We need a different view of African history
As Marcus Garvey said – a people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots.
When we think of African history, we usually think of kingdoms and Empires. In one sense, this has been a necessary response to lies that we have been told by non-Africans. They have told us that we did not have any so-called civilisation. This is of course false, and it has been important to debunk this myth. Many of our fine scholars such as the Senegalese Cheikh Anta Diop have done amazing work in this area. Please, if you haven’t already read any of his books, do so. One example is “The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality?” The fact is that existence of kingdoms goes back several thousands of years in Africa and some of the very earliest recorded states on Earth were in Africa, specifically in the Nile Valley.
However, by focusing so much on kingdoms – I think that we have swallowed another, more subtle kind of lie. This is the idea that societies with centralised and hierarchical political power structures – such as monarchies – are more advanced and noble than those with decentralised, horizontal power structures.
What is a State?
To explain what I mean, we have to first recognise that a kingdom or monarchy is a form of a state. A state can be defined as an organised group of people who have power over the rest of the people in a given geographic area, and who can use violence to enforce that power. States are by their nature hierarchical, with power over many people concentrated in the hands of a few people. Monarchies, Liberal Democracies, Dictatorships are all forms of states – the main difference between them is that different elites hold the power over the many. In all cases, you have a permanent, centralised and top-down power structure which can inflict violence over its subjects. So when we’re talking about a kingdom, we’re talking about a state.
In the dominant European mindset, societies which have a state are more advanced than those that do not. I think this is because that mindset worships power and domination. It believes that humans should exploit one another, as well as other beings and natural phenomena that we share this planet with. When people with this mindset look at so-called stateless people, they see backwardness.
Evolutionary View of Human History
Behind this notion is a evolutionary view of human history, whereby all human societies go through the same series of stages, with each successive stage becoming more advanced than the previous one, allegedly. The existence of a state is seen as a marker of progress along this alleged upward path. You can see how this idea lends itself perfectly as a justification for some nations to dominate others. This view takes the experience of European peoples and assumes it to be the universal norm, and then judges other peoples according to this supposed universal. In other words, it says, “well, this is what happened in Europe, so it must be the norm for all societies everywhere.”
Focussing on the economic aspect of this evolutionary view, Walter Rodney in his book How Europe Undeveloped Africa notes that “the sequence of modes of production noted in Europe were not reproduced in Africa. In Africa, after the communal stage and there was no epoch of slavery arising out of internal evolution. Nor was there a mode of production which was the replica of European feudalism.” In other words, the European experience does not apply to Africa.
At the dawn of European colonisation, many African nations had states. But as Rodney illustrates, a large number of African nations (perhaps the majority) did not have states. If we have the Eurocentric mindset, we might be embarrassed about this. But I think we should be very proud of this. Next I’ll sketch some of the common features of these decentralised African societies.
Sam Bah and I.E. Igariwey in their book African Anarchism: The History of a Movement tell us that these societies were and are based on communalism, and they outline what they believe are the core elements of African Communalism, namely;
“different communities are almost completely independent, and are self-governing and every individual without exception takes part, either directly or indirectly, in the running of community affairs at all levels... the absence of classes, that is, social stratification; the absence of exploitative or antagonistic social relations; the existence of equal access to land and other elements of production; equality at the level of distribution of social produce; and the fact that strong family and kinship ties form(ed) the basis of social life in African communal societies. “
The absence of social stratification on class lines is vital to stress. Walter Rodney states that “Those peoples … had no machinery of government coercion and no concept of a political unit wider than the family or the village. After all, if there is no class stratification in a society, it follows that there is no state because the state arose as an instrument to be used by a particular class to control the rest of society in its own interests.” I’m just going to repeat that last point there: ” if there is no class stratification in a society, it follows that there is no state because the state arose as an instrument to be used by a particular class to control the rest of society in its own interests.” As impressive as kingdoms like Kemet and Kush, Axum and Ghana, Kongo and Borno may have been, they existed because of the need for one group of people, or class, to control the rest of the people.
