Concepts of Democracy and Democratization inAfrica: Indigenous African Democracies

By Apollos O. Nwauwa

“Three heads are better than one” is a well-known maxim in Africa. Implicit in this adage are notions of democratic values and tradition predicated on people’s participation.

Several researchers have shown that in the period preceding colonial rule, Africans experimented with a variety of political organizations ranging from direct and representative democracy to various forms of monarchical and decentralized systems.

Many African indigenous governments were open and inclusive. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard pointed out that “the structure of an African state implies that kings and chiefs rule by consent” and that “ruler’s subjects are as fully aware of the duties he owes to them, as they are of the duties they owe to him, and are able to exert pressure to make him discharge these duties.”

Similarly, Ayittey has observed that in traditional African political arrangement, “No one was locked out of the decision-making process. One did not have to belong to one political party or family to participate in the process; even foreigners were allowed to participate.”

Recalling with nostalgia the virtues of the African indigenous political organization in the face of current leadership crisis, Ayittey has called for a return to that system.

Although Ayittey’s position is some what extreme (since political cultures are never static), he demonstrates clearly that traditional African societies were not devoid of democratic ideals.

The indigenous political system of the Igbo of south eastern Nigeria presents one of the most elaborate examples of direct and participatory democracy in traditional Africa. Apart from a few centralized polities such as Nri, Onitsha, Oguta, and Osomari that were monarchical systems, the Igbo operated as decentralized political organization. Although most Igbo political groups possessed no sole authority (paramount ruler), they “lacked no essential norms of government.”

For our present purpose, Victor Uchendu isolated two layers of political structure among the Igbo: the village and the village-group.The villages varied in size and population, and “Government at the village level is an exercise in direct democracy.” During general assembly, at this level, every male adult directly participated in the legislative and decision-making process pertaining to public affairs.

Uchendu presents a detailed account of how Igbo village democracy operated. This general assembly consisting of adult males is known as the Ama-ala or Oha, and the assembly ground may be in an open square as was the case in the earlier (precolonial and colonial era) or a permanent village hall as in the modern time.

During this gathering, public matters are brought up and every male attendee who wants to contribute to the debate (discussion) is entitled to a hearing. After thoroughly discussing the matter, the leaders from each line age within the village retire for izuzu (consultation). Participation in izuzu is highly imperative and treasured; it is restricted to men of substance, wit, and prestige who possess the wisdom to analyze all strands of thought and suggest a compromise that the Ama-ala would accept.

After the izuzu, a spokesman is selected, based on his “power of oratory, persuasive talents, and his ability to put the verdict in perspective,” to announce the verdict. This decision is either accepted by the Ama-ala by general acclamation or rejected outright, and in the event of the latter, the view of the assembly prevails by popular assent.

Women have their own assemblies, which follow the male pattern. This is because African social and political structure has never been a matter of men alone.

The very powerful political roles of African queens and queen mothers in the precolonial era remain very instructive.

European colonial officials and contemporary Western writers usually portrayed African women as having no role in political affairs. For Maillu, this erroneous notion about African women exhibited European “cultural male chauvinism” that was carried over to Africa.

Nevertheless, like ancient Greeks, the village system was analogous to the city-states as each village was “autonomous and ‘sovereign’ in most matters affecting it” and tolerated no interference or dictation from any other group.

At the village-group level, consisting of several villages, a representative system (more in the nature of modern representative democracy) evolved whereby each village elected or appointed its own delegate to the village-group assembly.