Social Economic and Political Organization of African Societies in the 19th Century

Prior to European colonization in the late 19th century, Africa had a very long history of state building as well as a rich variety of social formations that were decentralized or stateless.The Africans had their own Social Economic and Political Organization of African Societies in the 19th Century.  Some of the first examples of state formation in human history developed in the Nile River valley in the 4th millennium BCE. Nevertheless, during most of Africa’s precolonial history, a significant portion of African people lived in small-scale, egalitarian societies in which government was more a matter of consensus among the entire adult population than rule by an elite few. One of the major contributions that historians of precolonial Africa have made is to demonstrate the enormous variety and complexity of precolonial African political systems and to challenge the notion that political complexity only exists in centralized states. 

Social Economic Political Organisation OF Buganda Kingdom

The Buganda Kingdom was one of the Kingdoms in Uganda. During the 19th century Buganda expanded to become the largest and most powerful kingdoms in Uganda. Several factors brought about the rise of Buganda. These were:

  1. The Baganda were agriculturists. They grew bananas which was their staple food. This enabled them to feed the army. The fertile soils and suitable climate enabled them to grow crops.
  2. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Buganda was under very strong and competent rulers entitled Kabaka. One such ruler was KabakaMtesa I.
  3. Buganda kingdom was centralised and it had a well-organised political system. The centralisation of Buganda enhanced effective control of the kingdom, enhanced loyalty to one single ruler, promoted control and unity of other traditional leaders and also led to emergence of able rulers who strengthened the Kingdom.
  4. Buganda had a strong army, which defended the kingdom, and a navy that conquered people living in the islands of Lake Victoria such as the people of Sese Island.
  5. The decline of BunyoroKitara Kingdom enabled Buganda to expand to fill the power vacuum left by Bunyoro.
  6. Participation in the long distance trade by the Baganda people enabled the kingdom to attain wealth that was used to maintain the kingdom. The rulers also taxed the Arab and Swahili traders who ventured into the kingdom to trade.
  7. The annexation of Buddu iron fields enabled Buganda to manufacture superior iron weapons.
  8. When the British occupied Uganda, she handed over the ‘lost counties’ of Bunyoro to Buganda. These counties included Bungaizi and Buyoga. This action of the British contributed to more expansion of Buganda.

Social organisation of Buganda Kingdom

The social organisation of the Baganda was based on clans made up of members of several related families.

There were also social classes with members of the loyal family on top followed by local chief and then below were the commoners followed by slaves.

The Kabaka existed who played social roles such as presiding on various ceremonies and rituals, being the chief priest and therefore being in charge of all religious activities.

The Kabaka’s power was symbolised by his loyal regalia that included the royal drums, the stools and the spears.

The Baganda worshipped a god entitled Katonda. They believed in the spirits of the dead ancestors. They thought that the death affected the affairs of the living people.

They had a traditional religion they called Lubaale. They consulted the spirits of the dead through prophets. The mediums who consulted the spirits were usually given gifts. The Baganda had medicine men and sorcerers.

They conducted marriage and initiation ceremonies. During the reign of KabakaMwanga, same people of Buganda were converted to Christianity while others were converted to Islam. After the arrival of many Christian Missionaries, Christianity took the dominance that was followed by rivalry between various religious groups.

Economic organisation of Buganda Kingdom

Buganda Kingdom was located on the northern shores of Lake Victoria. The Kingdom’s geographical location, the nature of its environment and climate influenced the economic activities of the Baganda.

  1. The Baganda were mainly cultivators. They grew bananas, millet and sorghum. Bananas (matoke) were the staple food of the Baganda. The high rainfall and fertile soils enabled them to cultivate.
  2. The Baganda kept livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and chickens. They also conducted raids and captured slaves and cattle from the neighbouring weaker communities such as Bunyoro and Busoga.
  3. The Baganda benefited by fishing due to their proximity to Lake Victoria that had a lot of fish. This supplemented their diet. The Baganda like many other Bantu communities in Uganda had acquired the skills of iron working from the Abachwezi. They conducted raids that exposed them to the iron-bearing field in the neighbouring lands. The iron obtained was used for making iron hoes, spear heads, arrowheads and a variety of other tools.
  4. The Baganda also manufactured bark-cloth, weaved and built canoes for use in Lake Victoria for fishing and for the navy that was used to conquer people living in the islands of Lake Victoria such as the people of Sese Island.
  5. Some of the Baganda hunted animals such as buffaloes and antelopes for meat. They also gathered fruits and roots that they used as food. The Baganda conducted local trade which involved exchange of goods within themselves or with their immediate neighbours. For example trade in salt existed with people around Lake Victoria.
  6. The Baganda engaged themselves in the long distance trade mainly in the 19th century after the Arab and Swahili merchants from the coast penetrated into kingdom. This trade expanded rapidly during the era of KabakaMtesa I. Slaves and ivory were the main commodities the Arab and Swahili traders demanded. They in turn brought ammunitions, cloth, beads and swords that were demanded by the Baganda.

