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Succession in contemporary Africa

  • Jack Goody

Modes of succession to high office in Africa today present the same problems for study as most other institutions in that continent; we have to analyse and understand both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ practices. The two terms imply time-depth and it is of course true that we can pinpoint, for example, the recent entry of the extensive electoral procedures which follow a European model, whereas the kind of hereditary system by which offices circulated between segments of royal dynasties was there long before. But today ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ exist side by side and from one standpoint the insistence upon this division carries some dangers if it leads automatically to the idea that, as time goes on, ‘modern’ practice is necessarily going to completely oust ‘traditional’ methods. In the first place, the two systems may continue to operate in different spheres of social life, the ‘traditional’ for local chiefs, the ‘modern’ for national politicians. Even when this is the case, both types of leadership occur within one socio-cultural field, which, however highly differentiated it may be, is bound to modify the behaviour of the interacting individuals, roles and institutions. The mode of selecting an Ashanti chief is certainly not what it was before the advent of first colonial over-rule and secondly independent nationhood. The style of choosing representatives for local and national government is in turn influenced by the norms of chiefship. One continues to modify the other because both exist side by side.

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(1) I do not wish to suggest that they may not witness a rebirth, under some circumstances. But as organisations they had disappeared.

(2) Goody, Jack, Introduction (pp. 156), and Circulating Succession among the Gonja (pp. 142–146), in Goody, Jack (ed.), Succession to High Office (Cambridge 1966).

(3) I have discussed this general problem in relation to the specific instance of adoption in Adoption in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Comp. Studies in Society and History, XI (1968), 5578. But the comment applies equally to other areas of the social services.

(4) Goody, (1966), op. cit.

(5) See Goody, (1966), op. cit. p. 27, fig. 1. The comparison between Eurasia and Africa is given more systematic treatment in a forthcoming paper.

(6) Ibid. p. 34.

(7) I touched upon these differences in an earlier paper (1959). but have discussed their implications at greater length in three more recent articles, namely, Adoption in Cross-cultural Perspective, op. cit.; Inheritance, Property and Marriage in Africa and Eurasia, Sociology, III (1969), 5578; Economy and Feudalism in Africa, Econ. History Rev., (in press).

(8) See Goody, J., The Classification of Double Descent Systems, Current Anthropology, II (1961), pp. 312, 2124.

(9) This statement requires some qualification for the “Kano Chronicle” tells of one Amina, a ruler of Zaria in about 1430, who conquered as far as Kuara-rafa and Nupe, from where she obtained kola nuts and eunuchs, said to be the first in Hausaland. See Palmer, H. R., Sudanese Memoirs (Lagos 1928), vol. III, p. 109. Not only was this unusual (the 48 rulers of Kano are all males), but the sex of the ruler seems doubtful. Sultan Bello and the Abuja Chronicle retain the female sex, but describe her as the daughter of a Chieftain and not as a Chieftainess in her own right. However Johnston, who discusses the point in detail, concludes that “she may never have existed but simply be a myth with its roots in an earlier matriarchal era”. See Johnston, H. A. S., The Fulani Empire of Sokoto (London 1967), p. 260. The latter part of this statement seems very doubtful. But I have recorded a past instance in Birifu (northern Ghana), where the sister of a dead Earth priest seized her brother's office, succession to which was within a matrilineal clan who were also members of the same patrician. See Goody, J., The Social Organisation of the LoWili (London 1956), p. 97. In other parts of northern Ghana the succession of females to positions of ritual though not political leadership is reported. The African situation is certainly not the mirror opposite of the Eurasian, for there are many cases where a married woman's role is denned with respect to her brother rather than her husband and in such cases she may sometimes act as a kind of substitute, either by custom or by force. Nevertheless the position is still a very different one, as a any regnal list will attest; though such male dominated lists can of course be paralleled in Eurasia, the reverse is not true.

(10) The line of Lovedu queens began under a very special set of circumstances, around 1800; previously this minor offshoot of the famous Monomotapa empire (c. 1500) had been ruled by men, but “the Lovedu kings had always been sacred kings”, a refugee group noted for their rain making and “among the politically weakly organised rather than highly centralised Bantu”. See E. J. and Krige, J. D., The Realm of a Rain-Queen (London 1943), pp. 1, 3.

(11) See the many examples given by M'Lennan and Bachofen. Many of these are examined by Simon Pembroke to whom I am indebted for discussions on this point. Indeed we arrive at much the same conclusions by somewhat different approaches. Matriliny is in fact rather rare in Eurasia. The assumption that it was more widespread at an earlier date stems from the conceptualisation of descent groups (and systems of inheritance and succession) in over-rigid, box-like terms. ‘Agnatic’ in Africa shows some basic differences from ‘agnatic’ in Eurasia. In my view the kind of box-like model applied to early Greek and Roman society by Henry Maine, Fustel de Coulanges and others, is more appropriate (though still inadequate) for the general African situation, and this perhaps explains the appeal of these authors to writers like Radcliffe Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Fortes and Forde who first delineated the nature of lineage systems in that continent.

(12) This point is developed in Technology and the State in Africa (London, Oxford University Press, in press).

(13) See White, L., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

(14) While these were of course present in Africa, they were applied on a quite different scale.

(15) See Braimah, J. A. and Goody, J., Salaga: the Struggle for Power (London, Longmans, 1967).

(16) A reversion to the traditional system of rotation could also assist in mitigating some of the problems of multiethnic federations. Indeed it is significant that before the war of Ibo Secession, the suggested constitutional proposals seemed to be groping towards a system of this kind.

(17) The Merry Bells, in Death, Property and the Ancestors (London 1962).

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European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie
  • ISSN: 0003-9756
  • EISSN: 1474-0583
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