Political Systems

Where there is a human grouping, there is a political life (i.e. a system of interrelated activities). And, the first documented political life was devised in Africa (Kemet otherwise known as Ancient Egypt) where the Pharaohs ruled according to the principles of Ma’at[1]. They were the guarantors of order and stability. Similar forms of political life existed in the Sudan, mainly Kush and Meroe. Although not widely studied as Kemet, other forms of political life thrived in the Horn of Africa, with the most renowned kingdom being Aksum[2].

A system is an object with interdependent parts, acting within a setting or an environment. As such, a political system is a set of institutions and agencies concerned with formulating and implementing the collective goals of a society or of groups within it. If considered as a unit, it becomes a specific subsystem (i.e. political, economy, social, culture, etc.) of any society and it can be most fully understood by analysing its interactions with its domestic and international environments. In other words, the political system is the “State” and it is characterised by its monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within the society which it regulates.

The region was, for the most part of its history, characterised by the fundamental feature of developing locally owned political systems which were, whatever their level of advancement, integral of their domestic environments. Different subsystems describe the domestic setting such as the economic (agriculture, livestock, traditional mining, fisheries, etc.), social (family, status, ritual, etc.) and, the political culture (attitudes, beliefs and, values). Any change to one parameter of the domestic subsystem will affect each one of them. For example: desertification creates a change in the economic structure, moving a society from perhaps an agricultural base to a more pastoralist organisation. The effect on the social aspect will be profound. Nomadic ways of life ensues, implying a division of the society into family lines. The nomadic culture is also characterised by violence, absolute freedom and, loyalty to the lineage only. As a consequence, a loosened political system based on clan division with the aim of protecting the family’s territory and policing its members will be developed.

There is also the interdependence with the international setting. Indeed, trade, travel, migration with other regions will bring about new ideas impacting the political system. For example: the importation of new beliefs such as Islam or Christianity has generated new forms of political systems. Sultanates were created all over the region, from the Sudan to the Swahili Coast while Christian kingdoms thrived in the interior territories.

Another example is conquest: the European colonisation modified radically the face of the Horn. The importation of alien ideologies, the imposition of unified systems of centralised government on historically competing and hostile societies and, the delimitation of superficial borders have put to the test the pre-existing systems. Furthermore, under the European era, new political structures were introduced, rendering obsolete the traditional institutions used to organise the political life. The functions assumed by these new structures were not innovations to say-so, the organisations, however, developed to perform them were novelties for the occupied societies. In fact, these were quasi-modernisations for the whole world and, even for the Europeans themselves.

It was assumed that within a political system, there are six (new) types of political structures (institutions or agencies). These include political parties, interest groups, legislatures, executives, bureaucracies, and courts. They are formal organisations engaged in political activities. While they do not all perform the same functions, no one institution has a monopoly on any one function. Here is a list of the functions performed by the political structures:

  1. Interest articulation: it involves individuals and groups expressing their needs and demands,
  2. Interest aggregation: it combines different demands into policy proposals backed by significant political resources,
  3. Policy making: It is deciding which policy proposals become authoritative rules,
  4. Policy implementation: it is carrying out and enforcing public policies,
  5. Policy adjudication: it is setting disputes about the application of public policies.

These structures or set of formal institutional[3] arrangements define the rules governing the extent, distribution, use and control of formal and authorised power and hence shape the relations between state and society, between centre and periphery. These rules may cover a wide range of matters, from whether:

  1. the political system (i.e. state) is federal or unitary, parliamentary or presidential;
  2. the distribution of power between legislature, executive and judiciary and between national and sub-national authorities;
  3. the frequency and conduct of elections;
  4. the appointment and tenure of bureaucrats;
  5. the rights and duties of citizens- and much more.

Up to this day, there are great limitations, in the region, of state authority and capacity because of inabilities or unwillingness to spread the reach of the political structures. These institutions which determine the distribution of political power remain underdeveloped and, the experience shows their concentration at the centre and domination by one or a limited number of ethnic/tribal communities. This resulted, historically, in fierce resistance from the periphery and the inability to define and pursue an encompassing interest.

Besides this perpetual domestic demand for opening the structures of the political system, there has been an ever increasing pressure from the international environment to improve the inclusiveness and reach of the state. To this end, the rules covering the structures of the political system were modified and a process of widening the inclusiveness and reach of the institutions was undergone.

My aim regarding this section is to study these institutional arrangements and the rules covering their organisation and mandate. As we saw above, the political system determines policy and whether they are for the public good or for narrow interests, effective or inefficient, depend of the distribution of the political power. I will, for this reason, also analyse the distribution of power and relationship between legislature, executive and judiciary and, between national and sub-national authorities. To check the inclusiveness, openness and reach of the political system; I will examine the frequency and conduct of elections, the appointment and tenure of bureaucrats and finally, the rights and duties of citizens. For better readability, each article that I will write will focus on one subject based on a country case study. When there appears to be similar structures with similar functions, there will be a comparison study for a better understanding.


[1] Ma’at was the goddess and symbol of the equilibrium of the universe. In Kemetic thought, there was two fundamental concepts: The limitless waters (Nun) and the autogenous potential of precreation (Atum). Nun is the state-of-no-state, lifeless, inert while, Atum is life, light and eternal recurrence. Nun is a threatening state of affairs where order is constantly balancing on the edge of this abyss of chaos. By ruling according to the principles of the Ma’at, the King keeps the universe from relapsing to a state of chaos and by extrapolation; the King itself is the guarantor of order and stability to the society in opposition to anarchy.

[2] Aksumite kings traced their lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In my view, the Aksumite kingdom predated the Queen but, her meeting with King Solomon radically changed her society and possibly brought a new dynasty to the throne.

[3] They must be viewed here as institutions defined as the sets of norms, conventions, procedures and rules which shape and constrain the regular social interactions and social practices.

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