Kings and Kingship

Kings have ruled in Africa at least since the time of the pharaohs, the early Egyptian kings who came to power about 3000 B.C. EGYPT’s system of royal rule lasted for nearly 3,000 years. Other kingdoms developed in western North Africa and large areas south of the Sahara desert. Some African kings ruled up to 1 million people, as in the YORUBA and Benin kingdoms of Nigeria, the ASANTE kingdom of Ghana, and the ZULU, Sotho, and Swazi kingdoms of southern Africa. Although the rise of modern nation-states has diminished the power of Africa’s monarchs, the institution of kingship still holds meaning for many Africans. Kings remain living symbols of ethnic identity and history. Studies of African kingship by anthropologists have led to a greater understanding of monarchies everywhere.

Origins and Features of Kingship

Some early scholars of African kingship suggested that sub-Saharan Africa adopted the idea of monarchy from Egypt. But many others believe that cultures in sub-Saharan Africa invented the concept of kingship on their own. Monarchy may have developed from social systems based on patriarchy—that is, the authority of African kings may have been modeled on the authority of male heads of households and KINSHIP groups. Most royal rulers have been men, though women have ruled among a few peoples such as the Lovedu of southern Africa. Even where men have ruled, women have held considerable power in their roles as wives and mothers of kings. At times, women have governed as regents for kings who were too young to rule.

In some cases, outside powers did introduce kingship to African societies. In 204 B.C. the Romans made Masinissa, a North Africa chieftain, king of a region called Numidia. They allowed Masinissa and others to rule Numidia until 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar converted the kingdom into a province of the Roman Empire.

Some African kingdoms have covered large areas and included many people; others have been smaller, with only a few thousand subjects. Yet even the smaller kingdoms have been different from communities governed by chieftains. Kings have had a special role. They have not merely governed. They have embodied the nation, the people, their land, and their history. Their subjects have considered them sacred and viewed the institution of kingship as eternal. Individual kings might die, but the monarchy that upheld the state would continue.

Kingly Symbols and Powers

Africans have thought and spoken of their kings in terms that have reflected their environments and societies. They have viewed their kings as fathers to their nations or herdsmen to the national flock. They have seen them as fierce lions, leopards, or elephants protecting the state and overpowering its enemies. Kings have also been considered providers of rain, sources of fertility, masters of supernatural powers, and in some cases descendants of mysterious or divine conquerors.

Some cultures have associated kingship with powers both positive and negative, embracing all aspects of the universe. Kings have represented danger and destruction as well as fertility, lightning as well as rain, and animal predators as well as livestock. Rituals and magical medicines have played a significant part in maintaining and expanding kingly powers. Sometimes these special powers have been thought to come to kings when they have taken the throne. In other cases the medicines and rituals have been repeated regularly, often at seasonal occasions such as planting or harvest time.

Kingship and religion have been linked in North Africa since the arrival of the Islamic religion in the A.D. 600s. The Muslim kings, often called caliphs or emirs, presented themselves as the defenders and promoters of the true version of ISLAM. They governed as both the spiritual and political heads of their states. Kings held a similar position in the ancient Christian kingdom of ETHIOPIA.

African kingships have maintained their sense of continuity and immortality through various rituals and symbols. One of the rituals has involved visits to shrines of royal ancestors, often with the offering of sacrifices. Many sub-Saharan kingdoms, including Buganda in eastern Africa, Sakalava in Madagascar, and Lozi in Zambia, have had such shrines. Also important as a symbol of continuity has been a kingdom’s royal regalia—the clothing, jewelry, and adornments worn by the king during ceremonies or public appearances. Such regalia might be simple objects such as spears, bead necklaces, and wooden stools. Or it might consist of an immense treasury of sacred objects, such as the golden stool of the Asante or the ornate beaded crowns of the Yoruba rulers. Some royal treasuries have been filled with artworks and beautiful craft objects, many made of precious materials such as gold and ivory. These objects have served as earthly symbols of the king’s glory.

Kings have had the responsibility of representing and uniting all social groups within the kingdom—rival clans, city dwellers and country folk, the living and the dead, the nobles and the commoners, the free people and the slaves. Kings have stood above and apart from all groups, even from the royal relatives. However, kings have rarely pleased everyone and have often made enemies. As a result, they have frequently faced attacks from dissatisfied subjects, power-hungry relatives, and opponents within and outside the kingdom. The violent histories of many kingdoms, such as Zulu, Benin, and Buganda, show how dangerous it could be to be king, and how often a ruler’s grip on power has been loosened.

African kings have also faced problems related to kinship, marriage, and succession. As heads of royal kin groups, they have been expected to give wealth and privileges to their younger kin in return for support and loyalty. If royal relatives have grown too powerful or ambitious, they have sometimes tried to overthrow the king. Rulers have worked to avoid such situations by carefully balancing ties with the kingdom’s most powerful clans, often through marriage. Polygyny, the practice of taking multiple wives, has allowed kings to spread such ties across all regions, ethnic groups, and major clans within their realms.

Kings have had two general methods of dealing with the question of succession. Sometimes they have named their heirs or established a system of regular inheritance, in which the throne might go to the oldest son or to the firstborn son of the primary wife. This method has prevented conflict over the succession, but it has also disappointed and angered relatives and kin groups by cutting off their access to the throne. The other method has been to declare no heir and to let clan leaders or others choose a new king from among the many competing royal sons and relatives. This approach has often resulted in conflict and disorder upon the king’s death. Fratricide, the murder of brother by brother, has been a common feature of stormy royal politics.

Ambitious royal kin have posed one of the principal dangers to a king. African rulers have used two strategies for surrounding themselves with loyal supporters. Some, like the Ganda and the Zulu, have depended heavily on their mother’s relatives, who cannot inherit the throne in patrilineal kingdoms but can enjoy power and privilege as long as their son rules as king. The other method, used in the kingdom of Benin and Muslim states of western Africa, has been to appoint royal servants or even slaves as court officials or generals. These people, dependent on the king’s favor and unable to rule on their own, have generally made loyal and dependable deputies.

Kingship in Modern Africa

Some African kings, such as those of Benin and Buganda, have possessed great power. Some have been tyrants, who undermined the traditional powers of clans and royal officials, even massacring subjects to demonstrate their power. Other kings, such as those of the Shilluk and Anuak of southern Sudan and the Jukun of Nigeria, have held little political power but have been regarded as symbols of religious belief or group identity. They have reigned but have not really ruled.

Only two ruling kings of nations are left in Africa, those of LESOTHO and SWAZILAND. These southern African nations are constitutional monarchies—the kings are the official heads of state, but they follow the country’s laws as set forth in a constitution. People still honor the traditional kings of the Zulu, Asante, Yoruba, and Benin kingdoms. However, their kingdoms are part of other nations today, and the kings serve as symbols of history and ethnic identity but have no real political power. In spite of efforts by the modern nation-states to limit the influence of local ethnic groups, the remaining monarchs of Africa serve as rallying points for the people who identify as their subjects. (See also Government and Political Systems, History of Africa.)