By George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D.
Despotism and dictatorship did not exist in traditional African political schemes. In fact, the famous British economist, the late Lord Peter Bauer, noted this in his book, "Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in Economics of Development" where he wrote, "Despotism and kleptocracy do not inhere in the nature of African cultures or in the African character." Stateless societies such as the Somali, Igbo, and Tiv—which are characterized by the rejection of any centralized authority or “government”—did not have leaders who could be despots or dictators. Rather, these political systems stressed customary law and emphasized justice, or the establishment of justice, as the ruling principle.
In chiefdoms such as the Fante, Mossi, Shona, and Xhosa, the chief could not dictate policy or law independently. Without the assent of the council of elders—an independent body—the chief was powerless. In kingdoms, where the king often had little or no political role, much of his authority was delegated. Even the powerful Shaka, the Zulu, delegated his authority.
“The size of the state necessitated the delegation of authority. Heads of pre-existing chiefdoms, although ultimately subject to Shaka, retained a degree of autonomy. Some of these were allocated land and cattle by Shaka to ensure their loyalty. Shaka entrusted key advisory and executive roles to senior members of the ruling lineage, both men and women. And he appointed a large number of izinduna, state officials who performed various administrative functions,” Paul Maylam wrote in his book "A History of the African People of South Africa: From the Early Iron Age to the 1970s."
Africa’s stateless societies both baffled the colonialists and gave them their biggest headache. Building on their own experience, the colonialists had it in their head that every society must have a “leader,” but many ethnic groups, including the Somali, the Igbo, the Gikuyu, and the Tiv, had none. As a result, the colonialists created “leaders” or chiefs to lead what they perceived to be backward peoples, not realizing that those people had deliberately chosen to marginalize executive authority and, thus, were rather far more politically sophisticated. When Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, made a statement in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787 that people who live without government enjoy infinitely greater degree of freedom and happiness, could just as easily have been referring to stateless societies in traditional Africa.
The leaders created by the colonialists for stateless societies were called colonial or canton chiefs; in Somalia, they were referred to as akils. In British colonial Africa, the policy of “indirect rule” required ruling through the existing local rulers. This policy conferred upon chiefs' and kings' powers and authority, such as the execution of colonial edicts and the collection of taxes, that they had not had in their traditional systems. Feeling that they had the mighty colonial army behind them, many of these chiefs and kings became corrupt and autocratic.
One example was the Ga mantse. In the indigenous system, the mantse was only useful in times of warfare. He had no political authority or executive function and was never an integral part of the native government. However, European patronage emboldened a few obsequious Ga mantses to act autocratically. The incensed Ga people tried to dissuade the Europeans from dealing with such despots, but to no avail. In response, the Ga destooled (removed leaders from the stool that was the symbol of their authority) many of these "European" mantses. One was Mantse Obli Taki who was destooled in 1918 by his Labadi people,
"for a number of offenses, chief of which was the selling of Ga land in the name of the Ga people without consulting the owners of that land, and the pledging of the stool itself as security on a loan" M. J. Field wrote in "Social Organization of the Ga People. Accra: Government of the Gold Coast."
The Swazi Kingdom Today
King Mswati III is the most recent example of such a king. The Swazi Kingdom was formed in the early 19th century when Sobhuza I, head of the Dlamini clan, crossed the Lubombo Montains and conquered the resident clans. The kingdom is unique because it is a dual monarchy. The monarchy is built on a network of ties between the royal Nkosi Dlamini and commoners. The clans, over 70 in number, fall into four major grades. At the apex is the Nkosi Dlamini in which the lineage of the king, known as the Malangeni (Children of the Sun), is preeminent. The king, Ngwenyama, is the recognized lineal descendant of the first leader of the conquering Nkosi Dlamini. He performs executive, legislative, and judicial functions, holds land in trust for the Swazi nation and allocates its usage, performs sacred rituals, and is the symbol of national unity, according to Ronald T. Libby, author of "The Politics of Economic Power in Southern Africa."
