In our last two posts (here and here), we discussed the implications of political centralization in Africa and also saw that the standard theories supposed to account for European political centralization fail to explain the African variation. (Next week we’ll return to the European case and see that these theories don’t actually do such a great job in the European case either).
What might explain African political centralization? To understand this, it is useful to ask what political centralization actually implies. Put simply this occurs when one group or polity manages to subjugate the others on a common territory to its power. Jan Vansina in Antecedents to Modern Rwanda describes how King Ndori did this sometime in the 1600s in Rwanda. He forged a larger polity by using his army (another of his innovations) to force a group of other kings to acknowledge him as their overlord.
Many factors might influence this process, for example military technology. In ongoing work with Philip Osafo-Kwaako, we develop a different hypothesis about something which might influence the ability of one group to dominate another. A hint of what this might be comes from the study of the Tiv, a stateless society in Eastern Nigeria we met briefly in our last post.
Though the Tiv did have chiefs, they just were not that powerful. For the Tiv to have become politically centralized, the chiefs would have had to become more powerful and to have increased their ability to tell other people what to do. A revealing story of why they could not do this is related by Laura Bohannon in her book Return to Laughter (written under the pseudonym Elenore Smith Bowen). Bohannon related how Chief Kako is trying to decide what to do about Yaav, a man who is seriously ill and hiccoughs repeatedly. It is assumed to be the result of some bewitchment. Kako arrives with his son Ilhugh at a meeting of elders to decide what to do only to find to his astonishment, that Ilhugh instead of backing him up, sides with Yaav. Kako’s attempt to exert power is partially thwarted by his own son. Why? Because Ilhugh and Yaav are part of the same age set.
An age set is a social institution famously defined by the great British social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (see here) as:
A recognised and sometimes organized group consisting of persons (often male persons only) who are of the same age .. In Africa, at any rate in East and South Africa, an age-set is normally formed of all those males who are initiated at one time … Once a person enters a given age-set, whether at birth or initiation, he remains a member of the same age-set for the remainder of his life .. In East Africa, where the age-organization is highly elaborated, each age-set normally passes from one grade to another as a whole. (p. 21).
The important point here is that the age set created a solidarity which cut across families and social classes . It stopped Kako accumulating power, and more generally we hypothesize that it may have played an important role historically in Africa in impeding the process of political centralization. Interesting Vansina notes in Rwanda:
a structure of age classes was never used … either in government or in social structures (p. 61).
Further evidence from this comes from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample we discussed in our last post. The next figure shows that within Africa there is a strong negative correlation between the number of age organizations cutting across communities and the extent of political centralization.
So perhaps age sets and other social institutions that created a form of cross-cutting linkages in societies without the modern state, partly to sustain cooperation and law and order, have also played the role of slowing down the emergence of political centralization.