Chiefs and the Provision of Resources

Chiefs hold immense political, social, and spiritual (due to their perceived relationship with the ancestors) in the Delta. This continued legitimacy of traditional rule has been found in rural communities across Africa, despite the perversion of the chieftaincy institution by colonial indirect rule (See Martin Chanock).  In additional to their historical authority, chiefs also play a direct role in the provision of collective goods for collective benefit that encourages individuals to follow their directives.  Anne Swidler (2010) describes how, if villagers are to act collectively on their own behalf, it is the chief who organizes that cooperation.  If a village needs a path cleared or a school building repaired, the chief calls villagers together and requires them to contribute a day’s work to the collective task. In turn, chiefs reward those who contribute to community well-being, and they may keep accounts about who has or has not shown public spirit.  Chiefs then redistribute spiritual and material goods to reward those who have helped their fellows. Thus, chiefs solve a collective action problem by contributing to the solution of communal problems, and they use their prestige to create “selective incentives” to those who contribute to the provision of public goods.

Beyond provision of goods, chiefs also act as gatekeepers to those from outside of the community. A new arrival must often first visit the local chief to ask permission to be in the village, which I did in all of the River State communities I stayed in. This makes sense, since a Chief will want to know that the visitor means no harm and to better understand what kind of community resources or goods the new arrival will be using.

To conduct research in each community, I first needed to "sit court" with the local chief and offer him libations for him to grant me permission.

To conduct research in each community, I first needed to “sit court” with the local chief and offer him libations for him to grant me permission.

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