Study of traditional African societies can be confined to that period before the coming of European missionaries and Arab traders. Here the emphasis will be temporal, and the distant past or the historical will be seen as the traditional, while the present will be seen as the modern. On the other hand, the study of these societies can be confined to the rural communities where the old values are still common and cherished. There the emphasis will be spatial, and the distinction will fall between the rural seen as the traditional and the urban seen as the modern. I have used traditional African societies in the first sense.

Traditional African societies have been divided further into two broad categories, namely, those which had very highly centralized authority and leadership under kings or powerful chiefs and those which had decentralized authority and leadership, where small chiefs ruled over small clans or lineages. Anthropologists have referred to the first category as primitive states and to the second as stateless or acephelous societies.1 Buganda belonged to the former.


The Buganda had a monarchical type of government. Among monarchical governments there are limited and absolute monarchs. Buganda had the former type because directly under the king (who was also a hereditary ruler), there were heads of clans, chiefs and sub-chiefs all the way down the hierarchy to the extended family. The council of heads of clans under the king acted as the parliament and lower down were the chiefs at the various levels of society; all of them assisted in the social and political administration of society.

It was the Greeks who gave us the word `political' for what, according to The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, was the "socio-organization of society which provided the necessary conditions for men to take for the first time a rational critical view of the individual and the collectivity."2 Because of the structure just outlined we can see that traditional Buganda society had a political organization of society. The major concern of social and political philosophy in Greece and in traditional African societies then was one of reconciling individual interests and those of society. In the one case, i.e., in the Greek city state, that was a conscious deliberate exercise as is witnessed by the extensive literature on the subject. In traditional African society, it was an unconscious covert activity, but one which proceeded nevertheless. The relationship between the individual and society was as significant in Greece as it was in Africa, where man saw himself first and foremost as an individual in society. His whole being was, because society was. Mbiti summarizes that position as follows: "I am because we are and because we are therefore I am."3 The individual in Africa was so intertwined in the affairs of society that it was only natural that a way had to be sought to relate an individual to the society. What is true of man in Africa, is true of man in Buganda.


The hereditary nature of the kings and their quasi-divine origins is of philosophical interest. Myths4 had it that kings were born with two umbilical cords or with their fists holding on to some unspecified object. Whatever the authenticity of these myths, what is significant is that kings qua kings were viewed as semi-divine entities with semi-divine origins. This had two major implications.

(1) Authority: Because kings were believed to be semi-divine entities, their power and authority, though never absolute, was never questioned. This practice was true in Buganda as well as many other African societies. Writing generally about kingship in Africa, J.S. Mbiti made the following observation:

where these rulers are found, they are not simply political heads: they are the mystical and religious heads, the divine symbol of their people's health and welfare. The individual as such may not have outstanding talents or abilities but their office is the link between human rule and spiritual government. They are therefore, divine or sacral rulers, the shadow or reflection of God's rule in the universe. People regard them as God's earthly viceroys.5

On the king's part his position meant that he had to behave benevolently to his subjects, who after all, were God-given to him and whose presence justified their (the kings) existence. Kings had the moral and social obligations to see to the well-being of their people. They were seen as the axis of legal and moral norms, holding people together in a political community which was at the same time a religious community. Kings were the force of mythical values. All these points imbued kings with authority unquestioned by anybody in their kingdoms.

(2) Transfer of Power: Owing to their semi-divine origins, traditional Buganda experienced a smooth transfer of power--a fact which was of considerable social and political significance. The reigns of power automatically were passed on to the male son of the king who had been born with the `signs'.6 Moreover, this succession took place after the death of the incumbent. It is important to note that power in traditional Buganda society did not derive from any written constitutions, but solely from the fact that one had been born with the `signs'.

The traditional theory and practice contrasts very sharply with today's theory and practice where whoever qualifies as a citizen qualified also for the highest office in the land. This open door policy has led to a `legitimization crisis' à la Habermas, namely, a situation in which people withdraw from the government the support it needs for its continued survival and existence. Legitimation crises can be due to several reasons, but more often than not because the subjects have questioned the credentials, origins and sources of authority of their leaders.

