The Ancient African Republics of Igboland
Nigeria held one of the world’s most complex democracies before it was destroyed
There’s gotta be a better way. Our elites are utterly detached from the day to day experience of the people they rule, and many of us have lost hope that we can influence their decisions in any meaningful way. People still believe in democracy, but the tools we have to deal with our common problems simply haven’t been up to the task.
Visionaries like Dave Volek and Arthur Juliani have begun developing alternative forms of democracy to fix these problems from the bottom up. Yet, people are understandably skeptical when approached with something that hasn’t been tried before, and it can be hard to imagine actually living in a political system meaningfully different from our own. Visionaries need giant shoulders to stand on. We need guides to help us see the path forward.
Fortunately, we are not the only society to have developed a democratic form of government. Before being colonized by the British and forced to take on their institutions, the Igbo of Nigeria governed themselves for hundreds of years. Whether you believe democracy is aboriginal to the Igbo or a later response to overbearing kings, hundreds of independent villages lived under a diverse array of self rule institutions for centuries, despite the powerful centralized empires in their midst.
These villages exhibited a diversity of self-rule traditions that were wiped out by the British and eventually replaced with a “modern” liberal democracy. This has not worked out well for the peoples of Nigeria, who struggle to this day with severe poverty, inequality, and violent elections. The Igbo region is still dealing with severe corruption, with elites going as far as to commit ritual murders in their pursuit of wealth and power, as well as surviving a brutal civil war in the late 60s that many have argued was a genocide.
Prior to the British, the Igbo had developed a complex set of institutions based around strong families, wealth creation, and wisdom through old age. This is to say that it was an unequal society, but one with a balance of power and a high level of social mobility. Decisions were made by public assemblies attended by the heads of families, where respected members of the community would have to develop a consensus everyone in the village approved of before taking action.
A set of villages working together made up a town. When decisions were made regarding the entire town, the oldest and most respected member of each village would come together to develop policy on the issue. They would then return home to discuss the agreement at the village assembly, where all free adult males and respected older women were able to attend. Anyone was free to contribute, and speakers would receive praise or the demeaning Di anyi, tukwunyo (our colleague, sit down) depending on the value of their contribution.
If a village assembly disagreed with the decision, the elders would have to meet once more and develop a new consensus based on their objections. Once everyone agreed at the village assemblies, the decision would be taken down to the lineages, where men and women of the extended family would go over the issue. Finally, it would be taken down to the nuclear family, where the man of the house generally held command over his wives and children.
Communal labor, policing, and defense were handled by the age grades. Teenage men around the same age would be enrolled into an age grade, where they would decide their own internal rules and make friendships for life. Younger men would do the hard physical labor and chores to maintain the village and prepare for the planting season. Middle aged men would handle policing and defense, while the elder age groups would handle executive decisions about festivals, punishment, and war. The oldest age grades controlled the village property and fined those who shirked communal work or misused village property, effectively governing the commons.
It was not enough simply to grow old in order to advance through the age grades. Igbo men had to prove themselves and grow wealthy in order to purchase titles and perform the coming of age rituals with their peers. Those who failed to advance or purchase any titles were treated as young boys, mocked mercilessly, and buried without dignity. Those who grew wealthy and purchased the highest titles were treated like royalty and attended meetings with the elders.
In an agricultural society without mechanization, the wealth of a household was determined by its size. In order to expand the household, men would take on multiple wives. The first wife inherited the prestige of her husband’s household, and as such would help arrange marriages with junior wives in order to increase her personal prestige.
Women regulated the local trade and attended their own parallel democratic assemblies. These assemblies held complete jurisdiction over the local markets and provided women with opportunities to become independently wealthy. They also had the power to judge men. If the men were abusive or ignored fines and regulations levied by the women’s organizations, the women’s council could arrange boycotts, refusing to cook, clean, or have sex with any of the men, protest at a man’s compound, banging pots and pans and questioning his manhood, even literally sitting on him, refuse to bury offenders after they died, or demolish people’s houses. There was also gender role flexibility at some villages, with powerful women marrying and taking on children.
The Igbo justice system was primarily restorative as opposed to the West’s punitive system. This means that the primary goal of justice was for wrongdoers to pay back the victims for the harm they caused, for the victim to be restored as much as possible, for the people in power to analyze and address the circumstances that led to harm being caused in the first place, and for the perpetrator to be reintegrated and harmony restored in the community.
