History and Historiography

The African Origins of Democracy

By Bernd Reiter

In this short essay, I argue that democracy started in ancient Africa, not in ancient Greece. Along the way, I demonstrate that world history’s hegemonic focus on civilization is misplaced and misleading. Such a focus, after all, gears our collective attention toward empires, kingdoms, and dynasties and by doing so it obfuscates another history, more relevant for democracy: the history of self-rule, egalitarianism, resistance against state control, and true democracy. True democracy is defined here as self-rule by average people. It is not connected to voting and certainly disconnected from elections and from political representation. It started in Africa.
Most historiography recounts the history of human societies as one of civilization. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: “In general, civilization involves the rise of legal institutions and the acquisition of a legal monopoly of force by a government. Those developments made possible the cities and empires of classical times and the growth of dense populations.”There is, however, another history to be told, namely that of ordinary people and their resistance against the kind of civilization characterized by rule, hierarchy, and exploitation. James Scott (2009) has provided us with such a counter-history when describing the struggle of such societies as the Gumlao, in the Zomia mountains of the Burmese highlands.

Leave a Reply