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Traditional African communities had well-organised social and political systems. In order to understand the life of the African people, it is important to study their political, social and economic systems as these were the basis of organization in society. We will learn about kinship clan or clan organization, age-set organization, ntemiship and state organization in this topic.


Leaders in the clan organisation were chosen by a heritage system that was either matrilineal or patrilineal. Matrilineal systems are based on the mother’s side and patrilineal systems are based on father’s side e.g. of matrilineal societies are Makonde and Zanaki, while the Sukuma and Pare are good examples of patrilineal societies.

Note: The clan leaders in Africa had local names e.g. Sukuma – Mtemi, Nyakyusa- Malafyale.

Duties or Functions of the Clan Head
1. To distribute land to the communities or clan members.
2. To preserve traditions and customs of the clan.
3. To preserve land belonging to the clan.
4. To settle disputes and quarrels.
5. To find wives for boys and husbands for girls.

Types of Clan Organizations in Agricultural Societies.
1. Matrilineal
2. Partrilineal

Matrilineal Clan Organization
This is a society where by the husband moved to the wife’s family and children of the new family belonged to the mother’s (wife’s clan). As a result clan heritage was based on the mother’s clan. Uncles have to make all the important decisions concerning the children and the nephews of their sisters. Matrilineal age in Africa was practiced among the Makonde, Makua, Mwera and the Yao of Tanzania and the Kamba of Kenya.

Patrilineal Clan Organization
This is the system of organization in which the clan heritage was based on the father’s line and all children bared the name of the father. The husband had to pay substantial bride price in different forms such as cattle, goats, etc in Oder to get the wife, the bride price could be stored as wealth, in this system all the children of the new family belonged to the father’s clan. By the 18 th and 19 th century clan system changed to chief train ship after several came to be controlled under one leader.


Chiefdom or Chieftain Organization system was adopted by many societies that were under clan organisation. This included the Sukuma, Chagga, Nyakyusa, etc. The functions of a chief in these societies were similar to that of the clan leader the difference is the chief had a larger area.

Chief Mkwawa, Hehe & Chief Songea, Ngoni


This kind of socio-political organization based on age and sex. In order for one to fit in the society one was required to fulfill certain obligations. Often the main productive activity was based on the harsh environments. Such as arid grass land and semi arid, in these areas poor soil could not support agriculture economy but vegetation could be used for animal husbandry. Age set organization was the determinant form of organization in pastoral societies.

The best example of these societies were the Maasai , Nyakyusa of East Africa, Hausa in West Africa and the Khoi Khoi of South Africa. The division of responsibilities and duties was based on age and sex and was usually done during intuition ceremonies. Youths were taught special responsibilities.

Age Set covered a Specific Group of Years  

For example;
a) Children group aged 0 - 8 years were regarded as non producers group. They were not directly involved in production.

b) Youth group 8 -18 years: their main responsibility was to graze animals, trading young animals and milking cattle they were assisted by women.

c) Moran group ( people between youth and adults aged between 35yers) and above these were soldiers of the society.

The Moran, Maasai

The Main Responsibilities of the Moran were as follows;
1. To protect the whole society as trained soldiers.
2. To protect live stock against dangerous animals and raiders
3. To increase the number of animals through raiding their neighbours
4. To travel with their herds in search for water and pastures.

d) Laibons: this is the group of elders aged 40years and above it consisted of elders who were divided in groups namely; Junior elders, elders and senior elders

Responsibilities of Elders

1. To control live stock and all the properties on behalf of their communities.
2. To enable norms and ethics to govern the society.
3. They were top overseers of all the spiritual and political matters of the community.
4. They were responsible for counseling other members of the society.
5. To settle disputes among the society members                                                                  
6. They were regarded as retired producers of the society but their ideas and skills were highly appreciated.


