Many folks from around the world have asked to know more about George Ayittey. For the benefits of those who rely on this Dialogue for information to teach and do research, I have been carrying some long articles. This is the minimum we owe others without access to information. In two parts, I will be excerpting a piece from Ayittey's book.
NOTE: The following is excerpted from Indigenous African Institutions. If you want to send excepts of your piece abroad through this medium, seek the permission of your publishers and send it to me for circulation. There is a small reward: a small commercial will be posted as in the following. All Ayittey's books are available at http://www.amazon.com.
[when school resumes, the volume of postings will reduce to let you all focus on other things]
Indigenous Curbs Against Despotism
In the eyes of the Gikuyu people, the submission to a despotic rule of
any particular man or a group, white or black, is the greatest
humiliation to mankind
-- Jomo Kenyatta, late president of Kenya.
Despotism and kleptocracy do not inhere in the nature of African
cultures or in the African character; but they are now rife in what was
once called British colonial Africa, notably West Africa.
-- The late Lord Peter Bauer (1984; p.104).
An intensive study of indigenous African political culture reveals an
obsessive fear, on the part of the African natives, of state tyranny. In
fact, most Africans considered the state as necessarily tyrannous and
consequently structured their political institution to provide an
effective bulwark against this threat. So fearful were such groups as
the Igbo and the Nuer that, rather than risk state tyranny, they elected
to dispense with a state or centralized bureaucracy altogether.
According to Yelpaala (1983), "the oral traditions of some of these
societies suggest quite clearly that decentralization was conscious and
designed to curb the concentration of power in any individual or
institution" (p.356). It was a useful check on the abuses or excess in
the use of centralized political power.
Centralized leadership roles were also impugned through derogatory oral
narratives and cast in negative paradigms. In such societies, when the
elders acted arbitrarily, they were shunned. If they persisted, a
village strike was called. When that failed to persuade the elders to
mend their ways, they were abandoned; their people just moved to a new
location to start a settlement.
1. Decentralization of Power, Devolution of Authority, Checks and
The burning fear of tyranny was also much evident even in those ethnic
groups which chose to constitute themselves into states. The evidence
for this is afforded by, first, their highly decentralized systems of
government; second, by the detailed devolution of authority and
assignment of responsibilities; and third, by the institution of a
complex system of checks and balances to curb autocracy. According to
"In general, the authority of a king is delegated to lesser rulers and
the civil service. The head of state is expected to consult a council,
and groups of people, each with their own sphere of influence or
jurisdiction. Age-sets, secret societies, religious authorities or
groups, and a number of interest or pressure groups help regulate or
control the power of the king. They are the watch-dogs, seeing that the
king does not exceed his power under customs and traditions (p.173).
Busia (1968) emphasized:
The Asante were careful to prevent their chief from becoming
tyrannical, and they developed a delicate balance between central
authority and regional autonomy. If the chief abused his power, his
subordinate chiefs, the members of his Council, could destool him. On
the other hand, if a subordinate chief or Councillor tried to become too
powerful, the chief could destool him. In each case, there were
constitutional procedures to protect the individuals concerned, and to
check against arbitrariness or vindictiveness (p.24).
Gluckman (1965) also observed:
"The Barotse (Central African Republic) are apparently terrified of
giving away power and always think of the dual pressures of the
ambivalence of power on an individual. If royalty be seated among
commoners to protect the people, its bearer may become puffed with power
and abuse of it. He cannot be checked by another prince, since princes
are in theory rivals for power; therefore when has a deputy who
restrains him and who acts in his absence...this deputy is drawn from
the ranks of those who interlink commoners and royalty...No one who has
studied or worked in any political system can fail to be impressed by
the Barotse's penetrating insight into relations of power.
