A state is an organized political community in a defined territory controlled by one government with administrative and military machinery, judicial functions and ability to collect taxes (tributes).​​

A state is a more complex political unit than clan organizations. It is a large political unit under specific government ruled by a chief or king, with administrative and judicial duties, commands of an army and collects taxes from the subjects who as well are obliged to be loyal to the ruler.​​

Types of states,​​ 

Two types of states emerged in Africa which are​​

  • Decentralized states ​​
  • Centralized states​​

1)​​ Decentralized states ​​ 

Decentralized states were state organization without a well-defined and complex centralized system of government. They were chieftainships (chiefdoms). They were societies that transformed from mere Clan Organizations to comprise a number of clans or communities.

They were under Chiefs who were mostly appointed from the dominant Clan Heads. The leader/chiefs‘ position was often not hereditary. He was chosen from clan elders/heads by a council of elders basing on his reputation; excellent leadership and wisdom qualities and wealth. ​​

The powers of the chief were checked by the council of elders. Such societies included; the Yao,​​

Nyamwezi, Sukuma, Kikuyu, Makonde (East Africa), Lozi, Shona and Luba (central Africa)​​

Characteristics of Decentralized states​​ 

1. Leadership was not hereditary.

Leaders were chosen by the clan councils by merit and considerable reputation on their leadership, wisdom and good judgment skills. Elected leaders could even be replaced if he proved incompetent or became unpopular.​​

2. There were no standing armies.

The defense of the society was done by all able- bodied men of the society. Standing armies were not necessary because wars were very scarce due to the fact that these societies hardly involved themselves in expansionism.​​

3. There was no centralized authority to control society‘s affairs.

Means of production like land and labour were communally owned. Members of the society regarded themselves equal. No one would therefore rise up to assume supreme powers over the others.​​

4. Decentralized societies had low population.

This was due to low productive forces. The low population limited the rise of social differentiations and thus facilitated the communal living due high availability of resources like land – resources were not scarce to give way to classes.​​

5. These societies were more democratic.

In the society‘s general assembly, decisions were passed by the majority vote. This was different from the centralized societies where the monarch made the final decision and their words were law and final.​​

6. The clan councils of elders and the society‘s

General Assembly were the two bodies that governed the affairs of the state. The General Assembly was above the Clan Heads and the clan council hence the two were answerable to the General Assembly.​​

7. The clan elders were responsible to solve internal conflicts.

Nonetheless, if case became more difficult for them, it was referred to the general assembly. Nevertheless, conflicts and crimes were limited by collective responsibility using society‘s sanctions. If a member of a clan committed a crime against a member of another clan, the clan members handed him to the offended clan to be punished.​​

8. They encouraged intermarriages.

Members of the same clan were in most cases not allowed to marry each other and instead people were to marry from other related clans.​​

​​ Centralized states​​ 

Centralized states were political organizations with a central ruling authority. They are political organizations whose administrative powers were rested at the specific identified centre.

At the helm (centre) of administration was the king or Emperor (Monarch) with supreme powers, who in most cases governed with the assistance of a parliament and body of ministers.

From 5th to 19th C Africa, centralized states included; Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem Bonu, Asante, Dahomey, Benin, Oyo, Sokoto, Tokola and Mandika in West Africa; Bunyoro, Buganda, Toro, Ankole and the Hehe in East Africa; Egypt in North Africa; Ethiopia in North East Africa; Mwenemotapa, Ndebele and Gaza of Central Africa; Zulu, Swazi and Sotho of South Africa.​​

Factors For State Formation In Pre-Colonial Africa​​

Characteristics of Centralized States​​ 

1. Centralized authority.

At the centre of administration was a king with absolute authority to make all major political, social and economic decisions of the state. Also, he was supreme judge and controlled the wealth of the state. The Monarch was a symbol of Unity.​​

2. Hereditary succession.

Centralized states had royal families from which kings came. A successor could be named by king before his death or appointed by a council of elders from the departed king‘s close relatives like his son or brother as per the customs of the state.​​

3. Standing army.

Centralized states had specific military forces comprising of well bodied trained soldiers with the king as commander in chief to maintain the internal stability, defend the state against external attacks and also conquest of weak neighbours.​​

4. Parliamentary system.

Due to complexity of administration, Kings ruled with the assistance of parliaments made of his appointed officials like ministers, nobles and clan heads whose duty was to advise the king on important matters. In Buganda for example was the Lukiiko under chief minister ―Katikiro‖ and in Oyo was the Oyo Messi.​​

