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Africa - State Formation

Toward the end of the first millennium AD, the formation of states began across central Chad in the sahelian zone between the desert and the savanna. For almost the next 1,000 years, these states, their relations with each other, and their effects on the peoples who lived in "stateless" societies along their peripheries dominated Chad's political history. Recent research suggests that indigenous Africans founded most of these states, not migrating Arabic-speaking groups, as was believed previously. Nonetheless, immigrants, Arabic-speaking or otherwise, played a significant role, along with Islam, in the formation and early evolution of these states.

Between about 800 and 1200 AD, partly in response to the new currents of trade, Africans in the southern sahel developed a set of trading states with an elaborate organization. Many of the courts and merchants converted to Islam, so that they soon became literate in Arabic — in the sense that at least a class of scribes could read and write. Of these states, the best known, from west to east, were Takrur in the Senegal Valley, Ghana in the sahel north of the middle Niger and middle Senegal, Songhai near the Niger bend, and Kanem near Lake Chad.

Still other states grew up farther south, away from the desert edge but in contact with desert-oriented trade. One of the most important was Mali, centered on the upper Niger River and sometimes ruling terri- tory right to the desert edge. Another set of city-states appeared in what is now northern Nigeria, where the Hausa language was and is still spoken. Still others lay to the south near the boundary between the open savanna and the tropical forest. Oyo, in present-day western Nigeria, was one of these, and the nearby kingdom of Benin lay in the forest itself and had access to the sea through the system of creeks and lagoons that stretched west-ward from the Niger delta.

But state formation in tropical Africa was not simply a reflex of developing external trade. Well before 1500 AD, a number of states had come into existence, that had no connection at all with the trade across the Sahara. Some, like the kingdom of Kongo near the mouth of the Congo or Zaire River, were in the savanna belt south of the tropical forest—well out of range of trade to the Mediterranean at any period before the Portuguese mariners appeared in the fifteenth century.

West African intertribal wars partook of the character of raids rather than invasions, and assumed the more serious aspect of persistent campaigns only after continued occupation or repeated incursions into the territory attacked. The beginning was made with reckless promptitude and unthinking haste, and upon this first venture depended the success or defeat of the impudent aggressor.

Most states began as kingdoms, in which the king was considered divine and endowed with temporal and spiritual powers. All states were militaristic (or they did not survive long), but none was able to expand far into southern Chad, where forests and the tsetse fly complicated the use of cavalry. Control over the trans-Saharan trade routes that passed through the region formed the economic basis of these kingdoms. Although many states rose and fell, the most important and durable of the empires were Kanem-Borno, Bagirmi, and Wadai, according to most written sources (mainly court chronicles and writings of Arab traders and travelers).

These kingdoms are not the only significant political units of Africa south of the Sahara, however, for such forest states as Oyo, Ife, and Dahomey and the kingdoms and empires of Darfur, Luba and Lunda were also historically important. So, too, were the kingdoms of the Baganda in eastern Africa and the Zulu, Lovedu and Swazi in southern Africa. These states were merely representative of the hundreds that at one time or another thrived in this region.

Stateless societies had no centralization of power; power was balanced between families. Disputes would be settled by the elders of the families. Many stateless societies were matrilineal meaning that heritage would be traced through the mother’s side of the family and men would marry into the wife's household. However, men usually were dominant and held authority.

Traditionally, the social structure in the Northern Region of Ghana was divided into chiefly and acephalous societies. The former have organized themselves around hereditary chieftaincy structures that have a hierarchy from lower level chiefs to divisional chiefs, paramount chiefs, and even some that are superior to paramount chiefs who acts like kings. Four ethnic groups, Dagombas, Nanumbas, Gonjas, and Mamprusis, organize themselves this way. The acephalous groups, such as the Konkombas, Nawuris, Basares, and Nchumurus, are segmentary societies that have not had hierarchical structures such as chiefs and chieftaincies. To a very large extent they are migratory yam farmers who settle on a land and till it until it becomes less fertile, at which time they move on to other areas where the land has lain fallow for some time.

When the British introduced indirect rule, the colonial government imposed dichotomous relations between ‘acephalous’ and ‘cephalous’ communities, which formally established structured inequalities in Ghana's Northern Region. The belief by Imperial Britain that modernization of Northern Ghana could be achieved by formalizing chiefly kingdoms in terms of realignments of settlements, intensified dissent and internal explosions between divisional chiefs and partly conquered groups, thereby inflaming passions and warfare. In other words, the colonial administration’s attempt to channel cultural evolution through selective reinterpretation and politicization of issues have led to contestations of indigenous inhabitants’ claim to the land by other groups and demands for representation in chiefly structures.

At the dawn of independence, African leaders inherited governmental structures which had been intended to preserve the colonial administrative legacy. These leaders were armed with Western Constitutions and ill-trained manpower to make provisions for the enlarged nation-state, now encompassing diverse ethnic groups with variegated interests.

The number of independent states has grown tremendously. Whereas there were 56 states in 1939, by the 1990s there were 172. Some of these new nation-states were old nations which re-emerged as independent states, but, in the majority of cases, they represented entirely new countries. These were nations ‘in the making’, since the new country was composed of many nationalities. Often the only thing they had in common was the fact that they had all been ruled by the same colonial power and had together opposed colonialism. Their attempts to bring about national unity and a national identity is referred to as nation-building.

African countries are characterized by fragmentation of various aspects of their political economy, including their institutions of governance. Large segments of the rural populations, the overwhelming majority in most African countries, continue to adhere principally to traditional institutions. The post-colonial State, on the other hand, essentially emulates western institutions of governance, which are often at odds with traditional African cultural values and the region’s contemporary socio-economic realities. Fragmentation of the institutions of governance, along with economic and social fragmentation, has contributed to Africa’s crisis of state-building, governance, and economic development.

The British policy of indirect rule served as the basis of local government administration in all her West African colonies. The policy was popularised by Lord Lugard who served as governor general of Nigeria between 1914 to 1919. After he left Nigeria Lugard described his theory of indirect rule in a book titled "The Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa" published in 1922 in which he said: "The British Empire.... has only one mission for liberty and self development on no standardised lines, so that all may feel that their interests and religion are safe under the British flag. Such liberty and self development can be best secured to the native population by leaving them free to manage their own affairs through their own rulers, proportionately to their degree of advancement, under the guidance of the British staff, and subject to the laws and policy of the administration".

The theory of indirect rule was aimed at governing colonised peoples through their chiefs and local institutions. A major difficulty the British had in administering her colonies in West Africa was that there were simply not enough English men prepared to serve as colonial administrators in that part of the empire. Indirect rule had the advantage of be cheap since traditional rulers were less expensive than British officials. For this reason Lugard, and other British Governors in West Africa, adopted the system for the administration of local government in the region.

A number of studies have affirmed the resiliency, legitimacy and relevance of African traditional institutions in the socio-cultural, economic and political lives of Africans, particularly in the rural areas. Juxtaposed with this is the sometimes parallel "modern State", vested with enormous authority in rule making, application, adjudication and enforcement. As Africa seeks to build and strengthen capable States, there is the need to recognize and address this "duality" fully.

Despite modest progress in some countries, the post-colonial State has been unable to establish rights-based political and economic systems of governance that would facilitate consolidation of state-building and promote economic development. To a large extent, this has been due to its detachment from the institutional and cultural values of its constituency. The prevailing state of poverty on the continent, the persistence of widespread ethnic and civil conflicts, and frequent electoral and post-electoral strife are some manifestations of the failure of the State.





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Page last modified: 16-03-2017 19:02:50 ZULU