Politics in Pre-Colonial Africa

Politics in Pre-Colonial Africa


The long period of foreign rule in Africa and the success of colonial ideologies have led to the mistaken belief that traditional institutions if they ever existed, are hardly relevant today, or were of any enduring value or impact. This site examines the importance of traditional institutions to the colonial enterprise, and how their incorporation into the colonial administrative structure facilitated the attainment of the colonial objectives. We also recognize that traditional institutions suffered erosion in their influence and legitimacy, yet in the postcolonial era they are witnessing revival and resurgence in their importance.

 African Traditional Political Institutions

Max Weber, a German sociologist identified three basic ways of assuming leadership positions, or what is popularly known as political legitimacy-legal-rational, traditional and charismatic. In this unit, we are concerned with the traditional form of authority. The legal-rational acquired through established laws and the charismatic authority accepted as a result of the personal qualities and attributes of a leader, are not strictly relevant to pre-colonial African society. What distinguishes traditional authority from the other two is that it has become part of the pristine life of the African people; it is neither learnt, borrowed nor acquired but inherent in the people.

We can therefore define a traditional society in Africa as a territorially or tribally defined community which existed before the intrusion of colonial rule, and led by traditional rulers and chiefs, who constituted traditional political elites. In relation to modern or European societies which are structurally differentiated and complex, traditional societies are not only pre-industrial, simple but also agrarian-based settings.

According to Mengisteab (2003) pre-colonial African societies had “a rich tradition of political, economic and social institutions that dealt with allocation of resources, law making and social control. He noted that in some parts of Africa the powers of rulers were restricted through the institutions of council of chiefs, while in others, such as Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Rwanda, the rulers were more absolute.

It is a fact that before colonial penetration it is impossible to speak of a single political system in Africa, since there were various systems in different parts of Africa. The differences, perhaps, were due to local adaptations, the structure of power, as well as the size of the polity. In spite of these differences, all the pre-colonial political systems in Africa possessed all the key attributes of a modern political system. David Easton explained that in a political system there must be a set of interactions resulting in the authoritative allocation of values. Evidence exists that in pre-colonial Africa goals were set, human and material resources allocated, and policy and objectives clearly pursued. Also, all the key elements identified in Robert Dahl’s definition of a political system-power, rule and authority- were visible in these societies.

The colonial anthropologists made a primary distinction between a state and stateless societies. But rather than been stateless societies, in pre-colonial Africa, there were nominal appearance of the state structures.We can identity certain features.

First, unlike the modern system there were no elaborate legislative, executive, judicial and bureaucratic institutions to maintain law and order, and adjudicate in disputes.

Second, the mode of governance was not embodied in a written document while the machinery of government does not intrude into the private realms of individuals and groups. Instead, pre-colonial societies lived by unwritten constitutions, based on customs and conventions.

Third, it also incorporated a system of social sanctions and checks and balances which prevented violation of norms by the people and extreme leadership tyranny. The idea of a chief in council is not new to Africa.

The Asante in Ghana, for instance, had chiefs elected for specific tasks such as finance and defence (Jordan, 1978). A major feature of traditional Africa was decentralization of governance and authority. In the “Mind of Africa”, W.E. Abraham insists that African “palaver” by which various opinions are arrived at after long and patient discussions are just as democratic as, if not more democratic, than the counting of heads, and making decisions based on majority votes. The African form of democracy-“communocracy”, which is based on consensus, is close to what some post-independence African leaders now call democratic centralism. The idea is that once a decision is taken, no participant in the deliberations, even when he disagrees initially, could openly refuse obligations arising from the decision. Disputes were also settled through consensual system, and narrowing of differences through negotiations, without producing winners and losers.

The three fundamental principles of pre-colonial Africa as outlined by Legese (2000) were:

a. Curbing concentration of power in an institution or person (separation of powers)

b. Averting the emergence of a rigid hierarchy (devolution of powers)

c. Avoiding the settlement of disputes through adversarial procedures (Alternative dispute resolution)

Other characteristics include respect for ancestors, elders, (gerontocracy) rights of individuals, and community norms and laws. Membership of lineage, kinship, and ethnic groups assured numbers of protection of rights of both the strong and weak. In spite of their merits African institutions of governance had some limitations. Participation of women in political institutions are limited, and the systems are too complex to cope with the challenges of modern developmental oriented government.