Every position, according to Gluckman (1965), was balanced by another:
the king against his council, ranked members of the council against each
other or against their deputies. The leading executive official, the
state ngambela, also had his own ngambela: this deputy or "second" was a
councillor holding a permanent title who was specially charged, beyond
other councillors, with restraining the state ngambela (Davidson,
The Oyo Empire of the Niger Delta (Nigeria) also developed an elaborate
system of checks and balances to guard against despotism as may be
recalled from the previous chapter. The political system centered around
four powerful figures: the Alafin, the Bashorun, the Oluwo and the
Kankafo. Theoretically, all power came from Alafin who was considered
Next to the Alafin was the Bashorun, the leader of the Oyo Mesi or
Council of Notables, made up of seven prominent lineage chiefs of the
capital. Furthermore, the councillors held judicial power with the
Alafin in the capital. But the Alafin had no control over the
appointment of the councillors since, as chiefs, they were lineage
appointed. Thus the Bashorun, who dominated the Oyo Mesi, had an
ultimate check upon the Alafin.
The third power in the empire was the Ogboni headed by the Oluwo. The
Ogboni chiefs, like the Oyo Mesi, were lineage appointed. They also had
judicial functions, but their primary function was the preservation of
the Ife oracle which could accept or reject the Bashorun's decision to
command the Alafin's suicide. But the Alafin's representative sat on the
Ogboni council and his opinion carried considerable weight. Thus, he
could use this position to check ambitious Bashoruns.
The Kakanfo was the field marshal with his seventy war chiefs, the Eso,
who were expected to be loyal to the Alafin. The army was responsible to
the Oyo Mesi who appointed and promoted its officers. But wouldn't the
Kakanfo overthrow the Oyo Mesi and seize power? That was not possible,
according to Boahen and Webster (1970):
"Civil authority feared the potential power of the Kakanfo and in order
to isolate him from politics he was usually of humble (slave) origin and
was forbidden to enter the capital city. The political system was thus a
complex and delicate balance with checks and counterchecks against
concentration of power in one man's hands (p.90).
Among the Tutsi of Rwanda, political power was delicately balanced
between two constituent bodies to prevent abuse.
"Although the king was theoretically absolute, there were some
structural checks and controls on his power. Thus royal power was
somewhat limited by the pressures that the influential Nilotic
lineages often holding hereditary offices were able to exert on the
central government. The association within the royal institution itself,
of two equally assertive Tutsi groups, the royal nyiginya and
matridynastic patrician also kept a certain precarious balance (Gibbs,
The Oromo employed a different system of checks. According to Melbaa
"The chaffe is the Oromo version of parliament. The chaffe assembly was
held in the open air in a meadow under the odaa (sycamore) tree. The
chaffe made and declared common laws and was the source of accumulated
legal knowledge and customs. In the hierarchy of Gadaa chaffes, the
assembly of the entire presidium of the ruling Gadaa class is the
highest body whose decision is final. It is the assembly at which
representatives of the entire population come together, at predetermined
times, to evaluate, among other things, the work of those in power. If
those in power have failed to accomplish what is expected of them the
assembly has the power to replace them by another group elected from
among the same Gadaa class or Luba. And this was one of the methods of
checking and balancing political power in Oromo society (p.13
At the village level, most African chiefs are surrounded by councils
upon councils to prevent abuse of power. Without the Council of Elders,
the chief is powerless. He cannot pass any law. Nor can he change the
composition of the Council of Elders because their positions are
hereditary. Despotism is incompatible with a governance system that is
grounded in reaching a consensus.
Writing about the Bantu, Olivier (1969) best summed up its native system
"It is evident that the principle of free elections is unknown in Bantu
society; that the tribal chief (who usually owes his position to the
fact that he is the chief representative of the ruling clan) is neither
autocrat or despot, but is continuously assisted, in the exercise of his
various functions by advisory councils and by the people themselves;
that the tribal and territorial sub divisions effectively curb the
unitary power of the chief, and also form the basis of tribal government
and in addition ensure active participation on all levels of the
population in such government.
This system was not that much different from what obtained in the rest
of indigenous Africa. For example, summing up for the Ashanti, Busia
"Chiefship in Ashanti was based on the lineage system. Each lineage was
a political unit, and the lineage head represented it on the Council of
Elders. The chief was chosen from one of the lineages by (either a
queen-mother or) the heads of the other lineages. Kin-right and popular
selection were often combined.
The chief was bound by custom to act with the consent and on the
advice of his elders, who were themselves representatives of lineages,
and were subject to similar restraints from the members of their own
The chief was subject to checks from the elders, with whom he was
responsible for the administration of the Division (tribe). They formed
the Government. Public opinion and criticism were expressed by a loose
association of commoners, mmerante, through their leader, the
Nkwankwaahene, or through the elders (p.21).
