May 31 2017

A Summary of: The Exhumation of Classical Liberal Principles In the Evolution of African Societies

By Ibrahim B Anoba
M4L Contributor
May, 2017

The following is a summary of longer paper published in the Journal of Liberty and International Affairs, Vol 3, No 1, 2017, eISSN 1857-9760, accessible HERE


The absence of technically organized ideologies in traditional African societies made several historians resolve that pre-colonial Africa had no clear patterns that governed behavior except the unearthing of some ancestral practices. Writers like George Dalton identified the inability of Western economists to draw clear parallels between economic systems in traditional African societies to theories developed in the West as primary course to this conclusion (Dalton 1997, 27). Unlike Europe or the Americas where sufficient texts written by generations of historians exists on the cultural and philosophical evolution of the society, it rarely does so in Africa.

Most knowledge on the evolution of African philosophy is preserved in arts, tales and other literatures passed from one generation to another. Other evidences especially in archaeological folds rarely exist to corroborate some of the traditional narratives. Empirical inquiry into African philosophy never surfaced until around mid-1900s, most notably when catholic Father Placide Tempel published his La Philosophie Bantu (Bantu Philosophy) in 1945 as a response to the misconceptions about the Bantu people of West Africa. Tempel’s book set the premise for subsequent studies in African philosophy.

Continued investigations by African writers later revealed that the absence of ideological details noted by Dalton and others actually existed in African communities but can only be studied with cognizance to social structures such as religion and kinship (Ayittey 1991). Similarly, nationalist intellectuals observed that the only philosophy in traditional Africa was the philosophy of brotherhood and welfarism, which prevented anyone from becoming more prosperous than everyone else. They practically rejected all notions of self-determinism or personal ambition as non-existent in traditional Africa. They also claimed a strongman leadership of interest as the choice of governance in these communities.  In their accounts, the supreme leader or council held the right over the life of every member of the community and served as the judges of morality.

Suppression of Liberalism and Capitalism

Understanding the dimensions of the African nationalist struggle is a prerequisite to uncovering why socialism and communism took root in Africa. The fight for independence in Africa centered on two things: to rid Africa of Western imperialism (by all possible means including war), and to develop the economy and cure poverty through radical socialist reforms. Of course, this was at the height of communism in places like Cuba and the Soviet Union. With the obvious resentment towards the imperialist West, it was better affiliating with the communist East to firstly, ensure their stay in power and secondly, to institutionalize a system for effective wealth redistribution. It eventually made African nationalists become heavily attached to the communist bloc. They collaborated in adopting economic and social structures of the communist states that would later prove disastrous to nation building in post-independence Africa.

In tracing the reasons for this easy radicalization, the massive exploitation of Africa under colonialism (starting from the 1870s) was in fact a primary factor. The fattening and industrialization of Europe on the back of Africa’s human and natural resources offered capitalism a ‘theft’, and an imperialist ideology intended to further subject Africa to continuous economic exploitation. This unfortunately coincided with a time when capitalism received immense glory for Western industrialization – with Africa beneath the shaft. Logically, any idea that had been responsible for Europe’s prosperity – even other that capitalism would have certainly been an enemy of Africa.  

What is the Real Tradition of Africa?

Contrariwise, the philosophy of traditional Africa was not in any way relegated to principles in socialism or communism, but greatly extended to principles advocated in classical liberalism as is explained here. In African antiquity, the socialist-communist model was not observable across all communities as claimed by the traditionalists. In some groups, authority was not central, while in others, they never even existed. Group members were entitled to self-determinism, as many of these communities were either stateless or acephalous. Some had well-organized administrative structures without monarchs or a centralized ruling elite council.

In communities such as the Tallensi (Ghana), Logoli (Kenya) and Nuer (South Sudan) there were no institutions that regulated social life but they were purely anarchic (Evans 1940, 5). In communities with clearly defined systems of governance, the majority of them had structures for institutional ombudsman and separation of powers among governing councils. These communities also treasured standards for checks and balances to avoid power concentration or abuse by an individual or group. Political decisions of the community rested on the harmony of opinions among council members while individuals typically determined economic decisions of the community.