Ntemi comes from the word “kutema” which means opening up of new land. It also means finding a locality. Ntemi was the name given to a leader who organized the action of opening up new land and controlled the people. Ntemiship was being practised in Unyamwezi by 1300 AD. It then spread in the neighbouring such as the Sukuma, Sangu, Hehe, Kimbu, Gogo and Bena of Tanzania. There were about 300 Ntemiship in Tanzania in the 18th Century.                                                                                                      

Among the Sukuma, the ruler in Ntemiship organization was called Ntemi. He became Ntemi because he was the founder of the locality. He was chosen by a counsel of elders choosing a person to become Ntemi depended on his wisdom courage and experience.

Mtemi Mirambo, Nyamwezi

Responsibilities of the Ntemi

1. He was the top authority in the political and judicial matters provided overall guidance in the community.

2. He enforced proper uses of resources such as land, water, forest resources etc.
3. He was the overseer of the community food reserve.

4. He settled disputes in the community.
5. To collect tributes from his subjects.

6. He had the religious power. He led the people in his community in performing religious ceremonies and offering sacrifices to the spirits.
7. He provided over all guidance in the society.

Factors for the Rise of the Nyamwezi Kingdom

Nyamwezi who lived in central Tanzania area group of the Bantu societies. Each of these societies had their own settlements headed by a chief and titled Mtemi (Ntemi). Ntemiship (chiefdom) was composed of people of shared background or kingship and believes. Each of the Nyamwezi kingdoms had a Ntemi at the centre who was helped by a council of elders the Wanyampala in administration.

Towards the middle of 19 th century more dynamic political structure developed among the Nyamwezi under Fundikira, Nyunguyamawe and Mirambo. This led to the institution of the Ntemi becoming one of the most powerful positions; the several Nyamwezi settlements were united under one senior Ntemi.

Factors for the Rise of the Nyamwezi Kingdom or Chiefdom can be explained below as follows;
1. Ngoni invasions- the Ngoni invasions in Western Tanganyika made the Nyamwezi people to unite  in order to resist the Ngoni attackers.

2. The expansion of real trade into the Regional trade/ Long distance trade due to emergency of wealthy traders like the Mirambo who made the effective use of Ruganga.

3. Penetration of the Europeans into the coastal interior trade.This introduced new trading patterns to the Nyamwezi traders who joined together to effective resist European pressure to stop slave trade.

4. The rise of Mirambo as trader and leader used their influence to unite the Nyamwezi land.

5. The use of the gun and gun powder by the Mirambo’s solders; this caused the weakening of watemi submissive to his rule.

6. Growth of the towns Example: Tabora and Ujiji.
7. Population growth.
8. Unity among the people.

The Rugaruga Soldiers, Nyamwezi


State is a community occupying a certain given territory and living under full control of its government and therefore it is independent form of external control. State in East Africa mostly started to emerge in the 18 th century AD due to the rapid spread of agricultural communities and improvement of science and technology. Clan which possessed a deliquate labour and land resources or had better skills of iron use became dominant clan and leader of the community or village; they were respected and obeyed by other clan members.

Those who disagreed with them migrated to other lands. In this way leader of the dominant clan assumed political and spiritual or ritual functions. Kings and queens were state leaders. Village heads who were leaders of many clans in villages were under state of kings or queens also had their court to deal with judicial matters


1. Conquest - some powerful states conquered the weaker societies and therefore making them strong and expand. For example Buganda conquered Bunyoro in the interlacustrine regions

2. Trade - trade such as the Long distance trade enabled the society concerned to become strong and powerful after acquiring commodities of different types including weapons which were used for strengthening their societies. Baganda got guns from the East Coast to defend and expand. The   empire of the Mali, Ghana and Songhai got metal and hoes from north Africa to strengthen their     military.

3. Good climate and fertile soils(soil fertility) - It led to the increase of food and assurance of feeding  which led to population increase, a factor which was very important for the state formation. For instance heavy rainfall and fertile soil enabled production of more food and surplus in Buganda.

