“If those early forms of social organisation also contained elements of democracy, it was the democracy of that particular time, totally unfitted to the democratic practice of man in the present epoch. To say that an African can learn democracy simply by looking backward to see what our great grandparents behaved is not only meaningless but downright reactionary. As an economy develops, new socio-economic institutions also develop with it and the peoples outlook and aspirations also undergo changes.” – African Socialism or Socialist Africa, A.M. Babu
What would be the function of kings or queens in a modern Afrika, restored and decolonized as so many of us Afrocentric activists agitate for? After having tasted the once forbidden fruits of Western style democracy, experimented with forms of socialism, monopolized capitalism and other structural adjustments, will we ever be able to become the society we once were, give or take the natural progression of time and circumstances?
During the remote past, in the often cited setting of ancient Egypt/Kemet, such was the case: “The function of the state were to own, control, divine, discipline and defend; they were also to cherish, nurture, shelter, and enlarge the population. The god-sent controller of the Egyptian people was the herdsman who kept them in green pastures, fought to secure fresh pastures for them, drove off the voracious beasts who attacked them, belabored the cattle who strayed out of line and helped along the weaklings. The Sun-God appointed him or her to be shepherd of this land, to keep alive the people and the folk, not sleeping by day or by night in seeking out every beneficial act, in looking for possibilities or usefulness.” (1)
This vision of what a ruler was or should ideally be like seems to have been shared throughout the ancient world, and when in the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of enlightenment, various kinds of new ideas, technology and mass social revolutions swept the world, the power and usefulness of kingdoms was severely reduced. The few remaining places where monarchs are still respected pr honored, have retained for them only a ceremonial status. Still, royals appear to have retained some charming effect on the imaginations of people all over the world. That ceremonial power seems to still mystify many people, but of what use is localized mysticism in a world clearly ruled by material or global economic powers.
One thing is for sure, even in ancient times it was the law that controls even absolute rulers. In most cases, the majesty belongs to the laws of every given land. Kemet/Egypt was no exception to this rule, as it is depicted here:
“The hours of both day and night were laid out according to a plan, and at the specified hours it was absolutely required of the king that he should do what the laws stipulated and not what he thought best” (2).
So clearly it was never a matter of absolute power of either the masses or the elites that controlled how things are done, it has always been the Law. We shall return to how this law is fundamentally similar throughout the great Afrikan continent and perhaps we may find ways to blend whatever works in modern law with customary laws.
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Romanticism seems to get the best of us Afrikans when it comes to questions of power, be it political, communal or economic. Many of us dream of an idyllic Afrika where our best traditions are restored along with the land and the resources. We wish and some of us strive to regenerate our ancient systems of ruler-ship, trade and customary laws. Exactly how this can be done is still rather vague. There are several version of history and the notion of nationhood has always been steeped in a multiplicity of conflicts. We know that newly independent pro-socialist leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Nyerere and Leopold Senghor tried their best to unite disparate “tribes” or ethnic groups in their bold attempts and nation building, yet their efforts were still executed within the confines of what the colonialists had left, the imposed borders are just one glaring example.
Is there a feasible reason to believe that the continent of Afrika can once again be ruled by monarchs, whether at decentralized local or provincial levels or otherwise?
There are many regional as well as localized associations wherein those designated as traditional leaders congregate and deliberate about matters of tradition, statutes and power. The pivotal question seems to be just how their power is shared among themselves but more crucially, how that power is shared or split between customary and modern political legislators. Where democracy and customary laws meet is rather vague, what is clear is that who ever wields the most constitutionality sanctified power also controls much of what passes as law.
So the question is, how meaningful is it for Afrikan people to dream of a return to a social setting where generationally or genealogically selected rulers lord it over the affairs of communities? While in the Southern parts of Afrika and surely in other parts of the continent, we still know of chiefs/ Izinduna and other socially and constitutionally accepted stewards who generally wield particular levels of power, their real influence is rather negligible compared to the democratically elected ones. How will the process of decolonization deal with either absolute monarchs or even benevolent rulers and what of anarchy, the notion that people can simply govern themselves?
I think that we cannot relive the past. While there may be localities wherein traditional leaders maintain some semblance of power, their influence will not reach a level wherein they can effectively be called empires. Empire is neither desirable nor feasible in the 21st century. Even the most aggressively imposed empires from Europe, the Far East and the United States of America are showing signs of serious fracture and are checkmating each other as they compete for control of the resources of developing countries. Sovereignty may still sounds appealing to many idealists and ambitious power-brokers, but even such last century ideas are fading away just like the divine rights of monarchs faded.
I am thinking of King Mswati and his precarious kingdom whose many citizens subsist outside the borders of that beautiful country. The Swati Royal House bears many aspects of the olden feudal state while still maintaining a fiction they call “monarchical democracy”. in reality it is a state that could be called a benevolent dictatorship, where the absolute monarch and several of His minions, secretly compete for influence.
The Swati Kingdom’s best asset is the culture and tradition. Is the a way to maintain some positive aspects of these traditions while transforming the Kingdom into a real democratic modern state where the needs of the masses are met in equal measure as the privileges of the ruling house? As a clear sign that rulers simply learn nothing from the examples of the historical revolutions, King Mswati still finds Himself entwined in the same corruption and scandals that former rulers in many other countries found themselves in before they were violently deposed.
Under the chapter titled, Destabilizing Africa, Babu writes: “It will be a sad chapter in Africa’s glorious history of struggle if our leaders allow themselves to be blinded by the pursuit of objectives which, in the final analysis, work against the true interests of the masses. If we are to serve the people effectively, it is our responsibility to examine critically the consequences of our leaders policies, in the revolutionary spirit of criticism and self-criticism, and to chart a course to rapid development.” The sad part is that it is the same corrupt leaders who we find speaking such patriotic words on world stages, but what they do at home leaves much to be desired. How sure are we that the Kings and Queens we say we want will not behave in the same depraved way as present day rulers? In essence, how are we to guarantee that the LAW, or Ma’at /Ubuntu as the Ancients called it, is maintained as a governing principle for both the leaders and the led?
References: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man*.