Before colonial overlords arrived in Africa, Africans had their own political systems based on the customary composition and heritage of each region and location.
As a result, the pre-colonial governance system was characterized by various styles of governance, such as monarchical rule by a king, centralized rule with absolute power in the center, and decentralized rule that allowed power to be shared rather than concentrated in a single entity.
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With such political frameworks, African societies’ many areas and kingdoms accounted for their differences and created systems that suited them.
As a result, this study will highlight the various sorts of pre-colonial political systems and some of the accomplishments recorded as exemplified in some of the kingdoms and empires that existed at the time.
The Empire of Oyo
The Oyo Empire was a West African empire dominated by Yoruba. It was one of the region’s most politically active empires, with exceptional organizational skills.
Its governmental organization was monarchical, with a king named the Alafin ruling the kingdom and a council of advisers in the Oyo Mesi (kingmakers), seven of whom represented the seven wards of Oyo city.
The Oyo Mesi were the people’s chief spokesmen, protecting their interests and being entrusted with the job of selecting the Alafin while also having the judicial capacity to carry out checks and balances on the Alafin if he abused power.
Though the King had powers, he sought advice from the Oyo Mesi on matters affecting the state, and according to history, the empire’s leadership recorded some successes in its relationship with other territories and the management of its subjects through the operation of checks and balances that ensured that no one had absolute powers because, just as the Oyomesi checked the Alaafin, the Ogboni cult checked and called them to order.
This system, which was run by close-knit communal leaders, safeguarded citizens’ rights and gave them a sense of belonging.
Unlike the Oyo empire, which had a king, the Igbo system was mostly that of a consultative assembly of the common people that delegated powers to a council of elders to govern the affairs of their villages, with the exception of select cities having kings, such as Onitsha.
They did, however, have title holders who were respected by the consultative assembly and were granted particular tasks.
This system of government made it simple to build and maintain peace in the region because conflicts were sorted out at the communal level, with all parties concerned receiving fair hearings. Furthermore, because communal meetings were highly esteemed, the system allowed individuals to be traced away from their families, acting as a deterrent to engaging in various vices.
The Political System of the Hausa/Fulani
The pre-colonial Hausa political structure was extremely centralized, with the Emir wielding ultimate power.
After the jihad war, the Fulani, led by Othman Dan Fodio, took political control of the Hausa nations of Northern Nigeria, establishing the Sokoto and Gwandu caliphates.
The caliphates were led by Emirs with unlimited power, while the emirs of Sokoto and Gwandu selected district chiefs (Hakimi) to oversee the affairs of each area.
In turn, the district heads appointed village chiefs to aid them in carrying out their duties of maintaining law and order and collecting taxes.
It was a kind of indirect control in which the Emirs consulted the district heads, who in turn consulted the village leaders, but the Emirs had the right to dismiss any of the appointees.
In terms of accomplishments, the political system had the people’s support because of their Islamic religion, which emphasized adherence to traditional authority and assisted leaders in restoring order through their own legal tribunals.
It was easier to rule the people and exert authority with its separation of powers in practice, thus taxes were collected on time and used appropriately for governance.
The Mali Empire
The old Mali Empire had a monarchical administration and was ruled by a sovereign known as Mansa. It had a council of clan elders that counseled the king on a variety of issues.
Despite the fact that administration was decentralized, with each territory having some of its own culture and privileges under its control, the structure of government gave states limited powers by forcing them to focus on defense and army building, a strategy that brought about harmony in government and prosperity to the empire.
The system’s domestic effects included the production of renowned leaders who assisted it in growing stronger enough to launch successful military operations outside of its territories in order to extend its territory.
As one of Africa’s most successful empires at the time, the Mali empire was able to produce a charter outlining how to administer the empire, which supported its development in terms of infrastructure development, economic growth, social mobility, investments, and education, all of which contributed to overall prosperity.
The Ashanti Empire of Ghana’s political structure was centralized and led by the monarch, Asantehene, who functioned in multiple capacities as head of the government, commander in chief of the army, and judge in the highest court of the land.
The Queen’s mother functioned as an adviser to the king and shared responsibility for state issues alongside the queen. She was also in charge of nominating candidates for approval by district chiefs elected by the people.
As a result, the government was divided into four levels: state, district, village, and lineage, with each level reporting to its superiors.
Among its numerous accomplishments was the substantial engagement of women in its political culture, which stemmed from the empire’s matrilineage social system.
Among other things, the empire was a well-organized entity that relied on skilled bureaucracy to properly administer its operations.
The effectiveness of its organization resulted in strong administration of public finances, trade initiatives, and procedures for utilizing state resources, which expanded its riches and established it as a model.
While these political systems have long since died out and new forms of government have emerged, it is important to note that African histories must be revisited as frequently as possible in order to bring to light some of the African people’s uniqueness and ingenuity that existed prior to colonization.