4. Good leadership - some African rulers were strong and ambitious to expand their empire so they organized their people and got support from them for example: Kabaka of Buganda.

5. Availability of iron - iron promoted agricultural products and was used for making war weapons which in turn became most important for conquering other states.

6. Migration - this was a complimentary factor it happened that some people migrated to other states and brought with them new technology and skills which were used to expand and strengthen the new societies concerned.

7. Size of the kingdom- kingdoms that were small in size such as Buganda and Ghana were easier to organize,to administer effectively and to defend unlike the larger kingdoms like the Bunyoro; th effective control was impossible.

State Formation in Africa Environmental factor

Location of a place e.g. in trading while some of the African States were near to the trading towns as they obtained tax and commodities. Iron technology in Africa also helped in the development and rise of Africa states e.g. By Iron they made weapons like spears, Arrows, guns etc. weapons were useful on conquering small states eg. Buganda conquered Bunyaro-Kutoro, Nyankole.

Some states had good leadership and they were able to organise their states e.g. Shaka Zulu, Mirambo of Nyamwezi, Mkwawa of Hehe. Tunkumanin of Ghana, Sunsiata of Mali etc. Men belonging to African societies were involved in long and short distance trade which led to:
Outbreak of wars and migration
Formal governments

Some states rose up due to the influence of the Islamic religion e.g. through the use of Jihad while states were turned into Islamic states. For instance in West Africa we see the Sokoto caliphate (under Uthman Dan fodio) who managed to conquer several states in the forest zone. Some of African tribes had strong armies and had improved weapons for conquering other states. It is said that before the White man’s intrusion, Ghana had about 20,000 experienced soldiers and Mali had 10,000 soldiers.


1. Increase in size of states led to poor organisation and state management e.g. Ghana and other states.

2. Wars and conquest while some of the states were conquered by strong states e.g. In Mfecane war about 100 states were conquered by Zulu.

3. Slave trade in Africa also affected a lot of weak states while strong states managed to conquer small states e.g. Fulani in West Africa declined due to this.

4. The system of obtaining leaders through heritage did not lead to the development of states but the fall of states that were following this system.

5. The conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims in some societies while non-Muslim societies being conjured by the Muslim societies.

6. Weak leaders in some societies failed to organise their states leding to their decline.


Each of the colonial African societies had a system of government that means each society had a set of rules, laws and traditions sometimes called customs that established part of a larger group.  There were two dominant states emerged Africa and the varied more from one place to another;
1. Decentralized state (non-centralized) or stateless political societies
2. Centralized kingdoms and empires


These are societies that did not have well defined and complex or centralized system of government. These emerged as a result of one powerful family to control other clan to dominance of wealth and political power.

Characteristics of Decentralized States

1. Most of them are small in terms of population and geographical areas.

2. Stateless political societies in Africa were usually made up of a group of either neighboring towns or villages that had no political connection with a larger kingdom as a nation.

3. They are characterized by politically autonomous villages. That is each village was politically separated and not connected to the neighboring village also no hereditary chiefs.

4. These were religious organization structures of kinship ties lineage groups and secret societies that provided regulations.

5. They did not have a system of chiefs, it showed position of chief was weak and was not hereditary.

6. Chiefs were usually selected by a group of elders and not based on their family connections.

7. Some decentralized societies did not have chiefs they were organized by a council of elders which comprised of many elderly people in the community.


These are large kingdoms or empires that developed in a complex system of government. These large empires governed by kings who had near absolute power such as Ancient Egypt in north Africa, Ghana, Mali and Songhai in West Africa, Zimbabwe (southern Africa), Bunyoro, Buganda, Karagwe, Ankole and Toro of East Africa. These kingdoms were similar to those empires in Asia and Europe that were in existence during the same time/period.

Mansa Musa of Mali and the Sunni Ally of Songhai had near absolute power and there were no separation of power. The political control such as executive, legislature and judicial functioning were centralized in the hands of the few people.Political societies refer to these societies as centralized.

