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STATELESS SOCIETIES: The Igbo, the Fulani, the Somali by Prof G.N Ayittey February 21, 2012

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“I am convinced that those societies [as the Indians] which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.”

 Thomas Jefferson in 1787.


“The most distinctive contribution of Africa to human history has been precisely in the civilized art of living reasonably peacefully without a state (or government).”

 Jean-Francois Bayart (1989; p.58).

________________________________________

When Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, made the statement in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787 that people who live without government enjoy infinitely greater degree of freedom and happiness, he was probably referring to stateless societies. “Government” is a necessary evil; it is the leader who can be dispensed with, as in stateless societies.

A stateless society or “non-state” would seem almost a contradiction in terms to Westerners, who may see the institution of the state as necessary to avoid tyranny, although recognizing that a “bad” state can impose tyranny. They see the absence of the state as a recipe for chaos. On the other hand, “Africans who live in stateless societies tend to see the state as unavoidable tyranny; they seek and find order in other institutions” (Bohannan, 1964; p.195). These societies pushed the concept of liberty to its most radical extreme and would fiercely fight any hint of tyranny. The Igbo of Nigeria mince no words with “Ezebuilo,” which means “a king is an enemy.” This uncompromising stance explains why the Igbo fought a war (Biafran war of 1967) to secede from Nigeria, rather than submit to tyranny. It also underlies the current chaos in Somalia.

Autocracy was always a theoretical possibility in government, a fact which concerned many ethnic societies. To guard against this, many elected not to have chiefs or any centralized authority at all. For example, “the Tiv of Nigeria were a people who lived in fear of power and were compelled to place themselves under the possessors of power for protection against its abuse by others” (Carlston, 1968:211).
Other stateless societies went a step further by institutionalizing a social habit of impugning or deriding centralized political authority through its oral narratives. Yelpaala (1987) noted that, through mythic, metaphorical and mimetic structures, leadership roles such as kings and chiefs in some stateless societies were cast in negative paradigms, while the ideal leadership was accented. To reinforce this cultural aversion to leadership roles, Igbo society also imposed such onerous obligations and religious restrictions on titleholders that their power was effectively neutralized or kept in line with notions of ideal leadership. The Dagaaba oral narratives are similarly replete with mythic and metaphorical images of kingship. “Kings and chiefs are often portrayed as unimaginative, unintelligent, lacking common sense, and likely to use brute force” (Yelpaala, 1983; p.357). Yelpaala concluded:

It is therefore obvious from the way societies like the Tiv, the central Igbo, and the Dagaaba were organized that they were well aware of the political structure of the centralized systems, but tried to eliminate them as much as possible. For instance, they recognized the tremendous advantage of centralized power during war and used a limited form of it only then. Leaders were given the power to command and carry out operations, but during peacetime, they became, like Cincinnatus, common people and ceased to exercise that power (p.357).

There is evidence to support the thesis that ecological factors and livelihood also played a role in the choice of political systems; especially among pastoralists. The nature of their livelihood made centralized systems of government unfeasible. To govern themselves, they formulated viable social systems with their own values, skills and wealth and successfully maintained their societies.

Organizational Structure

In stateless societies, two principles from their descent system permitted them to govern their affairs with minimum of administrative burden and tedium:
The first might be referred to as the structural regulation of internal affairs. A quarrel between members of two sublineages is an exclusive matter of the immediate parent lineage, and a dispute between two members of the same minimal lineage is of concern to that unit only. This principle tends to limit the arena of concern to the smallest relevant unit. However, despite the efficiency with which this limits relations, it tends to work against large-scale leadership.

The second principle from the descent system which influences organization in segmentary (stateless) societies is related to the political functions of the groups and might be referred to as the rule of political practicality. Political units must be viable in ways that lineages need not; as a result, considerations of size and contiguity, which are irrelevant to descent as such, are important to a political organization. For example, a political unit must defend itself, which implies a minimum size, and it must have internal cohesion, which implies both a maximum size and a local arena of such size that interaction is possible. Political units, thus, are perceived as though they were units of the lineage system, even though the organization does not coincide with the lineage system (Vaughan, 1986; p.177).

Accordingly, the maintenance of justice as well as of cultural and territorial integrity were effected through the extended family organizations and the invocation of kinship behavior, not only in domestic but wider spheres. This was characteristic of the hunting and pastoral peoples such as the !Kung, the Pygmies and the Fulani. But precautions were taken. A system of checks and balances was instituted in which two or more power centers were balanced against each other and applied in all levels of the community so that no single center predominated. There was a wide dispersion of this system across Africa, adopted by such ethnic societies as the Tiv and Igbo of Nigeria, the Nuer of Sudan, the Somali, and the Bedouin Arabs throughout North Africa. Both types generally used kinship idiom and the norms of kinship behavior in their system of law and order. In general there were no officeholders; only representatives of groups. Such societies reached compromises in conflict resolution rather than making judgments and applying sanctions.
Thus, in many acephalous societies, there was a clear separation between power (defined as the ability to influence events in a desired manner and direction) and authority (meaning the acknowledged or recognized right to exercise power). One did not necessarily flow from the other.