The coming to power of post independence presidents has raised questions. Writing about one such leader, Karugire says the leader in question did not come to power "because of any particular advantage, his choice had largely been a matter of chance. It was not on account of his longer experience in politics, proven qualities of statesmanship or charismatic leadership that he was chosen."7 This quotation is of considerable significance for our analysis here because on closer analysis what is said about present-day leaders, namely, their lack of experience, ascent to power by chance, etc., was true also of the kings. Kings, we have seen, did not have any experience, nor did they have such glaring charismatic qualities. Why then did they not face legitimation crises themselves?

The answer seems to be in the origins of the power of the king, namely, their quasi-divine origin made the subjects obey. Authority and power derived from God could not be questioned. This is the very factor that seems lacking in the modern period. If in the modern period we are going to address ourselves to legitimization crisis, we shall have to address ourselves squarely to the problem of source or origins of authority. Credible sources and origins must be sought.



To what extent can we, without fear of contradiction, talk of democracy in a monarchical government? To the extent that the monarch was limited, there was always room for debate, critical discussions and often outright rejection of what the king otherwise wanted--in short, there was room for consensus formation.

The monarch ruled through a council of heads of clans and there were many councils of heads, sub-heads and chiefs at the various levels of society. After every debate a consensus had to be reached or sought. Consensus was very central to the operation of democracy and justice in traditional Buganda society and of African societies generally. If after deliberations the heads of clans reached a consensus it would be taboo on the part of the monarch to reject or oppose what the clan leaders had agreed upon. That would spell disaster. In spite of his semi-divine origins, the monarch avoided working autocratically. It should be pointed out that the king rarely took part in the deliberations himself, the rationale being that the monarch should not prejudice the proceedings of the debate. Democracy demanded that the king execute what had been arrived at without his contribution. If the king had anything to contribute he would get it across through one of his closest councilors, who would then pass it on for discussion and eventual consensus formation. We need to note that consensus formation was carried on at the highest level, as well as at the various levels in the structure of society down to the extended family.

In the formation of consensus at the highest level we can see a very weak form of representative democracy. It was weak because the heads of clans who were at the top to influence major decisions were never elected by the people, but the monarch himself. It was representative nevertheless because a Muganda qua Muganda belonged to at least one of the 52 clans, whose heads formed the consensus on which the tribe was run.

The fact that kings worked on the basis of consensus from among their citizens points to a liberal outlook in spite of monarchism. According to a liberal view instead of views being held dogmatically by the leaders or citizens, they are held tentatively all the time conscious that newer evidence will lead to their acceptance or rejection. We can still see that at the heart of the spirit of consensus was a liberal spirit. Even the head of a clan or elder had to be open-minded and avoid sticking dogmatically to his own proven views. Newer levels of awareness could always lead to newer insights.

The idea of a veto stands in very sharp contrast to this idea of consensus. A veto is defined as the constitutional right of a president to reject or forbid something. This contrasts strongly to the spirit of a republican form of government according to which the representatives of the people have supreme power in the land. Hence, it is ironic that by the power of the veto they can be overruled by the president. The concept of a veto was alien to traditional Buganda society; any application of it would have spelled disaster.

Whereas in the modern world political decisions have come to be the result of compromise between powerful interest groups, like labor organizations, trade unions, rather than the outcome of rational discussions or agreements, in traditional Buganda society there was room for reasoned arguments and respect for agreed consensus.

However, there were often cases of discrepancies between the theory and the practice. Although the king's rule was supposed to follow the consensus there were often glaring instances in which kings infringed upon the unwritten constitutional rights of the people. Whenever that happened, it always led to popular disapproval and civil disobedience. One feature stood out very markedly, however, namely that in cases of civil disobedience or rebellion, the aim and result was always to change the personnel of office and never to abolish the office and set in its phase some new form of government.