Some African Societies were Large Empires governed by Kings, who had near absolute power.
For Example:
1. North Africa – Egypt, Nubia, Axum in North East
2. Ghana, Mali, Soghai and Kaneroi Burnu in Western
3. Buganda, Karagwe, Ankole and Tero in East Africa

Characteristics of Centralised Political Systems
1. Presence of a king or queen.
2. The clan had to pay tribute to the monarchy
3. Availability of enough food to feed the settled population
4. The centralised authority was responsible for solving social disputes.


According to archaeological evidence, the Egyptian state arose between 1500 and 500 BC. The evidence also show that by this time there were already villages of self sufficient producers who grew wheat, barley and kept animals. These producers formed permanent settlements as they increased in population.

Reasons for the Rise of the Egyptian State
1. The development of agriculture and pastoralism
2. Specialization of labour
3. The rise of Nemes who united the upper and the lower Egypt
4. Development of local industries
5. Taxation
6. Strong Army
7. Development of productive forces

The Pharaoh, Egypt

Therefore any one with the following rose to power:
1. Anyone who could control disasters by rituals and charms
2. Anyone who had experience and stored knowledge of floods
3. Anyone who had knowledge of predicting floods

Classes in the Egyptian State
1. The ruling class- Consisted of the Pharaoh who was at the top followed by the nobility, priests, court officials and other officials- Followed by administrators of the people called the Vizier.
2. The working class
3. The peasants and slaves


Ethiopia started as a small kingdom known as Axum, was founded near the red sea coast by a dynasty of Sabean from the other side of the Red Sea. The Ethiopia arose around 1000 BC

Factors for the Growth of the Ethiopian State
1. Strong leadership
2. Agriculture
3. Unity among the people
4. Growth of local industries
5. Strong army
6. Taxation
7. Christianity

king theodore II and Menelik II, Ethiopia

Classes in Ethiopia
1. Feudal Lords
2. Peasants (tenants and serfs)
3. Slaves.

Feudalism was consolidated by the introduction of Christianity during the 4th AD and King Ezana was the first to be converted. King Zangwe built 30 churches. A descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.

Expansion done by 3 Emperors (leaders):
1. Zangwe Dynasty – 12th C – 13th C
2. King Theodire – 19th C – 1855 – 1868
3. Menelik II – 19th C – 1889 – 1913                                                                            
Menelik II made Addis Ababa his Capital

Nubia lay in the area that cut across the borders of modern Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. The Nubian State arose around 200 BC. It was called Kush and its capital was Napata. In 3rd C the capital shifted to Meroe.

Factors for the Rise/Growth of the Nubian State
1. Agricultural activities
2. Trade
3. Availability of valuable goods e.g. Gold and Ivory
4. Development of local industries

King Taharqa, Nubia
Decline of Nubia
1. Feudal lords were against the peasants
2. Attacks by Muslims
3. Disunity


The early State in western Sudan was established in the region between the Sahara desert and the forest region of the South. The most important states are Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Kanem Bornu

General Factors for the Rise of Western Sudanic States
1. Geographical location
2. Iron technology
3. The growth of population
4. Development of local industries
5. Taxation
6. Trans - Saharan trade
7. Availability of valuable goods e.g. gold
8. Good centralised government
9. Capable leaders
10. Strong army


During its rise Ghana had two main towns, one occupied by Muslims and the other by Pagans. The rulers and the people were Soninke speaking group. The word Ghana as the King title emerged in 5th AD. The capital center of administration was Koumbi Saleh. Tunka Manin was the last ruler of the Ghana Empire.

Factors for the Rise of the Ghanian Empire
1. Agricultural activities
2. Availability of valuable goods e. g gold
3. Trans – Saharan trade in gold and salt
4. Good leadership and efficient system of government.
5. Common language.

