George Ayittey clarifies and develops further some of his points:
In my original posting, my task was to craft a viable "African" solution
to the political crises in Ivory Coast, Sudan and other African
countries in 1,200 words or less.
My contention is that the basic cause of most of these crises is the
"politics of exclusion" and can be resolved through an independent and
sovereign "national conference." This vehicle was used successfully by
Benin, South Africa, Zambia and other African countries to chart a new
political dispensation for their respective countries. Delegates to
these conferences themselves assert that these national conferences were
derived from their own indigenous African institution - the village
meeting, variously called ama-ala, asetena kese, pitso, ndaba, and
kgotla by certain African ethnic groups. Hence, reaching back to African
roots and crafting an "African solution to an African problem."
I posted my write-up for comments unfortunately, right from the get-go,
many commentaries veered way off mark. I protested and indicated that
the comments were not useful - especially an 11-page point-by-point
rebuttal; another was 21 pages long. They were also getting personal. I
said right from the beginning that my focus is on "African solutions." I
do not believe in "foreign solutions" and I part company with those who
call for "foreign involvement." I have subsequently spelt out my
Now, if you object to what Ayittey has put down on the table, please
offer a BETTER SOLUTION in 1,200 words, not 11 or 21 pages. I have not
seen any, except vague calls for "foreign involvement" or "foreign and
local initiative." Details of such hybrid solutions have not been
sketched out. For instance, nobody knows where the "foreign component"
is coming from: The UN, the U.S., former colonial powers, Russia, China
or Jupiter? Offering a better alternative solution would be a far more
useful exercise than ripping apart what's on the table and leaving
nothing behind. That's destructive criticism.
ON TRADITIONAL AFRICA
The second edition of my book, Indigenous African Institutions, is
coming out this year. My sources were not the Washington Post, nor the
Washington Times, as Kissi alleged. Nor was my research limited to only
Ghana (another Kissi allegation).
The controversy over "village meetings" needs to be cleared up. There
were not a rarity, nor confined to "stateless" and semi-stateless
societies. They were also a fixture in states such as the Ashanti, Zulu,
Xhosa and others. Village meetings were not held regularly - as in say
daily, weekly, or monthly. They were convened in times of crisis or when
the chief and/or Council of Elders were deadlocked on an issue. Then the
issue was laid before the people to debate and reach a consensus.
Needless to say, there is a great deal of confusion, mythology, and
misconception about indigenous Africa. The colonialists propagated many
myths about traditional Africa - obviously to serve their interests -
and many of them still endure to this day. There is no earthly reason
why we, African intellectuals and scholars, should validate or repeat
some of these myths. Here are a few of them:
1. Africa had no viable institutions.
2. Colonialism was good for Africans because it "civilized" them and
freed them from their terrible and despotic chiefs.
3. Democracy is alien to Africa; despotism is their indigenous political
4. Europeans did not introduce chattel slavery into Africa; African
chiefs were already enslaving their own people before the Europeans
On face value, none of these myths is true. My intention in writing the
book was not so much to debunk colonial myths but to determine how
various African ethnic groups organized their societies and governed
themselves - Ga, Asante, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Shona, Zulu, Somali, etc.
etc. I studied their social, political, legal and economic institutions.
True, one finds great diversity but also a remarkable degree of
structural similarity. Here are two views:
"While a hallmark of African civilizations is their stunning cultural
pluralism and tremendous diversity, there is also a basic traditional
continuity that provides, simultaneously, a surprising degree of
similarity between even widely separated African societies...
Communities formed, evolved, disintegrated, and were transformed. And
yet, throughout these complex processes of evolution and change, a
deeply rooted belief system often survived. Typically, the unity of the
universe, with a harmonious interaction of human beings with their
environment, together with the vitality of natural and supernatural
forces, was stressed. New social and political forms were grounded in a
traditional world view (Lamphear, John. "Aspects of Early African
History," in Martin and O'Meara, 1986' p.72).
