Government and Political Systems

The political systems of most African nations are based on forms of government put in place by colonial authorities during the era of European rule. Because these governmental institutions reject the indigenous political systems on which African society was built, they have generally failed to bring political stability. Many local and regional governments borrow from indigenous systems, but national political structures rely primarily on European models.

Africa: Government and Political Systems


Four basic types of indigenous government developed in Africa: huntergatherer bands, small-scale villagers and pastoralists, chieftaincies, and states. These classifications are based on the structure of leadership, population, and economic organization.

Hunter-Gatherer Bands

The earliest form of indigenous government in Africa arose among HUNTING AND GATHERING groups before the domestication of animals or the beginnings of agriculture. Once widespread, hunter-gatherers now number less than 100,000 people scattered around Africa.

Groups of hunter-gatherers are located primarily in the Congo River basin, the KALAHARI DESERT, and in areas of northern TANZANIA and western KENYA. These bands range in size from about a dozen individuals to perhaps 100 people. Band size depends on environmental factors, such as available food supplies, the season of the year, knowledge of the landscape, and access to waterholes and game. Social factors, such as conflicts between members of the group and relations with other groups, also affect the size of the band.

Hunter-gatherer bands are highly egalitarian. That is, they believe that each group member should have equal political, social, and economic rights. As a result, such bands lack strong central authority and rarely have a dominant chief who makes decisions for the group.

Leaders may be chosen to direct certain activities, such as hunting, ritual performances, or settling disputes. The basis for such leadership varies from one group to the next and may involve age, gender, personal skills, or the rights to territory. The emphasis on egalitarian principles and the fact that bands break up regularly for a variety of reasons tend to limit these patterns of leadership.

Long-established bands may have a headman who leads discussions about important issues. Even headmen tend to have limited authority, though, and their position depends on the success of their decisions. The headman often consults with respected elders and skilled younger members of the band to make decisions, settle disputes, and organize group activities. Rules and laws are quite flexible in hunter-gatherer society. Crimes such as theft are typically settled on a case-by-case basis. The punishment is measured to suit the crime and not determined by a set code of laws or conduct.

Small Scale Villagers and Pastoralists

The development of farming and pastoralism in Africa abound 4500 B.C. led to the development of new forms of social organization and government. Settled agriculture produced small independent villages in which the people lived near farm fields and livestock pastures. Such settlements are still common throughout Africa today. They range in size from perhaps 25 to several thousand people, averaging about 300 to 500 residents. When the population becomes too great for the land to support, members of the group leave to form new villages.

Individuals or families in small village or pastoral communities typically inherit the right of access to certain lands or herds of livestock. For the group to survive, succeeding generations of families must continue to have access to these assets. To ensure this continuity the community needs organized institutions of government.

African villages are often divided into two main groups: the founders and their descendants and those who joined the village later. The founding families generally own land close to the village and have higher status in society and access to political offices. Newcomers have lower status, less political power, and land that is farther from the village.

Villages are led by a headman chosen by respected elders who assist him and serve as a court to enforce community laws. Age, gender, KINSHIP, political skill, personal success, and household membership play a role in the choice of headman. Although the position is usually hereditary, other political offices are open to all village members, within certain limits of age and gender.

In addition to the headman, villages usually have a village priest who serves as a link to the local spirits. Like the headman, the priest is responsible for the well-being of the community. Among his most important duties are performing rituals to avoid natural disasters, diagnosing the cause of misfortunes, and punishing wrongdoing. Other village officials include various leaders responsible for particular activities, such as hunting.

Each village household also has a head. The larger the household, the greater the political and economic power of its head. Institutions such as polygamy increase the size of households and the power of their heads. Household heads also encourage kin to take on slaves and clients—people bound by a relationship of mutual obligations—as ways to increase household size. Of course, households divide as older members die and younger members leave to start households of their own. Sometimes a household breaks up voluntarily, and the new units form a political alliance that helps to increase the power of the group.

Communal rights and responsibilities are important in African village and pastoral groups. Because of the complex social organization of these groups, each member must adjust his or her actions and desires to the needs of the group as a whole. Although personal factors may play a role in determining leadership, even a very successful individual must abide by the established rules for assigning positions of authority.

A variation of the village form of political organization is a segmentary system, in which clans or kinship groups maintain relations with one another across a wide region. Segmentary systems allow different groups to cooperate while maintaining separate identities and power structures. Cooperation may take the form of shared rituals or activities such as hunting, or it may involve fighting together against a common enemy. Members of segmentary systems can also share resources, allowing some of them to expand into less desirable areas. This gives them an advantage when competing for resources with settled village groups.

Another type of political organization, found mainly among pastoralists, is the age-set system. In this system people of a similar age belong to an “age set” that has responsibilities for specific activities. For example, young people of a certain age set often tend cattle, while older males, depending upon age, commonly adopt the roles of warrior, decision-maker, or elder. The same group of individuals typically move through age set grades together, occupying similar roles as they enter each new level. In some societies each age set forms its own separate village or group. Like segmentary systems, age-set systems often allow for alliances across groups, under a single leader if necessary.


A chieftaincy forms when a local chief or headman is recognized as leader by the heads of other groups. This high chief heads a council of leaders, including rivals for his own position as a group headman. His main duties involve coordinating relations among the various groups, rather than merely leading his own village. His role might include performing rituals, sponsoring public works, and conducting relations with foreign groups. Often lower-ranking chiefs send tribute in the form of food or other goods needed for the large gatherings of people around the high chief. In return, the high chief distributes trade goods, luxury items, and weapons to the lower chiefs and directs resources to needy members of the different groups.

