The Roles and Functions of Leaders in Traditional Africa

This article is a sequel to the article “A Historical/Reflection: Leadership in Primitive Africa. When the roles and functions of leaders in traditional Africa are examined and considered together with the way leaders were recognized or acknowledged, the traditional concept in African leadership can be fully understood. In this section therefore the role of the leaders will be examined so that one can have a full understanding of the traditional concept in African leadership.


In discussing the way leaders were recognized or acknowledge in traditional Africa. Some of the functions they performed have been mentioned in passing. These functions will now be discussed in more details. At this point the discussion will be focused on kings who ruled larger sections and chiefs, who ruled smaller sections under him. It would be helpful to first have an idea of the kind of relationship that may exist between a king and his subject.

According to Magbaily Fyle, it is understood at the coronation of the Temne King in Sierra Leone that he, the King, bought the country from all the major industrial groups, like fishermen, carpenters and shoemakers, by giving them presents. Therefore if they fail to give him his customary gifts later, he could legitimately fine them because he had bought the country. All section town or villages sent tribute to him in the form of grain, cattle and other goods once a year after every harvest. These items were considered as presents, and failure to send these things is interpreted as rebellion. The chief used some of these gifts to reward faithful servants and helped those who had bad harvest. It can be noted that in this relationship, systems have been put in place for the people to take care of their king and also for the king to help people in need. In taking care of the people, the king performs the following functions: he runs the day-to-day affairs of his own town and section. For example, he acts as judge in settling disputes for the people. He takes the decision to go to war, although in consultation with the elders of the state. According to Magbaily Fyle, the king did not rule alone, he could not misuse his authority. If he did, the people just move away and he would be a king without subjects. Kings and chiefs have council of elders who assist them. In a dispute or a time of decision-making, these people debate before the king or chief pronounces the final decision. Leaders of secret societies were another category of leaders mentioned. They were responsible to train young men in activities of manhood such as, hunting, fighting, the use of various herbs to cure ailments etc. Leaders of female societies also performed a similar function.

These indigenous African leaders did not just occupy positions but really served the people. Since the Indigenous Leadership was also influenced by western concept of leadership, it would be helpful to examine the traditional roles and functions of African leaders who were influenced by western concepts.


As already mentioned, western powers established few African states but colonized most. If one is to consider the traditional concept of African leadership, the period of consideration should be up to the period when most African countries gained their independence. That point marked not only freedom from westerners, but also the development of their traditional leadership concept. Activities surrounding the independence of some African states would be considered in this section.

1) Leadership Roles and Functions of the Liberated

Africans and Settlers in Sierra Leone

In his book “Creoledom” Arthur porter, made the following observations about freed slaves who were resettled in a coastal area of West Africa, which later became known as Sierra Leone. He said that many of the freed slaves who came from Nova Scotia had been Christians and on arrival, they set up chapels themselves. He noted that these churches were not organizations devoted only to service and worship. He noted that these churches were not organization devoted only to service and worship. They were also centers of social life in the community, providing a field of activity in which the freed Negroes could acquire state and exercise leadership. According to Porter, “The church provided an easy opportunity for status enhancement to those with aspiration for leadership. Thus many with great ability and force of personality if not academic distinction, soon broke away and collected their own following”. It can be observed that contrary to what some people feel, western concepts were not imposed on Africans. The freed slaves had lost or were not even aware of the indigenous concept of leadership in Africa. They accepted the western concepts as standard as Arthur Porter observed.

“The influx of liberated Africans into Freetown community, where the settlers had already set a standard based on western ideas, had confronted the government with a major social problem Porter stated that the liberated Africans had to face a people who had accepted church going and membership of a religious group as part of their way of life. In addition, those who exercised political leadership over the people were either appointed or elected, and thus became the norm when power was gradually handed over to the people. Before power was finally handed over to the Africans, the British who pioneered this venture had succeeded in uniting the indigenes and the settlers under one nation. It is within this context that one could rightly say that the traditional leadership concept in Sierra Leone was fully developed. This influence of western concepts of leadership in Africa can also be seen in other African countries that were colonized by western powers.

2) Leadership Roles and Functions of African Political


Walter T. Wallbank, in the book, “Civilization Past and Present”, stated that, “the most significant achievement of imperialism was its transmission of revolutionary Western political and social ideas to underdeveloped societies the explosive idea of democracy, parliamentary government and nationalism”. Every African country that was colonized had the influence of western society, which resulted in the blend of western and indigenous concepts of leadership in African countries. Wallbank further noted that the contact with the European modes of life rapidly undermined old faiths, customs, tribal loyalty and social institutions and according to him “the African as yet belong exclusively neither to his old tribal world nor to that of the white man”. This western-indigenous blend of leadership concepts can be seen in political leadership as African nations gained their independence. A brief account of circumstances surrounding the independence of four African nations can bring out the concept clearly and reveal the leaders role and functions. Wallbank stated,” Ghana was the first nation south of the Sahara to rise out of subservience to the white man. In 1957, Kwame Nkrumah the prime minister was the idol of African nationalists and his newly freed nation was the symbol of liberalism and democracy in emergent Africa. But almost immediately Nkrumah began to muzzle the press and imprison the opposition. According to Wallbank, “Nkrumah developed quickly into an outright dictator in the classic mould”.