Political organisation of Buganda

Baganda is believed to have originally been a section of the Chwezi State. It is not known clearly whether it is Kintu or Kimera who established the early kingdom of Buganda.

What is clear is that Buganda was a centralised kingdom controlled by a ruler entitled Kabaka whose authority in those early days was limited by the power of the clan heads each entitled Bataka.

In the later years, the Kabakas assumed a lot of power because they played the following roles:

Roles and Duties of Kabaka in Buganda Kingdom

  1. They acted as the chief political and religious leaders and heads of government.
  2. They were considered as the supreme judges in the kingdom and also as the final court of appeal.
  3. They were regarded as the sole defenders of Buganda and protectors of their subjects.
  4. They commanded the army as well as all other juniors for instance, the Katikiros, the Saza chiefs and the Gombolora chiefs.
  5. It was their responsibility to appoint or fire senior officials like the Katikiro and the Chief Justice.
  6. They controlled trade to such an extent that they even taxed foreign traders.
  7. The Kabaka was assisted to administer the kingdom by a Prime Minister entitled Katikiro.

In the Kabakas court, their existed the Chief Justice entitled Omulamuzi and the treasurer entitled Omuwanika, all appointed by the Kabaka. Together with the Katikiro, they formed the Kabakas advisory body.

There existed a legislature assembly called Lukiko, which acted like the modern day parliament. It discussed important issues affecting Buganda kingdom such as issues pertaining to external attacks, relations with foreigners, trade regulations and the ways to deal with the citizens.

The kingdom was split into counties each called Saza. Each county was headed by a Saza chief.

Counties were further split into sub-counties each entitled Gombolola. Each Gombolola was under the leadership of a Gombolola chief whose duty was to collect the taxes and remit to Kabaka as well to maintain law and order in his area of Jurisdiction.

Each Gombolola was further split into a small division called Milukaheaded by Miluka chief.

Buganda had a strong standing army and navy. The army defended the kingdom while the navy controlled Buganda’s possessions in Lake Victoria such as Sese Island.

Leadership among the Baganda was hereditary (passed from father to son) at first but later the Kabaka could appoint a minor chief from the citizens who was royal to him.

The Kabaka strengthened the loyalty bestowed on him by all the people in the kingdom by marrying from all popular clans and accepting sons of popular people from various families to come and work in his court.




The Shona settled in central Africa south of River Zambezi in the present day Zimbabwe. It is believed that they migrated to the region from the Congo basin and they are related to the Kalanga.


Social organisation of the Shona

The Shona worshipped a god who was believed to be all-powerful. They called their god Mwari. The Shona hadpriest who presided over religious functions for instance during the time of offering sacrifices to the supreme being.


The priests also conducted rituals to appease their gods. The Rozwi clan provided the shona community with priests. Worship was conducted in shrines.


The shona believed in the existence of the ancestral spirits they referred to as clan spirit, Mhondoro, andthe family spirits, Vadzimu. The spirits communicated through intermediaries referred to as Svikiro. The Shona communicated with the spirits through mediums.


They conducted a number of ceremonies and festivals. The shona were socially organised into families, several of which made a clan. The clan elders were highly respected. Polygamy was a very common practice among the Shona. It was common to find men with very many wives. This was one way of ensuring that the community had enough warriors and was provided with sufficient labour force.


The Economic Organisation of the Shona

The Shona grew a variety of subsistence crops such as beans, millets and vegetables. They also kept livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats, which provided them with milk and meat.

The Shona made iron tools such as spears, hoes and knives. They also weaved and made back cloth.


The Shona supplied the people of Sofala with gold. In return the Shona obtained cloth, glassware, and firearms obtained from the Portuguese.





The political Organisation of the Shona

An emperor who was the head of state and government controlled the Shona kingdom. When the emperor died, his son took over leadership. This implies that leadership among the Shona was hereditary.


