African societies today have two levels of government: the indigenous organization, which pertains to local groups, and the national government of the independent nation-states. The relationship between the two levels is complex and has led to serious incompatibilities and conflicts.
It has become usual to classify the multitude of indigenous forms of African government into three main categories, conventionally known as bands, tribes, and kingdoms. Bands are relatively few and are limited to the societies with economies based on hunting and gathering, especially those of the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the foragers of the central African forests. Their economies require a low density of population and, therefore, its wide distribution over large areas, which inhibits permanent or large settlements. These bands are not found in total isolation but are interspersed with culturally different groups with distinct and complementary economies. Essentially, the bands are large kinship groups under the authority of family elders and shamanic ritual leaders.
"Tribes," a word less often used today than it was formerly because it is held to imply "primitiveness," form the numerically largest political category. Tribes are larger and more settled than bands, but they still lack any overall form of centralized political authority. They have no kings and, in the past, usually had no formally appointed chiefs, although there have always been ritual leaders with some degree of political authority. Most of these societies are based upon a structure of clans, which are segmented into subclans and lineages, often with three or four levels of segmentation. A clan or lineage is the basic unit of such a tribal organization, in which the tribe resembles a series of small, equal, and quasi-autonomous groups. The traditional sanctions for social order are ritual, feud, and warfare. Other tribal systems place emphasis on age rather than on descent, and everyday government is in the hands of councils based on the recruitment of men (and women) of similar age. Initiation at puberty is extremely important, in order that ties between age-mates (whether young warriors or legislative elders) overcome those of birth and descent. These societies are found especially in eastern Africa among pastoralists, such as the Maasai. In yet other tribal societies, mostly in western Africa, government is by some form of association (including the so-called "secret societies") of men and women of equal age and standing.
In the third type of indigenous political structure—that of the kingdom or state—political authority is centered on the office of a king (sometimes a queen), who is chosen from a royal clan and given sacred attributes by his or her subjects. Kingdoms range in population from a few thousand people to several million, and their rulers vary from being little more than ritual figureheads (as among the Shilluk of the southern Sudan, the prototype of James G. Frazer's "divine" king) to military despots with powers of life and death. These kingdoms may have arisen by conquest (as those of the Zulu or Swazi of southern Africa) or by combining into a federation of culturally related states (as those of the Asante or Ghana). The ruler may be regarded as a senior kinsman to his subjects, as a member of a socially senior royal clan, or as a member of an ethnically distinct autocracy (as in the former Rwanda and Burundi kingdoms). In all of the kingdoms, however powerful their rulers, there have always been institutionalized means by which the people controlled royal power. Such axioms as "the king is a slave" are accepted in many African kingdoms. In addition, it has been almost universal for there to be periodic rituals of purification of both the king as an individual and the kingship as an office or institution in its own right, independent of the temporary incumbent (well-known examples are those held in the kingdoms of the Swazi, Zulu, and Akan).
All of these different kinds of political units exist today, although the traditional powers of kings were invariably limited and weakened during colonial rule. In some colonial systems, in particular that of the British, the indigenous rulers were permitted to reign without the power of inflicting death or waging war, under the policy of "indirect rule"; in other systems, especially in the French colonies, it was more usual for indigenous rulers to become little more than figureheads—or even to be abolished.
Above the level of indigenous forms of polity is that of the modern nation-state. There are today almost sixty such nations in Africa, their boundaries remaining those established by the colonial powers that divided Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, with scant regard for the interests of the Africans themselves. It is little wonder that there have been perennial boundary disputes, which have almost all been settled by the Organization of African Unity.
The leaders of these new states have been faced with the problem trying to construct and retain notions of national identity, and to this aim have they tended to reduce still further the powers of traditional rulers and of the local councils and courts, which are based on association or descent. The indigenous local political units may retain the loyalties of their members, but this loyalty has typically been condemned as "tribalism" and (usually mistakenly) considered to be antithetical to "nationalism." The indigenous ruling elites have been weakened and have been replaced by modern elites, whose memberships are based on wealth and commerce rather than on traditional affiliations. The clashes between the two principles of organization—class and descent—have led to gross conflicts of interest and often to armed struggles within military and one-party governments, which have suppressed protestations and expressions of democratic dissent as "tribalism."