Elders Against the State: The Case of Gisu Clan Elders Reclaiming a Coffee Cooperative

Phillip A. Shero Introduction

In 1954, something truly remarkable happened in a small East African town: a group of peasants stood up against the central government to fight for their coffee cooperative, and they won. Stephen Bunker’s scholarship1 documented the unexpected outcome of this centre-local struggle, which he described as a cyclical rather than linear story of resistance and control. Sixty years later, the government of Uganda had forcibly taken control of the cooperative again. No one expected the peasants to mount a successful defence the second time. But a group of retired citizens formed, crossing religious, political and gender barriers. Modelling their assemblage after the ancient cultural form of a tribal council of elders, this unfunded and politically powerless group succeeded in bringing national attention to the plight of the cooperative. After a four-year struggle, control of the Bugisu Cooperative Union (BCU) was returned to the local people.

P.A. Shero (H)

MasterMinds Leadership, Fort Worth, TX, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017 155

K. Patterson, B. Winston (eds.), Leading an African Renaissance, Palgrave Studies in African Leadership,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40539-1_9

This unexpected example of African leadership emerged during doctoral research on traditional elder councils in early 2014. The larger ethnographic study posed the question: What are the modalities indigenous to Gisu culture, specifically from elder councils, that facilitate accountability and balance of power in African governance? It was hypothesized that the study of elders would reveal indigenous structures and practices that could be applied to reintroduce accountability and balance of power into African leadership. In the course of structured interviews with 49 participants (24 elders, 6 political leaders and 19 community observers), the story of the Elders Forum came to light as a contemporary and effective expression of the cultural form of clan elder leadership.

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