African political systems
In the time before the 19th century from 4,000 BCE to 1800 CE, African societies developed no fewer than fifteen unique political systems of government and property rights. In this article we look at what those systems were, examples of states that used them and over what length of time. Fundamentally political systems decide wealth distribution, income distribution, crime and punishment, and who holds the right to conduct international relations with other polities. Below were the pre-colonial systems that found fertile ground to develop in Africa.
Age set and age grade – the Gada system of Oromo people
The Gada system is a democratic system used to elect the Abba Gada, who is the leader of the Oromo people. It is an indigenous democratic system that has existed in its current form for 1,800 years and in a different form among the ancestors of the Oromo people since between 3,500 BCE and the second millennium BCE (1). The Gada system is still ongoing, with a population now in excess of 50 million Oromo people in Ethiopia, including the capital Addis Ababa.
The original age-set system used before our Common Era by the Konsoromo society had eight age-set names, recycled every thirty-two years. The Konsoromo kept two generations of four age-set names for each eight-year period so that fathers and sons would never be given the same age-set names.
|Generation 1 (Father)||Generation 2 (Son)|
|Age-set Name 1||Age-set Name 2|
|Age-set Name 3||Age-set Name 4|
|Age-set Name 5||Age-set Name 6|
|Age-set Name 7||Age-set Name 8|
Each of the Konsoromo age-set names would be applied in sequence to each newly initiated group. Every eight years a new group of boys were initiated in a ceremony. Once the last name was reached, the society would cycle back to the first name of the eight age-set names.
The current age-set system initiates boys into one of five parties every eight years. The current age-set system has five parties, representing the five age-set names. The age set system is accompanied by five age grades that each last eight years. Children once grouped into an age-set name retained that age-set for life, but move from one age grade to the next every eight years. Only when they are in the final age grade, the fifth age grade, can they be eligible to stand for the position of Abba Gada and other leadership positions.
|Age-set Names||Age Grade 1||Age Grade 2||Age Grade 3||Age Grade 4||Age Grade 5|
|Age Set Name 1 (8 years)||0+8||0+16||0+24||0+32||0+40|
|Age Set Name 2 (8+8 years)||8+8||8+16||8+24||8+32||8+40|
|Age Set Name 3 (8+16 years)||16+8||16+16||16+24||16+32||16+40|
|Age Set Name 4 (8+24 years)||24+8||24+16||24+24||24+32||24+40|
|Age Set Name 5
|40-year cycle||40-year cycle||40-year cycle||40-year cycle||40-year cycle|
The new successor of the Oromo, the Abba Gada, is decided by a public vote, with this being a truly democratic system. The Gada system replaces its ruling class with a member of the society from a different age-set name every eight years by cycling through the five parties 1,2,3,4,5 until they get back to the first age-set name 1.
By 2012 AD, the oral tradition of Oromo had recorded 225 Abba Gadas chronologically, dating the recorded history of the system back to 212 AD, 1,800 (being 8 x 225) subtracted from 2012. This makes the system one of the oldest democratic systems in the world still in continuous use.
An Oroma council gathering near the Oda tree.
Confederacy – Kwararafa
The Federation of Kwararafa adopted a system of confederacy in their society. They came into being in around mid-13th century in what is currently Nigeria and lasted for over 500 years. It reached its peak around the 16th and 17th century before declining. It was a confederacy with a Jukun priest-King at Wukari said to be the main leader, advised by a council of nobles.
Contrapuntal paramountcy – Pre-colonial Hausa
In region inhabited by the Hausa people of modern-day Nigeria, there existed a confederacy of seven kingdoms each using a unique system of contrapuntal paramountcy, which was a system with a number of priest-chiefs, who elected a king for each kingdom. In each kingdom, the king and the priest-chiefs would work together within the same system for the same ends. This dual system ensured that no one party had absolute power. Its peak came in around the 14th century, when Kano was the most powerful city-state. The Hausa city-states became critical middlemen and producers of goods in West Africa. The political organisation of the Hausa region dates back to the 4th to 5th century.
Democracy – Meroe
The kingdom of Meroe (which existed from the eighth century BCE to fourth century BCE) was a great centre of iron smelting, cattle-raising and agriculture. The King of Meroe ruled the Kingdom, shared his power with the Queen Mother and appointed people to the administration that helped run the city and the subject regions around the capital. This combination was successful, and meant that the city was administered competently. After each monarch passed away, the next monarch had to be the most competent member of the Royal family not the oldest son or the oldest nephew.
Federal Republic – Ashanti
The Ashanti Empire (1670 to 1957 AD) was built on a system of bureaucracy and was a federal republic. Different ministries were established to handle the affairs of the republic. At the top of the hierarchy was the King of Ashanti, who was obliged to share considerable power with the bureaucracy, both legislative and executive. He was known as the Asantehene. The King himself was to be elected by the people after being nominated by a senior female of the Royal line. At its peak in 1874, it covered nearly 259,000 square kilometre and had a population of nearly 3 million people.
