Ancient Africa Practiced True Democracy
By Black T Bvumavaranda
Ancient System of Checks and Balances
African leaders have often been portrayed as unyielding and brainless people for whom remorse and morality are completely disjoined from power and authority. In the West, our leaders are often caricatured as clueless goofballs in suits but who are above the law and can commit the most embarrassing cases of common theft and abuse of poor and defenceless people with impunity.
This terrible stereotype has received unfortunate support from the behaviour of our post-colonial autocratic leaders who, barring some military coup or popular uprising, mysteriously prefer to die in power. These leaders often cite the ancient African political order in which a leader was only removed from power by death.
However, the traditional setup was totally different from what the post-colonial pretenders want us to believe. While the post-colonial African leadership deeply detests accountability and the rule of law, the traditional leadership structure had a complex mechanism for accountability and the counterbalance of power.
Mambo did not rule as an absolute king for one simple reason. The social order was subdivided into two separate but equally powerful areas; (i) the secular or political order and; (ii) the religious order. The king was the leader of the secular institutions of the social order. The priesthood, represented by the chief priest, was responsible for the religious institutions.
The king ensured food security, the maintenance of the rule of law, the fair application of the justice system without fear and favour, defending the state from its enemies, and making sure that all the members of the community acted for the benefit of society over and above individual gains. The king had the power and authority to act to save and serve the people.
For spiritual matters, the priesthood was in charge. Where secular laws and other codes of social conduct were not possible to enforce or simply ineffective, the priesthood offered the complimentary part. The priesthood led petitions made to the ancestors who, in turn, carried the petitions to Mwari.
The two branches were separate but equal. When presiding over secular functions, mambo wore the skin of a lion while the chief priest wore the skin of a leopard. This was to show that the office of mambo was, on such occasions, above that of the priesthood.
During state-related rituals, the chief priest was in charge. To acknowledge his subordinate role, mambo had to wear a leopard skin while the chief priest wore the skin of a lion. The king did not hold both offices. So, his power was kept in check, and vice versa for the priesthood.
There were two additional traditions that also strengthened the system of checks-and-balances of the traditional African social order.
Muzukuru, the nephew of the ruler through his sister, had the role of verbally restraining his uncle, and do so without fear of making the king angry. Muzukuru was actually designated as the pacifier of the king especially when the king was angry or deemed out of control. During disputes within the ruling family, muzukuru was responsibility for restoring order and harmony. There were other functions in which only muzukuru presided over, too.
This role of muzukuru was not confined to the court alone. It was a tradition that was practiced all the way down to the family level. The role of muzukuru has not changed even to this day. That is the third ancient mechanism of checks and balances
The fourth traditional mechanism of checks and balances was the accepted but unsaid contract between the elders and the young members of the community. The youths were expected to be respectful of their elders at all times. For their part, the elders honoured the compact by accepting that at a particular point in their lives, they had to begin the gradual handover, to the young members of the community, the power and authority to run the community.
Way back in antiquity, two proverbs were coined to remind the elders that they held power and authority only in trust, and for the benefit of the young members of the community and those yet to be born. The simplified proverb, kutonga madzoro, served to remind the elders that power and authority, the two levers of leadership, best benefitted the community when others, specifically the youths, were given their turn and opportunity to take over the leadership of the community.
To receive respect from the youths, a proverb, gudo/bvene guru peta muswe kuti vapwere vakuremekedze, was often used to admonish elders who were behaving in manners that made them look less respectable in the eyes of the youth. Our ancestors had observed that a leader of a troop of baboons that did not tuck its tail close to itself often found itself being used as a toy by baby baboons, which was the beginning of the diminishing of that baboon’s influence on the rest of the baboons.
So, our post-colonial leaders are not really following the ancient social arrangement. We have to be judged not by what is going on in our times but by what our forebears put in place. We had a well-defined and efficient system of checks and balances developed and refined over millennia. It worked for millennia, and that is how we survived all these thousands of years. We are familiar with governing and leading because we have been doing it for a long time, or we were until we were disrupted not too long ago.
Do we have a better system of checks and balances now that we have become “civilized” and have adopted alien models that we do not even seem to understand?
I report but you decide.
That is my belated Zimbabwan/African Factoid of The Day, I’m Bvumavaranda BTechno MuRozvi.