The Responsible Use of Authority and Power with the Spirit of Ubuntu: The Msoro Chiefdom in Zambia
Responsible use of authority / power may be domesticated in Central, East and Southern Africa within the spirit of ubuntu. Ubuntu is a profound existential acknowledgement that one exists because of others and vice versa. This is in sharp contrast with René Descartes’ (1637) abstract and individualistic dictum, cogito ergo sum / je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I’m).
Ubuntu (which is the desired state of being human) is derived from a noun umuntu, meaning a human being. The noun umuntu has several minor morphological variations in multiple local languages found in Central, East and Southern Africa that are collectively categorized as Bantu languages. When traditional authority / power is conceived and exercised with ubuntu (simply put, leadership à l’ubuntu) it evokes stewardship, inclusion, collective leadership, and accountability to abantu (people) residing in and / or belonging to the chiefdom. Have the above regions been always exemplary in their leadership styles? The answer is mixed within and across chiefdoms (where they still exist). In this blog, we begin by giving an overview of the key aspects of chieftaincy in Zambia, and then narrow down to the Msoro Chiefdom of Mambwe District in Eastern Province, Zambia.
When traditional authority / power is conceived and exercised with ubuntu it evokes stewardship, inclusion, collective leadership, and accountability to abantu (people) residing in and / or belonging to the chiefdom.
Here we look at the Msoro chiefdom with two key objectives: first, to examine how its decentralized form of governance enables shared leadership, mutual accountability, and a robust feedback loop and; second, how traditional leadership is contributing to holding government accountable by providing ongoing oversight of public services being provided in the area.
Brief Background to Chieftaincy in Zambia
In Zambia, chiefs can be described as the root and branch of society. Though the country is a democracy and an active participant in the technological age, chiefs still retain some influence as custodians of culture and customs.
In rural areas in Zambia, chiefs play a critical role in influencing communities and reinforcing accepted traditional norms. Regardless of geographical location, their duties mostly range from administering justice through the settlement of disputes, distribution of communal land, and presiding over projects, particularly those of a community nature. However, chiefs have sometimes been accused of abusing their authority by selling off huge tracts of land at the expense of their subjects. The distribution of land is a thorny issue in Zambia.
The respective roles of the chief and villages facilitate the feedback loop between them, allowing for the efficient and effective flow of information. The village is the lowest organ in the governance structure of the chiefdom and is deemed to be closest to the people. Traditionally, anyone entering the chiefdom to introduce a new project or an investment opportunity must first of all seek the ‘blessings’ of the chief. With this understanding, it is clear that their role in promoting accountability in the development arena cannot and should not be underestimated.
These roles of chiefs are historically based. Most Zambian tribal groups are believed to have been part of the famed Bantu migrations which took place between 500 and 1000 AD (Banda, et al, 2013). The Kunda people found in Eastern Zambia are not an exception. A more detailed history of the Kunda can be found in a report of a linguistic survey conducted by Banda et. al (2013). During the pre-colonial era (that is before 1890), Kunda chiefs had absolute power but the coming of the British ushered in a new dispensation that saw chiefs slowly losing their grip on power, with some even losing their territories. While this was going on, the colonialists elevated a few loyal members of indigenous groups and gave them their own areas to control.
In the current governmental systems, the institution of chiefs is enshrined in the Zambian constitution and the rights of indigenous people are recognized as long as they do not abrogate the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution. Zambia has 288 chiefs who exercise authority over 70-90% of the 752,000 Km2 of its territory. Present day Mambwe has six chiefdoms, namely, Nsefu, Kakumbi, Malama, Mnkhanya, Jumbe and Msoro who are led by Senior Chief Nsefu. We will now focus primarily on one example of modern chiefdom in Zambia, the Msoro chiefdom.
Governance under Chieftainess Msoro VII (2018 – present)
The Msoro chiefdom, one of the present-day chiefdoms in Zambia, shares boundaries with eight other chiefdoms and has a population of about 42,000 people. It is led by the seventh chief in the Msoro Chieftaincy, Chieftainess Msoro who ascended to the throne in September 2018 as the first and only female chief in Mambwe district.
Chieftaincy in Zambia is decentralized. For example, the Msoro chiefdom has 20 areas, each of which comprises several villages. Each area is presided over by a nduna (chief’s advisor) who supervises village headmen and women. Whenever ndunas are confronted with challenging cases in which they have exhausted all avenues, they report these to the senior nduna who refers them to the chief.
Before the chief can preside over an issue, she must first have an audience with the ndunas who provide information regarding the issue. “Mfumu ni bantu’’ (one is a chief because of people he / she is leading) is a saying that places a great deal of importance on the value of consultation with and participation of subjects in chiefdom affairs. This phrase simply alludes to the fact that a chieftaincy cannot exist without people and hence the need for community participation. It is always important that community members are supported by family members, close friends, or supporters in the event of disputes or other important matters. The chief cannot pass judgment until she is satisfied that all parties have been heard.
It is always important that community members are supported by family members, close friends, or supporters in the event of disputes or other important matters. The chief cannot pass judgment until she is satisfied that all parties have been heard.
To avoid creating anarchy, criminal cases are always reported to the police and community members are not allowed to take the law into their own hands. As with all communities, there will always be those that refuse to follow the accepted norms of a community. For example, according to Kunda traditional norms, anyone who insults in a village and does not target the insults at a particular person is deemed to have insulted the chief. This is usually done as a way of disciplining an offender, who if questioned would merely deny that his insults were not directed at anyone. This ensures that anti-social behavior is nipped in the bud.