2. Sanctioning an Errant Chief
Most traditional African political systems had in place constitutional
checks and balances to prevent a ruler from becoming tyrannical. But, of
course, dictatorial tendencies are always a possibility in a ruler.
Should a ruler exhibit such tendencies, there were four safeguards to
check this: The Oath of Office, religious sanctions, institutionalized
sanctions, and spontaneous peasant reaction.
Oath of Office
The ruler is made to swear an oath, a violation of which will result in
his removal from power. Here is an oath the Krontihene of the Brong
people of Ghana is made to swear. The Okyeame addresses the chief-elect
Konti, Akwamu, Bokoro, Konton, Asere, Kyidom, Benkum, Twafo, Adonten,
Nifa -- all the elders say that I should give you the Stool (throne). Do
not go after women. Do not become a drunkard. When we give you advice,
listen to it. Do not gamble. We do not want you to disclose the origin
of your subjects. We do not want you to abuse us. We do not want you to
be miserly; we do not want one who disregards advice; we do not want you
to regard us as fools; we do not want autocratic ways; we do not want
bullying; we do not like beating. Take the Stool. We bless the Stool and
give it to you. The Elders say they give the Stool to you (cited by
Busia, 1951; p.12).
The chief would be destooled (dethroned) if he broke any of the
quote-mentioned oaths or taboos; for example, cowardice, chasing women,
drunkenness, refusal to listen to advice or acting autocratically. The
elders then each in turn took the oath of allegiance to the chief.
Libation was poured. Rum and palm-wine (nsua-nsa) was passed around. The
chief was then carried shoulder-high and paraded through the town with
people following behind.
Religious Or Supernatural Sanctions
The office of chieftaincy was sacred. It was the repository of ancestral
spirits. Most Africans believed that when a person died his body decayed
but his soul remained and lived with the ancestors in the world of
spirits. The ancestral spirits watched the living constantly. They
rewarded good men and rulers but punished them with epidemics, calamity
and other catastrophes on the earth and ostracism of their souls after
death for wrongdoing. The fear of incurring the displeasure of the
ancestors by misrule checked chiefs and kings against becoming cruel and
inhumane toward their people. Thus, the chief could not oppress his
people and expect the blessing or cooperation of ancestral spirits. He
was supposed to be the guardian of his people, not their oppressor. The
African chief was expected to be humble toward his people but
belligerent toward rival tribes. It was very rare to see an African
chief shout at his people. That would be contrary to royal conduct laid
down by the ancestors.
Although the strength of this belief varied from tribe to tribe, it was
most deep-seated among the Akans of Ghana, the Yoruba of Nigeria, and
the Limba of Sierra Leone. "Thus the Limba, who did not have any custom
of deposing or killing a bad chief, relied on this belief as a sanction
against misrule. They believed that the ancestors would kill a bad chief
for them" (Amoah, 1988; p.178). Muslims also believed in retribution
from Allah against misrule.
Arhin (1985) noted that, "Among the Tallensi, the Dagomba and the Akan
peoples (all of Ghana), there was belief that powers felt but unseen by
normal human beings would punish those who misused the power or
authority that men reposed in them" (p.79). For the Tallensi, the most
important elements in their religion were the spirits of the Earth and
of the dead ancestors of the people. The tendaana was a priest of the
Shrine of the Earth and he had authority by virtue of that position. The
kpeem, or elder, head of the a family group, or the na'ab had authority
as the custodian of the family shrines, and of nam, power residing in
the relics or material symbols of authority handed down from the
ancestors. The spirits of the Earth and of the ancestors were the
guardians of the wellbeing of the living men and women. The custodians
of the shrines of the Earth and of the ancestors were their
interpreters. These spirits actively intervened in the affairs of men.
They could be pleased or displeased by the acts of men. They showed
their pleasure by granting the living plentiful fruits of the earth and
rain. When angered, they blighted the earth and withheld its fertility,
so that human life was endangered. When displeased, the ancestors
visited illness upon the living and, in extreme anger, they threatened
the extinction or disappearance, through death, of the wrongdoer and his
entire family. Authority-holders, as well as ordinary men and women,
were believed to be liable to retribution for offenses against the
Similarly for the Akan, both rulers and subjects were "watched" by the
various deities and spirits of the ancestors. Certain taboos and
prohibitions were laid down to avoid their displeasure.
