Module Ten, Activity Two

Types of Government In Pre-Colonial Africa

Africas Kingdoms and Empires


In Module Seven A: African History, you explored the histories of a wide diversity of pre-colonial African societies. Each of these societies had a system of government. That is, each society had a set of rules, laws, and traditions, sometimes called customs, that established how the people would live together peacefully as part of larger group.

While there are many different types of government in pre-colonial Africa, most political systems fit into one of three political categories.

Centralized Kingdoms and Empires

As you will remember, some African societies were large empires governed by kings who had near absolute power. In Module Seven A, you studied the empires of ancient Egypt in North Africa, of Nubia and Axum in North East Africa, of Ghana, Mali and Songhai in West Africa, and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. These are examples of large kingdoms or empires that developed a complex system of government. They were in many regards similar to kingdoms and empires in Asia and Europe that were in existence during the same time periods as the African kingdoms you studied.

The political systems of African kingdoms shared similarities with European kingdoms. The king, such as Mansa Musa of Mali and Sonni Ali of Songhay, had near absolute power and there was no separation of power. The king and his councilors and advisors carried out executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Given that political control was concentrated, or centralized, in the hands of a few people, political scientists refer to these societies as centralized states.

The king's power was often based on his ability to collect revenue and tribute, usually through the control of trade, and to control and use an army to defend his sovereignty. Moreover, there were no independent judicial systems. Officials appointed by the king were responsible for criminal justice. In short, the king was chief executive, chief law-maker, and chief judge.

While there were many factors that explain the development of strong kingdoms in Africa, as you will remember from Module Seven A, historians have identified three important factors that were present in the rise of all kingdoms.

1. Expansion of agricultural production.
2. Development of new metal technology.
3. Expansion of trade.

Do you remember why these factors were so important in the development of centralized kingdoms? Look back at Module Seven A: African History.

Just as in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, large and powerful kingdoms in Africa did not last forever. At times, a powerful kingdom was conquered and overthrown by a new group of rulers who established a new kingdom, as was the case when the Kingdom of Mali replaced the Kingdom of Ghana. In other situations, a kingdom may have become less powerful due to a combination of factors such as poor leadership or the loss an important source of power. As you will remember, one of the reasons why the Kingdom of Songhai declined in strength had to do with the lessening of the importance of the trans-Saharan trade.

Centralized Small Kingdoms and City-States

As was true in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, not all African peoples lived in large kingdoms. There were a variety of social and political systems in Africa. In addition to the large kingdoms, there were smaller centralized political units, some of which historians call City States since they were made up of large urban-like areas. These geographically smaller states shared much in common with the larger African kingdoms. The primary difference was size. The system and practice of governance that centralized power in the hands of a king and a supporting caste of political advisors and elites in these smaller kingdoms was similar to that of larger kingdoms. Moreover, control of trade and a strong military were also important factors in the development and maintenance of these smaller states.

Oyo, Ife, Illorin, and Ibaban are examples of West African city-states. Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Lamu are examples of East African city-states.

Module Nine: African Economies featured a case study of the Yoruba city-states (Oyo, Ife, Illorin, Ibaban). The focus in that lesson was on economic specialization through the cotton and textile industries. Economic specialization and political centralization assisted each other in the Yoruba city-states. Economic specialization increased wealth and revenues that were used to support ruling elites and standing armies. In turn, the kings and ruling elites, along with the military under their control, provided stability and protection necessary for economic growth and productivity.

Decentralized or Stateless Political Societies

There were many African societies which have been classified by political historians as stateless or de-centralized. These terms are used to describe societies that did not have a well-defined and complex or centralized systems of government, such as political systems of Ghana, Oyo or Zimbabwe that you studied in Module Seven A 

Although they cannot be certain, historians of Africa believe that as many as a third of the people of Africa on the eve of colonial rule lived in stateless or decentralized societies. For many years these societies were not well studied by historians.

There are a couple of reasons why the decentralized societies in Africa have not been well studied by historians.

1. One of the reasons why these societies were not studied has to do with the availability of historical data. Rulers in centralized states had an interest in keeping oral or written records. For example, Module Seven: African History and Module Eleven: African Literature mentioned the epic story of Sundiata, King of Mali. This wonderful story that is now available in translation and written form, was originally part of a oral history of Mali memorized and repeated by state appointed historians called Griots.

