More important, the traditional system of governance was inclusive. In Senegal, slaves could send the representatives to the king’s court. There was also foreign representation: The kings and chiefs of Angola and Asante, for example, allowed European merchants to send their representatives to their courts. Many empires in pre-colonial Africaâ€”Ghana, Mali, Songhaiâ€”were confederacies, characterized by decentralization of power and devolution of authority.
But much of this knowledge, as Mr. Soyinka rightly complains, has been hidden. Myths about Africa came to replace these truths, and the problem was compounded by the failure on all sides to distinguish between form and substance. The institutions of democracy, free markets, money, marriage, justice, can take many forms. Just because there were no ballot boxes or supermarkets or white-wigged judges in pre-colonial African villages doesn’t mean Africans had no conception of those institutions. African tribal cultures aren’t in conflict with the Western; only the forms of institutions are different.
In fact, there is one area where the two share exactly the same political philosophy. Both see the state as a necessary evil. The American founding fathers chose to deal with this particular threat constitutionally by limiting the powers of the state. Africans found two unique ways to accomplish the same. The first was to abolish the state altogether and dispense with centralized authority. Such acephalous, or stateless, societies included the Ga, the Igbo, the Gikuyu, the Somali and the Tallensi. These tribes have no chiefs or kings and took the concept of freedom to its most radical limit.
Other tribes chose to have states and centralized authority but surrounded them with councils upon councils to prevent them from abusing their powers. Such kings had no political powers; their role was spiritual or supernatural (to mediate among the cosmological elements). For this role, they were mostly secluded in their palaces and kept their royal fingers out of people’s business. The Yoruba Oona, for example, could only venture out of his palace under the cover of darkness. Such indigenous democratic forms were eroded during the colonial age and decimated in the post-colonial one.
So what makes up Africa’s soul? Tolerance, consensus-building, inclusion, restorative justice, decentralization of power, free village markets and free enterprise. The gods are angry because Africa’s soul has been denigrated and trashed. As Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe warn us, Africa is doomed unless her rulers discover her soul. Without this knowledge, we cannot traverse the path to development. An African proverb says, “He who does not know where he came from does not know where he is going.”
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