Justice Administration Outside the Ordinary Courts of Law in Mainland Tanzania: The Case of Ward Tribunals in Babati District

by Yusufu Q. Lawi, Boston University


Since colonial days, justice administration in what is now mainland Tanzania, has invariably involved arbitral procedures alongside the more court-based litigation process. The British colonial government in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) systematized and put in place a system of customary arbitration which, although distinct, formed part of the colonial legal system. At first the post-colonial state adopted this system without any alteration, but in 1969 a statutory provision was made for the creation of a more formal and village-based structure known as the Arbitration Tribunals (1969). In 1985, a parliament Act (no. 7 of 1985) replaced these with more formalized and regularized organs called the Ward Tribunals. In contrast to the Arbitration Tribunals, the latter organs are based in wards and are meant to function under the overall control of the district-based local government authorities.

This act clearly states that these organs ought to function primarily through mediation and arbitration, as opposed to litigation (Sec. 8). As such, they would achieve justice at the local community level through amicable settlement of disputes and, in this way, enhance the spirit of reconciliation and understanding among community members (Msekwa, 1977: 111). On the other hand, it is well documented that the Tribunals also were established to relieve the primary courts of their increasing work load. It follows that they were meant to supplement rather than replace the ordinary courts of law at the lowest level (Msekwa, 1977: 111).

It would be worthwhile to note that the establishment of the Ward Tribunals took pace at a time when the central government had decided to consolidate and revitalize local governance. Some lip service had been paid to giving power to the people to determine their own affairs since the early days of independence, but actual practice largely contradicted the often neatly presented manifestos in this regard (Ngware and Haule, 1993: 6). The re-establishment of the local government system in 1984, after it had been abolished in 1967, was officially explained as aiming at enhancing popular participation in development efforts (Meshack, 1991: 6).

The newly established local government system encompassed a network of administrative structures and institutions. At times these local governance structures and institutions, which include district/town councils and village governments and cooperative unions, have been coordinated by a full fledged ministry. However, more often they have worked under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s office.

Ward Tribunals were to function as part of the Ward Committees (Sec. 24[3]) which, together with village governments, work under the direction of district councils. Taking the Ward as an administrative unit, the above sketched structural and institutional arrangement presents some degree of conformity to the modern ideal of separation of powers in governance. While the functional government officials at the Ward level (headed by the Ward Executive Officer) clearly discharge executive duties, and while the Ward Committee in liaison with the District Council performs functions close to those of the legislature in nature, the Ward Tribunals’ functions, as specified by law, are essentially judicial…

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