Tunka Manini, Ghana

Factors for the Decline of Ghana Empire
1. Almoravids constant attacks
2. Disunity among people
3. Jihad wars
4. Lack of stable system of royal successions
5. The rise of rural kingdoms e.g. Mali


Early in the 3rd century Ghana fell apart as a result of the war between Samangwa the king of Ghana and Prince Sundiata Keita the king of Kagaba.
Ghana was defeated and Ghana fell under Sundiata’s rulership.
Sundiata formed a large kingdom known as Mali the capital was Niani and the title of the ruler was Mansa.

Factors for the Rise of the Mali
1. The fall of Ghanaian empire
2. Control of gold fields of Bure
3. Strong army
4. Agricultural activities
5. Trans – Saharan trade
6. Strong leadership of Sundiata Keita and later Mauna Kan Kan Musa
7. Islamic faith which promoted libraries and Islamic universities.

Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa, Mali

Decline of the Mali Empire
1. Weak leadership after the death of Mansa Mahmud IV
2. Empire became too large to control
3. Lack of unity and the empire was divided into three spheres of influence and they fought against each other.
4. Attacks by Tuaregs
5. Civil wars
6. The rise of Songhai empire


In the late 15th Century the Songhai empire originally the Gao, conquered neighbouring states under the leadership of Sunni Ali and formed the large empire of Songhai. Gao became its capital at around the 11th C and remained the capital under the empire. Its famous leaders were Sunni Alli, Askia Mohamed and Askia Daud.

Factors for the Growth of Songhai Empire
1. Agriculture activities
2. Strong army
3. Trans – Sahara trade
4. Good administration
5. Taxation
6. Islamic faith

Sunni Ali, Songhai

Decline of the Songhai Empire
1. Weak leadership after the death of Askia Daud
2. The Moroccan invasion
3. The empire was too large to control
4. Religious hostility between Islamic and traditional beliefs
5. The shift in orientation of trade towards the Atlantic



Benin empire was a very small state made up of the Edo speaking people. The highest authority at the time were chiefs known as Ogiso which meant the ‘Kings of the Sky’ and the administrative centre was Ubinu. Between 1388 – 1431 there was a series of civil wars which divided the Edo.

After the death of the last Ogiso, his son Prince Ekaladerhan left for exile and established himself in Ile-Ife, so when the Edo people requested his return, he sent his son, Prince Oranmiyan who took up the throne. By 15th C the empire expanded into a city-state under the leadership of Oba Ewuare the Great

Reasons for the Rise of the Benin Empire
1. Some of capable rulers the greatest of whom was Ewuare
2. Good centralized system of Government
3. Trade
4. Unity
5. Development of Handicraft Industry

Oba Ewuare the Great, Benin

Decline of the Benin Empire
1. Introduction of slave trade
2. Trans- Atlantic trade
3. Firearms introduced through European trade caused tribal wars that led to the final decline of the Benin Empire.


Oyo empire began in the late 14th C or early 15th C likely 1388 – 1431. The people of Oyo were Oranmiyan, their capital was Oyo-Ile and the King of Oyo was called Alaafin. The Bashoran was the leader of the army.

Reasons for the Rise of the Oyo Empire
1. It had organised political system headed by a number of great Alafins
2. Strong organised army
3. Agricultural activities
4. Development of local industries
5. Slave trade
6. Dahomey tributary

The Oyo Army
Decline of the Oyo Empire
1. Conflict between Alafin and Basharon
2. Conquest from the Fulani and Dahomey
3. Civil wars and disunit


Dahomey rose after the decline of Oyo in the 19thC. It was founded by the Fon people. It had good leaders such as King Agaja and Houegbadja who built the Royal Palaces of Abomey.

The Rise of the Dahomey Empire
1. Growth of centralised and powerful monarchy
2. Boyul succession system was effective
3. Strong army
4. Good leadership of King Gezo and later Agaja
5. Control of slave trade
King Agaja. Dahomey 
Decline of Dahomey
Dahomey declined after the arrival of the French.