Whenever citizens rebelled against the monarch, they did so only in defense of the values (traditional values) which they felt the king had violated by his malpractices.

There has been a very sharp break from this outlook in the modern period and modern state. In the modern state whenever there are rebellions (often by the military and paramilitary organizations), which rebellions take the form of coup d'états, the aim always is to overthrow an entire socio-political system with all its values and ideologies and often to replace these with entirely different--often opposed--values and ideologies. Hence, if the rebellion is against a Western liberal form of democracy, the aim and result would be the institution of a Marxist form of government.

The feature that has come hand in hand with this development has been the application of organized force to overthrow values and ideologies no longer deemed desirable. Organized force is used largely because of the problems related to modern forms of power transfer, where incumbents do not want to go willingly, and the presence of large forces which often are very difficult to satisfy. Organized force was used in traditional Buganda, but the aims were always territorial expansion. Armies were externally directed, never a source of solving internal conflicts.


Political parties have come to the scene with many promises, but at the same time many inherent problems which stem simply from the fact that they are political parties. For political parties have been responsible for the rejection of the tribal concept of consensus due mainly to two considerations: their undemocratic nature and their corrupting influences.8

The party system destroys consensus, and thus democracy, by denying the individual any significant opportunity for effective political action. With the rise of the party system, the party replaces the `people' with `citizens' as the dominating factor in democracy. It follows that the candidates proposed by each party no longer appear as individual men of flesh and blood as from the tribal set-up--elders or clan leaders knowledgeable about the societal norms and values. What we have with political parties are party members clad with party cards. With the massive help of the party machine, party members will try to win people's votes by appealing to their base instincts and sentiments; driven to frenzy, the electorate, in turn, is not always so discriminative. Finally, those who are elected are representatives not really of the people, but of the party which has become an abstract concept. Party members do not have loyalty to the people whom they are supposed to represent as is understood by the principles of political delegation. Rather, their loyalty is to the party which ensured their success in the elections. In such a fluid situation of shifting loyalties, where is there room for consensus formation?

But political parties have come with yet another problem. Any party worth the name will try to come to power in order to implement its programs. In order to come to power and retain it, political parties have had to resort to Machiavellian principles. Acting upon the time honored dictum that the end justifies the means, political parties in the modern state have become unscrupulous about the means, thereby draining all ethical considerations from political theory and practice. Whereas ethical considerations had been a key feature of traditional political theory and practice, parties in the modern state will use any means, fair or foul to get power and keep it. As the tribal values which are thrown overboard had guided consensus formation, what we have left are materialistic considerations which foster the welfare not of society, but of individuals.

Personal Rules

Traditional Buganda was characterized by personal rule, whereby the king knew personally all his senior officials. That situation was due to the small size of the tribe which made possible social interaction with a great number of the people. Though rejected in the modern state because it fosters corruption and tribalism, the phenomena of personal rule remains very much a feature of society.

Owing to the development of political parties we find that in elections, the electorate delegates their power to their representatives. But not every party member has power in the party hierarchy. As only a few members at the top really wield power, even the parties which command the majority and therefore form the government really are ruled by a handful of men at the top of the party in question. The powerful party bosses, as a matter of fact, personalize power, and whoever wants favors will try to come under their sway. Consequently, personal rule, after having been rejected, makes its return into the political arena of modern states.

Justice in Buganda

Justice in traditional African society, and Buganda in particular, was justice as fairness. A practice is deemed fair when it is in conformity with the principles which those who participate in it could propose or acknowledge before one another.9

Justice as fairness can be appreciated very easily given the small size of the tribes where many people stayed together in extended families and many people knew each other. Justice followed not an elaborate canon of laws, but societal norms. To illustrate the point: if a young woman for some reason ran away from her husband's house and returned to her father's home, say after a quarrel, the traditional concept of justice demanded that before passing justice in favor for or against anybody, both sides, i.e., the girl's side as well as the boy's side, had to be listened to. Even here, consensus was very central. Judgment could be given only after the elders from both sides, i.e., the girl's side and the boy's side, had met and come to a consensus. Several interesting features emerge about the traditional conception of justice:

(i) The offender had a right to be heard. This right, which is enshrined in modern constitutions, is not an exclusive concern of modern society, but goes back to the tribal society as well.