Colonial Ideologies and Erosion of African Political Institutions.

Colonial Ideologies of Legitimating

One of the most effective colonial ideologies used to justify colonial rule was to describe Africa as backward and without a glorious past. Africa was also portrayed as having made no contribution to world history. Peter Eke (1978) described this as colonial ideologies, invented to persuade Africans by the colonizing Europeans that colonization was in their moral and physical interests. In a report on amalgamation in Nigeria, Lord Lugard wrote “the Southern protectorate was populated by tribes in the lowest stage of primitive savagery…” In his Dual Mandate, Lugard wrote further “Europe was in Africa for the mutual benefit of her own industrial classes and of the native races in their progress to a higher plane”.

This colonial ideology popularly known as the “civilizing mission” was meant to soften the minds of Africans to accept the superior legitimacy of foreign rule, in place of traditional authority. As Peter Eke remarked “the essence of colonial history is the demonstration of the benefits of European “intervention” in Africa… (Where this succeeds) … Africans have been sufficiently prepared to accept a definition of European rule in terms of its benefits, but hardly in terms of its costs”.

But contrary to the biased or pejorative European view, we have seen that, at the inception of foreign rule, Europeans met in different African societies well established political institutions. With varying degrees of success, and after some modifications these institutions aided the introduction of colonial administration; particularly the practice of the British policy of Indirect Rule. In Northern Nigeria, for example, the 1804 Holy Jihad led by Uthman Dan Fodio had ensured about a century old of a centralized system of government, until it was forcefully disrupted by the British in 1903. It was the existence of organized political system before colonial rule that persuaded traditional rulers like Jaja of Opobo and Sultan Attahiru to resist colonial rule, or made Alake Sagbua of Egbaland to be deceived by Britain to enter into a treaty of friendship and commerce, with Queen Victoria of England in 1893.

The reality of the imperial interest dawned on Egba people, as it did in many African societies, when Lugard in 1914 seized upon a local feud to abrogate the treaty by fiat, marking the integration of the Egbas into the colonial administration. Similar integration had earlier been accomplished by force of arms in Northern Nigeria in 1903. This was how colonial administration accommodated traditional rulers as subordinate, residual institutions to facilitate the attainment of colonial objectives.

Impact of Colonial Administration on Traditional Institutions

Rather than strengthen their claims to legitimacy, the encounter of traditional rulers with colonial administrators, weakened them in many ways.

First, traditional rulers were perceived by their subjects as willing tools of colonial control and collaborators in repression. In Abeokuta, for example Alake Ademola was forced to abdicate in 1948 in protest against payment of colonial imposed taxation. By relying on the cooption of traditional authorities colonialism undermined their legitimacy. Hoogvelt (1978:1071) stated that colonialism invested chiefs with more power than they traditionally enjoyed in return for their support and cooperation. The effect was to create a distance between the chiefs and their people, thus opening political space for new educated elite.

Secondly, colonial inherent logic set in motion the process that progressively weakened the power, and eroded the influence of traditional rulers, even where they were initially supportive of colonial administration. The introduction of Western education and culture introduced a more liberal value within the colonial milieu; a value that questioned the absolute grip of traditional rulers over their subjects. A debate thereby ensured on the relevance of acquired status which traditional rulers relied upon for their legitimacy vis-à-vis achieved status, which educated African nationalists professed. The debate was eventually resolved in favour of emerging educated nationalists who spoke the language of liberty, freedom and democracy and whose claims to be the natural successors to white rulers, were strengthened by their successful explosion of the myth of white superiority. The fact that the first generation African traditional rulers were not educated made African growing intelligential to view them as irrelevant to post-colonial Africa.

The explanation for this is simple. The African state today is a creation of imperialism; it inherited the characteristics of the colonial state and, by extension largely ineffective in advancing the interests of society. As Mengisteab (2003) argues “the African state, run by functionaries whose interests are closely tied with external forces can hardly be expected to link itself with its institutional roots…” Noting the detachment of Africa’s present from its past, Eke also wrote: “the post- colonial era is not as differentiated from the colonial era as the colonial era from the pre-colonial era”. In other words, if there is any continuity in African political structure, it is only from the colonial to the post-colonial and not from the pre-colonial to the colonial.

