Before considering how pre-colonial African societies were anarchist in nature, we need a definition of this scary-sounding term “anarchism”. Colin Ward defines anarchism as “the name given to the idea that it is possible and desirable for society to organise itself without government.” [Anarchy in Action, p:19 – http://libcom.org/files/Ward_-_Anarchy_in_Action_3.pdf].
In chapter 2 of his phenomenal How Europe Undeveloped Africa (1973), Walter Rodney uses a Marxist-influenced approach to give an overview of the social-economic development of African societies prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. In doing so, he discuses the strong communal nature of African societies:
“[U]nder communalism there were no classes and there was equal access to land, and equality in distribution — at a low level of technology and production. Feudalism involved great inequality in distribution of land and social products. The landlord class and its bureaucracy controlled the state and used it as an instrument for oppressing peasants, serfs, slaves and even craftsmen and merchants. The movement from communalism to feudalism in every continent took several centuries, and in some instances the interruption of internal evolution never allowed the process to mature. In Africa, there is no doubt that the societies which eventually reached feudalism were extremely few.” [page 61 of the online version: http://abahlali.org/files/3295358-walter-rodney.pdf]
This absence of strong class antagonism prevented (or at least severely restricted) the growth of states in Africa:
“Scholars often distinguish between groups in Africa which had states and those which were ‘stateless’. Sometimes, the word stateless is carelessly or even abusively used; but it does describe those peoples who 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. Generally speaking, one can consider the stateless societies as among the older forms of socio-political organisation in Africa, while the large states represented an evolution away from communalism — sometimes to the point of feudalism.” [page 76-77 of the online version: http://abahlali.org/files/3295358-walter-rodney.pdf]
Mbah and Igariwey’s book “African Anarchism” (1997) builds on Rodney’s observations by pointing out that African societies were thus anarchistic:
“Feudalism did exist in some places, but as Rodney has demonstrated, “in Africa, there is no doubt that the societies which eventually reached feudalism were extremely few.” Consequently, some features of communalism continued to hold considerable sway in most African societies, as they do to this day under modern capitalist states. This demonstrates the ancient and tenacious roots of the communal way of life in Africa…
The manifestations of “anarchic elements” in African communalism, as we have seen above, were (and to some degree still are) pervasive. These include the palpable absence of hierarchical structures, governmental apparatuses, and the commodification of labor. To put this in positive terms, communal societies were (and are) largely self-managing, equalitarian and republican in nature.” [Full text here: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/sam-mbah-i-e-igariwey-african-anarchism-the-history-of-a-movement]
So the African states that we are so familiar with (and so identified with) have their roots almost entirely in European colonialism. Whether we are talking about the borders, the official languages, the political systems, the state machinery, the tax systems, the armies, the constitutions – pretty much every thing to do with African states are by-products of colonialism.
As an anarchist (i.e. someone who feels it is “possible and desirable for society to organise itself without government”), I am encouraged to know that I am merely returning to a key aspect of my recent historical legacy. This is especially so as my people, the Bagisu or Bamasaaba in Uganda, are a defiantly decentralised people with no kings, queens, or even paramount chiefs!
Sam Mbah discusses his book “African Anarchism”: