Module Ten Glossary

Authoritarianism: A non-democratic system of government in which political power is held by one person or by a small group of people who are not responsive to the wishes of ordinary citizens. In authoritarian systems, ordinary citizens have no way of expressing their opinions or participating in the political process.

Autonomous villages: are villages that are “independent” politically in that they are not controlled by an external authority.

Balance of power: A political situation in which power is shared (“balanced”) between different branches of government.

Bureaucracy: all government associated offices, agencies and institutions. The governmental offices charged with carrying out decisions of the government.

Bureaucrat: a person who works for a government agency.

Capitalism: an economic (and political) ideology that promotes private ownership of the “means of production.” That is, capitalism calls for private (by individuals) ownership of the resources used in the production and distribution of goods and services.

Centralized states: states that have centralized systems of government.

Centralized system of government: A centralized system of government refers to a political system in which there is a complex system of governance, well-defined institutions of government with specific tasks, and in which the governing elite (people who control the government) have considerable power over political affairs.

Checks and balances: are built into most democratic systems and are closely associated with the separation of powers. State constitutions usually build a set of regulations into the system of government that limits or checks the power of all of the institutions of government. These regulations help guarantee that there is a balance of power between the various institutions of government.

City states: City states are comprised of urban areas (cities) that are politically separate from the more rural areas that surround them. In African history, there are numerous examples of city states. Module Ten pays special attention to the Yoruba city states of south western Nigeria and the Swahili city-states of east Africa.

Civil wars: are wars that take place between groups within a country. Normally, civil wars occur when a dissident group challenges the established government. Sometimes civil wars occur when a region of a country wants to break away and establish a separate independent country.

Corruption: describes illegal activities that financially or materially benefit the people in the political system who undertake corrupt (illegal) actions or activities.

Coup d’etat: This French term describes an overthrow of an established government by force. In African countries, coups have been undertaken by the military. Such coups are referred to as military coup d’etat.

Customs: Customs are ways of doing things that are particular to a specific culture or society. Political customs are political practices that are specific to a particular society.

Decentralized states/societies: Decentralized states are societies that do not have highly complex and specialized political institutions of governance.

Democracies of age: In many societies, age is an important factor in distributing political power or participation. For example in the U.S., a person is not allowed to vote, and thereby to participate in the democratic process, until they are 18 years old. In some African societies, political power was traditionally held by elders. In democracies of age, individuals participate in the system regardless of age.

Diaspora: people who live outside of their ancestral home area. The African Diaspora includes people of African descent who live outside of Africa, including the more than 30 million African-Americans.

Ethnicity: identification (by oneself of by others) with a specific ethnic group. An ethnic group is made up of people who identify themselves as belonging to the same group. This group identity is usually based on a common language, heritage, religion, or coming from the same geographical area. Ethnic groups in the U.S. include the Native American peoples, Hispanic Americans, Italian Americans, etc.

Fatalism: a belief that people have no control over what happens to them. That is, forces beyond their control, fate, determines what happens to humans.

Griots: are official keepers of the oral history of their societies. Griots are found throughout West African societies. They are responsible for memorizing and keeping the rich and detailed histories of their societies.

Headman: the senior political authority in many African villages

Hereditary: something that is passed down from one generation to another within a family. Hereditary power or office occurs in political systems such as monarchies where political power is passed down within a family, usually from father to son or uncle to nephew.

Ideology: is a well-established set of political beliefs that is adopted by individuals and groups of people. Capitalism and socialism are two of the most important political ideologies of the late twentieth century.

Law and order: one of the primary functions of any government is the maintenance of law and order (peace) within local communities and in the nation at large.

Lineage groups: In many African societies, extended families are very important. Lineage groups are comprised of people who share a common ancestry. Lineage groups play an important role in the governing of decentralized societies.

Nationalism: strong identification with a nation. In African history, it refers to the popular movements that demanded an end of colonialism and independence as a free nation-state.

Parliamentary system: A system of government in which the parliament (legislature), and not the president or monarch, is the most powerful political institution. Canada and Britain are two examples of parliamentary democracies.

(Political) heritage: refers to political practices and political institutions that have been carried over or inherited from the past.

Political legitimacy: An action, activity or political actor has legitimacy if these actions are lawful and promote good governance

Multi-party democracy: a democratic system that allows two or more political parties.

Presidential system: A system of government in which the most powerful political position is that of the president.

Prime Minister: The head of government in a parliamentary system. Usually, the prime minister is the head of the political party that controls the most seats in the parliament. The prime minister is not elected directly by the citizens.

Revenue: money collected by the government.

Secret societies: Secret societies played an important role in the governing of many pre-colonial African societies. These societies are referred to as being “secret” since their membership was not always know within the larger societies and the process through which they made decisions was not open to the public.

Separation of Power: Separation of powers is a key component of democratic systems of governance in that none of the three major branches of government (executive, legislative, judiciary) have control over the other branches. That is, each branch is independent of the other branches of government.

Socialism: an economic (and political) ideology that promotes the common ownership of the “means of production.” That is, socialism calls for the public ownership of resources used in the production and distribution of goods and services including factories, utilities, large farms, financial institutions (banks, insurance companies), and major communication and transportation networks.

Sovereignty: is the right and the ability to exert political control over a given territory. In a democratic country, the citizens are sovereign. In a monarchy, a king/queen is sovereign. In a colony, the colonial power (Britain, France, Portugal, in the case of African colonies) is sovereign.

Stateless societies: Historically, some societies in Africa (as in Asia and Latin America) did not have specialized institutions of governance that were part of state structure. Social scientists often refer to these societies as being “stateless.”