In decentralized societies that had no king, chiefs, or ruling elite, there was little opportunity or incentive to keep oral or written histories. Consequently, contemporary historians do not have the same rich sources of oral tradition to draw on when studying the histories of stateless societies.

2. A second reason why decentralized societies have not been well studied has to do with prejudice. Until quite recently, many historians have accepted a view that only societies that are centralized are worth studying. Until the past twenty years, many historians of Africa looked at African history through the lens of European history. Consequently, to quote a leading historian of Africa, historians "took the existence of states as a mark of political achievement-the bigger the state, the bigger the achievement. [However] recent authorities suggest that this view is far from accurate." These historians allowed their perspective of African societies to be prejudiced by use of European and North American history as a lens through which to study African history. As the brief case study on the Igbo speaking peoples will show, these historians were incorrect in their assessment. Decentralized and stateless societies can develop economically, culturally, and socially, even if they don't have a centralized system of government.

Decentralized or stateless political societies in Africa were often made up of a group of neighboring towns or villages that had no political connection with a larger kingdom or nation. Most stateless and decentralized societies did not have a system of chiefs. However, some of these societies had chiefs. In these societies the position of chief was weak and was often not hereditary. Chiefs were usually selected by a group of elders. In such a system, chiefs were selected not based on their family connections, but on their reputation as person who contributed to the welfare of the group.

Some decentralized societies did not have chiefs. They were governed by a council of elders that was comprised of many of the elderly people in the community. You will remember from Module Eight: Culture and Society in Africa that age is greatly respected in Africa. In most decentralized societies in Africa, the elders held social, economic and political power. Elders were so important that some historians have defined decentralized societies as democracies of age. Can you think of reasons why these societies were defined as democracies of age?

Case-Study of Igbo Society

There is a set of stereotypes that many of us use when we think of stateless or decentralized societies. Stateless societies are thought to be small in terms of population and geographic area. They are often thought as being nomadic or semi-nomadic, or as being comprised of small bands of hunters and gatherers. Do you remember the discussion of the San and Mbundi peoples in Module Nine: African Economies? These hunter and gatherer societies were politically decentralized. But they are not representative of stateless societies in Africa. Most decentralized societies are agriculturally-based and are not nomadic. Moreover, many of these societies are as complex as their more centralized neighbors.

Another, and perhaps more representative, example of decentralized society in Africa are the Igbo speaking peoples. The Igbo speaking people live in the south eastern part of contemporary Nigeria. The Igbo are neighbors of the highly politically centralized Yoruba, but their political system is much different. Instead of centralized kingdoms headed by powerful kings, chiefs, and their advisors, the Igbo had no centralized system of governance. Rather they lived in politically autonomous villages. That is, each village was politically separate and was not politically connected to neighboring villages. Within the villages there was not a system of hereditary chiefs. Village decisions were made by a headman and a council of elders that selected the headman.

The absence of a centralized system of government did not mean that there was no system or institutions of governance among the Igbo speaking peoples. In addition to village based council of elders, there were religious organizations, structures of kinship ties-- lineage groups, and secret societies --that provided regulations which governed people's lives. These organizations guaranteed that no one group or institution gained too much power, creating a system of checks and balances!

The absence of centralized government did not hinder the social and economic development of the Igbo peoples. Indeed, just as their Yoruba neighbors, the Igbo speaking peoples developed a specialized and diversified economy based on agriculture, textiles, and trade.

Your Turn

Your teacher will distribute three graphic organizers. These graphic organizers focus on governmental responsibility in each of the three types of governments this unit has addressed:

*** Centralized kingdoms and empires
*** Centralized City-States
*** Decentralized/stateless societies

On each graphic organizer, you will provide information on which individual or group of individual controls the following functions of government:

*** Administration (executive): the enforcement of rules, peace, and security; provision of services.
*** Legislation: law making
*** Judicial: justice and interpretation of laws
*** Trade: control of trade and revenues

Graphic Organizers for Activity 2

Go on to Activity Three or go to one of the other activities in this module