What colonialism achieved therefore was to displace traditional rulers from their primacy. From the re-organization of the emirate system in Northern Nigeria, the desecration of the authority of the Ashante here in the old Gold Coast as symbolized in the revered “Golden stool”, to the disruptions of the Buganda in Uganda, the Mendes in Sierra Leone and the Wolofs in Gambia, colonialism successfully alienated traditional rulers from the people. It not only destroyed the consensus based equilibrium of Africa, caused tensions between the educated elites and

traditional rulers, and also foisted political dualism, or what Sklar (2003: 3-25) called :mixed polity” or “mixed” government” in Africa.

 Resurgence and Relevance of Traditional Institutions

In recent years, many states are coming to terms with the relevance of traditional institutions and seeking to incorporate them into the machinery of modern government. This revival or resurgence led Richard Sklar (1993) to coin the concept of “mixed government” to describe the trend in which traditional institutions are now accepted as occupying a second dimension of political space; behind the sovereign state. Before discussing the nature of this resurgence, it might be necessary to ask: What is responsible for it? The answer lie both in the unceasing demands by traditional rulers to seek more relevance and recognition by the holders of state powers that they could play more than symbolic role, in modern government. It was also admitted that in spite of efforts by constitutional makers to consign traditional rulers into the dustbin of history, people in many African societies still continue to owe allegiance to the institution of traditional leadership (Oomen 2003). Added to this is the realization, especially in Anglophone countries where this revival is higher, that Britain has successfully shown through the monarchy institution in England, that traditional institutions could be safely integrated into modern government.

Indeed, the success of the indirect rule system bears eloquent testimony to the utility of traditional institutions. In many African states traditional institutions and rulers are being recognized, accommodated and given more political weight in different ways:

i. In the kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland the two dimensions of power-traditional and modern-coincide, or are the same, in the sovereign state. For example, King Letsie III of Lesotho functions as the head of state.

ii. The 1992 Ghanaian constitution established a National House of Chiefs and restricted the state from appointing or refusing to recognize chiefs. 30% of the seats in the district assembly were also reserved for chiefs.

iii. In South Africa, despite the association of many chiefs with the apartheid regime, the country’s 1996 constitution recognizes and protects the institution, status and role of traditional leadership, according to customary law. The South African interim constitution of 1994 specifically provided for a constitutional monarchy in the Kwazulu Natal province, to accommodate the powerful Inkhatha freedom party, led by Chief Butulezi.

iv. In 1993, Uganda amended its constitution in order to legalize the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda, Mutebi II. Also, when the constitution was fully redrawn in 1995, chapter 16 was solely devoted to the traditional rulers.

v. In Nigeria, though traditional rulers are yet to be given constitutional role, they have proved useful as unofficial consultative organs of governments, and in resolving disputes. A body known as the Advisory forum of Traditional Rulers and Eminent persons on Peace and Unity in Nigeria was set up in the country to discuss issues that could threaten or disrupt national unity.

A major factor why traditional institutions are considered a relic of the past is due to its undemocratic nature. But it is unlikely to expect that an institution which rests its claims to legitimacy on tradition will yield ground to the forces of democratization which swept across the continent in the 1990s. But astonishingly, the revival of traditional institutions in many African states coincided with the post-cold war era, when the push towards democracy gathered steam in Africa (Englebert 2003:41).

There are possible explanations for this anomaly. One is that democratization opened the political space, and the traditional rulers, like other groups regained their voice in the process. Another factor is that the economic crises in many African states were interpreted by citizens as failure in state capacity. To survive, many citizens found safety net in other forms of sub national identity to substitute for the state. Eghosa Osaghae (1995) noted an increase in ethnic associations and solidarities in the wake of structural adjustment in Nigeria.

Therefore, traditional institutions have valuable characteristics that can assist democratic governance and promote development.

In pre-colonial Africa traditional institutions occupied pre-eminent positions in the lives of African people. They exercised both symbolic and executive powers, only restrained by customs and traditions. Colonialism displaced them from their primacy and only accommodated them within the colonial apparatus, if it was convenient to do so.

Therefore under colonial rule traditional rulers relied on colonial authorities to function, and retain their legitimacy, thereby making foreigners the real power behind the throne. Since independence traditional rulers have begun moves to regain their lost status, and are now re-asserting themselves in a way that will make their relevance transcend the symbolic, to the substantive. The extent to which they will succeed in this respect will depend on how far they can lay claims to legitimacy, beyond mere tradition, or circumstances of birth.

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