"A ruler who committed a breach of the taboos was liable to both
supernatural and human sanctions. The gods might kill him before his
subjects could remove him from office. The oath the Akan ruler swore to
his people on his installation was believed to carry its own sanctions
(Arhin, 1985; p.79).
The Temne of Sierra Leone took their spiritual injunctions a step
further. The corpse of a bad chief was dragged along the ground and
mocked by those who hated him. By defiling the corpse, the Temne
believed they would prevent his soul from joining the spirits of the
ancestors. Most often, "that indignity of funeral ceremony acted as a
check on bad chiefs" (Amoah, 1988; p.178).
Most indigenous African communities institutionalized various checks
against tyranny and abuse of power by office-holders. Of these checks,
there were several.
Private and Public Admonitions
Dictatorial tendencies in a ruler always caused disaffection among the
people and brought shame to the royal lineage. A founding lineage member
might be provoked to replace the "dictator." As Busia (1968) observed:
"Those who elected (appointed) the chief also had the power to depose
him if he did not perform the duties of his office satisfactorily"
Before a despotic ruler was removed from office, most indigenous African
systems gave him ample opportunity to reform. Often, the ruler was
reminded of the oath he took upon assumption of power, in particular, to
"listen to advice" which stated the standard of conduct expected of him.
The advice was cautionary but with a hidden threat of removal in case of
lapses of behavior. In addition to the advice, the newly-elected ruler
was isolated for a number of days and given instructions on proper code
It was the duty of the Queen-Mother to scold and rebuke the ruler for
transgressions. If she failed in this duty, she herself could be
destooled. The next check was the inner or privy council of advisers.
These advisers gauged public opinion and passed the information on to
the chief. If the chief persisted in his despotic ways, the advisers
might abandon him. If this check also failed, there was a third, and the
most important, line of defense: the council of elders.
The council was the representative body of the commoners. Without this
council, the chief was powerless and could not make laws. Council
approval or unanimity was needed on all matters affecting the community.
The chief could not dismiss the councillors, since those offices were
hereditary and restricted to non royal lineages. In other words, the
chief could not use family ties to suborn the councillors. The officers
came from different lineages.
It may be recalled that, among the Akan peoples of Ghana, one of the
duties of the council was to act as a court for examining the conduct of
the head office-holder of the political unit.
If the examination showed him to have been only slightly at fault, the
members of the council warned him and reminded him of the rights and
duties attached to his position. If they found him grievously at fault,
they caused his destoolment (Arhin, 1985; p.19).
If the councillors failed in this duty, they themselves might be subject
to removal. If the chief overran the Council of Elders, the people
themselves would show their opposition to despotism.
The Akan provided their people with an opportunity to admonish their
rulers at certain festivals. For example, the Ashanti had the odwira
festival at which the ruler gave a public account of himself. The people
could express displeasure at his misrule by boos and hisses. In fact,
they could do more: take legal action against the oppressive ruler.
A ruler's subjects, acting through their representatives on the
council, could present grievances concerning lapses in his conduct. The
council would then constitute itself into a court and hold an enquiry
into these grievances. If found at fault in respect of any of the
grievances, the ruler would normally be cautioned, and he would have to
pay what the Akan call mpata, a pacification fee, which also served as a
mark that an enquiry had been held into the case and appropriate steps
taken. If it were found that the grievances were without factual basis,
and therefore frivolously presented, those presenting them would be
declared at fault, made to pacify the ruler and also to produce sheep
and drinks for the performance of religious ceremonies in order to
pacify the spirits.
Grievances generally related to a breach of one or the other of the
contents of the advice a ruler's council offered to him on enstoolment
(Arhin, 1985; p.81).