Historically, the authority of the Swazi king was balanced by both Ndlovukazi (the queen mother), and two traditional institutions the Liqoqo (inner or family council) and Libandla (general council or council of the nation). The Liqoqo—a small group of 10 to 20 senior princes, important representatives of the queen mother's Nxumalo clan, senior chiefs from outside the Dlamini, and Nxumalo clans, and a few commoners of outstanding importance in the country. The Liqoqo functioned in much the same way as a modern day cabinet. Meeting informally, and some of its members were frequently consulted by the king.
The Libandla, by contrast, was “regarded as having binding authority on actions taken by the king on behalf of the Swazi nation. It [was] comprised of the Liqoqo members, all of the chiefs, their counselors, and all adult men in the country.
Although it normally me[t] only once a year, in principle its approval [was] required for all important new laws and decisions," Libby continued. That is, without the Libandla, the Swazi king could not make any law. The relationship between the king and his councilors is expressed in two frequently quoted axioms: "The king is king by the people" and "The king is ruled by his councilors."
Commoners participated in discussions with the king and their chiefs through regional forums called Tinkhundla. People could also voice their opinion through both the Liqoqo and the Libandla. No one was arrested for expressing a divergent opinion. In fact, the Libandla’s primary purpose was to reach consensus on most important issues. Once a decision was reached, neither the Liqoqo or the king could override it.
In the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, when the Swazi kingdom became a British protectorate in 1903, things began to change. In an effort to check the Boer expansionism during the war, Britain ruled the kingdom indirectly through the king, Sobhuza II and conferred enormous powers on him. In 1964, a constitution was imposed and the kingdom was required to hold democratic elections that same year and again in 1967. After independence in 1968, Sobhuza II resorted to the same chicanery as other African nationalist leaders who, having made democracy their rallying cry during the struggle against colonialism, changed their tune upon winning independence. Democracy, they claimed, was alien to Africa and proceeded to use their huge parliamentary majorities to outlaw the opposition, declare the countries to be one-party states and install themselves as presidents-for-life. They justified this insidious concentration of power in their hands as necessary to protect their fledgling nations against the machinations of neo-colonialism and imperialism.
In Swaziland, Sobhuza II jettisoned the British-crafted constitution that guaranteed individual rights and in 1973, dissolved parliament, and rid himself of the annoyance of political parties. Mswati III succeeded his father in 1986, and in 2005, promulgated a new constitution, a peculiar document that gave him absolute powers to appoint the prime minister and members of the governing cabinet and the judiciary. It was claimed that these changes were necessary to move away from the colonial model and revert to a reformed traditional system.
Recall that in the traditional system, the Swazi king had no political role. Through the annual ncwala ceremony, he mediated between the world of the living and the world of supernatural beings. Further, the little power that he had was checked by a whole slew of taboos and injunctions. Naturally, in “modernizing” the traditional system, the king got rid of all those taboos and encumbrances and, thereby, created a political system with no checks and balances–just like the other African nationalist leaders. While they banned opposition parties, Mswati III banned all political parties.
King Mswati abused this absolute power. On August 2, 2002, the Swazi government announced it was buying a $25 million luxury jet for the king, even though massive food shortages threatened an estimated 230,000 people with starvation. The cost of the plane was five times the impoverished nation’s national deficit.
People were outraged: “Why an aircraft for the king? The money spent for the king’s jet should have been used for buying food for the starving Swazis,” said Pat Dlamini, a civil servant in the capital, Mbabane. Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini said the jet was urgently needed to help the king attract foreign investment and international aid from abroad.
King Mswati III is often portrayed as the prototypical “traditional” ruler, his bad deeds emblematic of an unsophisticated and backwards political society. However, an examination of history reveals something altogether different. Rather than corruption and despotism being inherent to traditional rule, it is the undermining of traditional checks on executive authority by the colonial state that has left the population exposed to the whims of their despotic king. Moreover, by writing traditional checks, such as destooling, out of the political narrative of Africa, the colonial legacy has painted a false picture of African leadership. It is time to re-examine the traditional priority of executive accountability, and once again hold Africa’s leaders to task.
George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D., native of Ghana, is an economics professor, author, and president of the Free Africa Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.
This blog post is part of a two-part series. Read the parent article, "A Vulgar Caricature of an African King" here.