Even in communities with centralized authorities, independent institutions limited governance, which is contrary to claims of an overall common authoritarian pattern. In the political fold, governance only existed to whatever extent public opinion agreed. Most political decisions greatly depended on consensus among chiefs, councils, or the public as it were, with cognizance to individual judgment. This individual judgment was present in the form of household representative democracy. Every member of the community belonged to a household, and their opinions formed household interests, which was subsequently represented in councils by their elders or nobles. Former Zambian and Tanzanian leaders, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere resolved to this fact:  

Kaunda: In our original (African) societies, we operated by consensus. An issue was talked out in solemn conclave until such time as agreement could be achieved. Nyerere: In African society, the traditional method of conducting affairs is by free discussion. The elders sit under the big trees, and talk until they agree (Wiredu 2004).  

Clear enough, traditional Africans were resentful towards fortification of an individual to act as sole representative of choice and interest even if the individual was a representative of the gods.

Classical liberals outrightly argued for a free market economy chiefly run by individual choices and price, and this was a position common in most economies in traditional Africa. Markets were open and less regulated. In centralized communities such as the Buganda (Uganda), Hausa/Fulani (Nigeria) Akan (Ghana) and the Zulu (South Africa), there were large and open markets such that it attracted participation from communities hundreds of miles away. Trade ensued among communities in their specialized industries with limited or no restrictions, and one can safely deduce that elements of David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage Theory – a cardinal in classical liberalism – existed in these communities even before it was theoretically developed in Europe.  

Many traditionalists still see classical liberal principles as rather anarchist even though some African communities flourished under anarchy. Or they view liberalism as adversative to traditional African principles: a sort of threat to Africa’s historical identity. But unlike the total anarchy assumption, classical liberals proposed an impartial system of justice in the custody of the state, and in trust, with some monopoly of force (if needed) to guarantee relative balance (Butler 2013). This was the exact structure in most of traditional Africa. Leaders and governing councils were guardians of values and preserved the justice system through impartial adherence to laws while public revolt was an option against tyranny. Like many other race in human history, traditional Africans despised tyranny. The central authority only existed as representative of the gods on earth, to guide the living in the right conducts only. And as Otto Lehto explained, “in addition to being a doctrine of maximizing free and voluntary human cooperation, classical liberalism is a doctrine of legal limits to coercive actions” (Lehto 2015).  In African tradition, the individual was as important as life itself, and the respect for his dignity was a virtue. The only difference was that they saw the realization of individual prosperity as more realistic when embedded in the prosperity of his community. Even Kenneth Kaunda, a staunch African humanist agreed when he said:   

I am deeply concerned that this high valuation of Man and respect for human dignity, which is a legacy of our [African] tradition should not be lost in the new Africa. However “modern” and “advanced” in a Western sense the new nations of Africa may become, we are fiercely determined that this humanism will not be obscured. African society has always been Man-centered. We intend that it will remain so (Eze 1997, 42).

His submission serves well an historical correction for contemporaries.  


Falsely accusing classical liberal principles as the sole responsible factor for Africa’s present socio-economic predicaments is false. Africa’s woes are solely due to political greediness and distortions from continued experiments with socialist ideals.

We can fairly conclude that the negative influence of colonialism was in fact a cementing factor for the sporadic inclination of Africa in anti-capitalist sentiments and not because Africans were not naturally capitalists or that capitalist principles never existed in traditional Africa as presented by most philosophers. Therefore, there exists an indisputable correlation between classical liberalism and traditional African philosophy.



  1. Ayittey, George. 1999. Indigenous African Institutions. Accra: Transnational Publishers, Inc.. (Ayittey 1999)
  2. Butler, Eamonn. 2015.Classical Liberalism – A Primer. London: Institute of Economic Affairs & London Publishing Partnership Ltd.. (Butler 2015)
  3. Dalton, George.1997. “Economic Theory and Primitive Society in American Anthropology.” In, Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader, edited by Eze C.E. 27-61. Massachusetts: Blackwell. (Dalton 1997)
  4. Evans, Pritchard and Fortes, Meyer. 1940. African Political Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Evans 1940, 5)
  5. Eze, C. E. 1997. Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. (Eze 1997, 42)
  6. Lehto, Ottm. 2015. “The Three Principles of Classical Liberalism (From John Locke To John Thomas.” PhD diss., University of Helsinki. (Lehto 2015)
  7. Wiredu, Kwasi. 2004. A Companion to African Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (Wiredu 2004, 252)


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