Political Organization

In stateless societies, there are only two units of government:

1. Council of Elders,

2. The Village Assembly

There is no leader and the maintenance of justice as well as of cultural and territorial integrity are effected through the extended family organizations and the invocation of kinship behavior, not only in domestic but wider spheres. A system of checks and balances is instituted in which two or more power centers are balanced against each other and applied in all levels of the community so that no single center predominates. There is a wide dispersion of this system across Africa, adopted by such ethnic societies as the Tiv and Igbo of Nigeria, the Nuer of Sudan, the Somali, and the Bedouin Arabs throughout North Africa. Such societies reached compromises in conflict resolution rather than making judgments and applying sanctions.

Thus, in many acephalous societies, there was a clear separation between power (defined as the ability to influence events in a desired manner and direction) and authority (meaning the acknowledged or recognized right to exercise power). One did not necessarily flow from the other. The colonialists had the most difficulty in dealing with this distinction in stateless societies. They sought leaders with “power” in such societies. Finding none, the colonialists then “created” them. But they lacked authority since they were not part of the kinship group and were treated as external representatives of an alien government. Within the ethnic group they had little legitimacy or authority and what little they had was considered tyrannous by the people under them. In fact, the Somalis mocked the titles which the British and Italian colonialists created for the officials of the first central government: “The president of the Somali Republic, for instance, was called madaxweyne, which literally means ‘big head’” (van Notten, 2006; p.82).

The Somalis pushed the concept of freedom to its most radical limit. They take orders from no one but their country has been in chaos since 1991. They have not had any effective government since they ousted the late dictator, General Said Barre. To Westerners, the chaos in that country reflects the turbulence in their own traditional society and their inability to establish a democratic order. But nothing could be farther than the truth on both counts. Traditional Somali society is peaceful. It is governed by customary laws, known as xeer, that come very close to natural law. Such societies are described as near-kritarchies. Democracy is incompatible with kritarchy; hence, the Somali have rabid contempt for “government,” which they dismiss as “waxan” (the thing). The chaos seen in Somalia is due not so much to their inability to establish a democratic order but their rejection of any attempt to impose a “waxan” on them. They will fight any such “thing” imposed on them by the political elites, the international community or Islamic extremists.

Near-kritarchies such as Somali society have one fundamental weakness, however. They are defenseless against a powerful external aggressor. As a result, the Somali found themselves cut up in five ways under colonial rule. Some found themselves in Ethiopia (Ogaden), Djibouti, Kenya, Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland. The same can be said about the Hmong and the Kurds. For more on the Somali, see van Notten (2006) and Lewis (1962).

Williams (1987) concluded:

It was therefore in the societies without chiefs or kings where African democracy was born and where the concept that the people are sovereign was as natural as breathing. And this is why in traditional Africa, the rights of the individual never came before the rights of the community…These selfgoverning people did not have a Utopian society in any idealistic sense. Theirs was a practical society in every way. Their laws were natural laws, and order and justice prevailed because the society could not otherwise survive. Theirs was, in fact, a government of the people; theirs was, in fact, not a theory, but a government by the people; and it was, in fact, a government for the people. That this kind of government did `pass from the earth’ is another fact we now call `modern progress’ (p.170).
The colonialists had the most difficulty in dealing with stateless societies. They sought responsible office holders with “power” in such societies. Finding no such power figures, the colonialists then “created” them. But these “leaders” lacked authority since they were not part of the kinship group and were treated as external representatives of an alien government. Within the ethnic group they had little authority and what little they had was considered tyrannous by the people under them. In fact, the Somalis mocked the titles which the British and Italian colonialists created for the officials of the first central government: “The president of the Somali Republic, for instance, was called madaxweyne, which literally means ‘big head’” (van Notten, 2006; p.82).

In the following section, we examine the political organization of some selected stateless societies.

The Igbo Government

“Igbo enweghi eze” (The Igbo have no kings/chiefs)

The Igbo occupy what was formerly Eastern Region of Nigeria but is now broken into four separate states: Anambra, Cross River, Imo and Rivers. They belong to the NigerCongo dialect but subdivided into two subfamily groups: the BenueCongo subfamily and the Kwa subfamily (Olaniyan, 1985; p.21). The Igbo subscribe to a set of beliefs which conflicts with centralization of authority.