Prohibitions Against The Office Of Chieftaincy Or Kingship
Most indigenous African societies applied various restrictions or taboos
against the office of chieftaincy so that whoever occupied the "stool"
would act "properly." Of course, the restrictions varied from tribe to
tribe. In some tribes, the king was not to venture out of his palace
into town except under the cover of darkness. The king was never to
speak to his people directly, except through a linguist (okyeame as in
the case of the Akan). The Akan chief or king was forbidden to meet with
any foreigner except in the presence or company of a member of the
council of elders. The paramount chief was forbidden to see the burial
place of chiefs; two paramount chiefs could not shake hands nor should a
chief exchange clothes with another man or eat from the same dish with
Some of these injunctions were intended to enhance the sanctity of the
office. But there were others which were clearly designed to check
despotic tendencies and misuse of power. One that is of interest which
was adopted by many indigenous West African societies was the
prohibition against property holding. As Amoah (1988) explained,
"In some societies, especially the Akans of Ghana, the danger of a
ruler using his position to amass wealth for himself was obviated by the
custom that the king could not, except in a few circumstances, own any
personal property while he was in office. Everything that the ruler
acquired while he was in office, unless the elders knew that he was
acquiring it for himself and consented to it, automatically became stool
property. That ruled applied to the wives of the ruler as well. To make
the rule effective, the administration of stool funds and property was
put in the hands of the Sanaahene (treasurer). The ruler was debarred
from any close contact with the stool finances. He was neither permitted
to hold the scale used for weighing out gold dust nor to open the
leather bag in which the gold was kept (p.177).
While this prohibition is fascinating and akin to requiring an American
president to place his private holdings of stock in a "blind trust," it
may have contributed to the myth of communal ownership. When the Akan
said, "The chief does not own anything. Everything he owns belongs to
the stool" it was easy for Europeans to take that practice to imply
"communal ownership" rather than as an injunction against personal
Political Pressure From Various Groups And Associations
The Akans had a commoners' association whose leader was called the
Nkwankwaahene, which was not a hereditary position. Qualities for this
position were eloquence and bravery. Through him, the commoners
complained to the council of elders and forced the elders to consider
any representation he made on behalf of the commoners. "In this way, the
office of the Nkwankwaahene provided an effective channel for
expressions of popular criticisms against the ruler and his government.
It enabled the elders to take action against the ruler without being
charged with disloyalty or jealousy" (Amoah, 1988; p.175).
There were various other associations and commoner societies: for
example, asafo companies, age-grades, and secret societies. The asafo
companies of the Akans of Ghana were primarily warrior organizations of
the common people or the youth. They were often organized in the face of
external aggression to defend the chiefdom. But the asafo companies also
performed a number of social services such as road work, sanitation and
other duties that arose during annual festivals. They might refuse to
perform these services to show their displeasure at a tyrannical chief.
Moreover, they became an effective political force in the enstoolment
and destoolment of chiefs. "No chief would remain on the stool for long
if the asafo companies were united against him" (Amoah, 1988; p.176).
The age-grade system of the Igbo provided a variety of checks against
despotism. The age-grades were arranged in order of seniority. Members
of each age-grade stood together and acted together as one body in
public affairs. Each age-grade controlled the moral conduct of its
members. "If a member stole, for example, the rest of the age-grade
called on him to restore the stolen articles to the owner and to pay a
fine in kind to the grade" (Amoah, 1988; p.176).
These age-grades were ranked in an order of seniority. There were the
senior, intermediate and junior grades. Within the society as a whole,
the power, authority, rights and duties of each person depended on the
position of his age-grade in the hierarchy of the age-grade system.
Thus, the senior age-grade of the elders constituted the governing class
of the society, while a number of intermediate grades combined to act as
the executive organ of the government.
"Members of each grade jealously safeguarded their own status and the
correct relationship that should exist between their grade and those
subordinate and superordinate to theirs. The age-grade system,
therefore, provided an effective balance of power in the society
especially in those societies which had no centralized machinery for
political and administrative control like the pre-colonial Igbo
societies (Amoah, 1988; p.177).
Political checks were also applied against African chiefs by secret
societies. The African continent in the pre-colonial days was the home
of numerous such societies, many of which continued to exist even during
the colonial period. "One writer enumerated about 150 of such societies
in 1929" (Amoah, 1998; p.177). They were abolished in Nigeria in 1978.