A stakeholder model of justice meant that the victims, offenders, and community all actively took part in defining harm and finding a resolution that served everyone. Offenders were held accountable to the victims and the community, not to the law as such. The families of offenders would also be held accountable for restoring the family of the victim, and the community as a whole would use crime resolution as an opportunity to reconsider the socioeconomic circumstances that led to the breakdown in the social order. Complex cases were referred to the secret societies and religious officials, who would use supernatural powers to tell who was telling the truth and who was lying. The secret societies would hold masquerades, where under anonymity they were able to address abuses of power and unresolved crimes in a humorous setting.
Our people traded extensively in slaves. It was a dangerous trade, but very profitable. It was dangerous, because you must be strong enough to overpower your victim. Secondly, you must be prepared to risk your life, wresting children from their parents, and so on. In fact, slaves were obtained in various ways — by kidnapping, through wars, through punishment for crimes and breach of taboos, for failure to pay debts. Parents even sold their children, for want of food...
When they came to Agbaja, one man wanted an Ozo title to be conferred on him. He said that the members of his age grade were deriding him because he had not taken an Ozo title. This man had to sell two of his children in exchange for the Ozo title. There was another episode when a man had so many children, and he had to ask them to buy one of his children in exchange for one cow.
A repeat offender or perpetrator of a serious abomination may have been exiled to the “evil forest” or sold into slavery if they were unable to atone for their crime through adequate restitution. Slavery was an integral part of Igbo culture even prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade. There were three castes in most Igbo societies: freemen, domestic slaves, and ritual slaves. Domestic slaves were either captured in war or as punishment for their crimes, and were sometimes subject to ritual killings, a legacy which persists in Nigerian business and politics to this day. Ritual slaves on the other hand were usually seeking refuge or sent as an offering to a local shrine, where they and their descendants became locked to serving a particular god, separated from the rest of society for all time.
Ironically, it was the British, once the masters of the so-called “slave coast”, who ended slavery in Nigeria in the early 1800s. After centuries of warfare through which millions of Igbo and Yoruba people were carted across the ocean in bondage, British warships became the ultimate leviathan to end the ignominious tradition. Yet, it took over a century for the tradition to be eradicated, and the stigma of having descended from slaves remains a cause of shame for millions. Nigeria still grapples with her legacy of slavery, and those who effectively belong to a caste of untouchables fight for their rights through organizations like Ifetacsious.
Obviously, there’s a lot of things the Igbo did that we would do ill to apply to our own societies. However, I would like to point out that many of the “fanciful” ideas that have been floating around lately were in fact put into practice by the Igbo. The Igbo did have a tiered deliberative democratic system where elites were directly accountable to the will of the people. The Igbo did have parallel democratic systems and a rich civil society that kept the powerful in check. The Igbo did have a system that prioritized restorative justice principles. The Igbo did have well-regulated communal property administered by principles similar to those elaborated by Elinor Ostrom. The Igbo did relegate undesirable but socially necessary “unskilled” labor to society as a whole, with labor becoming progressively less onerous as an individual paid their dues.
A lot of generalizations have been made about the Igbo over the course of this article. It’s important to conceptualize the region less like the United States of America, and more like Ancient Greece, with societies as diverse as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart, the downtrodden members of Igbo society, those without titles, are portrayed abandoning their old way of life to join the Christian missionaries. There already was precedence for this within the Kingdom of Nri, which reportedly used its philosophy of accepting outcasts and runaway slaves to exert non-violent religious authority and trade prestige over Igbo villages for about a thousand years.
The Igbo show us that a different way is possible. Actually implementing these ideas takes serious groundwork and community building. For example, a neighborhood could establish an empty lot or front lawn space as a community garden or food forest, and build direct democratic management systems around distributing the produce and hosting farmer’s markets. The Underground Center in Saugerties has a program much like this. Dave Volek has imagined a process for developing Tiered Democratic Governance which would allow for a direct interface between representatives and the people. Restorative justice is being implemented on a small scale across the world, including in Nigeria, and has generally been successful.
We are not stuck with one way of doing things. People in the past used a variety of systems we too can learn from and adapt to our modern needs. Despite their problems, the Igbo republics were a brilliant and long-lasting implementation of a number of ideas we can use in our own communities. The future is open to us now, as it always has been.