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Modalities of Elder Leadership that Create Accountability and Balance of Power

Facilitating accountability and facilitating balance of power are related but separate activities. For instance, an individual may create executive accountability at some level by blowing the whistle on misbehaviour, but balancing power by motivating or even enforcing executive compliance is more difficult for obvious reasons. This action is not always out of reach of elders, as can be seen in several scenarios that follow. Three themes emerged from the research data in which elders facilitate accountability by speaking to the leader, by pleading to higher authorities and by announcing to the public.

Speaking Directly to the Leader

The most direct mode of facilitating accountability that emerged from the research involved a group of elders speaking personally to the executive authority. As reported above, the Elders Forum met with political leaders at the local and national level to protest the central government’s takeover of their cooperative. Not only did elders report scenarios where they had approached a leader directly, they also narrated a cultural tradition in which the head elder, chief or chairman of the clan employed another elder whose role it was to confront the leader when he went off course.

Now the elder also had also what we called a foreign advisor. And the foreign advisor was not of the clan. ... Two clans merged up to become advisors to each other. And it [he] was called umukulo. Now umukulo was a teaser. He would come to you and say, “Phillip, do you know that you are a night dancer [a bad person]?” ... So he comes to you openly, even if other people are there. He says, “Ah-ah. With you, you are umuloosi [a witch].” Eh? Or, “ You are night dancer, umubini . ” Or something like that. He teases you like that. But, in a joking way, but you take the message. You also say, “They just talk, but I’m not that kind.” In a good way. Nothing provocative. Nothing fighting. It is joking way. But he is telling you the truth. So whenever, if people, for example feared to tell you that truth, they would go through umukulo. (Wabwaala, age 49)

The tradition of the joker or teaser or advisor exists to provide a means for the subjects to confront their leader about his wrongdoing. The joker is able to rebuke the leader in a teasing way that does not cause shame. The leader is able to deny the accusation publicly without losing face. But he and everyone else know that the joking was true—he has been held accountable by his own people through the words of the joker. Another elder independently explained this tradition.

Then there is one called joking relations called bukulolo [cognate to umukulo]. They play a key role in the leadership, which enables everything to continue. It means joking relationships. Now those relationships are very important. It’s like the mediator. You are not going to do things under darkness. They expose you. They expose your weaknesses. They challenge you for failure. (Lagu, age 51)

It was not clear from the research whether the joking relationship between an elder and his elder-advisor could be transplanted to the relationship between elders and executive authorities. It would be interesting to probe whether elders could see themselves in such a role and whether executive authorities would tolerate it. Whether this elder-to-executive joking relationship is possible or not, participants reported that elders do warn and rebuke leaders. When elders were unsuccessful at creating accountability by speaking to executive authorities directly, they reported taking the next step of pleading with a higher authority.

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