Chieftaincies typically grow by assimilation. This means that when a new group joins the chieftaincy—either voluntarily or by force—it adopts the language, culture, and customs of the chieftaincy. The common culture helps to unify the group. Other forces, however, tend to break chieftaincies apart. One is the emphasis on social and political hierarchy and on inheritance of rank. Village leaders and their close relatives hold most offices, creating rivalries among the various heirs.

This sometimes leads to conflict and to the breakup of a group into factions of the descendants of various rivals. The strength of a chieftaincy, therefore, depends on its ability to develop a common culture and to provide effective leadership among different groups.


A state is a centralized political structure with a permanent bureaucracy, a capital town, and a ruler who exercises control over a large area. In earlier times the head of most states was a hereditary ruler who claimed descent from a recognized dynasty.

States emerged in Africa at a very early date. Ancient EGYPT, for example, arose around 3500 B.C. AKSUM, a state in what is now ETHIOPIA, was founded about 500 B.C. The Arab invasions that began in the A.D. 600s brought centralized state structures to all of North Africa by about 1100. The number of African states grew steadily after that time.

The rise of most states was linked to control over resources or trademigration, or a reaction to conflict with neighboring groups. When dealing with such issues became too difficult for kin-based political systems, nonkinship groups banded together and centralized states were formed. Trade was probably the most important issue in relations between states. Much of the revenue for a state came from government control over long-distance trade through the state’s territory. The need for trade revenue led state governments to form alliances with neighboring states—or to fight with them—to keep trade routes open.

The early African state was organized hierarchically. Headed by a monarch—usually a king but sometimes a queen—it consisted of a council of nobles that gave advice on policy and carried out the monarch’s decisions. The monarch served as a symbol of the state, and his abilities, health, and sacred status represented the society as a whole.

Between the monarch and the people were layers of officials who were responsible for seeing that the state ran efficiently. They collected taxes and ensured that troops were available for military campaigns. In most cases these officials could come from any ethnic group. This tied the various peoples of the state more firmly together and helped limit ethnic strife.

The state’s power extended beyond the capital town to surrounding territories, usually under the control of nobles and local leaders. Because the outlying lands were potential sources of rebellion, the state created links between the central authority and local officials. In the kingdom of Buganda, for example, the monarch married women from each of the leading families in the outer territories, which gave each of these families a chance to provide an heir to the throne. Because of their involvement in the state’s future leadership, the territories were much less likely to rebel against its authority.


The European powers that colonized Africa weakened or, in some cases, destroyed the indigenous political systems that existed prior to their arrival. In their place they set up governments that reflected European political structures and institutions. Colonial authorities also introduced ideas of leadership and control that were foreign to Africa. The ways in which Africans assimilated and reshaped the colonial legacy produced problems for African societies and nations after independence.

Colonial Ideas of Leadership and Control

In general, European forms of government place an emphasis on the independence of individuals within society. In Africa, by contrast, the individual is seen as part of a larger community, such as kin, ethnic group, or village. Also, Westerners tend to judge political leaders by such qualities as personal character, statesmanship, and political skill, and they expect leaders to safeguard individual rights and privileges. Africans, however, tend to judge leaders on how well they reflect the communities they represent and how they can best serve those communities.

One expression of this difference is the way each society considers the relationship between wealth and power. In Western nations an individual who uses public office for private gain is considered corrupt or at least is viewed unfavorably. In Africa, power and wealth are related, and politics is seen as an avenue to economic control. It may not matter if an individual enriches himself while in office, as long as he also redistributes wealth and resources to the people he represents. Even though many European colonial officials were honest, few used their control over resources to help the African populations they governed.

Another feature of colonial governments was that they were not politically accountable to the African peoples they ruled. Colonial governments included institutions such as courts and local councils that promised an equal voice and equal justice to all people. In practice, though, the needs and desires of the colonial officials and settlers always took priority over those of the indigenous population. Policies were enforced by military power if necessary, and Africans got the message that “might makes right.” The existence of democratic institutions provided no guarantee of fair treatment, and this tradition was carried over to African states after independence.

Postcolonial Crisis

The leaders of newly independent African nations inherited foreign political systems and instruments of force to support them. For the most part, these leaders focused on consolidating power and building the nation rather than establishing democratic traditions in their countries. Many leaders maintained power by redistributing resources to important clients, who then passed along benefits to others. In this way national leaders exercised a form of political responsibility that was acceptable to the majority of the people.

As Africa’s economic situation deteriorated in the 1970s, these relations began to break down. Leaders who could no longer redistribute resources to maintain their power turned increasingly to the use of violence and force. As a result, many Africans lost faith in their leaders and governments, and order soon broke down. In many places military rulers and other strongmen seized and held power at gunpoint.

In recent years Western governments and lending institutions have demanded that African leaders be held politically accountable in order to receive badly needed capital. This has led, in many countries, to the establishment of multiparty democracies and the end of single-party or single-person rule. This change, however, has not always brought greater responsibility on the part of those in power. Eventually, it will be up to Africans themselves to hold their leaders accountable for their actions. Whether this means a continuation of Western forms of government or the adoption of more “Africanized” political structures remains to be seen. (See also Class Structure and Caste, Colonialism in AfricaGlobal Politics and Africa, Kings and Kingship, Laws and Legal Systems, Neocolonialism, Tribalism.)