Development Research

Studies In Comparative International Development

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 31-50

First online:

Traditional rulers and development administration: Chieftaincy in Niger, Nigeria, and Vanuatu

  • William F. S. MilesAffiliated withDepartment of Political Science, 303 Meserve, Northeastern University

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Although the paramountcy of chiefs was undone by colonial rule, traditional rulers have served as important adjuncts in the administration of post-colonial government in both Africa and Oceania. This paper examines the evolution of the chieftaincy, particularly as an agent of administration, in West Africa (Niger and Nigeria) and Melanesia (Vanuatu). Although French and British colonial regimes had distinctive policies regarding the use of “their” chiefs, post-colonial Nigérien, Nigerian, and ni-Vanuatu governments have all come to rely on traditional rulers to aid in development activities. The degree of autonomy retained by traditional rulers varies, however: it is highest in Vanuatu, lowest in Niger. Differing conceptions and uses of tradition and “custom” help explain these variations.

Five modern functions of traditional rulers are identified as contributing to development administration: 1) linkage or “brokering” between grassroots and capital; 2) extension of national identity through the conferral of traditional titles; 3) low-level conflict resolution and judicial gate-keeping; 4) ombudsmanship; and 5) institutional safety-valve for overloaded and subapportioned bureaucracies. Creating educated chieftaincies significantly enhances the effectiveness of traditional rulers' contributions to development and administration.