The Igbo were individualistic and egalitarian, every man considering himself as good as everyone else and demanding a voice in his local affairs. Since everyone had a right to rise in society Igbo culture emphasized competition, competition between families, between lineages and between clans (Webster and Boahen, 1970:166).

Consequently, they adopted a flexible democratic political system which, though based on the lineage structure, was characterized by autonomous federations of lineages or villages organized through lineage heads, age grades and title societies. The policymaking body was composed of representatives of lineages within the autonomous political groups.
The Igbo village was divided into wards. The wards were grouped around a large village market which operated every four or eight days depending upon its size and importance. Each ward was made up of sections and each section of a number of extended families whose compounds were close together. A meeting of the village was held in the main market or inside an elder’s compound.

The Igbo village government consisted of two basic institutions: the Amaala, made up of the heads of the extended families or lineages, and the “Village Assembly of Citizens.”

The lineage head in the east Niger Delta was elected and he sat in court with adult male members of the group. Among the EfikIbibio, the bond of lineage and the village did not lie strictly in kinship or blood as among the Igbo and the Annang, because the lineage and the village members were of diverse ancestry who had moved into the site from different settlements. Unity lay, however, in the political autonomy, obligations of mutual aid and the territorial isolation of the lineage or village (Olaniyan, 1985: 26).

Other persons were co-opted into the council. They were usually wealthy personages and some title holders, particularly the ozo title holders. The council was presided over by the senior okpara, the head of the family whose ancestor either founded the village settlement or first acquired the ozo title. “He was a `ceremonial’ head of the council and his authority did not extend outside his own family group. His status outside the council was of the same nature as that of any other member of the council” (Amoah, 1988; p.173).

The council was the controlling authority in the village. It performed all the functions which a chief and his council of elders performed in a chiefdom. But other groups, such as ritual functionaries and age-grades, helped with the maintenance of law and order. With regard to government of the village group as a whole, the controlling authority was the general body of the heads of families in each of the villages forming the group. This body was presided over by the senior okpara of the village in the village group which was the first to be founded in the locality.
At the village level, every adult Igbo male had the right to sit in on the council meetings. “In council meetings the matter to be decided is brought before the group and any member is free to voice his opinion” (Gibbs, 1965; p.24). But, as with the Fanti of Ghana, this right was seldom exercised unless a decision was to be taken which affected the individual in an important way.

In routine matters the elders ruled by decree and proclamation but where decisions likely to produce disputes were to be taken, the Amaala could order the town crier to announce a village assembly in the market place or in a ward square.

At the assembly, the elders laid the issues before the people. Every man had a right to speak, the people applauding popular proposals and shouting down unpopular ones. Decisions had to be unanimous…If the Amaala acted arbitrarily and refused to call the assembly, people could demand it by completely ignoring them and bringing town life to a halt (a village strike!). By ignoring and refusing to speak to an unpopular elder, social pressure often compelled the elder to bend to the popular will. The village assembly was considered the Igbo man’s birthright, the guarantee of his rights, his shield against oppression, the expression of his individualism, and the means whereby the young progressive impressed their views upon the old and the conservative (Boahen and Webster, 1970:170).

This view is supported by Harris (1987):

The village assembly characterized Igbo democracy. It was there that the elders presented issues to the people, everyone had a right to speak (freedom of expression), and decisions had to be unanimous. The village assembly therefore was a body in which the young and old, the rich and poor could be heard. Every citizen’s participation was possible and important. Decisionmaking could often be timeconsuming, but the slow procedure guaranteed greater individual participation (p.121).

After a close study of the various power bases (decisionmaking) in the Igbo political system, Olaniyan (1985) discovered five general features:
The traditional archetype whereby decisions are reached by consensus among the lineage representatives among whom age, wealth or privilege have no overriding influence.

A slight modification of the above is found among the Awka Igbo where members of title societies and lineage elders constitute the political decisionmaking group.

 Among Cross River Igbo, in Abriba, Ohafia, and Arochukwu, secret societies dominate the political scene.

 Among the Asaba, Aguleri and Abriba Igbo, age-grades and lineage heads form the decisionmaking body.

 Among Ogbaru, Oguta, Aboh, Onitsha and Osomari Igbo, the political structure is hierarchical.

In all these categories the essence of government remained the same. “Even in the fifth category, checks and balances are so employed that autocratic tendencies do not exist” (Olaniyan, 1985; p.27).

The Fulani Of Northern Nigeria

The Fulani are pastoral people who live mainly in northern Nigeria and many parts of West Africa, along the fringes of the Sahara. They herd their cattle for hundreds of miles in search of water and grazing land. Thus, they come in constant contact with other ethnic groups in their migrations. Consequently, they adopted a political system that adapted to the vicissitudes of their occupation. Such must necessarily be fluid, to guarantee their own economic welfare by maintaining links not only with alien groups of similar order whom they encountered in their pastoral life but also by rendering allegiance to states in whose territory they pastured.

