Local Governance of Collective Lands: Tribal/Management Councils (T/MCs) in Tunisia's Nefzaoua Region

By Matthew Gordner
Submitted to Session P5891 (Decentralization and Local Governance in Tunisia, 2020 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In the south and central regions of Tunisia an important means of colonial penetration and capital accumulation was the adoption and alteration of the tribal myaad system. Traditionally an informal institution for conflict resolution and resource allocation, the myaad was perfectly suited to provide the French, and later, post-independence governments, with a veneer of local legitimacy through which to control both land and people. Coopted and formalized as a legal entity under French colonial policy and renamed conseils de gestion (French) or majales al tassaruf (Arabic), these tribal/management councils (T/MCs) ensured the compliance of local communities in the service of successive central authorities by endowing them with ostensible control over vast areas of collective, tribal lands through local ‘representatives’ of each of the major clans nominally ‘elected’—though in practice vetted, approved and often directly selected, by the central authorities. Initially, the T/MC was used as a mechanism for sedentarization and securitization under French colonial rule (1881-1956) in areas where tribes were historically powerful and posed a threat to colon interests. However, the Bourguiba (1956-1987), Ben Ali (1987-2011), and post-“Arab Spring” (2011-) governments increasingly used the T/MCs for their own designs, most significantly to privatize land previously designated as ‘collective’ in what today amounts to particular forms of accumulation by dispossession and extracivism. The purpose of this paper is to present the role of T/MCs in the social transformation of the people and communities of the south and central regions of Tunisia from the Ottoman period to the present. My aim is to demonstrate the ways in which a traditional informal institution that maintained the cohesiveness of the tribal social formation was coopted as a system of local governance that was used to ultimately undermine it. Research for this paper draws from three years of qualitative fieldwork and compares the processes of local governance in select districts of Tunisia’s Nefzaoua region: Kebili, Douz, Zaafrane, Jemna, and Golaa.