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Opinion - Dissecting chieftainship succession in Namibia

2022-10-07  Faustinus Shikukutu

Opinion - Dissecting chieftainship succession in Namibia

Faustinus Shikukutu

While it is taking years to replace a traditional chief in Namibia, the Accession council in the United Kingdom passed the throne immediately to King Charles III after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, without any tussles. This seems anomalous to Namibia, with recent reports indicating there are currently 16 recognised traditional authorities without chiefs. In the Land of the Brave, the fundamental problem of the succession process is a smooth succession from one leader to the next.

Virtually, the majority of the succession conducted so far in the history of Namibian chieftainship has been characterised by diverse forms of succession battles, infightings and court cases.

Ordinary tribesmen/women are asking questions as to why it takes years to replace a chief if tradition (Kavango) dictates a chief should be installed within 90 days after his/her passing on or removal.  My observation indicates the royal families and traditional councils fail to obey the customary laws that guide the conduct of succession in the country or they simply have their interests.  Reports also suggest that factionalism among royal family members and ongoing leadership succession disputes between communities and their leaders derail smooth succession.

Sections 5 and 6 of the Traditional Authority Act 5 of 2000 give power to the traditional council to designate, in accordance with that law, one person from the royal family of that traditional community to be instituted as the chief or head.  Despite this act and many other customary laws regulating succession, disputes about chieftainship in various traditional authorities continue to persist, which, according, to my analysis, can be attributed to the following.

Ignorant to customary laws

The attitude of the royal family, traditional leaders and at times politicians, coupled with the benefit attached to the chieftainship office, prompt the ignorance of the rules governing the process of smooth changeover.  Factions of royal families and their allies sometimes claim that since the former chief named someone as his predecessor, his/her wish should be respected.  This claim is sometimes not substantiated, or there are no witnesses to affirm the claim.  Other faction bases their argument on the fact that since the other lineage has ruled for so long, someone from their lineage must be given a chance.  These observations suggest that the lack of leadership among royal families and traditional councils is directly and otherwise contributing to the ignorance of customary law, which creates a problem of succession in Namibia. It is a fact that most of the traditional councils deliberately ignore laid-down customs and procedures. In some cases, it is impossible to bring all royal family lineages together to discuss succession plans.

Traditional leaders are so tense about power to the extent that existing traditional customs, the Traditional Authority Act and procedures are altered.  At the top of this problem is the scant respect that many of these traditional authorities have for the customs and tradition.

Traditional authorities attempt to change the customs and Traditional Authority Act provisions, aimed at paving the way for the succession of their preferred candidate.  They also do not comply with the royal family framework for succession.  This creates tension among the royal family to the extent that those who oppose this decision are subjected to a series of victimisations.

Partisan of the traditional council

It is alleged that some traditional leaders at various levels hinder the successive transfer of power in Namibia.

They are accused of being part of the monumental problem that contributes to the infighting among royal family members.

Traditional leaders, therefore, exhibit gross partisanship in handling royal family succession.

The traditional council is accused of involving itself in issues that are outside its scope and traditional responsibilities – in the process displaying its partisan preferences.

Acting on the prompting of their preferred lineage, they disqualify some candidates, which infuriates other lineages.

Passage to benefits

Chieftainship continues to be seen by many – not as a call to service but as a clearinghouse for wealth, power and government benefits.

Since the chief holds key to the traditional authority’s economic and social resources, ascending to the throne means the incumbent, children or associates are the gatekeepers to these resources.  These benefits contribute in no measure to the infighting among royal families and their confidantes not to find a competent, assertive, sedulous and unimpeachable successor to the throne.  Because the chief is the head of the traditional authority, communal land is becoming a source of additional income, especially now that it is a scarce commodity in many parts of the country.

The way forward

As much as the chieftainship is decided by the royal family, the traditional affairs of any community affect those who reside in that traditional authority.  Thus, the credibility of these arguments is losing its value, as community members in various traditional authorities are asking questions about whether the royal family lineage should still be the deciding factor in chieftainship succession since they are taking years to find common ground leading to traditional disputes piling up, especially those pertaining to land. Adhering to customary laws is, therefore, imperative to the inculcation of a culture of respect for the customary laws guiding it; acceptance of decisions by the royal family and giving effect to traditional authority fair decisions.

The basic assumption here is that orderly change of the throne has multi-faceted advantages.  Over the centuries, subjects have been proud of the fact that a smooth handing over of the throne assured a peaceful transition from one leader to another.  Thus, to have a smooth transition or change of traditional head (chief), all the parties involved (the royal family, traditional leaders, politicians and the community) in the process must be committed to customary laws and learn from the British royal family succession plans.  Well-planned and managed succession brings stability, predictability and continuity to governance.

2022-10-07  Faustinus Shikukutu

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