The basic political unit of the Wodaabe of West Bornu consisted of the males of a small agnatic descent group and their families. This group associated with other like groups in the wet season but separated from them as the dry season approached and they began their search for water. In the wetseason when they were together, they had a political leader, the ardo.

In ancient times, the maudo laawol pulaaku (Guardian of the Fulani Way) exercised jural control over the clan. There were a few general principles which prescribed the “Fulani Way” (laawol pulaaku). According to Gibbs (1965):
For a Wodaabe man, right conduct is still mainly the exercise of familial virtues. Fulfillment of duties toward elders, wives, and coevals ensures the smooth working of the family and the lineage groups as economic and cooperative units. Fecundity means herdsmen and milkmaids. Good husbandry ensures that the next generation is provided for. Proper arrangement of children’s marriage secures them in a social system in which they can count on the same satisfactions their fathers had…There are three other components of pulaaku. These are seemteende (modesty and reserve), munyal (patience and fortitude), and hakkiilo (care and forethought) (p.368).

The “Guardian of the Fulani Way” was the judge and had the power of banishing from the ethnic group any one who infringed the “Fulani Way.” The Fulani Way was related to the human organism in that shame was felt in the belly, the place of secrets, the heart was the place of patience and fortitude, and the head the place of care and forethought. “It was from the exercise of care and forethought that a man succeeded in the possession of wives, children, cattle, and the esteem and cooperation of kinsmen” (Carlston, 1968:151).

The ardo was charged with general responsibility for his group’s social, political and economic affairs. “His exercise of authority was mostly dependent on consultation with members of the group, weighing their views and experience, and reaching conclusions which were announced in terms of advice rather than command” (Carlston, 1968:150). He was the spokesman of his group in dealing with like groups within Wodaabe society, and with all those outside Wodaabe society.

Gibbs (1965) provided a similar view:

An ardo does not command, he advises, as is best seen in the conferences preceding pastoral moves. The ardo’s duty is to elicit all forms of evidence from the youngest herdsboy to the oldest herder, and to sum up the feeling of the group. Thereafter, any householder can go where he will without restraint and with no ill feeling (p.394).
_________________________________

References

Amoah, G.Y. (1988). Groundwork of Government For West Africa. Illorin (Nigeria): Gbenle Press, Ltd.

Ayittey, George B,N. (2006). Indigenous African Institutions. Ardsley-on-Hudson, NY:

Transnational Publishers.

Bayart, Jean-Francois (1989). L’Etat en Africa. Paris: Fayard.

Boahen, A.A. and J.B. Webster (1970). History of West Africa. New York: Praeger.

Bohannan, Paul (1964). Africa and Africans. New York: The Natural History Press.

Carlston, Kenneth S. (1968). Social Theory and African Tribal Organization. Urbana: University of

Chicago Press.

Gibbs, James L. Jr. ed. (1965). Peoples of Africa. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Harris, Joseph E. (1987). AfricansaAnd Their History. New York: Penguin.

Olaniyan, Richard ed. (1985).Nigerian History and Culture. London: Longman Group Limited.

Smith, Robert S. (1969). Kingdoms of The Yoruba. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Stride G.T. and Ifeka Caroline (1971). Peoples and Empires of West Africa. Lagos: Thomas Nelson.

Van Notten, Michael (2006). The Law of the Somalis. Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, Inc.

Vaughan, James H. (1986). “Population and Social Organization,” in Martin and O’Meara (1986).

Williams, Chancellor (1987). The Destruction of Black Civilization. Chicago: Third World Press.

Yelpaala, Kojo (1983). “Circular Arguments and SelfFulfilling Definitions: `Statelessness’ and the

Dagaaba”, History in Africa, 10:349385.

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Comments»

1. Tim Glawion - January 19, 2013

Dear Prof G.N Ayittey,

I thank you for these great descriptions of indigenous local level democracy.
The assumption of less governance leading to more freedom, however, I find problematic:
Governance might prohibit some forms of activity, especially when it takes on the tyrannical forms of a Siyyad Barre dictatorship. However, as Kant has taught us, governance in the ideal sense restricts freedom from some actions only to enable freedom towards more important other dimensions. While I do not wish to reiterate the fascinating and complex philosophical discussion at this point, I’d rather ask about at a crucial point I am missing in this essay:
You described well the perils of central governance, as well as the inherently democratic processes of local African groups. How can we, however, combine both the fruits of indigenous local democracy with the benefits of a central state?

Sincerely,
Tim Glawion

Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research
(currently) King’s College London MA Conflict Resolution

2. naibi moses ololade - February 23, 2013

that good but they are accephalouse in natue


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