Constitutional Safeguards. Because of the legends glorifying their heroic deeds and far-reaching influence, Mansa Musa, Sundiata, Idris Alooma, and other political leaders of ancient West Africa tend to be remembered as all-powerful tyrants. In fact, the power of West African kings was usually held in check by a large number of safeguards, and many African states of the period were constitutional monarchies. The nobility and other social classes worked to ensure that rulers did not overstep their bounds. A king could not make major political decisions without consulting a ruling council or some similar political institution. For instance, the oba (king) of Benin could not make important decisions, such as promulgation of new laws or declaration of war, without involving councils of state such as the uzama (the seven hereditary chief’s whose duties included installing the oba), eghaevbo nogbe (the town chief’s in the oba’s cabinet), and the eghaevbo nore (the palace chief’s in the cabinet).
Checks on Power. Elaborate procedures were created as checks on the abuse of power. Taboos, such as preventing the king from owning private property or eating in public, were designed to hold the king under tight control. Part of the mystique of kingship in ancient Africa was the belief that the ruler was superhuman. He was not supposed to require human necessities such as eating and sleeping. Thus, the king should not have to amass public resources such as food for himself since he did not have to eat in the first place. In some places, traditions forbade rulers from leaving their kingdoms. Sanctions against an errant ruler included private and public admonitions, banishment, and outright removal from office. Among some West African communities, the ultimate sanction against a king who misruled his people was regicide. Among the Yorubas, the council of chief’s asked rulers who had abused their authority to “open the calabash” (that is, to commit suicide). In other places a bad ruler was subject to banishment. Some kingdoms held secret trials for rulers who had abused their power, and in some cases secret societies were established to act as unseen checks on the kings’ exercise of power. Among some other West African groups, mass migration from an oppressive ruler was a strategy against bad governance. This practice of abandoning an oppressive king is the source of the saying “No king can rule without the people.” The right of the citizens to secede from an oppressive political environment was also enshrined in the political systems of West Africa. Where it was necessary to stage a revolt against an autocratic ruler, the revolt was aimed at removing him from office and rarely against the entire political system. In other words, the people removed an errant ruler but kept the royal institution. Despite such elaborate systems of checks against the abuse of power, there were, however, some cases in which rulers became tyrannical.
Promotion of the Citizens’ Weil-Being. An important feature of leadership in ancient Africa was the understanding that a ruler was not in office to serve his private ends but to advance the collective interests and general welfare of the people. The king’s tenure was contingent on good governance. In some cases, if a king ruled well, he could rule for life. Poor leadership by the king delegitimized his rule and could subject him to forfeiting the kingship. It was clearly understood that obligations and responsibilities went with the ruler’s exercise of power and authority. Both rulers and citizens accepted the notion that the ruler was not above the law. One of the duties of rulers was the allocation of land and other resources. Any resources that were unallocated were held in trust by the ruler for the entire community. He could not appropriate them for himself.
Principles of Power. Several important principles undergirded the use of power in the ancient states of West Africa. First, rulers and citizens alike understood that citizens surrendered their power to the king, but that he held it in trust only. Thus, the authority wielded by the king was not his personal authority but the collective power and
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security of the people. Second, the purpose of giving power to the king was so that he could use it to advance the collective welfare and security of the community. The king’s power was not meant for advancing his private or personal interests. Third, legitimate power could be exercised only on the basis of the people’s consent, resulting in wide and extensive consultations among kings and citizens. Fourth, citizens reserved the right to take back their power from rulers who misused it. Thus, even though citizens made a conscious decision to surrender political power to the king, they had a right to participate in the making of public policies, and such right of popular participation could not be forfeited to the ruler. The principle of citizen participation in politics was widely enshrined. In some polities, the right to participate in public affairs was extended to all adults. In others, only adult males took part in public deliberations.
The Representative Principle. It was firmly established in West Africa that the people must have a voice on issues that touched their lives and material well-being. Ideally, each person would have been able to participate in public affairs and public choices that shaped his or her life. But geographical and other considerations did not always allow everyone to have direct participation in politics, and therefore the principle of representation was devised. Several types of representation were used. Sometimes representation was geographical; that is, a council of state was made up of members drawn from the political provinces of the state. Sometimes, age or gender was used as a basis of political representation, and often the principle of clan or family representation was used. Representation through a guild system was another method of political participation. The representative council usually arrived at decisions through a majority vote, but in many cases, strenuous efforts were made to reach a consensus decision. The principle of representation was also apparent in the manner through which a ruler was chosen. Typically, a body of kingmakers—whose membership was composed of regional, clan, or family representatives—selected their ruler from among several contestants. Members of the body of kingmakers were not themselves eligible for the kingship.
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Decentralization. In ancient Africa, power was generally decentralized and diffused. Power and authority were generally shared by three main institutions: the king and his cabinet or council, the council of elders, and the village assembly. The council of elders comprised heads of clans or lineages. The village assembly was often the highest decision-making group. Every adult had a right to participate in its deliberations. Some West African societies dispensed with the notion of hierarchical powers and recognized no rigid areas of authority. Others, particularly the major empires, had highly centralized political systems in which the king or emperor was extremely powerful. Power was sometimes decentralized on a territorial basis. It was common to divide an empire or kingdom into provinces, cantons, cities, and villages. For instance, ancient Ghana was divided into sixteen principalities. Kings or emperors appointed provincial governors and other high-ranking officials to administer these political subdivisions. Accountable to his ruler, an official sometimes lived in the political domain he administered, but in other cases he lived in the capital city and paid frequent visits to the area over which he had authority. While some officials were appointed to their posts by the ruling monarch, others ascended to their offices through hereditary rights. In places where the political system was decentralized on a territorial basis, local issues and administration were handled by district officials. In ancient West Africa, however, there were many autonomous communities that came under the jurisdiction of no centralized political structure. Some were loosely united by common languages or cultures, but the individual villages remained largely independent in political terms.
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