Asante or Ashanti empire was found as a result of emergence of several cities in the region of Kumasi. The people of Asante were Akan ruled by the Oyuko clan. The King was Obiri Yeboa who was Osei Tutu. The capital city of Asante or Ashanti was Kumasi. The symbol of Asante union was a Golden stool. The ruler of Asante was known as Asantehene.

Factors for the Rise of Asante
1. Agricultural activities
2. Development of local industries
3. Some of its capable rulers e.g. Osei Tutu
4. Well organised political system
5. Trade

Osei Tutu, Asante
Decline of Asante Empire 
The state declined after the arrival of Europeans.



it was founded in the 14th C. The head of the kingdom took the title of Munikongo or Mwekongo means lord of Kongo. The capital was Mbaza which the Portuguese later baptised Sutrador. Nzinga Nkuwu was among the greatest rulers in Kongo kingdom He was baptised by Catholic Portuguese, and renamed Affonso I

Factors for the Rise of Kongo Empire
1. Technological development e.g. Iron technology
2. Trade
3. Taxation
4. Development of local industries
5. Emergence of traditional leaders with a strong belief in spiritual and magic power

Nzinga Nkuwu (Affonso I), kongo

Decline of the Congo empire
1. The arrival of the Portuguese
2. Slave trade
3. Weak leadership after Manikongo Mingo Mkuwa who acquired up an Embassy in Portugal.

His son Nzinga Mbemba was baptized as Dan Alfonce. He was a puppet of thePortuguese and caused civil war in Kongo.


This Kingdom was created under the leadership of Mutola. Mutola conquered Tongu and Torura of the Zambezi valley. He acquired the title of Mwenemutapa which means ‘Master of conquered lands. He was a political, military and religious leader.  Mutola died in 1450 and his son Matope inherited, after Matope’s death in 1480 Changamire took over in 1490.

Reasons for the Rise of Mwenemutapa
1. Agriculture activities
2. Good leadership of Mutola
3. Availability of valuable goods e.g. copper, iron and gold
4. They controlled trade routes
5. Trading centres

Reasons for the Decline of Mwenemutapa
1. The arrival of Portuguese who monopolized the gold trade
2. The kingdom became divided into two parts Mutapa and Ruzwi
3. Rebellion from local people

After the death of Matope, his son Nyahuma took over. He was younger than the other chief who wanted power so that chief rebelled and caused civil war.


This state is found between the tributaries of river Kongo. The Songiye people migrated from Katanga led by a leader from the Kangolo clan. The united Kaniok and from Luba kingdom, Ilungambila married into the Kangolo clan. This intermarriage gave rise to the Luba lineage of Kalala Ilunga, the founder of Munza as capital of Luba.

Reasons for the Rise of the Luba State
1. Agricultural activities
2. The development of trade
3. The presence of iron technology
4. Centralised system of administration where the kingdom had final say in wars and external trade


The centre of the empire lay in the valley of Nkala river. The Luba kings took the title of Mwanta. It began as a simple village and their first ruler was called Mwantagaand.  Ilunga Tshibinda who came from Luba married a princess from the area and their son became the first paramount ruler of the Lunda State.

Factors for the Rise of Lunda State
1. Iron technology
2. Development of local industries
3. Agriculture activities
4. Good leadership
5. Trade.

Factors that gave Rise to Centralized System of Government

1. Existence of strong leadership for example among the Baganda, strong and able rulers such as Kyabagu, Suna and Mutesa 1 were able to unite the Baganda people and govern them.

2. Permanent cultivation and dense population.

3. A long period of war with neighbours encouraged the people to form one united state for the sake of security such as among the Sambaa and Baganda.

4. Strong army helped to conquer new areas and force the people to accept the ruler of one leader. E.g Chief Mirambo of Unyamwezi.


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