Favorite Books of 2019: Kgosis and Botswana

I am generally fascinated by institutional structure, economically and politically (the name of this site as a whole is a reference to the late Douglass North). So I’ve often been captured by political scientists and economists who write heavily in the field. In graduate school, I read a work by James Robinson, Daron Acemoglu, and Simon Johnson on the economic and political institutions of Botswana which then led to greater curiosity and my purchase of this book.

Chiefs, Power, and Social Change: Chiefship and Modern Politics in Botswana, 1880s-1990s– Olufemi Vaughan

Vaughan analyzes institutional development in Botswana, examining the role of kgosis (chiefs) in pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence periods. This careful study thrives in its analysis of the interplay between traditional and more modern institutions and follows how kgosis have retained significant influence in spite of their formal power waning.

One particularly interesting section comes from Vaughan’s description of kgosis arguing against the Chieftanship Law of 1970. This law further diminished the power of chiefs by allowing the President to depose kgosis under certain circumstances. Kgosis opposed the law arguing that it was not constitutional. However, in using the constitution to make an argument for their power, they were almost reinforcing the modern institution. While the book’s analysis is rich in its own right, Vaughan’s description of political events raises countless questions the reader will want to engage in.

Concepts like legitimacy, institutions, formal vs. informal power, path dependence, modernization, tradition vs. liberalism, colonization, and political theory feature heavily in this book. Readers interested in any of those themes more broadly will be inspired to take a deeper dive into those topics after finishing the work. Additionally, it leaves no doubt as to why many scholars have tried to study Botswana in economic or political case studies (i.e. Acemoglu & Robinson; Mamdani). Fortunately, this is not Vaughan’s only book on political institutions, and I will definitely consult his work further.


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