16 June 2014
Has the African continent always been synonymous with despots and dictatorial rule? Not according to George Ayittey. Prior to the modern colonial era the region was awash with communities that embraced customary law and justice as their guiding principles.
By George B.N. Ayittey for World Policy Institute
This article was originally published by World Policy Blog on 28 May 2014.
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.