African Politics

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African Politics

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Introduction

African societies today have two levels of political structures: the indigenous organization, which pertains to local groups, and the national government of the independent nation-states (Barrientos & Hulme, 2010). The relationship between the two levels is complex and has led to serious incompatibilities and conflicts.

It has become usual to classify the multitude of indigenous forms of African government into three main categories, conventionally known as bands, tribes, and kingdoms. Bands are relatively few and are limited to the societies with economies based on hunting and gathering, especially those of the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the foragers of the central African forests. Their economies require a low density of population and, therefore, its wide distribution over large areas, which inhibits permanent or large settlements. These bands are not found in total isolation but are interspersed with culturally different groups with distinct and complementary economies (Barrientos & Hulme, 2010). Essentially, the bands are large kinship groups under the authority of family elders and shamanic ritual leaders.

Tribes, a word less often used today than it was formerly because it is held to imply primitiveness, form the numerically largest political category. Tribes are larger and more settled than bands, but they still lack any overall form of centralized political authority. They have no kings and, in the past, usually had no formally appointed chiefs, although there have always been ritual leaders with some degree of political authority (Büscher, 2010). Most of these societies are based upon a structure of clans, which are segmented into subclans and lineages, often with three or four levels of segmentation. A clan or lineage is the basic unit of such a tribal organization, in which the tribe resembles a series of small, equal, and quasi-autonomous groups. The traditional sanctions for social order are ritual, feud, and warfare.

In the third type of indigenous political structure that of the kingdom or state political authority is centered on the office of a king (sometimes a queen), who is chosen from a royal clan and given sacred attributes by his or her subjects. Kingdoms range in population from a few thousand people to several million, and their rulers vary from being little more than ritual figureheads (as among the Shilluk of the southern Sudan, the prototype of James G. Frazer’s “divine” king) to military despots with powers of life and death (Büscher, 2010). These kingdoms may have arisen by conquest (as those of the Zulu or Swazi of southern Africa) or by combining into a federation of culturally related states (as those of the Asante or Ghana). The ruler may be regarded as a senior kinsman to his subjects, as a member of a socially senior royal clan, or as a member of an ethnically distinct autocracy (as in the forme.............


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