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Africas Contribution to the Development of Diplomacy

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Introduction The neglect, for a long time, of African contribution to modern diplomacy, by scholars and the failure to forcefully project the history and image of Africa, exposed the continent to uncharitable, disparaging and judgemental comments by Eurocentric historians who denied African history. However, the notion in certain quarters that Africans were not capable of engaging in any systematic and sophisticated art of diplomacy is to a large extent not true. (Adegbulu, 2011)
Foreign Relations in Global Perspective. Diplomacy is the fundamental means by which foreign relations are conducted and a foreign policy implemented, far from being the invention of capitalism or of the modern nation state, is found in some of the most primitive communities and seems to have evolved independently by peoples in all parts of the world. The basic object of diplomacy is to enable men to live with their neighbours, a feat which requires a measure of accommodation to the interests of others. Above all, they are the questions of peace and war, and then such matters as the conclusion and observance of treatise, the making, maintenance and breaking of alliances, the establishment of boundaries, the development and protection of trade and the payment of tribute. The means by which these are pursued need to be adjusted to changing circumstances, but the employment of accredited agents (diplomatists) to represent and to negotiate on behalf of a state or society seems to be a nearly constant practice. From this, it usually follows that diplomatic forms become established among neighbours and immunities recognized. (Smith, 1989:7)
Diplomacy of state formation in Africa The rise of a state like Asante for example, is an epic requiring the welding together of separate Akan communities and states, into a single political unit. The evolution of its constitution, Ajayi argues, called for high diplomatic skills such as is credited to the genius of the statesman warrior King Osei Tutu, and the magical powers of his divine counsellor, Okomfo Anokye. It called for the use of inherited ideas in the creation of new institutions of inter-state coordination such as the confederal army, the elaboration of the idea of the Golden stool and of ritual usages and traditions of common origin. (Ajayi, 1976:78) There are other numerous examples of state formations, but not all have yet been put together in such detail as the Asante case. However, most state systems in West Africa as in other parts of Africa, meant the bringing together of disparate groups. Perhaps, it is imperative to consider the workings of Yoruba state-system, or the composition of the more diversified Benin imperial structure to realise the diplomatic effort required to keep them together. The remoter periods of the formation of these West African states and empires have not always been studied in depth. This can be attributed to the difficulty of recovering the essential details of diplomatic manoeuvres and procedures from the oral traditions. In the later periods of expansion, the issues of external relations of these imperial systems become clearer. The dealings between the Benin Kingdom and its eastern neighbours, with the Igala, Nupe and Yoruba, or the relations between the Oyo Empire and Dahomey; or of Dahomey with Asante, are easier to identify as issues of diplomatic relationships. Moving northwards in the Sudan belt of West Africa, was an environment where relations became quite complex, and studies of contacts of a trans-continental nature become feasible. In the wake of the trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt and other commodities, the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai maintained relations with North Africa, while Bornu and the Hausa states similarly made contact with the Maghreb. The factor of Islam brought other dimensions of contact. Rulers like Mansa Kankan Musa (1307 -1332) sent diplomatic missions to the Middle East, and his famous pilgrimage was itself a major diplomatic expedition. The introduction of Arabic writing into the Sudan, it has been argued, enabled Songhai to exchange diplomatic letters with Morocco and Kanem Bornu with Tunis, Tripoli and even with the Turkish Emperor at Istanbul.
Cases of Diplomatic Activities The boundary is a key element for defining statehood. African Empires such as Benin, Dahomey, Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Abyssinia had territorial limits and spheres of interest, which were well known. (Otoide, 2001) There was evidence of diplomatic activity in the correspondence of some of the first Christian missionaries who visited the region. As early as the sixteenth century (Circa 1539) three Portuguese friars at Benin, had in a letter to their king, King John III stated that ‘the Oba (king) there had the habit of ill-treating and imprisoning all ambassadors of kings who send messages to him’. The envoys of two coastal states of Adra and Labedde are said to have been accorded this treatment. Another report by some Italian missionaries states how in 1691 relations between Benin and Itsekiri Kingdom of Warri became so strained that ‘they (were) not exchanging ambassadors’ (Adegbulu, 2011) a presupposition that they usually exchanged ambassadors. The ambassadors of Oyo, the most powerful of the Yoruba kingdoms and of Dahomey, featured prominently. In one account, Agaja of Dahomey was said to be in the habit of sending an ambassador to Whydah with a request for ‘an open Traffic to his side’ (Snelgrave, 1734). This same source elsewhere relates how in 1730s Agaja ‘sent Ambassadors with large presents’ of coral, ‘together with one of his most beautiful daughters’ to the Alafin (king) of Oyo. In return, the Alafin sent one of his daughters as a wife for Agaja. However, diplomatic