This study of ‘town chiefs’ initiates a programme of research on local leadership in Malawi in the context of the local governance stream of the Africa Power and Politics Programme. Town chiefs are one type of hybrid political order or governance ‘mode’ in Malawi; they operate within overlapping normative universes, and perform acts which have both historical resonance and modern purposes. Whilst known collectively as town chiefs, they assume a number of titles, and have various characteristics, roles and authority. Their behaviour facilitates community action, social order and cohesion, producing a variety of public goods that we consider developmental.
Findings from fieldwork indicate that town chiefs are unrecorded but numerous, and stand outside the law but are widely recognised and valued. Town chiefs have different origins, forms of authority and legitimacy, some more closely aligned to those of traditional chiefs and others rooted more in democratic or party institutions. Their existence and roles fulfil a need created by a vacuum in urban governance and their nature reflects a notion of leadership shared by ‘translocal’ Malawians. The paper concludes with a warning that these findings on town chiefs are tentative and that any attempt to design local governance programmes that ‘go with the grain’ at this stage would be premature and could be harmful.