In the last chapter of Kingdoms and Civilizations of Africa I pointed out that there was a system of checks and balances in place in African societies which limited the powers of rulers and protected the people from abuse. Colonialism dismantled many political institutions in Africa and often what happened is that newly independent African nations inherited the oppressive institutions which were left behind by the colonizers. Racist propaganda suggested that the corruption and misrule of African leaders was due to the fact that Africans are incapable of governing themselves without the civilizing influence of the Europeans. The reality, however, is that the system of colonialism was a very inhumane and barbaric one, and that is the system that continues to prevail in Africa today.
European societies transitioned away from monarchies because of how repressive monarchies in Europe were. Africa, on the other hand, made a transition that was dictated by colonial rule. The transition to the present system of governance was not one that arose out of Africa’s own political development and as such some of the more exemplary features of African political institutions were not retained in Africa’s present day political system.
In many African societies the king was elected by a council of elders. Typically a candidate for the throne had to be a member of the royal family, but lineage alone did not always guarantee that one would be made a ruler. Elected kings could also be sanctioned or deposed for their actions as well. Martin Delany observed this during his travels in West Africa. Delany wrote that kings elected “from ancient Royal families by the Council of Elders, which consists of men chosen for life by the people, for their age, wisdom, experience, and service among them.” Delany also noted out that the king was “subject to trial and punishment for misdemeanor in office, before the Council of Elders.”
Among the Asante people, chiefs and kings were brought to trial and if the charges against them were proven they were removed from power or destooled. Between 1799 and 1833 three Asante rulers were destooled. In The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, the king was elected and if a king was rejected by his people he was made to commit ritualistic suicide — I would imagine that if such a system was implemented by African countries today the problem of corruption would quickly take care of itself. The Islamic kingdom of Futa Jallon was ruled by two Alimamies who were elected from the two dynastic families. The Alimamies had term limits, although the council of elders who remove an Alimami before his term ended.
Today African leaders impose themselves on their people, even when it is apparent that the people have rejected them. We have seen recent examples of this in countries such as Togo, Guinea, or Kenya where the security forces were employed to brutalize and kill protesters. In effect, African citizens are left without a means to express their discontent with their governments.
Such repression has also been inflicted on the artists as well. In 2017, Nay wa Mitego was arrested for criticizing the Tanzanian government in one of his songs. In many African societies music was actually one of the ways in which citizens were able to express criticisms or concerns. Among the Ndebele people the “First Fruits Ceremony of the Nguni” was a ceremony in which people were free to sing their grievances to the king. In Mali, Ibn Battua witnessed a giot calling upon the king to live up to standard set by his predecessors or face the wrath of the people. It was often in the best interest for the ruler of Mali to listen to the griot’s advice. Mansa Khalifa is one ruler of Mali who faced the wrath of the people when the people rose up and assassinated for his wickedness. These are just some examples, but I cover many more examples of checks and balances being placed on African rulers.
These traditions were replaced by a very repressive political culture in which leaders tend to impose their will on the masses, sometimes even at the expense of African culture. In Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays, for example, I mentioned the protests in Guinea which emerged when Sekou Toure attempted to suppress local tradition when he attempted to abolish the market and replace them with government owned stores. These policies resulted in widespread protests by women in Guinea in 1977. The government responded by sending police officers to open fire and kill the protesting women. This issue still continues in Guinea at present where the president, Alpha Conde, is apparently planning to run for a third term, despite the current two-term limit restriction in the constitution. In anticipation of the protests against Conde, the government of Guinea has authorized security forces to use deadly force, so these are issues that have persisted in African nations for several decades.
I will offer one final example to contrast the state of pre-colonial African politics with the political leaders we see today. After several months of protests and struggle, which resulted in many deaths Omar al-Bashir was finally forced to step down. For decades al-Bashir tortured and murdered his own citizens to retain his power. The present day Sudan is where the kingdom of Kush was located. One of Kush’s most well-known rulers was Shabaka. Shabaka abdicated the throne when he had a dream in which God told him that he could not continue his reign unless he killed the priests. Shabaka did not want to displease God, but he also could not bring himself to kill innocent people for the sake of remaining in power. African leaders such as al-Bashir have no second thoughts about massacring their own citizens to remain in power. And whereas Kush was one of the most powerful and wealthy empires of its day, African dictators in countries such as the Sudan and Guinea rule over poverty and mass suffering.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.