|July 13, 2004
The History of Parliament In Ancient Africa
By Dan Kashagama
Although the word parliament derives from the French “parler” meaning “to speak”, parliaments are found in many different states and cultures around the world. The process of “parlement” referred to a council or conference. Parliament is defined as “a national representative body having supreme legislative powers within the state”, or “the supreme legislative body or assembly of a major political unit that is a continuing institution comprising a series of individual assemblages.”
Parliament has a long history in Africa. However, the story of parliament in Africa has been badly explained, and history books that date from the colonial occupation totally ignored the institution, or have used words that are derogatory when talking about African parliaments. The most common code word for precolonial African states in which the parliamentary system was supreme is “acephalous”, meaning "headless".
The other terms that are commonly used to describe parliaments in precolonial Africa include “Council of Elders” or “Council of the Wise” and such. The word council lacks the prestige associated with “parliament” and so colonialists who wished to understate the existence of sophisticated and stable state parliaments in ancient Africa simply referred to what they found as councils. According to Kenyatta, colonialists also mistook Spokepeople for kings or chiefs. In fact usually the councils would appoint an envoy to communicate their message, and the colonial explorers would presume that this spokesperson was actually in charge, whereas in fact he had no authority to conclude treaties on behalf of the Council.
Even in societies that had monarchies, the highest authorities usually consisted of a parliament whose members were duly elected by their communities. The parliament would meet to elect the king or queen, and approve the appointments of ranking officials and ambassadors. In many cases the candidates for king or queen would be a number of princes, princesses, bureaucrats, army commanders or priests. But then again, the word prince is usually loosely used to refer to any man of high standing in a society, not necessarily a son of the last king or queen.
African societies where the king’s authority was absolute are the exception rather than the rule. The African parliaments had different names such as the Indaba, the Lukiiko, Bunge or the Rukurato. The most famous name for a parliament in Africa may be the word "Pharoah". The word actually translates "great house", a common African expression for a parliament. It is unlikely that the term refers merely to a physical building, or a dynastic line, although it may have had dual meaning. The actual term for king in ancient Egyptian is "nesu biti" not pharoah.
There seems to be clear references to a council to which the kings of Egypt had to account for their actions. In fact prior to the rise of Ramesses Dynasty, the really disruptive kings were deposed by what appears to be a parliament. This group of people would presumably find the king unfit to continue in his job after some kind of physical test, usually running a couple of laps around the track, and they would then announce that he was no longer fit to be king, and then apparently he would be executed, presumably along with his entire family and courtiers and ministers.
It is therefore likely that the Council that condemned a king would consist of people who are not members of the king's own family, nor his advisers. And judging by the way the army was structured, and by the practices of Kushites who had similar institutions, it seems possible that the king was deposed by a parliament with enough power to try and then have him executed for incompetence. The reason that the ministers agreed to die with the king was that they believed in an after life in service of their king. Moreover, since they knew that the death of the king meant their own death, kings were rarely assassinated or even injured in battle. This mass suicide of courtiers gave the state stability.
The Kushite method of appointing and deposing kings has more documentation. Kushite kings were elected by the college of priests, and anyone could be king, if the priests so decided after huddling behind temple walls and debating who outside of the priesthood was best suited. The king was told by a College of Priests to commit suicide if they decided he was no longer of service to the state. He usually obeyed the order, and so did his entire team of advisers and ministers, but not necessarily his entire family. It is unclear how the priets were selected.
Later on the Egyptians and Kushites resorted to less drastic means of deposing kings. But given the fact that their descendants, the precolonial African communities inherited many of the Egyptian and Kushite traditions, and also had parliaments, it seems likely that parliament would be an institution that the Egyptians and Kushites had and passed on. The Carthageans established a "Court of 104 Magistrates" in 480 BC, a time when Kush was the leading economic power on the African continent.
According to Robert Graves, the preeminent historian of the 20th century, the Greeks of the Periclean age, also looked up to the Africans for cultural leadership and political example. The Periclean Age opened up Athenian democracy to citizens. Homer's epics which are the basis of much of the inner life of Western thought, had an exceptionally high regard for the justice and order of African society.
There is a slight chance that there may have been a Pan African Parliament prior to 4 BC, centred around Napata and Meroe. According to Herodotus, Strabo, Heliodorus and Josephus, the Kushite state covered all of Africa at one time. They also describe continental institutions, such as an all-African market, mixed all-African armies. It seems impossible for the Kushites to have organised such a massive order and won such loyalty and peace without a continental parliament and a sophisticated bureaucracy.
It may be that parliaments are organizations that arise in all societies, and are associated with a Just Order in which the king, or a god in some cases, is required to consider the wise counsel of the peoples' representatives formally and continuously. This theme is very common in mythology.