While the chief must not be heavy handed when it comes to meting out punishment, it is important to be firm or else one’s authority is easily challenged, thereby impeding development.
The chief rules by consultation and delegated authority, and in most cases must have a traditional cousin who is able to speak freely to the chief by using proverbs and metaphors without any repercussions. Diplomacy is key. Displays of anger in public by the chief unsettles those surrounding the throne.
Like most chiefs, a Kunda chief has the right to banish from the chiefdom those deemed to be a threat to the security and general well-being of the chiefdom, but in most cases such people are usually pardoned with a stern warning to conduct themselves in accordance with acceptable cultural norms. One of the sayings that comes to mind is “mfumu niku chungu”, meaning that a chief is like a garbage pit that takes in all sorts of rubbish, hence the need for a chief to adopt a position of forgiveness in addressing certain issues. This saying depicts the chief as a servant leader who promotes a spirit of unity, tolerance and sometimes has to bend backward for the greater good. This does not mean that the chief is weak but is merely showing consideration for his or her subject and teaching people to coexist (promoting ubuntu, ‘togetherness’).
Interaction with Politicians
Msoro chiefdom has four wards, which are presided over by four elected local councilors who work closely with the chieftaincy. Wards are at the lowest level of Zambia’s four tier administrative system (provincial, district, constituency and ward). Although sometimes conflicts of interest do arise between the chief and the councilors who are politicians, these are normally sorted out through dialogue.
Championing Accountability and Responsiveness in Service Delivery
One of a chief’s critical roles is land administration, and to curb abuse of authority in the distribution of land, the chief, in consultation with community members through the ndunas (advisors) and headmen / women, establishes a land development committee to foster equitable land distribution, settling land disputes, and ensuring that whenever land is earmarked for an investment, people are not victimized and compensated fairly.
Furthermore, there are formal government bodies instituted by Parliament that work with the traditional leadership to foster development and facilitate community participation and local planning in the chiefdom. For example, in the health sector, the Health Centre Advisory Committee (HCAC) is made up of facility staff, members of the Neighborhood Health Committee (NHC) executive members, the chief’s representative and other community members. The HCAC receives issues from the NHC, an organ that derives its membership from the community to ensure positive health outcomes. The Chieftainess escalates service delivery challenges to the district or higher levels asking them to take appropriate actions.
Another body is the Msoro Community Resource Board (CRB), mandated under an act of Parliament to protect and conserve wildlife resources in Game Management Areas. Msoro CRB works through Village Action Groups (VAGs), the ‘building blocks’ of the CRBs. VAGs cover smaller areas, where VAG committee members can more easily interact with the community at large. VAGs were conceived to foster community participation in natural resource governance and community development more broadly. Similarly, to the HCAC, the patron of the CRB is the chief who plays an advisory role.
The chief also plays an important role in ensuring that there is accountability and responsiveness in the delivery of services through the appointment of ndunas to different community development committees. Ndunas have delegated authority from the chief and are expected to update the chief every week.
The chief also plays an important role in ensuring that there is accountability and responsiveness in the delivery of services through the appointment of ndunas to different community development committees. Ndunas have delegated authority from the chief and are expected to update the chief every week. This is done to encourage community participation and to create checks and balances as there have been a number of missteps particularly in the education and health sectors. For example, Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) in Msoro work with ndunas in the different areas to ensure that quality education is delivered to the people as outlined in government development plans and associated policies. Community members working through the PTAs noted a gap in the delivery of education services and have molded bricks using local materials to build their own schools. They have also used the chief’s office to engage with the Ministry of Education through the District Education Board Secretary (DEBS) to deploy additional teaching staff.
In another example, in 2019, a group of school children in Msoro were expelled after they were found to have violated the school code of conduct. Their parents and guardians complained to the chief and a meeting was convened with the school authorities in consultation with the DEBS and when it was found that the pupils were not given a fair hearing and that the offence did not merit expulsion, they were reinstated.
Every Zambian belongs to a chiefdom, and this is highlighted in the national identity card. Chiefs are also custodians of the country’s customary land which they hold in trust for their people. To ensure transparency, inclusion, and accountability in land governance, Chieftainess Msoro has set up a Land Development Committee that is made up of women and men of integrity who have delegated authority to assign traditional land, among other things for farming, grazing, residence and, if need be, the committee does also facilitate land conflict resolution.
As discussed above, chiefs are very influential within their respective jurisdictions. They have enormous potential to mobilize their people, instill the ideals of collective responsibility by delegating certain functions to ndunas and village headmen and women. Some chiefs also know how to leverage their influential positions to bolster accountable and responsive public service performance. The foregoing is done in collaboration and consultation with relevant senior bureaucrats and elected local officials.
Great chiefs are supposed to continuously epitomize the spirit of ubuntu, promoting virtues of social cohesion, solidarity, generosity, empathy, truthfulness and integrity through their words and deeds.
Great chiefs are supposed to continuously epitomize the spirit of ubuntu, promoting virtues of social cohesion, solidarity, generosity, empathy, truthfulness and integrity through their words and deeds. We hope that the current Chieftainess Msoro (and co-author of this article) will be remembered for her ubuntu leadership acumen.
 D. Banda, C. Mbewe, J. Daka, K. Sawka. 2013. The Kunda People. Linguistic Survey Report. http:// partnersinbibletranslation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/KundaSurvey_2015.pdf