THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT IN ANCIENT AFRICA
By Dan Kashagama
Did a Pan African Parliament exist in ancient times? 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 pre-colonial African states in which the parliamentary system was supreme is "acephalous communities" , meaning that they were "headless". The lack of a monarch was interpreted as a sign of backwardness rather than a sign of democracy. In any event, in the 18th and 19th centuries - the era of "discovery" - European explorers were unused to the idea of societies that were regulated by parliament. Many of the explorers were monarchists and racists, both at once, so that the idea of African parliament was something they could not understand, let alone dignify.
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" in modern times, 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. African speakers of parliament, and leaders elected by parliament were merely chiefs, or occasionally. .. kings. African states, and empires were hardly recognized, and every attempt was made to diminish their dimensions or coherence.
According to Jomo Kenyatta, colonialists also mistook Spokespersons for kings or chiefs. In fact usually the parliaments and 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, Eishengyero, or the Rukurato. The parliament of the ancient republican empire of Mali was known as Gbara. The Mali empire even had a written constitution called the Korounkan Fouga.
The most famous name for a parliament in Africa is the word "Pharaoh". The word actually translates "great house", a common African expression for a national parliament. The term doesn't refer 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 pharaoh. The ancient Egyptian parliament appears to have consisted of 30 [thirty] senators, at least according to on 19th century Egyptologist. Egypt's southern neighbor was the empire known as Kush [although Kushite rulers always maintained that Egypt was always a province of Kush and was not a separate state]. The existence of the Kushite imperial parliament is was well documented by various Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Sumerian and other sources.
The Kushite parliament consisted of senators who also doubled as priests. They are remembered notoriously for ordering the Kushite "kings" to commit suicide whenever the parliament passed a vote of no confidence [I am sure the US Congress would envy such power] .
There were striking similarities between the Kushite parliament and the Egyptian one [and in several dynasties the both the Kushite and Egyptian parliaments may in fact have been one and the same]. 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 always deposed by parliament. This group of senators would presumably find the king unfit to continue in his job after subjecting him to some kind of physical test, usually involving 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.
In both Kush and in Egypt, at least two emperors – one in each state - defied the parliament. In Egypt one of the 19th Dynasty Ramessid emperor when he was ordered to jog on the track apparently created a new precendent by ordering a substitute - an athletic young man - to run in his stead. This dispute didn't end well for the parliament because the emperor's disobedience probably ended with him violating the sanctity and immunity of the parliament for trying to depose him.
The parliament that condemned an Egyptian king would consist of people who are not members of the king's own family, nor his advisers, but rather ranking members of society who didn't owe their positions and wealth to the king. And judging by the way the army was structured, and by the practices of Kushites who had similar institutions, it seems possible that the Egyptian king was deposed by a parliament with enough power to impeach him, have him tried, and then perhaps have him executed or deposed for incompetence.
The Kushite method of appointing and deposing kings has more documentation. Kushite kings were elected by the Senator priests [some historians refer to them as the Kushite College of Priests], and anyone could be "king", if the priests so decided after huddling inside the temple walls and debating who outside of the senate/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 community or the state. He usually obeyed the order, and so did his entire team of advisers and ministers, but no necessarily his entire family.
The Carthageans established a "Court of 104 Magistrates" in 480 BC, a time when Kush was the leading economic power on the African continent. Presumably the Carthageans emulated the Kushites. There is evidence that Carthageans, Kushites and Egyptians worked closely and shared many similar institutions and ideas and gods, in addition to serving in each others armies, priesthoods and governments. The Carthagean parliament also had the habit of ordering the suicide or execution of its head of state. The Carthageans are also infamous – on account of alarmist Roman propaganda - for fictious gruesome rituals.
It is unclear how the Kushite senator priests were selected. Although the Kushite empire was governed for the most part by women with the title of Kandake [from which we derived the name Candace], there is no record of the senators ordering a Candace to die. Unlike the Roman and Greek senates which were segregated and exclusive to men, Kushites were a matriarchal society and had equality between the sexes. Kushite government was dominated by women with positions and titles as Candace, dowager empresses, and Gore [pronounced "Go-ray"]. The Candace was not only head of state, she was a high priestess. In several famous cases, the Candaces were also battlefield commanders.
Egyptians and Kushites sometimes resorted to less drastic means of deposing "kings" besides ordering them to die. The kings would have to accept a co-ruler or regent, in addition to being required to consider the wise counsel of the peoples' representatives formally and continuously. This theme – representation of the people by wise counsellors - is very common in African folklore and mythology.
Given the fact that their descendants, the pre-colonial African communities, exhibit many traditions similar to ancient Kushite and Egyptian traditions, it is seems likely that parliament as an institution is very much part of African culture and heritage. Moreover, the institution of parliament may date further back in time, so that predates dynastic Egypt. Certainly the existence of the highly complex Bovidian cattle culture responsible for sophisticated mummification, mathematics and astronomy [Ishango and Nabta Playa], implies that political administration was highly developed. Bovidian culture dates at least to the end of the last Great Ice age. If political sophistication is not a natural product of human biology, then later civilization may awe a great deal to the lucky brilliance of the Africans of the Holocene era. Of course it is not possible to decipher a parliament system in the remains of the cattle burial sites spread all across Africa, or in the pottery designs, or in the lines of the Sphinx at Giza.
Nonetheless, having a deep familiarity with the "inner life" of African thought, and having exposure to communities that marginalised African communities that have retained some remnant of the ancient culture - even though much distorted and garbled - gives one an idea of what ancient people were capable of. Parliamentary organization, like religious or spiritual sophistication, were not beyond the African.
According to Robert Graves, the preeminent historian of the 20th century, the Greeks of the Periclean age, 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, civility and order of African society. These characteristics are not consistent with depotism, but rather point to a culture steeped in the arts that one would assume favor parliamentary skills.
According to Herodotus, Virgil, Strabo, Heliodorus, Josephus and other ancient authorities now appropriated by the West, the Kushite empire covered all of Africa at one time, including Egypt. These ancient historians describe African institutions used in maintaining order in the vast and long lived Kushite empire, including such things as an all-African army, common religious beliefs, and a bunch of grand capitals.... all of these things representing a single political and legal order that covered all of Africa. That the Kushites had a parliament is not in question...that they managed to maintain such a massive political system order and to win such loyalty and peace with a sophisticated bureaucracy, for nearly three thousand years is astonishing.
And so we come full circle in our own age as Africa seeks to satisfy an ancient impulse by establishing the Pan African Parliament. Africans arrive at this grand attempt, at last, with various explanations and rationalizations, full of doubts and perhaps a little shy... recent history has made them reticent, frightened, cautious, certainly even half-unconscious. Yet, nothing suits Africa like a parliament and a unified continent. After all, much of the culture and inner life of Africa, the cues in the language, the hopes, and much more in the things that animate African consciousness - much of these things, nuanced or blatant, are products of thousands of years of conditioning under a political system that was for the most part parliamentary.
Granted slavery and the abuses and corruption of the last millennium have left their mark. But there is more to Africa
Culled from the African Front e-group