Ancient African Government

The governments of Ancient Africa were usually run by kings and queens; although the people in charge of the country changed a lot, the structure of the government usually remained the same.

This is because, even when one empire replaced another, the old government structure was kept to maintain peace.

The first civilization of Africa was the civilization of the Ancient Egyptians. Because of this, it had the most old-fashioned government.


The overall leader of the Ancient Egyptian government was the pharaoh – a “divine representative,” or servant of gods, who was born to a special bloodline that gave them the right to rule.

The Ancient Egyptians worshipped their pharaohs like a god, and this meant that the pharaoh had absolute authority over the country.

The pharaoh ruled Egypt with the help of a number of advisors. After the pharaoh, the next most powerful member of the government was the “vizier.”

Every pharaoh had at least one vizier (though some had two) and the vizier was the second most powerful person in Egypt.

He aided the pharaoh in their duties, and with the creation and enforcement of laws. Under them were the high priests, the most important religious figures after the pharaoh himself.

The high priests led the religious ceremonies of Ancient Egypt. Under the high priests were the royal overseers (or government leaders) who made sure that the 42 governors of Egypt (smaller rulers chosen by the pharaoh) carried out the pharaoh’s orders.

The 42 governors of Egypt were called “Nomarks,” and every Nomark ruled over an area of land, called a “nome”, that was like a state or province.

Following the end of the Egyptian civilization, an era of kingdoms and empires began in Africa. The first major empire to follow Egypt was the Ghana Empire.

Unlike Egypt, which was ruled under a holy pharaoh, the Ghana Empire was ruled simply by a king. The capital city was Koumbi Saleh, and this is where the government would meet.

Historians don’t know a lot about how the Ghana Empire was governed, due to how little the Empire recorded its own history.

What we know of the Ghana Empire comes from other countries’ records: for example, we know from another countries’ records that the Kings of Ghana were particularly welcoming to foreign visitors, and depended a lot on their “vassal nations” (countries which surrounded the main nation of the empire, who would pay taxes to the king) to get money.

The Mali Empire, which followed the Ghana Empire, likely followed the same structure. However, the Mali government placed more importance on religion than the Ghana empire’s.

The “Mansa” (king) of the Mali Empire was the head of the Mali government, and the most famous Mansa of Mali was a man called Mansa Musa.

Mansa Musa became famous because of a famous trip he took to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 1324.

Mecca is the holy city of the Muslims, and when Mansa Musa went there, he brought 60,000 people with him, a variety of expensive gifts and a caravan of camels who were loaded with gold.

The religion of Islam was a crucial part of the Mali Empire and influenced some of the laws the country was run by. However, even though the Mansas of Mali were all Muslims themselves, their subjects were not forced to convert.

Many people practiced a modified version of the faith that combined traditional Islamic beliefs with local spirituality.

The next empire of Ancient Africa (the Songhai Empire) changed the government structure completely. After the fall of the Mali Empire, the Songhai King Sonna Ali established a new system of government.

Queens & Women Warriors of Africa

Governors were appointed to rule over pieces of the kingdom and were granted authority over their territories as long as it did not go against the king’s law.

The Kings of Songhai would only intervene in these states when a problem arose, and generally, left the governors to run the states to their own satisfaction.

This system of government is closer to how European governments developed between the 14th – 19th centuries, and meant that the seat of the King was less powerful than it had been in previous Empires.

Facts about Ancient African governments:

  • Due to the huge number of different kingdoms and empires that controlled Africa, there was never any single system of government that stayed in control for long.
  • The first civilization of Africa was that of the Ancient Egyptians.
  • The Ancient Egyptian government concentrated total power in the hands of one person – the pharaoh. The pharaoh had absolute authority over the Egyptian state and was aided only by their advisors and high priests.
  • Following the collapse of the Egyptian civilization, a more typical monarchic (monarchic = ruled by a king/queen) structure came into place.
  • We see this structure in records of the Mali/Ghana/Songhai Empires.
  • In these empires, power was concentrated mostly in the hands of the king. However, there were some differences between each of the three empires.
  • Religion was very important to the rule of the Mali Empire, and Islamic tradition influenced the creation of any laws.
  • In the Songhai Empire, meanwhile, power was distributed equally among a number of governors, who were chosen by the king to control different parts of the Empire’s territory.


  • What was the first civilization of Ancient Africa?
    – The civilization of the Ancient Egyptians.
  • Who was the absolute ruler of Ancient Egypt?
    – The Pharaoh.
  • Name two of the empires that came to power after the collapse of the Kingdom of Egypt.
    – Mali/Songhai/Ghana.
  • How were the Mali and Songhai Empires different from other empires of the time?
    – The Mali Empire’s rule was influenced greatly by religious doctrine/texts. The Songhai Empire saw a shift in power, as the governors of the Empire held a large amount of the authority; this meant that the King was no longer the sole governing power.
  • What religion was of great importance to the rule of the Mali Empire?
    – Islam.