The study of West Africa has contributed to the expansion of comparative arid-lands floodplain prehistory, from both the data collection (cultural and historical) and the theoretical aspects. The neoevolutionary approach that often pictures Africa as a backward continent has been successfully challenged. In the Middle Senegal Valley and in the Inland Niger Delta, research on their societies’ complexity done along these two subcontinent’s floodplains has described new processes (including urbanization) that were not previously featured in the archaeological literature. The two floodplains, because of their ecological diversity, with the richness of their ecological diversity, attracted Saharan populations affected by drought at the end of the second millennium and the first millennium BC. However, after their initiation occupation the two areas took different trajectories in complexity and settlement organization. Large complex settlements have been found at Jenne-jeno and in the Ile a Morphil that illustrate whole new trajectories of civilization. These forms of complexity, found in areas with historically known polities, were not included in the range of possibilities predicted by standard complexity theories regarding civilizational development. Ethnographic and historical data, reveal the existence of societies with a central authority embedded within and balanced by a diffuse, segmented and heterarchical power structure; often as a strategy to resist the individual consolidation of power. These societies exhibit evidence of horizontal differentiation and consensus-based decision making. All these types of organization are characterized by the presence of several sources of power vested in corporate entities, such as lineages, age groups, cults and secret societies.
Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué
From 1958 to 1961, Kom women in western Cameroon cast aside their regular domestic and agricultural duties to engage in a revolt against British administrative interference in agriculture—normally their domain—and the alleged plan by the ruling political party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), to sell Kom land to Nigerian Igbos. In keeping with the practices of anlu, a centuries-old women’s organization generally deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, women interfered with burial rituals; hurled insults at men in public; demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets; set up roadblocks; destroyed and burned property; and defied both traditional and British authorities in the Bamenda Grassfields of western Cameroon. Their tactics included stripping naked in front of men. While local men considered the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent and thus understood the seriousness of the revolt, flabbergasted British officials had no idea what was to come. By seizing control of resources and demonstrating in public, Kom women disturbed local political power, and protested against British rule in the Southern Cameroons. They were a crucial force in the victory of the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in 1961, which brought a restoration of political order at the time of independence.
Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, better known as “Boko Haram,” is the most violent phenomenon of the Nigerian Fourth Republic. It is responsible not only for a regional food crisis that has devolved into famine in some areas, but also the displacement of millions and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The insurgency in Nigeria began as a dissident religious sect’s venting of local grievances in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State. The movement was founded at the turn of the century by Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafist preacher notorious for his rejection of Western education and government employment.
Boko Haram only gained significant international attention in the aftermath of the 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the remote town of Chibok, but the group did not always employ such deplorable tactics. Although policymakers in capitals the world over have been eager to emphasize the group’s connections to international terrorist groups, the movement is localized and often more akin to an African insurgency than to a prototypical terrorist organization. The group’s initial years were characterized by relatively benign activities like the provision of social services, punctuated by occasional bouts of criminality that, over time, escalated into a series of targeted assassinations that provoked federal government response. A series of violent actions ultimately transformed Boko Haram from a largely nonviolent fundamentalist religious movement into the lethal and resilient force it is today, known internationally for its brutality: notably, the group’s interactions with the Nigerian security sector, categorized by indiscriminate state violence; leadership changes within the insurgency’s ranks that elevated Abubakar Shekau following Mohammed Yusuf’s execution; and regional trends in weapons flows and ideological currents.
The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.
The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).
Between 1800 and 1900, West Africa’s coastal states struggled to maintain autonomy in the face of imperial overtures from European trade partners. Simultaneously, these states coped with an overwhelming buildup of domestic slaves, some of whom rose to unprecedented higher political and economic positions. One particular individual, King Jaja of Opobo, came to the fore as an extreme example of how slaves became more capable of taking advantage of the changing political, religious, and economic landscape of the Eastern Niger Delta during this period.
Born Mbanaso Ozurumba in the Igboland village of Umuduruoha in 1821, Jaja, as he would become known to his European trading partners, traversed the domestic slave systems of Southeastern Nigeria and arrived in the Delta trading state of Bonny in 1833. He obtained tremendous wealth and political influence through the burgeoning palm oil trade, ultimately becoming the head of one of Bonny’s most influential canoe-houses. Due to an internal dispute with a rival canoe-house in the late 1860s, Jaja removed his followers to a previously uninhabited island and cut off Bonny’s access to the lucrative interior oil markets. From 1871 on, Jaja monopolized the palm oil trade in the region to become the most influential trader from his new position as king of the island community, which he would name Opobo. However, by 1884, the relationship between Jaja and his British trade partners deteriorated, leading to Jaja’s exile in the West Indies. Political pressure forced the British to return Jaja to Opobo. Unfortunately, the once-powerful slave-turned-king died while trying to return home in 1891.
At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements.
Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France.
Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.
Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.
