Ancient African Democracy

Although we learn that our idea of Democracy was supposed to have originated in ancient Greece, archeologists and historians are taking a deeper look at the culture and government of ancient Africa to find out that democratic principles were in ancient Egypt and African kingdoms such as the Songhay, Mossi, Mali, and Kongo.

Early Democracy:

It appears that many of the ancient African cultures not only established valid democracies but may have been the originators of some of the laws and guidelines that continue to be in use today.

The fact that we have known little of this information is due to the lack of written records in many of the African cultures. Beyond Egypt, most information in African tribes were passed down through word of mouth.

It wasn’t until more recently that archeologists have learned that ancient Egypt was far more progressive than previously thought.

In 6th century BC Athens, the reforms that became the foundations for democracy were based on visits to ancient Egypt, whose system of social organization were thousands of years old.

During that time many of the philosophers, artists, and scientists took trips to visit Egypt as part of their rite of passage.

Different Democracy Types:

To maintain peace and keep social unrest from happening, many of the African kingdoms adopted representative systems and even had constitutions that included limiting the amount of power given to emperors or kings.

They knew that ultimate power could overturn their way of life and gave ministers and governors the ability to remove rulers.

Although the Mossi empire governors came from specific social classes or families, those from ordinary families could be in charge of their Calvary and even a slave could be the head of the infantry.

A king was required to follow their constitutional laws and he wasn’t allowed to fire or get rid of any of the ministers once they were in office.

These clauses were important as they kept a balance for all social classes and kept those in the noble classes from taking over.

A former province of the kingdom of Ghana known as Cayor had similar constitutional conditions.

They gave their prime minister the ability to get rid of or impeach a king if it was found that the king was making decisions against the people’s wishes.

The Kongo kingdom made it very clear that the king’s authority was dependent upon his personal qualities, the people’s will, and the democratic rules.

Each of the chiefs of every village and the state and province governors were elected. They could remain in office for life unless their performance was considered to be inadequate.

Other Benefits for the People:

Ancient African societies not only established democratic structures but they also had a set of civil liberties and human rights.

The constitution of the Mali Empire had the Kurukan Fuga charter (1236) also called the Manden Charter that was created after their emperor’s military victory.

The charter created a set of rules between different social groups that brought about peace and gave equal rights to every citizen, including women and slaves. It is older than any of the Western bill of rights or declarations and is thought to be the first declaration of Human Rights in history.

Many of the countries such as Somaliland continue to use the heritage of their democracy to create laws and regulations.

  • The traditional ways of governing that began in ancient Africa has been carried forward in many of the voting methods and demands for government accountability today.
  • Each ethnic group in Africa has representation and the people choose the most appropriate person or people.
  • The Kurukan Fuga is still transmitted orally to the younger generation. In 2009, UNESCO included it in the Representative Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
  • Rwanda has carried their sense of equality forward from ancient times so that they are considered to have a better level of gender equality than many other democratic countries in the world.

What did you Learn?

What unique rights were slaves given in the Mossi Kingdom?

they could be the head of the infantry

What empire created a democratic constitution that was older than any of the Western World constitutions?


What ultimate power did the prime minister of kingdom of Ghana known as Cayor, have?

he could impeach the ruler

What three guidelines were used for the continued power of the ruler of the Kongo Kingdom?

ruler’s personal qualities, the people’s will, and the democratic rules

What were the two main reasons that many of the ancient African cultures adopted representative systems?

to maintain peace and keep social unrest from happening

What couldn’t the Mossi empire king do to the governors?

fire them once they were in office