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 3 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 3: British Effects on Asanteman The British upended Asanteman's political structure and ideology to a very significant degree. Each of the key points of the national ideology they challenged. On the point of democracy they challenged it in four ways. First, most obviously they set up as the supreme authority Government House, which was legitimated only on grounds of imperialist claims to moral and racial superiority, and force of arms. Second, now all chiefs had to be run past Government House before being put on the stool, and likewise destoolings had to be approved by Government House. They in fact tended to reward loyalty to their regime as against the popular will, so the connection between the aforementioned deliberative practice and the government was broken. Third, they empowered a national council of chiefs, which was not actually answerable to any chain of deliberative bodies, and seemed to float free of the previous constitutional checks - not only is this obviously inherently undemocratic but also it broke the previous localism tradition, as this had power over the whole nation. All of these also tended to undermine the power of women especially - as whereas before women had been able to participate in the deliberative bodies, these were now very weakened, and the institutions empowered (Government House and the national council of chiefs) did not offer opportunities to Asante women. The fourth involves the conservatism so I shall return to it.
The British directly sought to undermine the national religion. The education necessary to gain jobs in the various bureaus and capitalist corporations they created was all denominational and Christian. Further, they sought to promote the Christian churches as against the traditional religion - often making a muchness of the fact that the Asante needed to learn to live in modern conditions as a state with religious freedom, despite the fact that it had successfully been a multi religious state (with the traditional paganism and a sizeable Muslim minority coexisting in peace) for centuries, and in fact has a significantly more peaceful history on this front than Britain.
Finally, the British undermined the conservatism. First and most obviously in the sense that they imposed by force a very sudden change in the constitutional order, that had not been transmitted from the traditions of the governed. Second, and this is the last connection to the democracy point, they introduced capitalism - mandating new systems of private property (which they often claimed for themselves), migration from across the British empire as people came seeking access to the newly opened opportunities, and generally introduced reforms which made it impossible to survive economically under the previous mode of production. This obviously was, and leads to, massive social change - some of which introduced famine as a serious risk for the first time in centuries as cash crops replaced food agriculture, others of which led to massive increase in corruption as chiefs were suddenly open to being paid but there were no legal or cultural norms about when this was appropriate (and since the British would block destoolment of a loyal servant of the empire, the Asante no longer had the constitutional means to check corruption - though the national council made some efforts). With private ownership of the means of production, and one's political leaders now able to take pay and effectively becoming bribable, this break in the traditional system also tended to further reduce people's democratic control of their polis.
Busia himself seems to come to a mixed appraisal of the effects of British Imperialism on the system he had described. He clearly rues the loss of democratic control in general, and especially the inability of people to select (and deselect) their candidates in the manner that had served them so well in the past. But he also welcomes the centralisation and educational drives that the British brought with them - the latter on recognisably democratising grounds, and the former since he apparently thinks it was necessary for a modern nation state (and its infrastructure) that may hope to bring prosperity to the people of the Gold Coast. I do not agree with Busia on the necessity of centralisation, though I agree that improved infrastructure (especially relating to healthcare provision and more widespread education) are certainly to be welcomed - my objection is more the manner in which the British did such things, rather than that they did them at all.
On the more especially constitutional matters, my sense is that this was an interesting experiment in fairly large scale democratic government in a non-capitalist and illiberal society. It had obvious defective elements, but the capacity for reform which was in fact realised, and could have been carried further were it not for the warfare with the British and eventual imposition of imperial rule. Much of what was best about this constitutional arrangement (the democracy, constitutional checks and balances on officeholders, and localism) was destroyed by the British, its worst elements (the aristocracy and patriarchy) exacerbated or (the slavery swapped out for conscript labour) left in place in a modified form, and sometimes whole new vile elements introduced (legal enforcement of homophobia, mass corruption). It is probably futile to hope for the return to anything like this, but - with Wiredu and Gyekye - I am all the more convinced that there are valuable lessons to be learned from the thought and practice of this society. This lesson of the value of engagement will, I expect, generalise to many social forms and peoples who professional philosophers presently ignore.