Some were mystic societies, some patriotic and a few others were
subversive and criminal. For example,
"In order to gain admittance to the society of leopard-men of Cameroon
and Central Africa (Manja and Banda), the applicant had to kill a close
relative (mother, son, or first wife in preparation for a ritual
festivity. The members of this society, citing the need for vengeance as
their justification, abducted and murdered people who had been accused
of witchcraft. For these rituals they disguised themselves as leopards,
either wearing skins of that animal or tattooing their bodies with
colored mixtures in imitation of leopard skins. They walked on all
fours, touching the ground only with their toes, so as to make their
footprints resemble the leopard's, and they voiced similar cries. The
same atmosphere of tension and collective terror, leading to
self-destruction, prevailed in Zaire among the amiotes and leopard-men
of the northeast, by the Ubangui River, and, in the crisis of the 1930s,
in the Wamba and Bunia regions" (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1988; p.191).
Most secret societies, however, were founded to enforce, maintain and
teach tribal tradition, the custom and beliefs of their respective
ethnic groups. More importantly, they "could bring pressure to bear on
the rulers and restrain them from pursuing unpopular measures" (Amoah,
Olaniyan 1985) noted that,
"Exclusivist clubs, otherwise called secret societies, operated among
all the peoples of south-eastern Nigeria. The most prominent were the
Ekpe and Ekpo of the Cross River (Ekpe - leopard, Ekpo - ghost). The
clubs were graded, each grade having its peculiarities in dress, dance
and ritual. Admission and promotion into and within any club involved
elaborate ritual and monetary investment.
Among the Igbo the masquerade (Mmuo) clubs operated while the delta
and other riverine people used the Owu. Again membership was
The Ekpe or Ekpo was the supreme authority in the maintenance of
law and order. The societies/clubs were a form of insurance policy for
living members and a source of elaborate funeral ceremony for dead
members. The Ekong club added intelligence and security duties to those
of law and order (p.28).
Perhaps the best known of the secret societies were those of Sierra
Leone and Liberia. The principal secret societies of the people of
Sierra Leone were the poro, known largely among the Mende, Kono, Temne
and other chiefdoms near the coast; the gbangbe and doweh among the
Koranko in the north; the gbangbani among the Limba; the wunde of the
Kpa Mende and bundo, a female society in virtually every ethnic group.
Among the Vai of Liberia, the poro was known as the beri and the female
society was the bundu secret society. But they were all practically
identical in their organization and functions.
"Local village chiefs paid allegiance to a paramount chief. He,
however, had very little real power over the chiefdom unless the secret
societies were in agreement with their paramount chief's policies...For
the most part the main secret society for men, the poro, exerted its
power within a chiefdom. But on occasions the poro operated across
chiefdom boundaries, thereby linking territories which were politically
independent. Chiefs, on the other hand, could not influence events
outside their chiefdom by peaceful means as the poro could. And so
secret societies really had more say in public matters than paramount
chiefs" (Stride and Ifeka, 1971; p.227).
The name "poro" means "laws of the ancestors," implying the force of
supernatual authority of the ancestors to back up poro power. The poro
never had any formal central organization and operated through
independent local lodges. Each had a sacred spot in the bush where
initiation took place. Boys were taught native law and traditions,
singing, dancing and craft work. They were also hardened by sleeping out
in the open and by being put through rigorous tests to develop physical
"The poro society, like the sande for girls, taught boys how to behave
as responsible men; it handled the problem of initiating or guiding boys
into manhood. But the poro also had important functions in government of
a chiefdom. The society was divided into two grades of senior and junior
officials. It was the members of the senior `inner' council who really
controlled public affairs; these senior men bought their right to hold
senior positions in the poro. The inner council of the poro was the
paramount chief's executive body. This council also acted as a legal
tribunal which tried delinquents and criminals. In fact, such was the
legal standing of the poro that it, and it alone, tried certain cases
which involved important citizens" (Stride and Ifeka, 1971; p.229).
Though a secret society could not provide the basis for political unity,
it was politically useful. "For example, it upheld the authority of
rulers but at the same time helped checked the abuse of power by rulers"
(Boahen, 1986:99). The rulers were bound to observe moral and religious
laws laid down by the poro. Major decisions such as those of war and
peace were made by the secret societies, not by the rulers or their
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