(ii) Because justice was always given by the elders in the extended family, it was always given promptly. `Justice delayed is justice denied' seems to be an exclusive problem of modern society.

These two points are of considerable important when we realize that according to modern constitutions we have a right to be heard, but that this right has to be realized through a whole institution of the law courts and a legal system involving lawyers, etc. Because all this has to be paid for, in cases where the citizen is unable to pay, the right is denied.

Then too, the modern state has witnessed a unprecedented incidence of `popular justice'. This phrase is now very commonly used in law enforcement agencies, the administration of justice, discussions, publications and in society generally. Popular justice may be defined as what is fair in the eyes of the public regarding a given case or in general.10 It may now be asked why popular justice has become a common feature of modern social life? The answer seems to be that in the modern state justice is dispensed from a distance--by the police, the civil administration and law enforcement agencies all of which as centralized are generally located at a distance. As a result the practice of popular justice has to be seen against a background of justice delayed.

There were areas of patent injustice as well; here I am referring, for example, to cases of witch hunting where those accused of sorcery were expelled from villages and often killed. To traditional man that was seen as justice. What would have constituted an injustice would have been to let a sorcerer go unpunished, for traditional man saw those who practiced witchcraft, evil magic and sorcery as the very incarnation of moral evil. Their activities were directed to the destruction of social relationships and society, justice demanded that they be punished. Often, punishment would be payment of fines, after which the member would be allowed back into the mainstream of society.

(iii) A third feature of the tribal conception of justice was that its administration had to be based upon a consensus. The widespread application of the methodology of consensus as a way of coming to decisions implicitly points to an awareness in traditional mind of the possibility of a dictator emerging and imposing his likes on the rest of society. Consensus can be seen as an implicit safeguard against dictators infringing on the unwritten constitutional rights of the people.

How did a political structure lacking elaborately organized law enforcement agencies ensure that decisions arrived at by consensus become binding? This point was raised also by Hobbes who argued that "`just' and `unjust' presuppose a coercive power capable of enforcing obligations."11 The question how, in the African context, did society ensure that everybody abided by the decisions brings us to another important feature of traditional African society, namely, taboo.


Taboo is defined in the dictionary as an act or thing which religion or custom regard as forbidden. Nabakwe has argued that the African mind uses the term taboo "to mean an attitude against what is regarded as bad or wrong."12

Now, in traditional Africa, consensus operated in such a way that if the elders of the community agreed to an issue, the offender had to obey whether he liked it or not. The taboo system here dictated the social and moral roles, and was as binding on the king as on the common citizen. The taboo system enforced social sanctions, rejection of which would bring ostracism, death by curse, deprivation, etc. Nabakwe points out that ostracism was "a more severe punishment than being in jail because a man and his tribe are inseparable. A man under curse is no man. Yet all those things may come to pass because of the break of taboo norms."13

What made the taboo so forceful is that it was viewed as an unwritten moral imperative, a supreme good, adherence to which would enhance the individuals' happiness and welfare and make him a fully integrated member of society. Taboo therefore was deeply rooted in consensus.

Equality and Freedom

The concept of equality as we know it today, namely, equality in view of our common humanity or because we are all sons of God does not seem to have struck the traditional mind, be that in Greece or India where in each case we had masters and slaves. Traditional Buganda society was no exception in this. There were distinctions drawn between the royals, abalangira; chiefs, abaami; and commoners, abakopi. Whereas these categories were so firmly fixed in the case of India or Greece, in traditional Buganda they could be changed. Hence, through hard work and diligence a commoner (omukopi) could become a chief, and a chief could enter the royal family through marriage. It follows therefore that behind the apparent inequality in traditional Buganda there was always the equality of opportunity to join other classes of higher distinction.

