The Dishonourable Africans III : Leadership Practices in Pre-Colonial Africa

You might be wondering what is the relevance of the history of Europe to leadership problem in Africa. I think it is necessary to trace the problems of Africa as far back as we can in history if indeed we are sincere about finding solutions. The important reason for the brief excursion into the history of Europe flows from the realisation that Africa, as at today, has no original identity of its own. Since the Arabs and the Europeans came into Africa, the cultural values now in place are those imposed by these two races. There is nothing whatsoever indigenous anymore about the ways of life in Africa since Africans encountered the Arabs and the Europeans.

Most Africans, because of short memory resulting in the inability to look far back, have failed to realise that everything we now attribute to African way of life were cultural impositions from abroad. For example, the belief systems and the ensuing religious institutions, the most important spiritual commodity in the life of a people, have been exchanged for the imported beliefs and faiths brewed in the Middle East and packaged for export from Europe. It is on record that the foreign invaders ridiculed the age-long cultural institutions in Africa, which depicted and reflected the social, cultural, economic and political beliefs of the continent. The supremacist ideology of the foreign invaders categorically and recklessly denounced all the established cultures or ways of life in Africa as primitive, paganistic and evil. It is unfortunate that most Africans brought up under this ideology have grown up to repeat the supremacist foreign ideas and even have accepted the propaganda fashioned and circulated by the foreigners that there is nothing at all of benefit to mankind in Africa’s past.

The brainwashed Africans even agreed that we should bury and forget our cultural past because they have accepted it was a past marred in idolatry and evil. These are the issues, which informed the brief historical antecedents highlighted above. The realisation that all the philosophical beliefs, institutional frameworks and cultural organisations presently on the soil of Africa were either borrowed or imposed by foreigners stimulated this analysis. Having identified one of the foreigners as Europeans it was therefore necessary to review the history of leadership in Europe in order to understand the underlying philosophy of leadership practices in Africa.

Before the arrival of the Europeans and Arabs in Africa, most African societies defined leadership status by age. The social units within a community were distinguishable only by the order of age grades. For example, a collection of male children born in a particular year in a community form a band or club with an identifiable name or other symbol. The members of the age-grade club that grew up together formed strong bonds of friendship or fraternity that often stand them in good and bad times throughout their lifetimes. It was from among the various age bands that each club choose leaders to represent the interest of the club in the affairs of the community.

The selection of who shall lead in a particular age-grade comes naturally. Since members virtually live under each other’s shadows, it was easy to identify those with natural leadership qualities and dispositions. In addition, each community is divided into sections or quarters and are made up of units of families who and most likely are members of one extended family. Leadership within an extended family was naturally decided in favour of the most senior member in the clan or section.

Within a section or quarter or the entire community, the status that an individual member enjoyed apart from age depended on performance capabilities in a host of valuable skills necessary for the survival of the community. Skills like hunting, farming, artisanship, games, music, singing, dancing, oratory, good memory for oral history etc. could earn an individual a good standing within the community for leadership duties.

Every African society like every other society in the world naturally had some rudimentary knowledge or innate understanding of divinity. The African philosophy of life was rooted in the reality, which believes there is a power or force that governs creations. Africans had a sense that strongly believes that the power of life is never too far away. This awareness dictated the customary practice found amongst Africans to consult the power of life at times when they have to make important decisions. There was no other sensitive decision than the appointment or selection or election of a leader or of leaders in the community. Each society had well-established institutions for divine affairs. The priests, witchdoctors, medicine men, or women that tended to the affairs of the divine institutions were always available for such sacred duties.

These divine institutions made appointment and selection of leaders in a community credible because they would have consulted the governing deity or deities of the society before they confirm leadership status on anyone. There was a big element of trust in the love and power of the deities and in the men and women of the priesthood. For example, members of community were aware that to become a priest was not a career path anybody would normally choose; and they were aware that only the gods/deities call people into the priesthood. A priest therefore did not need to fear any member of the community but the deity that selected him or her into its service. It was therefore very easy for a priest to pronounce the truth on any matter as the supervisory deities of the community revealed them. Under this divine grace, the priests enjoyed a high social regard and respect. The pronouncements that the priests made when consulted on who should lead in a community were always accepted and remained binding on all concerned.

This was the serene social and political atmosphere in practice in Africa. Open community meetings were the norm and not the exception for decision-making. Every adult male member of the community had a right to participate and contribute to the deliberations and discussions on community affairs.5 The elders/chiefs of each of the composite extended family naturally constituted the supreme council or courts of arbitration, referencing and consultation on all matters of importance in the community. Among the elders were found the community historian, community encyclopaedia or library, the community sage or orator, community pharmacist or herbalist or medicine-man etc. who were always at hand to correct and check the exuberant excesses of younger members of the community on matters of tradition and custom. The age grade associations helped maintain a form of class differentiation. Deference to elders was a virtue expected of well-mannered young persons. Each child in a community was a child of every elder in the community. Each elder was a father/mother to every child in the community. Each member of a senior age grade was a sister/brother to every junior age grade.

