Reconfiguring old African kingdoms, empires


THE 19th Century was a period of profound and even revolutionary changes in the political geography of the African continent, characterised by the demise of old African kingdoms and empires and their reconfiguration into different political states.
African societies were in a state of flux, and many were too weak and politically unstable; unable therefore to put up effective resistance against the colonising invaders.
Most African societies fought fiercely to retain control over their land against fierce imperialist designs and military invasions. Eventually, the indigenous African societies lost out. There were many examples of defiance against colonisation such as that of Chief Tawengwa and his people.
Italy, the imperialist invader of Ethiopia, was confronted by a determined and sagacious military leader, the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II.
As Italy intensified pressure in the 1890s to impose its rule over Ethiopia, the Ethiopians organised resistance.
In 1896, 100 000 Ethiopian troops confronted the Italians in the Battle of Adwa, and inflicted a decisive defeat on them. Thereafter, Ethiopia was able to maintain its independence for much of the colonial period, except for a short-lived interval of Italian oversight between 1936 and 1941.
Samori Touré of the nascent Mandinka Empire in West Africa was another example. He organised military and diplomatic resistance against the French imperialists between 1882 and 1898, who were attempting to extend their territories inland from their base in Dakar, Senegal.
During this 16-year period, he used a variety of strategies; including guerilla warfare, scorched-earth programmes and direct military engagement, for which he acquired arms, especially quick-firing rifles, from European merchants and traders in Sierra Leone and Senegal.
Touré provided his protracted resistance against the might of the French by establishing engineering workshops (where weapons were repaired and parts were fabricated) as well as relying on his well-trained forces and the motivation of national defence.
In 1898, Touré was captured and exiled to Gabon, where he died in 1900.
Military resistance on the African continent usually took the forms of guerilla warfare and direct military engagement; depended on the political, social and military organisations of the societies concerned — erroneously branded as ‘stateless’ societies.
This approach was used by the Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria against the British colonisers, and also by indigenous Zimbabwean liberators, especially during the First and Second Chimurenga.
Exemplified by Paramount Chief Mashayamombe, one of the most powerful chiefs in central Mashonaland, who defended his territory against Ndebele raids and British imperial forces armed with seven-pounder artillery guns and dynamite, during the First Chimurenga in 1896. The Igbo fighters and people equally put up a protracted resistance despite the fact the British swept through Igboland between 1900 and 1902.
The ‘winds of change’ blowing through Africa in the middle decades of the 20th Century were to transform the landscape of the continent, with a growing number of independent African states in the rapidly liquidating colonial empires.
Equivocation by colonial governments was finally giving way to firm governmental decision by most of the colonising powers for whom one of the most complex and serious problems in Africa was that of land tenure
African or European land, in predominantly agricultural countries, is the visible symbol of status in the community.
Land, for most indigenous people, formed the matrix of a man’s existence.
Its protection, perpetuation and beneficial use gave the basic cohesion and unity of purpose to a family, clan or tribe and were the sanctions of the political, judicial and social power and prestige of the elder, headman or chief.
Differing ideologies of land and/or the perpetuation of such differences could alienate tribe-from-tribe as well as race-from-race in Africa as is evidenced by the many wars – civil or otherwise, throughout the continent, still raging today.
The pre-colonial land tenure system in Africa was as varied as there were different indigenous tribes and clans.
In settler-colonies like Kenya and Mozambique, there was a plantation-based export-commodity production of cotton, tea, coffee and sugar, among other crops.
Places like South Africa and Zaire were exploited for their gold and diamonds.
For the economies of the colonial states, the resources were harvested by the native populations; either through direct slavery or extreme wage-slavery.
In East Africa, the declaration of ‘protectorate status’ over Kenya by the British, in 1895, witnessed a repeat of the systematic and ‘legal’ process of alienating large tracts of land and dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land.
This was made possible by the erroneous reasoning that Africans were not civilised enough to govern themselves, let alone administer their property rights.
The years from 1954 to 1959 were revolutionary years in the history of land tenure policy in Kenya, due to the initiation in 1954 of the Swynnerton Plan “…to intensify the development of African agriculture in Kenya…” and its legal supplements.
The Report of the East Africa Royal Commission 1953-1955 and the government of Kenya made a decision in 1959 to open the previously racially inviolable ‘White Highlands’ to occupation and farming on a non-racial basis. These formed important fundamental and intangible implications for Africans, Asians and Europeans living in Kenya at the time.
According to the Swynnerton Plan, the indigenous Kenyans’ security of tenure over their lands, would intensify agricultural production and address the contentious issue of landlessness while giving rise to an African ‘middle class’.
Economically, it meant the recognition, encouragement and evolution from communal to individual land tenure.
Registration and consolidation of landholdings were the basis for issuance of an ‘individual’ freehold title to this new portion of land; a negotiable title bearing new mobility in land transfer and disposition with the concomittant establishment of modern techniques of farm planning, both for mixed farming and predominantly stocking areas.
Achieving economic use of the available land in Kenya was mandatory.
The introduction of land alienation to non-tribal and non-racial buyers or leasees was made a possibility, and the emergence of a landless class, unimaginable in traditional indigenous law and custom, through accumulation of landholdings and imprudent sale or mortgaging of land to raise capital or to pay debts, became a distinct probability.
The tension produced by separate, unequal, legal systems was especially acute in a colonial situation where movement from the jurisdiction of one law to the other was controlled by the policy of the superior power — the colonial government.
For these reasons, legal and administrative decisions had to be taken, and the attainment of legal equality within the territory became an essential drive for Kenyans.
The dispossession of indigenous lands in Kenya had been legitimised by the enactment of the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1915, which defined ‘crown land’ as: “All public lands in the colony which are for the time being, subject to the control of His Majesty (King George V), by virtue of any treaty, convention, or agreement, or by virtue of His Majesty’s Protectorate, and all lands which have been acquired by his Majesty for the public service or otherwise howsoever, and shall include all lands occupied by the native tribes of the colony and all lands reserved for the use of the members of any native tribes”.
This was interpreted in colonial courts as: “…natives being mere tenants at the will of the Crown with no more than temporary occupancy rights to the land….” Once again, the colonial authorities, through the instrument of the law and the courts, had effectively rendered Africans landless.
In the coastal belt of Kenya, territory was permanently leased from His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar and administered as a protectorate by the Government of Kenya; rendering the land situation in a state of confusion.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:


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