Themes in Traditional African Political Thought

Major Themes in Traditional African Political Thought

The history of pre-colonial independence is rich with examples of political and economic sophistication. Although some of these political systems degenerated into authoritarianism and economic stagnation, others embodied the full blossoming of democratic practices and economic expansion. The vast majority of political systems fell between these two extremes. A clear understanding of Africa’s multifaceted past is an essential building block for understanding the challenges confronted by African leaders as they lead their countries into the twenty-first century.

Essentially, a rich mosaic of political systems existed during the pre-colonial independence era. One of the most difficult forms of African political organization for Westerners to understand is what anthropologists refer to as a segmented political system. The term “segmented” refers to a decentralized system marked by the diffusion of political power. Segmented political systems lacked a centralized state and a recognized political authority capable of enforcing a preferred set of policies throughout a territory.

Types of Segmented Political Systems

There are five specific types of segmented political systems.

  • Band organization
  • Classical segmented system
  • Universalistic segmented system
  • Traditionally stratified segmented system
  • Autonomous village system

1. Band Organization

The most decentralized type of segmented political system in pre-colonial Africa was the band organization. Sharing the same language, customs, and cultural history, the population was divided into small hunter-gatherer groups that ranged in size from several dozen people during times of plenty to ten to twelve individuals during periods of economic hardship. 

The hunter-gatherer groups were principally comprised of members of an extended family and did not have any form of centralized political authority. Even political authority at the level of the band was neither formally structured nor permanently embodied in one person. Decisions were the result of a face-to-face decision-making process in which all adults’ males took part. E.g., the San people of Namibia and Bostwana.

2. Classical Segmented System

This system differed from the band organization principally in terms of the size and scope of the distinctive groups that comprised the common nation. Individual groups based on kinship, often referred to as "clans,” could number in the tens or hundreds of thousands and were capable of tracing their common lineage back thousands of years to specific founding members. 

The size of the clan ensured that more formal terms of leadership, often a group of leaders or committee of elders, emerged to manage clan affairs, although no central authority ever evolved. Classical segmented systems typically fostered competition and conflict between extended clan families, especially in nomadic environments where drought and famine diminished already scarce water and food resources.

The Somali ethnic group constituted an excellent example of the classical segmented system.

3. Universalistic Segmented System

This constituted a slightly more centralized version of the classical segmented system. Despite the continued lack of any central authority, the members of various clan families were more closely unified by the existence of age sets. Age-set status applied regardless of the clan into which one was born and allowed for a more systematic organization of the social, economic, and political affairs of the nation as a whole.

In an age-set system based on five-year blocks of time, for example, a new age-set is created every five years. Everyone born during that period would constitute a member of the group. These age-sets predetermined an individual’s assumption of various responsibilities within society, ranging from militarily defending the nation through the attainment of warrior status to entering the ranks of a senior political leader or senior elder. The underlying assumption of the age-set system was that different groups of individuals are better suited for specific tasks at different points in their lives. An example is the Maasai ethnic group found on the Kenya-Tanzania border.

4. Ritually Stratified Segmented System

This constituted a variation of its classical counterpart in that otherwise independent clans were unified in the spiritual realm by a commonly revered spiritual or religious leader. It is important to note that such a leader served primarily as a symbol of national unity, with duties usually restricted to presiding over religious ceremonies. He wielded very little, if any, political power and was incapable of forcing recalcitrant clans or subclans into adopting a specific course of action. 

Religious and spiritual leaders often used their possession of sacred objects as a means for achieving and maintaining their specific status within society. The Shilluk of Sudan were representatives of a ritually stratified, segmented system.

5. Autonomous Village System

In the autonomous village system, urbanized groups ranging in the thousands and tens of thousands served as the cornerstones of local political organization. Despite sharing the same language and culture, the population of these highly autonomous villages was not unified by a central political authority or a centralized state. E.g., the Swahili Coast of East Africa. The urban areas constituted virtual city-states but were not controlled by a central authority.

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