This view was also echoed by Curtin, et.al (1988):
For more than a century, scholars have noticed that many African states
have something in common. In many kingdoms the king was considered to be
sacred, to be king by divine law, to be endowed with supernatural power
either by the gift of the gods or by doctoring. In his household, queen
mothers and sisters of queens played a special ceremonial role. Matters
of etiquette and symbols associated with the court were often very
similar: the king could not see a large sheet of water or cross a
specific river. His feet could not touch the ground for fear the crops
would burn through his power. He could not see blood or dead people for
fear this might affect the fertility of women, animals, and the land. He
had to be physically without blemish, for he represented the fertility
of the land. If, for instance, the king of Rwanda bent his knees, the
country would collapse. If the king became ill he had to be smothered as
a sacrifice for the well-being of his land (Curtin, Philip et al.
African History. New York: Longman, 1988; p.30).
I have NEVER sought to whitewash traditional Africa or paint it as
"idyllic." Nor do I "romanticize" about it. Like it or not, traditional
Africa has not vanished for anyone to "romanticize" about it. It still
exists and not likely to disappear, much as some African scholars wish
it to happen because they are "ashamed" to be identified with it. Like
other cultures, including American, traditional Africa has its strengths
and weaknesses but it has sustained Africans for centuries. Have we
bothered to ask what they (our ancestors) did right to enable their
traditional structures to survive that long whilst the modern structures
we, with all our "education", established in the post colonial period
are collapsing all over the place?
African kings, chiefs, village meetings, village markets are still
there. I quote newspaper stories to demonstrate this fact. The objective
of my study is to understand traditional Africa, not glorify it. The
vast majority of Africa's peasants live in the traditional and informal
sectors. These people still go about their daily activities using
ancient institutions and practices. You cannot develop these sectors if
you do not understand how they operate.
The mistake we, African intellectuals, often make is to look at these
traditional systems through Western-educated lens. This was the case of
Kissi, who recently went to his village to attend his father's funeral.
Finding certain cultural practices offensive (extorting money and
drinks, Schnapps), he dismissed the Akan system is "despotic" and, by
extension, the entire African traditional system. He even suggested that
the despotic post-colonial systems may owe their origins from the
traditional system. This is a little ridiculous.
Moses wrote that, "the major African states which were the repositories
of MOST of Africa's populations practiced different degrees of despotism
founded on different kinds of monarchy, chieftaincy, weak or strong
one-man rules, etc. Dahomey, Borno, Zulu, Asante, Oyo, Hausa States,
Sokoto Caliphate, Bunyoro, Buganda, Kongo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali,
Songhai, Lozi, Zanzibar, Benin, etc." This is FALSE.
It seems the term, "despotism," is being bandied about without being
properly understood. A despot is a political figure who wields ABSOLUTE
power and authority. He rules by decree or whim and anyone who
displeases him PERSONALLY is swiftly and brutally punished. His whim is
the law, enforced by a brutally repressive coercive apparatus. He is not
accountable to anyone but himself. None of these characteristics fits
what we know of traditional Africa. I will make one categorical
statement: Traditional African rulers were no despots. To prove this, it
is important to distinguish between village government, which is at the
lowest level, and government within the greater polity - empire,
kingdom, and the state. What we know of the larger polities are these:
1. Most were confederacies - Ghana, Mali, Songhai, etc. Only few such as
Dahomey, Zulu, and Asante had very centralized systems. Confederacies
were marked by great DECENTRALIZATION of power and DEVOLUTION of
authority. Despotism cannot exist in a confederation because the
constituents would always break away.
2. African monarchs played little or no political role. Their function
was super-natural - to ensure harmony, peace and order by propitiating
the three gods (of the cosmos, the world and the earth). This was why
many of them were confined to their palaces. The Alafin of Oyo, for
example, could only venture out under the cover of darkness.
3. The existence of checks and balances in the traditional political
system. A despot recognizes no checks or balances.
Although despotism was always a theoretical possibility, these features
of traditional African political systems ruled it out in practice. The
King has no political role and power is decentralized in confederal
systems. Even if an African ruler wanted to, he would have a hard time
being a despot for the simple reason that he lacked the technological
means to keep his subjects at the farthest reach of his polity under
tight control. He did not have a standing army (most traditional African
societies didn't), the technological reach (through the media, for
example) nor the means of population control. Africans who did not want
to live under a despotic ruler could always vote with their feet and
there was nothing the despot could do to stop them.
In subsequent postings, I will spell out the indigenous curbs against
despotism and also show kings or chiefs who acted autocratically were
removed from office.