APPP Working Paper No. 3. 'Town chiefs' in Malawi


This study of ‘town chiefs’ initiates a long-term programme of research on local leadership in Malawi. It contributes to the Local Leadership and Governance (LL) research stream of the Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP).

Town chiefs are one type of hybrid political order or governance ‘mode’ in Malawi; they operate within overlapping normative universes, and perform acts which have both historical resonance and modern purposes. Whilst known collectively as town chiefs, they assume a number of titles, and have various characteristics, roles and authority. Their behaviour facilitates community action, social order and cohesion, producing a variety of public goods that we consider developmental.

Section 2 outlines the major local governance structures and trends that have emerged in Malawi since colonialism, presenting a brief review of legislation that has influenced the activities and powers of local councils and traditional chiefs. Given their affinity to town chiefs, Annex 3 provides a summary of the de jure and de facto roles and authority of traditional chiefs to facilitate comparison. A brief overview of urbanisation demonstrates that Malawi’s towns are growing rapidly and in a largely un-planned manner.

Section 3 reports the main findings from the fieldwork, indicating that town chiefs are unrecorded but numerous, and stand outside the law but are widely recognised and valued. Town chiefs have different origins, forms of authority and legitimacy, some more closely aligned to those of traditional chiefs and others rooted more in democratic or party institutions. Their existence and roles fulfil a need created by a vacuum in urban governance and their nature reflects a notion of leadership shared by ‘translocal’ Malawians.

The functions of town chiefs may divided into six main categories which emerged from our interview data: cultural affairs, administration and management of various sorts, oversight of issues related to land and property, resolving disputes, an involvement in politics, and promoting economic and social development. Their ability to sanction members of their communities to ensure conformity is outlined, and other aspects of their authority, accountability and legitimacy are discussed in brief. Their motivations as well as their relationships with other local actors are summarised.

Section 4 considers the findings in the light of APPP’s interest in collective action problems, the production of public goods and notions of hybridity. We conclude with a warning that these findings on town chiefs are tentative and that any attempt to design local governance programmes that ‘go with the grain’ at this stage would be premature and could be harmful.


London, UK, Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP), 63 pp.

APPP Working Paper No. 3. ‘Town chiefs’ in Malawi

Published 1 January 2009