Communalistic ideal in Traditional African thought and practice: Its desirability in contemporary Africa

The African world view is characterised by unity and completeness. In Africa, no sharply defined aspects exist by themselves; wish and reality, the possible and impossible, knowledge and belief, thought and poetry, secular and religious life are interwoven and fundamentally one.

Things which the outsiders distinguish as separate are for Africans identical in their essence. It is thus difficult to study one single feature of the African life in isolation. (Odhiambo, p.10, 1997). Because of the cohesiveness of the African world view, one inevitably passes from one region into the other without noticing it; a correct understanding can only be obtained by surveying their life as a whole.

In Africa, communal cohesion is dominant over individuality. Communal cohesion is a state whereby individuals in the society consistently pursue certain fundamental virtues on the basis of enhancing a common or social good. In the Traditional African sense, every member voluntary cooperates with the society. Each is proud and much obliged to help any member of his or her community. (Kigongo 2014)

This article seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct the Communalistic ideal in the African system and thought. To do this, we shall analyse its principles, power and pitfall inorder to ascertain its level of desirability in the Contemporary African setting.


The communalistic ideal in Traditional African thought and practice is characterised by the principles of Solidarity, Subsidiarity, Consensus and Associations. In the case of solidarity strong ties exist that bind people together. These ties are generally kinship oriented which connect clans, tribes and communities. The system of solidarity is characterised by equality and it is people centred.

The principle of subsidiarity asserts that social organizations exist for the good of the individual; for them to realize their good aspirations. Individuals are allowed to fly beyond limits in the confines of their culture and the society should not hinder them to do so. Organizations that have higher units of authority exist to promote the wellbeing of lower units. Decisions and governance is by participation and autonomy of all members. The fundamental principle that operates within this paradigm states that when one individual prospers then the community prospers.

Fourth, the principal of consensus is the hallmark of political decision making in African communities. Although African societies were ruled by Kings and Monarchs the decision making process was quite participatory. The authorities did not enjoy absolute authority.


The communalistic ideal creates a foundation of values and beliefs upon which a society can be explained. Values provide knowledge and wisdom as to what is acceptable and desirable. Beliefs create a common identity upon which individuals enjoy a sense of belonging. Thus, individuals able to integrate together and end up living peacefully with each other.

Communalistic ideal provides an advancement model of ideas. Since individuals are constantly engaging with each other then they are able to proceed forward as a unit. Every eye is fixed on the price for the betterment of society. Moreover, constant engagement leads to combined effort for common courses. People are therefore able to generate solutions to their problems. This is very desirable especially in a devolution system of government, where every citizen gets an equal share of resources. Thus the morale of the people is uplifted and harnessed to a positive future.

Through the communalistic ideal, the need of authority is recognised. That the authority exists as the custodian of peace and growth of society. Absence of authority creates chaos and zero sum games which people use to predate upon others. This notion is held by the principle of consensus that requires everyone to obey the rule of law. Secondly, with recognition of authority, then decision making begins from the bottom up since a mutual relationship already exists between the two parties.

The communalistic ideal also promotes the spirit of voluntarism, civic education and accountability. With voluntarism, members of society deploy skills and expertise inorder to support the mileage of society. Civic education instils important criterion for societal cohesion. And accountability cements all the elements of culture by uplifting dignity and selflessness.

I highly believe that this system offers a chance for Africans to show that an authentic African philosophy exists. With a keen look on communalism, Africans operated and continue to operate within a framework that deserves to be called philosophy. Therefore the sages and the professionals should use communalism as one way of bringing the ‘African philosophy debate’ to an end.


Communalist ideal is a form of nationalism at the sub-national level. Communalistic ideal is based on the assumption of common identity — belief that people belong to specific groups sharing history, language, culture and historic space. Membership of the group is strictly determined by the criteria that define the community. This means that some individuals are locked out and seen as outsiders. (Africa Economic Analysis).

These outsiders become viewed as or view themselves as enemies. There is an understanding that belonging to the community comes with birthrights and entitlements unavailable to others. As a member, I have special right to those things that belong to the community even though these sources of wealth are not products of my labour.

Although the communalistic ideal may welcome strangers into the community, they will not integrate or assimilate outsiders, no matter how long they stay. There is a belief that others ought to be elsewhere, they should not share our space, the land that belongs to our people. And if we allow them the share of physical space, it is under our terms or those prescribed by tradition.

Communalistic ideal obstructs modern economic development in a number of ways. First, it constraints the face of factors of production, especially labour and human capital. People are not inclined to move or stay in places where the locals have a strong sense of communalism. They do not want to be denied the possibility of integration. It is often difficult for outsiders to acquire property, especially land within communities where ownership and rights are underpinned by the community’s claim of traditional precedence.

The communalistic ideal also affects peace and stability due to occurrence of civil wars and feuds. Igbo communities (as an example of African communities) have always experienced internal tensions. These include conflicts between the Ogaranya (the rich), Ogbenye (the poor), the Osu (outcast), Diala (worthy citizen), Ohu (Slave), Di (master) and Ofeke (social misfit).

Due to the localisation of communalism, since members operate within a particular region, then ethnicity and tribalism will not seem to disappear. Tribes will raise arms against another in a bid to proclaim glory and hegemony. In the long run, the factor of ethnic cleansing that uplifts an individual’s culture above the rest will be a fierce giant to overcome.

Communalistic ideal also leads to primitive unanimity; Everyone agrees with everyone else without questioning the thesis. In such cases, the status quo overrides the individual’s critical thinking. For a society to succeed bouncing of information from one individual is crucial. But the communalistic ideal does not offer such a platform due to its landlocked nature.

Implementation of an efficient communalistic ideal in the contemporary African setting is a slow process that requires slow process to achieve maximum results. Since everyone has to be tagged along, then the society has to be open to the weaknesses of all individuals. Weakness is characterised by different levels of education, outlook and experience. Therefore a collection of all these factors leads to slow movement of decision making and advancement. I highly doubt that a society is willing to adapt patiently to the whims of an individual.

Even though consensus is important in the communalistic ideal, not everyone’s voice is heard. Even if their voice is heard, the sole and ultimate decision lies with the king. People may tag and push their sentiments forward inorder to influence an outcome but they have to abide with the authorities decisions. Thus, the entitlement of society rests in the hands of a few.


After analysing the communalistic ideal in the Traditional African thought, it is clear that its power and pitfall cannot outweigh each other. This creates a balanced effect and thus one cannot assert authoritatively that the communalistic ideal is better or worse.

Therefore the Contemporary African Society should embrace the power of the communalistic ideal as presented in this essay. But they have to work tirelessly as a way of inhibiting the pitfalls of the same ideal.

Finally, the Contemporary African can be likened to a mature virgin. This virgin has available suitors that are ready to tap into her elegance and beauty. She has to be careful in her choices and has to been keen to her inner voice lest she become corrupted. She needs to fix her eyes on the horizon and let her fly beyond limits. Communalism offers an enticing choice to the virgin but she has to play her poker game well.


Africa Economic Analysis, (2004).

Kigongo, J. K. (2014). Concepts of individual and Social Cohesion. Makerere University. Uganda.

Odhiambo, O. (1997). African Philosophy. An introduction (2 ed.). Consolata Institute of Philosophy. Nairobi.