Warrior and the state in pre-colonial Africa

VICTOR Simukonda.

WRITING an article on African military history is as fascinating as it is daunting.
Indeed, it would be a cliché to state that the ambivalent relationship between African armies and the societies they serve is a protean phenomenon that has so challenged the ingenuity and curiosity of men, that fewer other topics provoke greater sentimentality.
However, equally trite but true is the acknowledgement that a military interpretation of African history ought, at least, to be as rewarding as the economic or any other interpretation for that matter.
Owing to the continent’s vast cultural, demographic and ethnographic diversity, it would be rather naïve to attempt to address African military history as a cohesive and homogenous whole.
If you think this is a cop-out, consider that there were more than 10,000 states and Kingdoms in Africa prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
Nevertheless, whilst accepting diversity as a fact, one can still make qualified generalisation, a feat I shall attempt to accomplish in this article.
In the absence of the luxury of written sources, historians interested in pre-colonial African history have had to rely on alternative sources, including linguistics, archaeology and, more recently, genetics. From these and other sources, evidence suggests that the use of iron tools marked a significant moment of African civilisation as African societies enhanced their weaponry and were able to clear dense forests for agricultural purposes. As societies achieved mastery over their environments, they began staying in much larger communities, giving birth to the formation of states and kingdoms with common languages, belief and value systems, art, religion, lifestyle and culture.
Structurally, African pre-colonial states are divided into two broad types of political formations, namely ‘stateless’ or acephalous societies and states which centralised authority (chiefs). Stateless societies included the Igbo of Nigeria, the Kung of Liberia, the Tallenssi of Ghana, the Somalis, Jie of Uganda, Mbeere of Kenya and the Bantu Botatwe (Tonga, Ila and Lenje) of Zambia. On the other hand, ‘state’ societies had a centralised authority (personified in the head chief) and incorporated several other societies conquered in war or which voluntarily submitted. Examples are the Luyi (Lozi), Bemba, and the Luba immigrants who came to Zambia under the leadership of Kalonga.
Despite the diversity, pre-colonial communities were never completely isolated as societies interacted with one another through commerce, marriage, migration, diplomacy and, of course, warfare. Furthermore, whether in the state or stateless societies, African pre-colonial political organisations had some common important attributes, the first being that the state was concerned with the welfare of all its citizens and war was the concern of everyone in the society.
Indeed, before the institution of standing armies in Africa, every able-bodied man was expected to take part in any war. In extreme situations, women, children and slaves were expected to join in the defence of their homelands.
Further, the military and political leadership shared powers and in some cases, rulers were both commanders and rulers of their kingdoms.
In addition, the warrior tradition in pre-colonial Africa manifested itself in a variety of interlocking socio-cultural and economic relationships within the social organisation of the State.
Being in the first, a citizen of his community, the individual warrior had significance only in the context of the larger society and was subject to state authority in the interest of state stability and survival.
Further, the African state emphasised the duties of citizenship. This was usually ritualised and formed a major aspect of the initiation ceremonies on reaching puberty.
Young men not only had to learn the art of war but were equally taught to be ready to lay down their lives for the commonwealth.
Unlike pre-colonial societies, the ‘modern’ Africa state is a more complex form of human social organisation and therefore requires superior attributes than other primordial organisations such as the family, the clan and the village from which it emerged.
However, even the modern African state, as developed in Western tradition, is still a social artifact which is expected to be the embodiment of the nation with privileges which are exercised by the government of the day.
As such, the nature of the state can still be understood by referring to its other invariable characteristics, i.e. whether it is a negative state, responsible only for maintaining law and order, or a positive state which removes obstacles such as poverty, illiteracy and other conditions that stand in the way of the full development of the individuals within the society.
Regardless of the scenario, the warrior remains integral to the state.
The author is a staff officer at the Zambia Army headquarters. The civil-military relations (CMR) articles will appear regularly to provide a platform for civil-military engagement.

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