigenous practices.  

The Lugbara society although acepholous, raised persons who were considered culturally eligible and able to take up social leadership. The gendered mentorship was based on socially constructed sex roles and social apprenticeship instilled allegiance to the people. Clan leaders were selected based on culturally defined qualities and ability to fulfil family and clan obligations. Indigenous society therefore is critical in raising leaders and its contribution should be appreciated.

3. Women, revolutions and the challenges of tradition in Ethiopia (1974-2015)

Author: Getinet Fulea (Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia)

In 1974 and 1991, Ethiopia underwent two spectacular revolutions that played great role in (re)shaping its society and state. The 1974 revolution had broken down a ‘societal taboo’ that kept women behind family doors, opening a wide-ranging opportunities for the women in the military, local administrations and mass organizations. It was, compared to the culture in Ethiopia, a dramatic move but with remarkable limitations. The 1991 revolution that had introduced Ethiopia’s multi-national federation went far ahead to the extent of establishing a separate ministerial in 2006 office related to the affairs of the women. Despite achievements of these celebrated revolutions, predicaments related to Ethiopia’s gender relations by and large remained uncurbed at local level. Much of the challenges have to do with societal traditions embedded much deeper in the country’s family histories.

The proposed paper analyzes and theorizes the process, progress and challenges, vis-ā-vis historically embedded traditions, in gender relations within families. With samples of empirical data drawn from the Oromia region, the paper throws light on contours of gender relations at family level as Ethiopia opted for political changes. As Ethiopia’s two successive regimes legitimized, but at radically different levels, competing ethno-national identities between 1974 and 2015 in serious attempts to resolve contradictions in the country, women issues were also taken into considerations.  State measures to consider historical grievances, however, also boosted bolstering ethno-nationalism that have been committed to achieve far better than what the state was willing to achieve. As the two forces went into decades of confrontations, especially in a territory that is now Oromia, women have been involved on both sides. Popular demands have been answered piecemeal but women affair at family level remain a serious challenge in today’s Ethiopia. This paper argues that there is still invisibly another side of a rather visible socio-economic and political contradictions in today’s Ethiopia―issues of gender relations vis-ā-vis historically embedded traditions. More to the point, the paper places Ethiopia’s gender relations in the broader perspectives and calls into question the country’s institutional (re)configurations relevant to women and the family.

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