Academic journal article Africa

Rituals of Verification: Indigenous and Imported Accountability in Northern Tanzania

Academic journal article Africa

Rituals of Verification: Indigenous and Imported Accountability in Northern Tanzania

Article excerpt


Holding people to account for their actions is a feature of all societies. This article examines two different mechanisms of accountability, both of which are used in the Arumeru District of Tanzania. The first is a form of ritual cursing called 'breaking a pot'; the second is the local government financial audit. By placing both practices in the same frame the article aims to unsettle the conceptual divide between the rational and the irrational, the modern and traditional, the scientific and the occult. It also asks whether imported forms of local government, such as are represented by Arumeru District Council, might be made responsible via indigenous and indexical mechanisms of accountability, or whether imported institutions are best rendered accountable by 'universal' means.


The process of holding people to account, in its many different forms, lies arguably at the heart of human society. According to Michael Power, 'It is through the giving and monitoring of the accounts that we and others provide of ourselves, and of our actions, that the fabric of normal human exchange is sustained' (1997: 1). In the view of Mary Douglas, 'accountability and account giving are part of what it is to be a rational individual' (cited in Power, 1997: 1). Being held to account means being held responsible for one's actions: '[I]n the context of social life,' write Day and Klein, accountability 'implies that our actions are open to inspection and can challenge scrutiny' (1987: 1). It is hard, indeed, to imagine a society we would call human in which individuals did not provide justifications, to themselves and others, for their own behaviour.

In a continent where societies are frequently figured as things which are falling apart--with their governmental corruption, routine flouting of the rule of law, vigilante violence and growing interdependence of state and criminal networks--it is important to recognise that ordinary Africans nevertheless strive, on a day-to-day basis, to hold their leaders accountable to locally produced ethical norms (Bayart et al., 1999; Chabal and Daloz, 1999; Gore and Pratten, 2003; Olivier de Sardan, 1999). Certain academics, and 'experts' in donor circles, meanwhile, regard these indexical standards of behaviour--or else a presumed condition of normlessness--as the key to explaining the continent's collapsed states and calamitous record of economic decline. They seek to promote another sort of accountability, typically operationalised through multi-party elections, liberal constitutions, an independent judiciary, a free press and a civil society composed of associations contractually formed (World Bank, 1989, 2000; Landell-Mills, 1992; Williams and Young, 1994; Hyden, 1997). (1)

While holding, or attempting to hold, people to account is a feature of all societies, the process of accounting, as well as the ends of accountability, can take a variety of different forms. Recently, in the face of the 'imposition' by donors of liberal modes of governance on Africa, certain voices have urged a search for forms of politics with deeper indigenous roots. According to Peter Geschiere, these authors 'have emphasized that democracy in Africa can only succeed if it is grafted upon local culture'. He cites Achille Mbembe, who says that 'We must capture ... the dreams and desires, the moral ideals and imagination of our people by showing that they can be realized' (Geschiere, 1997: 7). Patrick Chabal, too, has expressed scepticism over the viability of liberal democracy, and urged that the focus of political analysis should widen to consider alternative modes of accountability (1992: 31, 54-68; Chabal and Daloz, 1999: 50-6; Chabal, 2002: 454-62).

Typically, social science has drawn a conceptual divide between 'African' forms of social and political action, such as witchcraft, and social phenomena more familiar to the West. The results of some recent scholarship imply a challenge to this dichotomy. …

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