marriages such as these were common phenomena among pre-colonial West Africans. Examples of indigenous diplomacy abound in the nineteenth century West Africa. In the Yoruba country, the Ekiti and Ijesa kings sent emissaries to other monarchs to form the anti-Ibadan coalition of 1878 known as the Ekiti-parapo (Akintoye, 1971:146). The pre-colonial West Africans were also in the practice of maintaining resident representatives abroad. As early as the sixteenth century, Askia (king) of Songhai was said to have some of his courtiers perpetually residing at Kano for the receipt of the tribute due to him from the kingdom (Ajayi and Crowder, 1971:214-15) Pre-colonial African diplomats often carried credentials or badges of office. These credentials could be in form of a fan, a cane, a baton, a whistle or a sword. The Ashante and Dahomean ambassadors were noted for their unique credentials. They were often covered in gold silver leaf and decorated with symbolic emblems (Smith, 1976:23). It is believed that such objects, by extending the power of the ruler beyond his normal reach, were intended to ensure the safe passage of his envoys through alien territory. Some wore specially made diplomatic uniform, such as black caps which according to Bosman, ensured ‘an effectual free pass everywhere’ for the Tie-Ties of the Fonte. The amabassadors of Tegbesu of Dahomey to Bahia in 1750 were said to have been offered Portuguese Clothes by the authorities there, they preferred to appear in their own magnificent garb. Another important aspect of African diplomacy was the immunity which the diplomats enjoyed in the course of their duties. This was so, particularly when the diplomats carried credentials which identified them as state officials representing their sovereigns. Ajisafe’s account on diplomatic immunity in Yoruba land makes this point clear. ‘Embassy between two hostile countries or governments’ according to him, ‘is permissible in native law and the ambassador’s safety is assured; but he must not act as a spy or in a hostile way...’ It has been argued that since the aim of diplomacy is to carry out the policy of a government by means of negotiation, (not ruling out the possibility of war though; since this has been regarded as a continuation of policy (diplomacy) by other means), its achievements are usually expressed on either informal understandings or specific treaties. Examples of secret informal understandings can be found in several African States. In Dahomey for example, this style seems to have reached a high level of efficiency in the nineteenth century. Dalzel reports that King Kpengla’s envoys were able to bring about a war in 1786 between his enemies at ‘New Ardra’ (Ajase) and her former allies the Weme. Similarly, Kpengla a few months later was able to separate the Ajase from their protectors at Oyo. Other treaties were designed to end hostilities between states. The treaty concluded between the Hausa states of Kano and Katsina, C. 1650, for instance, was to end a long series of wars; while the boundary agreement in the late sixteenth century intended to end Idris Alooma’s Kanem Wars – an agreement which has been described as the first written border agreement in the history of the central Sudan. Perhaps some of the notable peace treaties concluded in West Africa were those between Oyo and Dahomey in the eighteenth century. Alliances concluded by the Fante against the Ashanti in the nineteenth century examples, the treaty of Jarapanga in C. 1830 between Ashanti and the defeated Dagomba, and the anti-Ibadan alliance of the second part of the nineteenth century. A rather curious treaty of neutrality is said to have been entered into by the king of Whydah in 1714 with representatives of the French, Portuguese, English and Dutch. The king, by this treaty, refused to be a party to the hostility between the French and other foreign traders visiting his domains. One important feature of treaties in West Africa was their sacrosanct nature. According to Elias, (1956) ‘African customary law shares with customary international law acceptance of the principle of pacta servanda sunt as basis for assurance of a valid world order’. To make the treaties have a binding force, oaths, which were often formidable undertakings, were sworn to. Peaceful coexistence among the African tribes, kingdoms, empires, and city-states naturally promoted peace and welfare; it also helped develop inter-state and inter-tribal relations which later proved to be inevitable for foreign policy and diplomatic relations of Africa from pre-independence to post-independence eras of Africa (Daniel, 2012).

Adegbulu, F. (2011) “Pre- colonial West African: Its nature and impact”, The Journal of International Social Research Volume. 4, Issue.18
AJAYI, J. F. A., (1976). “Recent Studies in West African Diplomatic History”, Nigerian Journal of International Affairs, 1/1
Ajayi, J. F. A. & M. Crowder, (1971). History of West Africa, Vol. 1 New York: Columbia university press
Ajisafe, A. K, (1924). The Laws and Customs of the Yoruba People, London: Routledge
Akintoye, S. A, (1971). Revolution and Power Politics in Yorubaland, 1840-1893, London: Longman
Dalzel, A., (1793). The History of Dahomey, An Inland Kingdom of Africa, London
Daniel, D.N, (2012). African Foreign Policy and Diplomacy from Antiquity to the 21st Century. Accessed online at
Elias, T. O, (1956). The Nature of African Customary Law, Manchester: University Press
Otoide, L.E, (2001) “Re-Thinking the Subject of Africa's International Relations” Voice of History, Vol. XVI, No. 2
SMITH, R. S., (1976). Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa, London: Mathuen and Company Limited
SMITH, R. S, (1989). Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa 2nd edition, Britain: James Currey Ltd
Snelgrave, W, (1734). A New and Accurate of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade, London.…...

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