Bah and Igariwey write that “Political organization under communalism was horizontal in structure, characterized by a high level of diffusion of functions and power. Political leadership, not authority, prevailed, and leadership was not founded on imposition, coercion, or centralization; it arose out of a common consensus or a mutually felt need.
Leadership developed on the basis of family and kinship ties woven around the elders… Elders presided at meetings and at the settlement of disputes, but hardly in the sense of superiors; their position did not confer the far-reaching sociopolitical authority associated with the modern state system, or with feudal states.
There was a pronounced sense of equality among all members of the community. Leadership focused on the interests of the group rather than [the] authority over its members. Invariably, the elders shared work with the rest of the community and received more or less the same share or value of total social produce as everyone else, often through tribute and redistributive mechanisms…”
I’m sure you’ll agree that these are some impressive sounding characteristics. But, obviously this isn’t to argue that such societies are, or were, idyllic. In any society there will be cleavages and discord sometimes. For example, I know that many people will point to male-female relations and argue that women in most if not all of these societies were and are oppressed. Suffice to say, I am not trying to argue that communalistic societies are perfect.
I also think that it’s important to not have a dichotomous view of things. I’m sure that many of the features we have outlined have been prevalent in African societies which did form states. I am not suggesting that any and all states in Africa were horrendous. The key point in sharing these descriptions is to alert us to the need to pay closer attention to those many African nations who did not have states. This is important both in the interests of having a fuller understanding of our African heritage, and also because we might be able to learn some things that we can put into practice in our lives today. I’ll speak more on that latter point toward the end of this talk.
Stateless doesn’t mean primitive
Now, some of you will be thinking that this all sounds nice and lovely. But surely these stateless peoples must have been less “developed” in the material things? Walter Rodney discusses this and states that “In some ways, too much importance is attached to the growth of political states. It was in Europe that the nation state reached an advanced stage, and Europeans tended to use the presence or absence of well-organised polities as a measure of ‘civilisation’. That is not entirely justified, because in Africa there were small political units which had relatively advanced material and non-material cultures. For instance, neither the Ibo people of Nigeria or the Kikuyu of Kenya ever produced large centralised governments in their traditional setting. But both had sophisticated systems of political rule based on clans and (in the case of the Ibo) on religious oracles and ‘Secret Societies’. Both of them were efficient agriculturalists and iron workers, and the Ibo were manufacturing brass and bronze items ever since the 9th century A.D., if not earlier.”
And with regard to cities, we should pay attention to the ancient city of Djenne-Djeno in what is now Mali. The existence of this ancient city had previously been dismissed by both Arab and Europeans explorers, probably because it debunked their view of Black Africans as being savage people lacking the accoutrements of so-called “civilisation,” such as cities. Archaeological work has established that the Djenne-Djeno settlement began about 250 B.C.E. Its herding and fishing inhabitants were already using iron implements, and the village grew to urban size by 400 C.E., reaching its peak of settlement by about 900 C.E. I will quote from an archaeologist called Roderick Mackintosh who has been closely involved in excavations of the area over the past 35 years:
“we have no hard evidence of a state-like, top-down, elite-driven political engine powering this kind of urbanism through time. We find no indications of kings, citadels, palaces, or, indeed, any obvious elites. The political and economic organization… seems heterarchical. That is, one identifies separate, if sometimes overlapping, domains of authority, all functioning in an interactive field, not a vertical hierarchy of kings and subjects and unidirectional flows of information.”
Why are some societies stateless
An important question to ask ourselves is why do some peoples not develop states? As mentioned, the traditional Eurocentric answer would be that these peoples are somehow deficient compared to other peoples who did develop states. But I would like to suggest that perhaps we need to give these “stateless” people more credit. In many cases, I think that a bit of investigation would show that many of these people would have had direct contact and experience in states and that they subsequently developed ways of making sure that prevent the rise of centralised, top-down power structures developing among them.
