This article analyses the production and reproduction of traditional chieftaincy in war-torn eastern DRC through the case of a succession dispute in Kalima (South Kivu). Kalima has seen two decades of political instability and violent conflict involving numerous local, national and regional actors. During this period, the institution of traditional chieftaincy has remained politically salient.

We argue this salience is conditioned by widespread belief in its authenticity and sacredness and by the ethno-territorial imaginary of the Congolese political order. Both are historically produced through rituals, ceremonies and origin narratives that imbue the traditional chieftaincy with charisma and enable customary chiefs to accumulate resources and exercise authority. We call this ability to rule through the notion of ‘custom’, customary capital. We also show ‘customary capital’ does not automatically accrue to chiefs, and it fluctuates over time as different actors move in and out of the capacity to legitimately wield customary capital.