These days there seems to be some interest in colonialism and imperialism, and in tying explanations of today's social ills to the effects of the West on peoples and places. All that said there isn't a lot of attention paid to what specific peoples and institutions were like pre-colonialism, and a lot of really hasty generalizing across really different times and places. This is especially true of how people talk about Africa: willingness to make grand sweeping statements is high, though its not obvious that people care to know much about how African societies worked.
So we're gonna talk pretty specifically about African societies on this site here, starting out with a little help from the scholarship of Kofi Busia, former Prime Minister of Ghana (and leader of the opposition party to the famed Kwame Nkrumah, if we're keeping score). This is part 2 of a series on Asanteman, all of which are written by our friend Liam Kofi Bright over at the Sooty Empiric.
Book: The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti - K.A. Busia post by Liam Kofi Bright
PART 2: Asanteman Political Ideology Busia returned often to three principles in the governing ideology. In no order, they were: democracy, theocracy, and conservatism. What seemed to legitimate rule were the principles that (i) it expressed the will of the people through the various mechanisms for their representation, (ii) the office of the chieftancy was the connection between the people and their ancestors and their gods and therefore morally and practically (to ward off disaster) important to uphold and use wisely, (iii) and it is handed down through tradition as the wisest and best mode of government.
The book did not go into much detail on the position of women in this society, nor the obvious incorporation of aristocratic or oligarchic elements. As far as I can see women were represented in the deliberative processes, and it was always a woman who had the primary agenda setting power in deciding the next chief, but women were formally barred from occupying the role of chief, which was a a position of significant honour and decision making power. The explanation independently offered for this to Busia upon asking multiple people was that women once did occupy the chieftancy position but then kept refusing to carry out tasks when menstruating (!), so it was decided that men should play that role in future. The overall impression I got was that while this society was considerably less patriarchal than many of its regional or temporal counter parts, there was still a significant misogynistic element preventing it from being quite so democratic as Busia was keen to stress. On the other hand, I don't at all understand from what was said in this book what the status of the aristocrats was, or why they were given such a role even if (or maybe: especially striking in light of the fact that) their power was very significantly checked; I shall need to read more.
So women couldn't be chiefs because...men were more willing to do administrative labor?
On the other hand, slavery was barely mentioned in this book, and I aim to read more on Asante slavery. This is another sense in which the democratic element of the Asanteman constitution, stressed by Busia, strikes me as overhyped! In fact, it seems to me that the constitutional system just described gives strangers no representation at all, since the nested chain of deliberative groups bottoms out in family units, so unless one marries in one cannot ever gain a seat at the table. Since it was also very difficult to acquire land or property this seems to basically block nearly all modes of immigration, and in context that also would basically debar slaves from participation in the political process. On the other hand, from what I have read previously there were recognised means of slaves being officially incorporated into a lineage they served and rendered free, slaves could bring suit against a master or mistress who abused them and their claims would be upheld, and it was generally strongly socially taboo to inquire after somebody's status as slave/commoner/aristocrat and since the slavery was not racial one could not visually inspect and immediately infer somebody's status, so largely one had to interact as equals in common settings. So clearly slaves were not entirely cut out from the rule of law or custom. (I would also like to know more about the difference between slavery in Asanteman and the conscript labour system the British introduced and enforced.) Still, given that there were slaves, and for most of the pre-colonial period it was permissible to kill them as part of funeral rites or religious events, it's impossible to find this admirable or even nearly adequately democratic. Again, I just need to know more.
The other striking element is the conservatism. It seems to me that it is just intensely difficult to innovate or change things in this society. Every decision has to be run by a council of the elderly (in fact multiple of them if the proposal involves wide scale change) before it is to be implemented, and what is more I know from here that the general standard for a motion to pass was consensus, property may not be sold or put to novel use unless one's entire family agrees, and the national ideology stressed the validation of both the general regime and the particular decisions made in the fact that they represented the culmination of a far reaching tradition which one is normatively expected to continue. Now, there are counter veiling forces - the national ideology also stressed the importance of hearing people out when they proposed things (one of the things a previous book I read noted is that reformists within Asanteman managed to outlaw the arbitrary or religious execution of slaves and had more generally significantly reformed slavery over the course of the 19th century), the importance of trade which by its nature brings new ideas, and the localism does facilitate independent social experiment. But, still, on the whole this is a society so set up as to discourage innovation. As is always the case with conservatism, this no doubt had its good and bad points - whereas I more or less wholeheartedly endorse the fairly extreme democratic elements of this constitutional order.