Among the decentralised African are the Nuer in Southern Sudan and the Luo of Kenya and Tanzania and Uganda. These groups are called Nilotic people. And they most likely migrated south into their present-day areas from areas covered by Kushite and post-Kushite kingdoms such as Axum, Markuria, Nobatia and Alodia. The Ewe people currently in Ghana and Togo are another decentralised people. They have a tradition that they ended up where they are now because they were fleeing from a tyrannical ruler, sometime in the 1600s CE. I think there is a good chance that many of these decentralised, stateless societies are stateless by design. They were not ignorant of what a state was because they’d experienced them first hand. But they deliberately eschewed state formation.
At this point I’d like to quote a passage from book called Worshipping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation by an American writer called Peter Gerderloos. This passage helps to challenge us to re-think our view of the development of states in human societies. He writes:
“The question of how and why states were formed is the keystone of Western civilization’s creation mythology. Most readers will share my experience of having been brought up in a society where history begins with the appearance of the State. Anything outside its domain is a Dark Age, terra incognita, a savage and barbarian land. We are taught that communities created the hierarchical structures of territorial governance that would eventually solidify as states out of a need to organize more efficiently, to respond to natural disasters or population growth, to administer large-scale infrastructure, to defend against hostile outsiders, to protect individual rights through a social contract, or to regulate economic production and surplus value. All of these hypotheses are demonstrably false, yet we are continually indoctrinated to accept them, to keep us from grasping the predatory, parasitic, elitist, and completely unnecessary nature of the State..
“ The available data demonstrate the universality of resistance to state formation, the predominance of failed states over successful states, the parasitical and coercive nature of states, and the existence of stateless societies with high population densities, a capacity for defensive warfare, complex infrastructure, and other presumed instigators or products of state formation.”
Why this matters
I think this is a crucial subject for us to consider as Pabafrucabusts particularly when we are thinking about what a united Africa could look like. Do we simply want an African version of the European Union? Do we want 50+ individual states all controlling their respective peoples, and then the elites of these states coming together to work out how best to serve their common statist interests? Or do we want to create a system whereby power remains firmly located with the masses of the people?
Secondly and perhaps more directly relevantly – I think that an appreciation of these decentralised African societies can be useful for us in planning our liberation today wherever we are. A big problem with our liberation movements is that we are too focused on leaders. In politics, we valorise the likes of Marcus Garvey, Queen Nzingha, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, because they were great leaders. But here’s the thing, any movements which depend so heavily on certain remarkable individuals is doomed to fail. All an enemy needs to do is cut off the head and the body will run around aimlessly like a slaughtered fowl.
Hierarchical structures are much easier to co-opt and control. All you need to do is corrupt the leader(s) and the group will be yours. This is why the colonialists would often install chiefs or elevate people to become chiefs. One of their main jobs was to administer forced labour for colonial projects. We need to develop organisations which spread power and decision making as widely as possible. This will make it much harder for our movements to be cooped.
I think that focusing on special leaders all the time has the effect of dulling the people’s political maturity. We need to organise on the basis that everyone is expected to take part, to have their say and to engage in political discussions. Everyone needs to take responsibility for making decisions. We can no longer afford to delegate our Liberation to profession and experts.
In conclusion, let me say this has very much been an introductory conversation. As you can see, there are so many avenues for further research that we can go down. In future, I want to do more in-depth study into these so called stateless societies. I want to learn more about how they are structured, how they organised to defend themselves, how some of them developed sophisticated art and culture in a par with societies with states. And I want to look at organisations and movements in Africa and around the world which have used decentralised structures.
To keep up to date on my research into these areas make sure that you subscribe to the AfricansArise YouTube channel. And also if you’d like to help to bring these kinds of in-depth conversations and studies to the web, then please consider becoming a patron of AfricansArise just to patreon.com/africansarise. Any support that you give would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next time.