The emperor administered the empire with the assistance of his immediate relatives and leading officials. These were queen’s mother, his principal wives, his sister, the head drummer, the chancellor, the supreme cook, the chief door keeper and the commander of his army.


The emperor was the overall military leader and for this reason he acted as the commander in chief of the standing army which not only defended the kingdom but also tried to conquer other neighbouring communities in order to expand it.


The Shona kingdom was divided into smaller divisions that were under the control of lesser kings who were answerable to the emperor.


The lesser kings ensured that trade was promoted. The emperor was the sole controller of the entire trade. The profit from trade maintained the army and also sustained the kingdom. Vassal states were made to pay tribute to the emperor.


The Shona priest played political roles in that they acted as the emperor’s spies. The priests also linked the people with the emperor. In so doing religion was used to create political unity among the Shona.



Asante (Ashanti)


The Asante is one of the Akan or Twi speaking peoples of the present day Ghana. The Asante kingdom is believed to have been established as a result of a number of states which united together and settled at a place called Asantemanso.


From Asantemanso they dispersed in clans and family groups to new settlements such as Bekwai, Tafo, Nsuta, Mampong, Amakom and Kwaman. Later in the 17th century these settlements united under the leadership of the Oyoko clan.


All the Asante states were established surrounding modern Kumasi in an area referred to as Kwaman forest. By the middle of the 18th century, the Asante had become a very large empire as a result of the efforts of Osei Tutu who introduced the golden stool, which became the symbol of Asante union. The Asante rulers were entitled Asantehene.



Factors that led to the rise and expansion of the Asante kingdom


We have already seen that the Asante kingdom rose from a number of clans and families who migrated and then settled together at Asantemanso. Those settlements later united into states.


The rise of the kingdom was therefore as a result of the unity of those states. The Asante emerged and expanded into a mighty kingdom because of the following reasons:


  1. The area the Asante people settled had abundant rainfall which enabled them to grow crops and gather wild fruits to sustain the growing population.


  1. AsanteheheOsei Tutu with an Akwamu priest, OkomfoAnokye cemented the Asante union when they introduced the golden stool as the symbol of Asante union.


  1. The Asante obtained income for expanding the empire from the trade they conducted with the Europeans at the coast.


  1. The Odwira Festival was organised which enabled the state rulers to gather together to pay allegiance to the Asantehehe.


  1. The Asante kingdom was controlled by strong and able rulers like Osei Tutu, Opoku Ware and OseiBonsu who engaged themselves on expansionist missions aimed at enlarging and strengthening the kingdom.


  1. The fact that Asante kingdom was highly centralised enabled people to join in order to fight against a common enemy.


  1. The neighbouring states such as Denkyira and Fante were weaker that the Asante kingdom. This gave the Asante the advantage of expanding its empire.


  1. The Asante army was very strong and well organised. It was made up of soldiers from all the Asante states.


  1. The Asante used modern weapons such as guns which they bought from the Europeans along the west African coast.


  1. The Asante rulers obtained revenue from the tribute paid by conquered states. This enabled the Asantehene to maintain his army and his kingdom.


Social organisation of Asante

In the early beginning the Asante lived in separate clans and family groups. When the family and groups migrated from Asantemanso, they went to places where they lived in settlements. At first the settlements were not united but later they joined together into states.


An Akwamu priest named OkomfoAnokye together with Osei Tutu introduced the golden stool as a symbol of unity, which had religious symbolism. It united all the states not only politically but also socially.


The Asante introduced the national festival called Odwira that united the whole of Asante by making state rulers to be royal to the Asantehene. The Asante were polytheistic. They worshipped gods and goddesses. The Asantehene played both political and religious roles. He acted like a religious leader and presided over religious ceremonies.


The Asante people worshipped their gods through their ancestors. The ancestors acted as intermediaries between gods and the people. The Asante people sacrificed to their gods. They believed in life after death and in punishment of wrong doers and reward for those who did well.


By the first half of the 19th century, the Asante had embraced Islam. The Asante Muslim converts therefore adopted Islamic culture and law (sharia). This became the beginning of the Islamic influence in Asante.


Economic organisation of Asante

The Asante lived in the forest region in the west of River Volta. The land they occupied received heavy rainfall which enabled them to grow crops such as vegetables, kolanuts and grains.


The Asante also kept few livestock. They hunted and gathered fruits and red kolanuts from Kwaman forest for sale. The Asante also participated in the local trade. They traded with the Ga and the people of Benin.


