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) as reviewed 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 1: Asanteman Pre-Colonial Government
Published in 1950, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti is an attempt to examine the constitutional and social changes bought about by the British occupation of Asanteman, focusing especially on the role of the chief in Asante society. (It was largely consistent with what I previously blogged about here, but it added considerable detail to my understanding.) My understanding of the pre-colonial government system based on this book is as follows:
At birth every citizen is a member of a lineage group, and born into a particular village. Villages are part of sub-districts, themselves part of districts, themselves part of the Ashanti Union. At each of these levels of government there is replicated the following official roles - a council of elders (usually but not always men), representing each of the lineage groups present in the affected region. A chief, who must be a man from an aristocratic family traditionally tied to the appropriate jurisdiction. And a representative of what is called `the young people's association'.
These people are elected as follows: all members of a lineage in the affected region elect for life (or until impeachment) an elder from among their clan to represent them at the appropriate deliberative body, the young person's representative is elected by the general pool of non-aristocrats and, as the name suggests, was not required to be an elder, and the chief by the following rather complex process. The elder woman of the aristocratic family puts forward a proposal, which is then put to the elders to make a yes/no vote on. If they reject this candidate the procedure will be attempted two more times, and if each time they reject the agenda setting power transfers to them and they may choose the candidate. Whoever the elders end up approving is then put to the populace governed (through the young person's representatives) for a further yes/no vote. (I do not know what happens if the populace keep rejecting the elder's choice - my impression is this did not often enough arise for it to be a serious problem, and also that it was rare that the matriarch would not be able to get one of her preferred candidates selected.)
The chief can be destooled - so called because the position of chief is attached to a stool, the literal and metaphorical seat of authority - by the elders if they fail to uphold their constitutional duties (inclusive of which was the requirement that they generally carry out the wishes of the elders or the people) and this was no idle threat, with even the Asantehene (the chief of the whole empire) suffering impeachment on occasion when it was felt he was negligent in his duties. Note that the elders too could be impeached, and in fact one grounds for impeachment was failing to remonstrate with an incompetent ruler. (So a chief could not be impeached if his elders had not first remonstrated with him, since if the elders brought forward proceedings without having remonstrated this would be grounds for their own impeachment! One thing I was clearly incorrect about in my previous write up - it is apparent that the process of removing bad actors had a lot of constitutional backing, and was in perfectly good order as a piece of rule of law.) The young person's representative had less formal power than the elders, but was the means through which the commoners made dissatisfaction with their leadership known, and repeated failure to heed their advice was often the cause of destoolment. Every decision was to be made at the most local level possible, by the council of elders after deliberating until consensus was reached (though the chief served as an executive, could tie break, and could also make snap decisions where that was necessary).
There was a lot that was interesting about this besides what is mentioned here. I note briefly the following tidbits: private ownership of the means of production (land and mining operations, basically) was largely forbidden with family units instead owning such things collectively and its use, sale, and development largely subject to collective decision making. The chief was required to give up what private property they had upon taking office, but was paid generously in services, and was allowed to accumulate personal possessions (for distinction I have in mind see here) - though another of the oaths a chief took, for which they could be impeached if they failed to uphold, required that they be generous, and provide food and board to visiting strangers (the family unit was expected to provide welfare for down on their luck or travelling members of their own clan). Homosexuality was not among the sexual crimes Busia recorded (which were incest, adultery involving the wife of a chief, sex even if consensual and otherwise proper involving a woman on her period, and rape inclusive of all sex with minors), whereas that is in modern Ghana, apparently due to British anti-sodomy laws and the spread of Christian morality.
The duties of most members of this government were largely seeing to collective defence, trying legal cases when they were in their jurisdiction (with a legal doctrine largely based on reconciliation, and an interesting system for appealing decisions made by lower deliberative chambers), seeing that public works were carried out - basically ensuring sanitation, maintaining public roads and spaces, and religious events and temples were properly tended to, and maintaining trade relations through an official trade corps attached to each district. Each municipality also had their own chancellor of the exchequer, and there was a neat book keeping system designed for a mostly illiterate population. At the upper levels I happen to know (but it was not much discussed in this book) that there was also an official diplomatic corps and professional bureaucracy, but that was not something most people had to concern themselves with.