This was the tradition that the Arabs and Europeans condemned to death and replaced with a monarchical type of leadership by imposition through a superior military force of occupation. The imposition of leaders threw away the traditional checks and balances within African communities that ensured only the most qualified and the most competent person attained leadership status. The process of leadership selection in Africa moved away from a conceptual frame that had faith in the demonstrated innate abilities and natural talents of its members to a new concept that puts faith in book intelligence. It was under the aegis of this new faith that the Arabs selected new leaders for Africa among the new converts that showed fast tendency to commit to memory verses of the Koran while the Europeans selected new leaders among those Africans who could learn and understand the European language. This historical development dictated that henceforth the selection of African political and economic leaders could only come from the pool of foreign trained and foreign educated Africans.

The local informal and seemingly unstructured traditional practices that served the purpose of education and training of the young persons were no longer good enough. Indeed, the missionaries conditioned Africans to believe that since they had no writing skills they could not transfer any knowledge to their wards. They condemned as pagan practices the historic ancient knowledge earlier passed down through religious ceremonies and the highly structured social and cultural customs. Neither of these two supremacist powers could see the sense and the wisdom behind all the elaborate ceremonies that accompanied birth, death, marriage, planting, harvesting, disaster, sickness and all other forms of cultural undertakings as a body of intellectual materials purposely wrapped and preserved in symbols. They could not understand the role of the medicine men/women, priests/priestesses and other local luminaries that formed the sacred and secret guilds for the protection of intellectual property rights of the communities.

It is true that superstitions, taboos and fear of the power of nature were effectively utilised by the sacred and secret guilds both as intellectual materials for teaching the society’s mores and as psychosocial tools to condition the psyche of the people into cultural obedience for political harmony. Yet, we could argue that this body of superstitious materials were indeed philosophical and pseudo-scientific materials compiled over the years by gifted and knowledgeable members of the society.

However, since it was customary and of course sensible to guard jealously the modus operandi of the superstitions, the local intellectuals naturally refuse to divulge the full meaning of the superstitious ceremonies and taboos established for driving off evil forces or for solving social, physical, spiritual and health problems. Because of the pragmatic attitudes of the local intellectuals for secrecy, which served the illusory need of social elevation and power acquisition (a typical psychosocial need of all Homo sapiens), the successive generations could not grasp the scientific underpinning and the political imperatives of the cultural ceremonies, rituals and fetishes of their societies.

The need to protect and preserve the intellectual property rights of the community progressively led to secret associations or cults or what we call professional organisations in modern language. It was an established tradition for cult members to undergo elaborate initiation ceremonies; to swear on oath to be loyal; and to give solemn promise never to divulge the secrets of the cult to non-members. This tendency for secrecy was one of the practical manifestations of the universal human nature that strives at all cost to guard jealously any advantage that gives power over other lesser persons. It is a demonstration of the innate psychological need for self worth among one’s peers and the yearning desires for social distinction, prestige and recognition in the society to which one belongs.

The development of the institution of priest and priestess seem to take a similar route in all societies. Often, it starts with the experience of a reflective and gifted individual who through rigorous application of the mind to issues that pertain to his/her environment became awakened into special knowledge and understanding of some issues of life. It is again an added advantage when the discovered knowledge solved some welfare problems of the society. The gifted individual who declared a new revelation to the society would naturally draw people or believers, particularly those that witnessed the efficacy of the declared truth. There is no gainsaying that the people would naturally accept this wise person during his/her lifetime as a worthy leader. Again, at his/her death a cult would likely evolve in his/her name to codify his/her habits and life styles into veritable rituals of faith and belief for others to emulate and follow. This is the process that created every known deity as well as every religious faith in the world.

As earlier mentioned, the European values, styles and manners of leadership have dominated the African political horizon since the arrival of Imperial Europe in Africa. It is on record that the Europeans met thriving social and political institutions when they arrived in Africa. They saw communities that had geographical boundaries. They found that African societies maintained a relatively peaceful cultural and political cohesiveness within an ethnic group. Although, the forms of political organisation vary from place to place but the institution of kings/chiefs was a common feature in West and East Africa.

Most communities were small but they were well organised around clan/tribal chiefs/kings who were equally assisted by councils of junior chiefs. These minor chiefs were directly responsible for the organisation of political, cultural and social affairs of their society. The African communities had respect for property rights on products and commodities that an individual produced from the soil. The community held land in trust under family titles but open its usage to every individual member of the community. There was no obsession among Africans to secure and acquire land by force and plunder as practiced in Europe under a conquest and rent culture. These were the brief historical facts on the socio-economic and political institutions of life in Africa before the arrival of Arabs and Europeans.


22 April 2001

(To be continued)


4. Chinua Achebe, The African Trilogy: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God. Great Britain: Picador 1988.

5. W.W. Macmillan, Africa Emergent (Revised and Expanded Edition). Great Britain: Penguin Books Limited, 1949