They exchanged commodities such as salt, cloth and fish. Later they traded with the Europeans who had settled along the West African coast in settlements such as Accra, Anomabo, Cape Coast, Winneba and Elmina. The Asante traders gave Europeans ivory, slaves, gold and colanuts in exchange for firearms, cloth and ironware.


The Asante mined gold in the Kwaman forest and practised iron working. They used iron to manufacture tools, bangles, hoes and arrowheads. They practised traditional crafts such as cloth making, basketry, pottery and sculpture making. The Asante hunted elephants to obtain ivory. They also gathered fruits and edible roots.


Political organisation of Asante

The Asante Empire was centralised and divided into three parts. The first part was the metropolitan or Nucleus State that consisted of the Kumasi State that was directly under the Asantehehe.


The second part was the Amatoo or the states within a radius of about 30 to 40 miles of modern Kumasi. These states were outside Kumasi and they recognised the Golden stool as the symbol of unity of the Asante. Some of them were Dwaben, Adansi, Bekwai, Nsuta, Mampon and Kokofu.


The third part was the conquered states or provincial Asante states that consisted of all the outer circle of states which had earlier been conquered and controlled by the Asante. Examples of them are Akwamu, Akyem, Twifu, Wassa, Denkyira, Sefwi, Akwapem, Assin, Gonja, Dagomba, Gyaman and Takyiman.


The Asante kingdom was ruled by kings entitled Asantehene. The Asantehene was the supreme ruler of the kingdom. He had direct control over Kumasi State. The Asantehene was the conmmander in – chief of the army. He presided over political and religious festivals and he acted as the final court of appeal because he was the supreme judge. Leadership among the Asante was hereditary.


The Asantehene ruled with the advice of the state rulers who formed the union of rulers. The conquered states were administered by their kings but they were regarded as the provinces of the Asante kingdom .A representative who was an appointee of the Asantehene was posted in each province where he acted as the eyes and ears of the Asantehene. He also levied taxes, supervised trade and mining of gold nuggets.


Each Asante State was under the rule of Omanhene who took the oath of allegiance to demonstrate loyalty to the Asantehene. The Omanhene represented the Asantehene in the provinces but they were required to pay tribute to the Asantehene and also to provide soldiers in times of conflicts.


The Asante states were all bound together by the golden stool which was the symbol of unity of the Asante. This stool was preserved in the capital, Kumasi. Every state ruler was presented with a symbolic black stool to signify unity of the provinces.


There was a national festival organised particularly for state rulers to pay allegiance to the Asantehene. This festival was known as Odwira festival.


The Asante had a strong standing army consisting of an infantry and a calvary wing. The Asante army was divided into four segments which included the left wing, the right wing the van and the rear. Every king of a state was given a position within the wings. This position was taken by the army he controlled in his state a thing which made him remain powerful.


At its peak, the Asante kingdom consisted of the area surrounding Kumasi which was directly under the Asantehene, the states outside Kumasi which were part of the original Asante union and lay about 90 kilometre radius of present day Kumasi and the vassal or conquered states.


The Asante government finally collapsed due to the following reasons:


  1. Constant rebellions by the vassal states who wanted to reassert their independence.


  1. The British supported the Fante to flight against the Asante.


  • The kingdom had grown too large for the rulers to control effectively.


  1. Asante strained relations with Fante and the British affected Asante trade and source of income.


  1. There was weakness in the system of provincial administration because vassal states were not fully incorporated to the kingdom.


  1. The Asante ruler, Osei Tutu was forced to grant independence to the southern states.


  • AsantehenePrempeI was exiled.

Review Questions


  1. Explain the roles of the following in the 19th century:
  2. i) Kabaka of Buganda
  3. ii) Asantehene of Asante


  1. Describe the political and social organisation of Buganda.


  1. a) Explain the factors that led to the rise and growth of Asante


  1. b) Describe the political organisation of the Asante Kingdom up to the 19th


  1. Describe the Shona kingdom under the following headings:
  2. Economic organisation
  3. Political organisation
  4. Social organisation


  1. What factors contributed to the decline of the Asante Kingdom.


  1. Identify the economic and social activities of the Asante in the 19th


Students’ Activities

  1. Draw maps to show the location of the Asante and Buganda kingdoms


  1. Discuss in groups the factors which contributed to the rise and decline of the Asante and Buganda Kingdoms.


  1. Compare the administration of Buganda kingdom with the administration of Asante Kingdom.


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