What is important about equality in traditional Buganda society is that, regardless of class, every citizen of the tribe was free to contribute to consensus formation. Consensus formation was not an exclusive right of clan heads and chiefs. The people of lower classes were always conscious of their civil rights and always attempted to exercise them. The point made by M. Fortes and Evans Prichard goes to the heart of the matter: "The structure of an African state implies that kings and chiefs rule by consent. A ruler's subjects are fully aware of the duties he owes to them, as they are of the duties they owe to him, and are able to exert pressure to make him discharge these duties."14

That position marks a sharp contrast of the traditional African to the modern social/political structure, where owing to the emergence of political parties, only the ruling party can influence decisions. In the social organization of the tribe everybody, at whatever level, was free to talk. People "talk till they agree,"15 which is what consensus and democracy in tribal society was all about.


To a very large extent there has been a break from the traditional practices and the social political philosophy of Buganda society. The breaks have been due to several causes.

(a) Colonialism and Neo-colonialism: To a large extent this has been responsible for wholesale transplantation to Africa of political and social models. Witness the proliferation of political parties and parliamentary democracy which has taken the place of consensus of the traditional African society. Whereas party politics is not as such adverse to consensus, nevertheless, the inner dynamics of party politics are such that the conditions of consensus formation have little chance to survive, for the values that guided consensus formation are largely ignored.

(b) Economics: The economic restructuring of the newly emerging states of Africa may have a far more serious impact on the political and social philosophy of the continent than colonialism and neo-colonialism. It is an open question whether the economics of the modern states are not themselves so many forms of neo-colonialism. What can be said with certainty, however, is that in the tribal structure economic considerations, though important, were not so overriding in the social and political realm. In the structures of an economics of scarcity, the toll on democracy cannot be over emphasized. Walter O. Oyugi argues that "indeed the whole idea of democracy does not make sense where a peoples' major preoccupation is survival."16 I would hasten to add here that the economic struggle now is more intense than ever before, given the growing populations and diminishing resources.

(c) Pluralism: The problem of shifting away from homogenous societies to heterogenous societies. In the tribal setup, Buganda was a homogenous entity with a uniform culture and language: the tribe had its centralized leadership under the monarch. In the nation-state, we find bundled together tribes of different, often opposed, cultures. The mingling of formerly highly centralized societies with the formerly stateless societies is bound to cause some conflict, and any understanding of present turmoil in Africa must bear this in mind. A new national culture needs to be formed which will blend many strains of thought, but this has yet to be done.

Makerere University

Kampala, Uganda


1. M. Fortes and Evans Prichard (eds.), African Political Systems (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), p. 5.

2. Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1973), Vol. V, p. 371.

3. J. S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969), p. 214.

4. Myths here should be understood in the Biblical sense. They are stories intended to carry some deeper truths.

5. J.S. Mbiti, ibid.,p. 182.

6. The signs referred to here are those referred to in myth above.

7. S.R. Karugire, A Political History of Uganda (Nairobi: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980), p. 190.

8. Whereas these considerations may be true of many developing countries, they may not be necessarily true of the developed countries.

9. This is the kind of conception Rawls seems to expound in his Theory of Justice.

10. J. Kakooza "Criminology as Viewed from Human Rights Violation" presented at The Uganda Human Rights Activists Seminar on Human Rights (Kampala: Makerere University, 1989), p. 6.

11. Paul Edwards, ibid., p. 300.

12. W.M. Nabakwe "Social and Moral Responsibility Within African Traditional Context." The First International Regional Conference in Philosophy, Mombasa 23-27 May, 1988, p. 4.

13. W.M. Nabakwe, ibid., p. 2.

14. M. Fortes and Evans Prichard, ibid., p. 9.

15. J. Nyerere, Nyerere on Socialism (Dar-es-Salaam,: Oxford University Press), p. 104.

16. W.O. Oyugi and A. Gitonga, Democratic Theory and Practice in Africa, (Naibobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1987), p. 109.