Michael G. Panzer
From the 1950s through the 1970s, several liberation movements emerged in Lusophone Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the Cape Verde Islands) that fought for independence from Portugal. One of the most significant ideological frameworks that informed the political orientation of these movements was socialism. In Lusophone Africa, several liberation leaders gravitated toward the economic and political potentialities inherent in the discourses and practices of pan-Africanism and Afro-socialism. The liberation movements in Lusophone Africa that most identified with a socialist paradigm were the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA of Angola); Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO of Mozambique); Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands); and Comité de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe (CLSTP—later, MLSTP—of São Tomé and Príncipe). These groups suffered the burden of Portuguese colonialism and actively fought for independence from colonial rule. Although several other liberation movements also emerged in the Lusophone colonies, these four movements most espoused the hallmarks of Afro-socialism to challenge Portuguese colonial rule. All four liberation movements maintained networks with international actors opposed to colonialism, as well as diplomatic connections with sympathetic socialist and communist nations. Most notable among these bases of support were the Conferência das Organizações Nacionalistas das Colónias Portuguesas (CONCP) and the governments of Tanzania, Egypt, Guinea, the People’s Republic of China, East Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and Cuba.
Political complexity in archaeological research has traditionally been defined as socio-political differentiation (roles, statuses, offices) integrated through centralized systems of power and authority. In recent decades the assumption that complex organizational forms tend to be hierarchical in structure has been called into question, based upon both archaeological research and ethnological observations worldwide, including in classic archaeological case studies of centralization. Moreover, there has been an increasing interest in exploring variability in political legitimizations and articulations of power and authority globally. Until these theoretical shifts, West African complex societies, both archaeological and from ethnographic analyses, were largely ignored in discussions of political complexity since many (but not all) conformed poorly to the expectations of highly centralized power and administration. West African ethnohistoric and archaeological examples are now playing important roles in current discussions of heterarchical organizational structures, checks on exclusionary power, cooperation, urbanism, ethnicity, and the nature of administration in states.
Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country, is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups with complicated historical entanglements along the Upper Guinea Coast and across European and Afro-Atlantic orbits. Generalizations about women’s lives, given both the longue durée of its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history and the diversity of its social systems, are quite easily countered by contradictory—or at least more nuanced—renderings. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern some broad commonalities and continuities, especially in market-related roles and activities. Guinean women have been enterprising traders—sometimes gaining economic and political prominence—since precolonial times and throughout the prolonged Portuguese colonial presence in the region. In particular, Luso-African women, known as nharas, revolutionized and dominated trade in coastal settlements from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but their political and economic autonomy was ultimately curtailed by increasingly repressive colonial policies.
Guinea-Bissau’s unique struggle for independence—spearheaded by the revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral and achieved through an 11-year military struggle against the Portuguese—opened up opportunities for women’s liberation from both Portuguese colonialism and customary patriarchal strictures. Although Guinean women participated in the Luta da Libertação in unprecedented ways, they struggled to maintain an active role in nation-building after formal independence in 1974. The Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde’s (PAIGC) rhetorical commitment to gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise in the postcolonial period, as chronic political instability, deleterious economic policies, and largely unfavorable structural adjustment programs have tended to worsen women’s overall conditions. Women have continued to carve out creative roles in an expanding neoliberal marketplace, often becoming intrepid—although always precarious—players in the informal sector. Although women have gained several protective legislative rights since independence—such as the prohibition of forced and child marriage, and easier access to divorce—these have been implemented unevenly. Guinea-Bissau’s human development indicators are among the lowest in the world, especially for women: life expectancy for women is 59 years, childbirth is the leading cause of women’s mortality, and literacy among women is at 44 percent. The failure of the postcolonial state to fulfill Cabral’s egalitarian vision has not only marginalized women’s political and economic status within the country, it may have contributed to the overall weakening of key state institutions, ultimately enticing international narco-traffickers to its shores in the early 21st century and entrenching a drug economy amidst the ruins of the country’s capital city. The gendered roots of Guinea-Bissau’s present woes cannot be ignored.
Mary H. Moran
Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847.
As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.
Women’s involvement in the processes of state formation is marked by a strong ambivalence in Guinea: female political mobilizations appear as an indispensable advantage for state power when they are deployed in support of it, but these mobilizations can likewise disrupt and generate major problems for the state when they are directed against it. The efficacy of female political involvement is closely linked to the historiography of relationships between women and the state in Guinea, a country that helped construct an image of female activism outside of areas considered to be exclusively political, and as a guarantor of social justice.
During the colonial period, as was the case for many other countries under French colonial rule, the influence of women was restricted to the domestic sphere: once households ceased to constitute a political resource for the colonial regimes (in contrast to the precolonial era), the influence that women were able to wield within, for example, matrimonial alliances was considerably reduced. Yet, women played a highly important role in nationalist conflicts and under the regime of Sékou Touré, who served as Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Presented as the “women’s man,” Touré sought high integration of women into his political party, based on structures inspired by the Soviet socialist model. This was a Guinean political originality. In this context, even though women were given official prominence, their demands nonetheless drew on conservative models that relied on a politicization of the maternal figure. Yet the domestic and apolitical character of female mobilization still lends it a spontaneous efficacy in a context in which laws supporting women are seldom enforced and in which the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for women due to male emigration and inequalities in property rights.