Hegemony – The Songhai Empire
The Songhai Empire adopted a system of hegemony, whereby a dominant kingdom Songhai received tribute from all the states that it controlled. Inside the hegemony, they Songhai adopted an imperial system, with succession going along royal lines. Although the Songhai had existed from around 1000 AD, they reached true power and independence in the 14th century, as they became the dominant Empire of the region. At their peak, they controlled nearly 1.4 million square kilometres and were a flourishing Empire with real power
Hereditary Theocracy – Fatimids
The Fatimid caliphate adopted a system of hereditary theocracy, with the main state religion being Shia Islam. While the rulers of the Fatimid Caliphate were hereditary, the administration was based more on merit than on lineage, with people of other religions also appointed to key posts. At its peak, it covered more than 4.1 million square kilometres of territory, covering parts of North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Tihamah, Hejaz, and Yemen. The state was established in 909 AD and would last for around two hundred years, becoming a dominant power in the region over that period.
Matrilineal decent – political and property rights transfer from uncle to nephew and from mother to son
Matrilineality is a system in which the political and property is transferred from a female ancestor. It’s the opposite to the more common Patrilineal system where a male ancestor is the one from whom anything is inherited. It has been practiced among the Akan people in central Ghana for many years. Political units are grouped according to their beliefs in having the same ancestress, thus making marriage between them taboo. The Akan are currently around 20 million in number and many still follow their ancient matrilineal systems.
Meritocratic Theocracy – Umayyad Caliphate
The Umayyad Caliphate practiced a form of theocracy which was based on merit. Many local people would continue government jobs and these were appointed on merit. There was a financial and administrative system that was entirely based on merit. However, it was a theocracy, and a monarchy, with the Arabs at the top of the hierarchy and religion dominating all decisions. At its peak, they had a population of nearly 33 million over 11 million square kilometres. They would conquer large parts of North Africa and rule for nearly 150 years to 750 AD.
Monarchy – Kingdom of Ta-Seti 4,500 BC – 3,300 BC
Ta-Seti was a Nubian state and meant Land of the Bow. It was a monarchy, with the king of the Ta-Seti having complete control over the kingdom, ruling over the land. Ta-Seti began to decline in 3500 BC, due to external attacks and got amalgamated into Egypt. It was one of the chief nomes – an administrative unit – in Egypt at its peak.
Patrilineal descent – Amhara people
Patrilineal descent is established by tracing descent exclusively through the males born from a founding male ancestor. It was the system which was in vogue among the Amhara people. The Amhara number nearly 20 million in Ethiopia and comprise of nearly 26.9% of Ethiopia’s population. One of the most famous of the Amhara is Haile Selassie who was an Ethiopian Regent.
Plutocracy – Rhapta
Rhapta was a marketplace state that was on the coast of South East Africa. It was first described in the first century AD, and has also been mentioned up to the 7th century. The system in Rhapta was one of Plutocracy, with those of great wealth having great influence on the decisions made by the state. At its peak, it formed an important link between Indonesia and consumers in the Mediterranean region.
Stratocracy – The Mamluks
The Mamluk Sultanate was a Northern African state based in Egypt. The Mamluks were slaves the ended up in Egypt due to sale of Mongol captives to traders from Genoa, and the second-hand market in slaves distributing Central Europeans to Africa. The Mamluks gained power after succeeding in revolting against their masters.
The Mamluk Sultan was the ultimate authority and was elected by the Emirs and Mamluks. Thus, the new Sultan was always among the military, and thus the system was one of a Stratocracy. It existed from 1250 to 1517 AD. At their peak, they ruled over Egypt and Syria, and were a dangerous proposition to fight against.
Thalassocracy – Phoenicians
Phoenicia was a thalassocratic Empire that originated in Lebanon. They existed from 2500 BC–539 BC. At its peak, they had an Empire which comprised of around 20 thousand square kilometres. It had areas of Lebanon and included northern Israel, along with southern Syria reaching as far north as Arwad. Its colonies reached as far as Spain. Their main realms were comprised of coastal areas, thus making it a maritime Empire. It comprised of an alliance of city states ruled by hereditary kings.
United Kingdom – the Mossi kingdoms
The Mossi Kingdom was a system of United Kingdoms, ruled by a Monarchy. It comprised of a number of kingdoms, each with hereditary kings, ruled by a senior king of kings – a single monarch. At its peak, it ruled what comprises modern day Burkina Faso. The Kingdom began in the 13th century and continued up to 1896
- Chris Ehret, “The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800”, University of Virginia Press 2002