Nigeria was also another country colonized by the British. There were more than two hundred tribes in the country and a dozen important languages. This nation was united in a form of state-structure and was taught to be the best example of democracy in Africa. The attempt to blend western and African concepts of leadership was also seen in this situation.

This blend of leadership was also seen in Ethiopia. This country was conquered in 1936 and her emperor Haile Selassie exiled. However, the British liberated the country in 1941 and they brought him back to his kingdom. Wallbank noted that, “while by no means he was not an enlightened ruler he was able to cope with the new forces of change and modernity.

Finally, the Gambia, according to F.K. Buah attainted internal self-government in 1960 when Pierre Njie, a Gambian leader of the united party became chief minister. Two years later, Dauda Jawara, who had served under Njie became the first prime minister of the Gambia. He led the country to independence in 1970.

The four countries cited above, set up democratic governments, like western countries, when they gained independence. Those who pioneered a nation to independence almost automatically became the head of state at independence. This is much in line with how the indigenous leaders were recognize they must have achieved something. In addition, political leaders who lead their country to independence do not tolerate any opposition. Like the indigenous leaders they demand total obedience from their followers. The leadership style that these leaders developed was more authoritative as something domineering.

Evidence of Traditional Leadership Concept in Present Day Leadership

This discussion so far has been to bring to light the traditional concept in African leadership. This was determined by a close examination of two aspects: i) By an examination of how leaders were recognized in traditional Africa and ii) By an understanding of the roles and functions of leaders in traditional Africa. It was also noted that the traditional concept was fully developed by both the indigenes and African leaders who had western influence.

On the side of the indigenes, it was observed that leaders were recognized because of special qualities they possess, for example, a warrior or ‘moriman’, because the people look for someone who can protect them. On the side of African leaders with western influence, leaders were recognized through election or appointment. Western education was a great advantage.

The traditional concept of African leadership was fully developed by the time African nation gained their independence. At this point a blend of the indigenous and western patterns can be seen. Political leaders after independence were elected through a democratic process, but they fight like indigenous political leaders to keep their position and don’t tolerate any opposition. This fighting to stay in power is a reflection of the traditional concept of leadership in present day African leadership.

At this point, it is necessary to show hoe this fighting to stay in power, has developed since independence and the impact it is having in present day Africa. The four nation-Ghana, Nigeria, Congo and the Gambia, will be reference point for this discussion.

With reference to activities following the independence of Ghana, Wallbank observed, “But almost immediately Nkrumah began to muzzle the press and imprison the opposition. Quickly he developed into an outright dictator in the classic mould”. In 1966 a group of army officers seized control of the government in 11972 another military junta seized power in a bloodless coups.

The situation of Nigeria following independence was very similar to that of Ghana. Wallbank said between 1962 and 1966 a series of crises – disputed elections, corruption and lawlessness, threatened to tear the new nation apart. But as a result of these events, the leader of the Ibo tribal region proclaim its independence as the state of Biafra. This resulted into a civil war.

Congo got her independence in 1960. The country had seventy major ethnic groups and hundreds of tribes. Fighting broke out immediately after independence and the United Nations had to intervene. Wallbank said that the Congolese had been given practically no training in the art of self-government.

Activities following independence in the Gambia were much more favorable but Jawara stayed so long in power until he was overthrown. Two things observed about the traditional concept of African leadership are: i) The fight to gain power and ii) the fight to stay in power, if possible, for life.

The so many wars in Africa, the coups and counter coups are just a reflection of the traditional concept of African leadership. Like the traditional leaders, present day leaders consider their position as family property. It can be seen that present day leadership practices are not unique. These practices have been found in traditional practices.


The subject of this paper was to examine the traditional concept in African leadership. The approach taken was first to examine the traditional concept of African leadership and the then to find out whether elements of this concept were evident in present day leadership.

The traditional concept of traditional African leadership was examined from two perspective: I) from the perspective of the indigenous African and ii) that of African leaders who were influenced by westerners: the freed slaves from Nova Scotia, Jamaica and England resettled in Africa, and the influence resulting from colonization of African countries.

Two things determined the concept of African leadership: a) how leaders were recognized and b) how leaders functioned. African leaders assumed leadership through a show of power and fight to retain that power. This concept is evident in portent day; leadership, revealed in the so many coups in Africa and the rebel wars. In addition, in the political arena, leaders do not want to give up power.


Buah, F. K. West Africa and Europe. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1960.

Ancient World. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1960.

Fyle, Magbaily, The History of Sierra Leone. London: Evans brothers, 1981.

Porter, Arthur T. Creoledom. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Rush, Myron. Management: A Biblical Approach. Iiinois: Victor Books, 1984.

Wallbank, Walter,T. Civilization Past and Present. London: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1983.

Source by Leopold A. Foullah

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