Hereditary Succession and Political Instability

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Hereditary Succession and Political Instability


Rules of Succession. Some West African kingdoms and empires had elaborate rules governing succession to the throne. Hereditary succession was quite common. In maternal societies, where descent was traced through the

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male line on the mother’s side, the king was succeeded by a nephew, not his son. It was also common to choose the successor from among the direct descendants of the founder of the dynasty. In some places where hereditary succession was not recognized, the ruler was selected by a council of kingmakers. In other kingdoms, the next ruler was determined by a rotational system among two or several royal lineages. Some rulers were chosen on the basis of their physical vigor and leadership potential. In other cases, a proven record of achievement in war or other important activities was a criterion for selection. Strength of moral character was highly prized as a prerequisite for leadership.

Succession Disputes. Disputes over succession were particularly intense after the death of a founding emperor or king. In such cases, where the lines of succession were not yet clearly delineated or understood, arguments frequently arose among the founder’s children or other relatives. Quite often, a breakdown in a line of succession led to usurpation or a coup d’état. If the battle for power among the ruler’s descendants became particularly fierce, an outsider, such as a military commander, might dismiss all the contenders and make himself the ruler, in many cases creating a new ruling dynasty.

Abdication. A drastic sanction against the ruler was to force him to abdicate the throne. Even powerful leaders—

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such as Askia Muhammad I (Askia the Great), who ruled the Songhai Empire in 1493-1528—were not exempted from this sort of treatment. Despite Muhammad’s genius in war and administration, he was forced, by his son Musa, to abdicate the throne. By 1528 Muhammad had become old and feeble and had lost his eyesight. He was exiled to a desolate island. Musa was assassinated three years after visiting such dishonor on his father.

Dynastic Struggles. When lines of succession were not clearly delineated or rulers were weak, divided loyalties and political intrigues were quite common, and intense power struggles were the result. Political rivalry at the center of an empire had major political consequences all the way to its fringes. In fact, dynasties were sometimes the first part of an empire to disintegrate when power at the center began to wane. Quarrels among contenders to the throne gave tributary states a chance to break away from their political overlords. Even when such breakaway attempts did not succeed, they could seriously weaken the power and authority of a ruling group. For example, in the Mali Empire, disputes over succession between the descendants of Mansa Musa (ruled 1312-1337) and the descendants of Musa’s brother Mansa Sulaiman (ruled 1341-1360) led to the breakaway of Songhai and Wolof. In other cases, trouble at the center encouraged tributary states to launch daring military raids on the declining empire. The Mossi made several such raids against Mali as quarrels over succession ravaged the empire. Political dissent at the center also gave powerful rival states an opportunity to initiate military aggression that challenged the hegemony of the troubled empire and sometimes created a new imperial power.

Breaking Up Empires. Even when succession disputes did not lead to the total collapse of an empire, they weakened it and inhibited its capacity to enforce its will on outlying territories. Tributary states were always seeking ways of regaining their freedom, and each time an opportunity presented itself, they did not hesitate to try to regain their lost sovereignty. When a major empire collapsed—like Ghana after 1076, Mali in 1468, and Songhai in 1591— tributary states sought to restore their independence. At the same time, however, a new potentate could attempt to

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reconstitute the empire by forcing former tributary states to return to the fold. Some tributary states such as the Susu later rose to military prominence and formed their own empires by defeating their former imperial overlords. Such reversal of fortune was common in West Africa.

Political Instability. Overall, empires introduced political stability, which facilitated trade, diplomacy, and economic development. Large political systems could use their economic and military supremacy to maintain law and order. Nonetheless, the demise of a large empire created insecurity, poverty, disorder, disasters, violence, and general chaos and lawlessness. Vacuums created by the downfall of such political systems did not remain long unfilled.

Women and Politics. While women were not entirely excluded from politics, active participation in the public affairs of many West African states was largely the province of men. In several parts of the region, however, certain political institutions were reserved exclusively for women. For example, the queen mother was extremely powerful in Benin, Ashanti, and several other states. In Benin, she had the responsibility of grooming the successor to the oba (king). Nevertheless, to discourage her from meddling in palace politics, tradition required her to live several miles away from the capital city. In Bornu, women such as the king’s mother, his wife, or a senior female relative such as his sister had important positions. Like their male counterparts in the nobility, they were given fiefs to administer. Among their responsibilities as fief holders were raising militia for the king, collecting taxes for the king and themselves, and hearing appeals from lower courts.


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