Dr Alison J Ayers, is an associate professor in political science at SOAS, London. Her main interests include IPE, development and imperialism to name a few examples, with a specific focus on Africa. Ayers wrote this chapter – which is part of the book “Decolonizing International Relations” – to contribute to the recovery of African history by offering a non-imperialistic view of political systems and democracy in Ghana and Uganda. The aim is not necessarily to show evidence of advanced African political systems. Rather it defends, in an interesting and refreshing way, the idea that Africa has had their own types of political communities prior to colonisation.
The term imperialistic, used in her title, refers to a Western narrative of extending rule or authority over foreign countries, and in this case also refers to the European social philosophy assuming that African societies and cultures are non-democratic. The title of this chapter is a bit misleading, as Ayers only focuses on the political systems of two African countries during the nineteenth century. Which might be considered few to represent the entire Africa’s.
The fact Ayers’ wants to contribute to the recovery of African history, immediately emphasises the central theme in the argument she tries to dispel. The argument of Philosopher Hegel, claiming that Africa is excluded from history. Hegel, who looks at the ideas of freedom, reason, self-consciousness and recognition, argues that “what we properly understand of Africa is the unhistorical, undeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature…. only on the threshold of the worlds history”.
Ayers clearly disagrees with Hegel’s ideas, arguing that his philosophy of history is “an illicit claim to universality”. The term universality in this case has not much to do with, ‘worldliness’ or ‘generalness’, like you would think, and is therefore little self-explanatory.
Surprisingly, Ayers did not mention any other philosophers from Hegel’s period that agree or disagree with him. This makes it seem that she is blaming only Hegel for the fact that Africa’s current political systems is being seen by the world as a stage of development of the history of modern Europe.
According to Ayers’ research, before colonisation, Uganda and Ghana knew several political communities, of which some used a non-imperialistic form of democracy, and could be divided into three types of political systems:
1. Segmentary Political System: Ayers starts by describing two communities – the Iteso of Northern Uganda, and the Tallensi of Northern Ghana – with highly decentralized policies and bounded by kinship. She describes for example how the Iteso used consensus and how the Tallensi used ancestral rites to deal with issues and to mediate disputes. Although the amount of repetition is immense during her explanation of the ways of both communities, she has a strong argument claiming that some of the factors, like the absence of a law enforcement system and a statesman, are not a necessary factors to have an effective political system, like the Western ideology claims.
2. Centralised Polities System: Ayers continued to describe two kingdoms – Buganda and Bunyoro – in which authority was more territorial instead of kinship based. The territory of both kingdoms were ruled by a king with appointed territorial chiefs who were entitled to collect taxes and recruit labor for public work, without exploitation. Ayers did not describe very clear how king Kabaka dealt with decision making, mediating disputes and gender equality. She does mention however that access to land and natural resources were regulated as well as protection of crops, markets, long-distance trade and so on, which make these two examples a clear evidence of non-imperialistic political systems in Africa. Ayers also has a good point stating that even though Buganda nearly put an end to the kin-ship style of society, they still had communal land rights, until the British colonial rule.
3. Ayers ends by describing the Asante people of West Africa and their elaborate rule-based system of governance called the Nineteenth Century Conquest Polities. Ayers points out that, as every member of the community is represented, it had a truly democratic character, and next to that, their system was fairly gender balanced, as a ‘Queen Mother’ represented women’s interests and concerns. The Queen Mother surprisingly led their army against the British in 1900.
According to the view of European scholars these systems lacked the fundamental elements of establishing states, such as rules, order and a statesman. Ayers comes to the conclusion that in contrast to this view, there are African histories of political community and democracy. In her eyes, in the twenty first century, people are in the process of accepting that Africa is part of humanity, and therefore part of history.
Ayers gives the readers a different view of the development of history in political systems in Ghana and Uganda. Although the examples are very selective and she can be repetitive, Ayers points out very clearly that Africa is not on a neoliberal Western timeline towards democracy, but already had their own political systems before the colonization. She defends her ideas for example by showing that the Iteso of Northern Uganda were in no need of Statesmen to maintain social order, and the Tallensi of Northern Ghana could perfectly solve their issues without the need of a law enforcement system, both factors that according to the Western ideology are necessary to have an effective political system.
Compared to the detailed descriptions Ayers gave of the segmentary political systems, she avoids several questions about the centralized political systems and conquest policies. She did however make a point in claiming there existed political systems in Africa before colonisation, including ones with democratic aspects. Understanding that Africa’s interpretation of political systems relate much to their local culture, Ayers is convincing in her way of explaining that Africa is not halfway on a Western timeline to advanced democratic systems, but rather have their own timeline of their own types of political systems. This chapter offers food for anyone interested in reading about a variety of political systems that have had an influence by cultures different to the Western one.