ASW Conference 2014: Chiefship and the Customary in Contemporary Africa

The African Studies Workshop (ASW) culminates each year with a conference event in the spring.  The 2014, entitled Chiefship and the Customary in Contemporary Africa, was held on Friday, April 25, 2014 at the Knafel Center.  The scholarly objectives of the conference were to interrogate — to document, analyze, and theorize — changes in the politics, economics, and cultural practices surrounding the institution of chiefship, and of the so-called “customary,” under present-day conditions in Africa. We sought to explore the impact of the global economy, liberalization, state transformation, and corporate neocolonialism on these institutions, along with the rise of new forms of sovereignty, new religious geographies, and new identities in local life-worlds. In many, if not all, contexts, traditional authorities retain significant popular allegiance. In many, they have also become agents less of the state than of overseas businesses; in some, they have become absentee rentier capitalists on their own account; in others they have pushed legislative agendas that violate liberal democratic constitutions in the name of the sovereignty of custom and the authority of their office. Older metaphors deployed to describe “traditional authority,” from Gluckman’s “lowest NCO’s of empire” to Mamdani’s “tinpot dictators” — whether or not they were empirically persuasive at the time, now seem more to simplify and misrepresesent than to capture a complex, changing reality. 

Keynote Address

Peter Geschiere, Professor of Anthropology at the Amsterdam School for Social Research presenting African Chiefs at the Post-Cold War Moment – Millennial Capitalism and the Struggle over Moral Authority?


Session One

Lungisile Ntsebeza, Professor of African Studies and Sociology at the University of Cape Town presenting The Resurgence of Chiefs: Myth or Reality?

Mario Kraemer, Senior Researcher with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cologne presenting Chiefship and the ANC: power and basic legitimacy of ubukhosi in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Juan Obarrio, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University presenting Chieftaincy, temporality and customary citizenship in Northern Mozambique


Session Two

Jocelyn Alexander, Professor of Commonwealth Studies at the University of Oxford presenting Party politics, state-making and chiefs in Zimbabwe

Janine Ubink, Visiting Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine presenting Access v. justice. Malawi’s Local Courts Act, justice for the poor, and political oppression

James Smith, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis presenting How to colonize a gold company: The story of a female king, a golden cow, an armed village, and a new artisanal city that refuses to go away


Session Three

Insa Nolte, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham presenting Oba ni olórí gbogbo èsìn (‘The ruler is the head of all religions’): Religious tolerance and its limits among Yoruba traditional rulers in southwest Nigeria

Lauren Coyle, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago presenting Chiefs, Gold, and Sacred Violence in Ghana

Lauren Adrover, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University presenting Corporate Branding and The Currency of Chieftaincy: Festivals, Corporate Sponsorship, and Emergent Spheres of Consumption in Ghana