Pre-colonial Africa

Before Africa was colonised, the continent was characterised by a large degree of pluralism and flexibility.

The continent consisted not of closed reproducing entities, equipped with unique unchanging cultures, but of more fluid units that would readily incorporate outsiders (even whites) into the community as long as they accepted its customs, and where the sense of obligation and solidarity went beyond that of the nuclear family.

An example of such inclusiveness were the Xhosa who limited Xhosadom not along ethnic or geographical lines but along political. All persons or groups who accepted the rule of the paramount chief became Xhosa.

Pre-colonial African societies were of a highly varied nature. They could be either stateless, state run or kingdoms, but most were founded on the principles of communalism in that they were self-governing, autonomous entities, and in that all members took part, directly or indirectly, in the daily running of the tribe. Land was held commonly and could not be bought or sold, although other things, such as cattle, were owned individually.

In those societies that were not stateless, the chiefs ran the daily affairs of the tribe together with one or more councils.These councils simultaneously informed the chief, checked his powers and made policy by reaching unanimous decisions. If unanimity was not reached, a village assembly would be called to debate the issue and majority ruling would now apply. The chief would listen silently to all queries during such meetings and every male adult was free to criticise him.

The role of the chief during such meetings was to sum up what had been said and attempt to form some consensus among the diverse opinions. Hence the chief did not rule or dictate but led by consensus. Many tribes, especially those that were stateless, had no central authority and no class system, and many of those that did could depose a chief that was thought to have abused his power.

An overarching feature of pre-colonial Africa was that its societies were not designed to be the all-powerful entities that they are today, hence the abundance of confederation-type societies. One reason for this was that the villages and tribes commonly owned the land, a fact that undermined the basis for a market economy and a landed aristocracy, another that there was an abundance of available land to which dissatisfied individuals or groups could move.

The creation of a market economy in Southern Africa was further undermined by the area lacking the regular markets and trade fairs that flourished elsewhere in Africa, as well as in medieval Europe, and thus the potential for continuous economic development.

In many parts of Africa, especially in the British colonies where indirect rule was the norm, the indigenous system of government survived and was used by the colonial powers alongside the colonial system. This is one of the reasons why the structures of such political institutions still exist in Africa today, although mostly in a more fixed and static form, due to the colonial powers having rearranged the tribal landscape and employed chiefs as virtual colonial administrators that served as buffers between themselves and the masses.

British indirect rule in countries such as South Africa thereby reduced chiefs to salaried officials, responsible to white magistrates, corrupted by the control of an unsympathetic white government. Where there were elements of participatory democracy and a lack of rigid ethnicity in pre-colonial Africa, these were less likely to be found in post-independence Africa where only Botswana built its society and government on indigenous institutions, and where the rigidities of colonial “invented tradition” and centralised government became dominant.

While pre-colonial indigenous African systems had many appealing qualities, something that has been widely advocated, if not practised, by many post-independence African leaders and Africanists generally, they have some obvious weaknesses when attempting to build a centralised state around them.

The fact that chieftaincy is mostly based on kinship, for instance, is problematic because of the exclusive nature of leadership that this entails, which is especially problematic in countries with ethnic antagonisms. Secondly, some of the customs of indigenous African society might have been effective in relatively smaller-scale societies but are less likely to be so in the larger states of present day Africa.

An example of this is that of consensus which in a large-scale modern African state would make the political process invariably slow, as well as prone to conformity and authoritarianism that could effectively silence dissent and result in uncontroversial and un-enlightened decisions. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in claiming that Africa’s pre-colonial peasant cultures had “oppressive reactionary tendencies” that were “only slightly less grave than the racist colonial culture” might be overstating the case, but he nevertheless strikes a chord.

It is therefore important to realize that the relevance and usefulness of traditional or pre-colonial African institutions and customs depend upon whether one views African culture, or any culture for that matter, as static, or whether African culture is deemed to have evolved and changed, to some extent because of outside influence and colonialism. Culture must be seen as dynamic, and pre-colonial African cultures seen to be historical manifestations that are relevant in their entirety only to that specific period of time. Otherwise, they are useless as sources of inspiration for contemporary societies.

western-sahara-flagRead about Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara, here and here.


szRead about Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Swaziland, here.


Read about the 2011 African uprisings that the press forgot here

37 Responses to Pre-colonial Africa

  1. Mueni says:

    I think by stating that some african societies as stateless is incorrect. African states were either, kingdoms, led by paramount chiefs or by council of elders from different clans meaning they had a political system, they had rules and regulations that had to be adhered to and had bounderies apart from nomad communities which thrived on understanding. In short they were states just not as they are defined today. Survival of african states in some countries may rely on federalist kind of government rather than a central government. A good example would be somalia and congo in which a central government would and has proved more divisive.

    • Eunice says:

      i think what the writer was trying to imply is that in as much as there were boundaries people were free to migrate and land was communally owned and not individually.

    • Jacob says:

      thats very true Mueni, but in pre-colonial africa migration was very rampant this was due to the harsh climates and diseases. but still this grooups were not stateless their had their goverment. even migration from one area to another had to be done a leader.

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  3. olivia says:

    very true!

