IN Africa, traditional systems are genuine institutions, uncontaminated by colonial or post-independence modifications or distortions.
Prior to the advent of colonial rule, the traditional leader’s role encompassed numerous functions which revolved around the cardinal themes of guiding, protecting, defending and providing for the needs of the community he served.
He was the mediator between the departed ancestors, the living and the yet unborn. These holistic approaches involved religious, legislative, social and cultural ramifications.
Leadership was, however, predicated on a set of well-articulated norms and mechanisms.
The diverse functions were exercised with specific functionaries whose role was hallowed by traditional customs. Sometimes these were elders, counselors, communal groups, traditional healers and chiefs.
Each entity performed its assigned role in accordance with traditional laws.
The colonial and post-independence eras had a profound impact on these traditional institutions, in particular, chieftaincy.
The colonial system ostensibly enhanced chieftaincy through the system of indirect rule.
One of the strategies that made their teachings unpalatable to Africans was their tendency to attack and condemn everything that was African as backward, primitive and barbaric.
They attacked the core of African norms and values.
The perception that chiefs ultimately derived their power from the colonial power eventually undermined their power.
In some African countries, the colonial authorities appointed chiefs directly, especially in southern Zimbabwe among the Kalanga, thereby underscoring the uncomfortable fact that they were colonial creations. This was ultimately abolished with the demise of colonial rule.
The reality is that, in most African states, our traditional systems have been divested of their formal executive, economic and judicial powers except in narrowly defined areas. This has resulted in the maintenance of traditional laws and cultures such as those of the BaTonga whose unique traditional conflict resolution methods have brought sanity in this community.
The BaTonga have always had great respect for their culture and any outside meddling in their internal affairs is met with stiff resistance; they believe in settling their differences among themselves.
Chiefs, headmen, matriarchs and other village elders are custodians of the laws that guide the BaTonga in their day-to-day lives.
Family conflicts are resolved through the interventions of family elders, traditional leaders or spirit mediums. A variety of techniques are used from discussions, folk tales and counseling to herbs and spiritual ceremonies. Spiritual ceremonies form an integral part of traditional conflict resolution among the BaTonga people.
For the BaTonga, when a misunderstanding arises between a husband and wife, the wife flees to her parents or aunts to seek refuge.
After this predicament, the husband approaches a respectable member of the community to act as a go-between to talk to the relatives of his wife.
The wife‘s family then speak their minds but they are expected to back down with a stern warning or a fine in the form of a goat or chicken and urge the family to live in peace.
Elders say, with this form of conflict resolution, they have recorded a few divorce cases in their communities, but they, however, lamented the young generation’s fast departure from traditional norms and cultural values that have resulted in the breakdown of families.
Similarly, when family members get into a conflict, they seek mediation from the chief. Their issue is discussed at a dare or indaba because the BaTonga believe grievance handling procedures and peacebuilding are a group affair.
In trying the cases, the chief or whoever is presiding is assisted by community elders so that the trial is fair and balanced.
Before conflicting parties are brought together, the traditional mediators analyse the conflict and its nature.
The conflict analysis will show who to bring into a mediation process, including key people who might have been unable to resolve the conflict on their own.
The choice of a mediator or team of mediators has to be acceptable to both sides. At a traditional BaTonga court, the role of a mediator is to guide rather than direct the process, by helping the two sides to listen to each other, communicate more clearly, reach a common understanding of the problem and come up with their own solutions to the conflict.
The mediators prepare carefully by meeting each side separately for dialogue to get a better understanding of the conflict and to plan the meeting together.
It is important that they are unbiased and non-partisan and that the two sides have balanced power. Although the chief has the final word, he is bound to consult very regularly while decisions are reached by consensus without formal votes.
Once the two have reached an agreement, it is written down and the mediator asks each side to sign the agreement expressing their commitment to the plan and say a few encouraging words to help everyone let go of the past and face the future hopefully.
These conflicts are resolved within a framework of agreed rules, laws and punishments. Peaceful attitudes are promoted through traditional stories, music, and proverbs.
An additional element that contributes to peace is sharing and storing food so that no one goes hungry.
According to the BaTonga elders, the traditional method of conflict resolution is that it is accessible to everyone because it based in the community and people do not have to waste money on transport and lawyers.
The chiefs are supposed to be unbiased. People know the rules and respect the traditional courts where most of these cases are tried. After trial, it is rare to see the accused persons committing the same offenses again.
In this regard, especially among the BaTonga, the chief is usually the mediator. Although elected and installed, his continued stay in office is subject to good conduct.
A chief who breaks his oath of office to promote the welfare of the people and progress of the nation is removable according to the traditional rules and procedures laid down and transmitted from generation to generation.
Democracy was not alien to traditional African systems and the rule of law, which provided checks and balances in the political system and imposed restraints on authoritarian rule, was a prominent feature of most traditional African systems.
The advantage of the BaTonga traditional conflict resolution is that people are free to discuss their cases in a familiar cultural context, listen to each other and receive counseling as opposed to conventional courts.
If Africa wants peace, truth, and justice; if Africa wants to restore its traditional values of being each other’s keeper; if Africa genuinely recognises deep weaknesses in its developmental agenda, then it is not too late to critically look for convergences between the modem state and the traditional state.
The hopes of our youth are hanging in the doorway looking for direction. Traditional leaders are our hope and have a social contract with their communities.