5. Covered large territory and high population.

Centralized states were complex organizations that incorporating many clans and sometimes many tribes through conquests or alliance making. For effective control states were divided into provinces which were put under chiefs and governors or Clan Heads to represent the king.​​

6. Payment of taxes and tributes.

The citizens of the kingdom and traders passing through the kingdom and vassal states were obliged to pay taxes or tributes to the metropolitan state. The king had full powers to direct the use of state incomes for example rewarding loyal officials.​​

7. Advanced productive forces.

Improvement in productive forces consolidated division of labour and specialization, sometimes beyond the levels of age and sex. Specific areas of specialization were farming, industry and trade. All these were supported by improved technology, notably iron working that also led to production of surplus for trade.​​

8. Expansionist policy.

Centralized States had a tendency of conquering their weak neighboring societies to expand their territories for land, labour and wealth. The conquered were absorbed to be integral parts of the state or could remain semi-independent as vassal states.​

The pre-colonial African centralized states can be divided basing on the location as​​:


State formation in Africa was to a great extent due to the internal dynamics – the material conditions within African societies. Nevertheless, the material conditions did not operate in isolation as they were in hand supplemented by the natural and external factors.

So the important factors for the state formation were;​​ 

1. Favourable geographical advantages.​​ 

This was a combination of good climate with reliable rainfall and fertile soils. Such a climate favoured permanent food crop production that developed permanently settled communities and population expansion.

This explains the emergence of powerful states like Buganda, Bunyoro and Karagwe in the Interlacustrine Region and Oyo, Dahomey and Benin in the Equatorial Region of West Africa.​​

2. Efficient leadership and administrative systems.​​ 

Societies endowed with ambitious leaders like Mansa Musa of Mali, Kabaka Katerega of Buganda and Mkwawa of the Hehe, rose to greatness. Such leaders put in place strong administration and armies, united their people and organised production and trade.

Efficient administrative system enforced law and order. Typical examples are the Parliamentary systems of Buganda (Lukiiko) and Oyo (Oyo Messi).​​

3. The role of trade.​​

Participation in trading activities mainly, long distance trades had vital implication in the making of powerful states in pre-colonial Africa. They accumulated wealth through profits and​​ taxes/tribute from traders and also firearms which they used to strengthen their states.

Remarkably, the Trans-Saharan trade with the development of states like Mali and Songhai and the East African Long Distance trade with states like Buganda and Nyamwezi.

4. Strong armies.​​ 

The role of strong armies like the Rugaruga of the Nyamwezi and Abarusula of Bunyoro cannot be underrated. The armies were instrumental in keeping law and order, defence against foreign invasions, conquest of weak neighbouring societies for expansion and for collection of tributes/taxes.

By powerful armies men like Samore Toure of the Mandika, Mansa Musa of Mali and Mirambo and Nyungu ya Mawe of the Nyamwezi and Mkwawa of the Hehe were able to build large commercial empires.​​

5. Technological advancement.​​ 

Most significant was iron technology that definitely improved productive forces greatly. Societies with Iron works like Buganda and Bunyoro advanced economic activities like agricultural, industry and trade.

As iron instruments improved efficiency, food production increased to support population expansion and production of surplus was realised to make trade possible. Most crucial also was improvement in weaponry for state defence and expansion.​​

6. Population expansion.

Population increase was mostly due to reliable food supply and security. It led to intense land competition between clans or societies leading to conquest of weak ones. Large population availed abundant supply of labour and armies for state building.

High population in the Interlacustrine Region led to powerful states like Buganda and Toro and in West African forest region states like Oyo and Dahomey.​​

7. Migration.​​ 

The early migrations played a vital role in state building as the moving peoples carried with them new skills in new areas where passed or settled. Notable case is the Ngoni Migration with formation of states like, Sotho, Ndebele and Hehe in South, Central and East Africa. In the Interacustrine Region and the Congo, states like Buganda and Mani Kongo were largely due Eastern Bantu migration.​​

8. Conquest.​​ 

Some clans or communities developed into powerful states by conquering weak neighbours to absorb their land and people. For example a small state of Kangaba expanded into weak neighbours like Kankan to form a large Mali Empire. Also King Shaka conquered the weak Nguni communities to build a strong Zulu Kingdom.​​

9. The role of religion.​​ 

The influence of religion in state formation and growth was its uniting factor and significance in shaping leadership, administrative and judicial roles of societies. African traditional Religion, Islam and Christianity had greater role.

Notable states where traditional religion was a strong factor include Buganda and ancient kingdoms of Ghana and Zimbabwe; Islam played a recommendable job in building of states like Egypt, ancient Mali, Songhai, Bornu and Mandika while Christianity was responsible for Ethiopia.​​



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