  4. But how had africans fared under post-colonial african leadership as opposed to colonial leadership.

  5. faerhgnarsde says:

    I tend to think that African societies had the best forms of democracy in the world over .These systems could be researched on ,improved and applied in modern political leadership.

  6. Aiyegbeni Blessing omoze says:

    Africa was the cradle of civilization ,africa had the capacity for their own ecnomic and political organisation independent of any external intervention before colonialisation,infact Africa was well organised,the white race penetrated africa for their selfish reasons,they exploited our resources and made africa slave to them.whatever civilization,development that took place in africa was not as the result of colonialization.Africa is the best continent in the whole world.God Bless Africa,I am proud tobe an African

    • Whites didn’t make Africans become their slaves. West Africans, West Central Africans, and East African societies voluntarily sold their prisoners of war and also ended up in a vicious retaliatory cycle toward each other of slave raiding. To a lesser extent Africans also sold criminals and debtors, and Europeans and Arabs perform kidnappings. West Africans provided for the Trans Saharan and Atlantic slave trade, West Central Africans provided for the Atlantic slave trade, Southeast Africans provided a lesser extent for the Atlantic slave trade but very much so for the colonial South African slave trade, East Africans provided for the Arab slave trade.

  7. Nabatanzi joanita says:

    How did africans violate their own rights

  8. Olagbadegun Opeyemi says:

    Please enlarge this article by adding the socio-economic status of african states before the advent of the colonial masters

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  10. Ron Johnson says:

    “most were founded on the principles of communalism … all members took part, directly or indirectly, in the daily running of the tribe”

    This sounds great and all, but do you have any sources to back up your assertions. (AKA, why should we believe some random blogger on the Internet?)

    • Hi Ron. Thanks for the comment.
      Here are some references for the two assertions you refer to:
      – Sam Mbah et al, “African anarchism – the history of a movement”, See Sharp Press 1997, chapter 3
      – Charles Feinstein, “An economic history of South Africa”, Cambridge University Press, 2005, page 18

      And here are some of the other references that I have based the chapter on:
      – Preben Kaarsholm et al, “Inventions and boundaries: historical and anthropological approaches to the study of ethnicity and nationalism”, IDS, Roskilde University, 1994
      – Leonard Thomson, “A history of South Africa”, Yale University Press, 1990, page 11-29 and 76-78
      – George Ayittey, “Africa Betrayed”, MacMillan, 1992, page 12, 38-46, 325
      – Nelson Mandela, “Long walk to freedom”, Abacus, 1997, page 4, 24-25
      – Ngugi wa Thiongo’o, “Detained”, Heinemann, 1981, page 106
      – James Cypher et al, “The proces of economic development”, Routledge 1995, page 195-196

  11. Ndamase C says:

    Ron probably believed that his grandfathers brought such political systems in Africa. typical of his kind.

  12. mellanie says:

    post colonial open up the minds Africans

    • Marvellous Gabriel says:

      No the colonial period open up the mind of Africans in the colonial era in that it now dawn on them that the sole aim of these colonial masters was to sap and exploit the Africans of their endowed natural resources and such let to the agitation of independence but the Africans were just after the political independence and not the economic independence that’s why till today a reasonable numbers of multinational companies are still owned and ruled by the whites.
      Though it would be said that Africans agitated for both political and economic independence but if inwardly examined it will be seen that they were just after political independence and as such were not ready for independence in the sense that after been given the political liberation there did not know how to manage the power given to them which led to the the many crises in Africa Nigeria to be precise after independence.

  13. Pingback: These Maps of Africa before Colonisation will amuse you | Naijazeera

  14. Zanita says:

    I thought that maybe it would have something about the women and the way the europeon’s treated them

    • Tingo says:

      If only we could have learned how to not treat our own people by their example, rather we still enslave our people and attrocities abound.

  15. praise kawanzaruwa says:

    a useful piece of work however examples could have cemented your work well especially of those states where democratic elements were seen

  16. Mahamadou says:

    Can I have “The literature review” of the “Comparative study of African traditional society in the pre and post colonial period”. please

  17. Waheed Tunde Yusuf says:

    please can anybody give the brief or expand us about how the africa was before the colonization

  18. Kimani says:

    great work

  19. Your knowledge of precolonial Africa seems quite generic and unusually superficial. Genetically, culturally, and. linguistically precolonial and post colonial Africa was and yet remains the most diverse on the planet. Also I don’t get why do you broadly refer to precolonial African leaders as chiefs seen that it consisted of empires, kingdoms, and chiefdoms.

  20. Rhoda Quaicoe says:

    very educative! thank you very much

  21. Gutema chala says:


    • Ron Johnson says:

      1) historians are purposefully hiding the Truth of Pre-Colonial Africa for their own nefarious purposes, OR
      2) because there are few surviving written records in languages that modern historians understand.

      Apply Occam’s Razor and choose option #2.

  22. Archibald Manamike says:

    its comprehensive

    • Archibald Manamike says:

      but how can you compare the democracy in the pre-existance pre-colonial states and the west?
      i been going deep in this but still no clue but i been thinking that maybe i can find this one much appealing in the inter relations between the portugues and the mutapa, the british and the Ndebele

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