Competition over Traditional Leadership and Public Welfare: Evidence from Central Malawi
Despite growing interest in traditional leaders in Africa, studies have paid little attention to political competition and its role in service delivery and accountability for the unelected leaders. This dissertation focuses on one key but overlooked factor – competition - with novel surveys from 684 village-level traditional leaders (658 for the second round), 680 members of their ruling family, and 669 secretaries of the leaders. This study uncovers that leadership contention appeared in 14 percent of the hereditary leader positions counter to conventional wisdom. The in-depth analyses in this manuscript reveal that traditional leaders’ legitimacy originates from the ruling family’s support and that the family wields significant influence in the installation and removal of the leader. This work further demonstrates that traditional leaders who experienced competitive challenges display a higher likelihood of sharing the resources at their disposal with their ruling family members than other leaders to buy their loyalty. Traditional leaders who face competitive challenges are hypothesized to bring divergent effects over different types of goods and services. The presence of competitive challenges is expected to be associated with the higher likelihood of favoritism for the ruling family at the expense of average villagers regarding private goods but provides a higher level of local public goods. The results from various private and local public goods partially support the hypothesis. The empirical evidence from the distribution of private goods shows that the judicial system in the traditional institution and the beneficiary selection of the cash transfer program for the poor are more likely to favor a ruling family member in jurisdictions where competitive challenges arise. For local public goods, traditional leaders who maintained their position through a competitive challenge outperformed in providing better roads compared to leaders who have not faced a competitive challenge. Yet, those same traditional leaders comparatively underperform in terms of providing security and electricity. Finally, this article expands on the recent studies concerning competition in traditional leadership by shifting the focus to the ruling family – the kingmakers behind the scenes – and discusses the ramifications of this phenomenon on political accountability.