Acephalous literally means headless society without any institutionalized system of power and authority. Thus, in many acephalous societies, there was a clear separation between power (defined as the ability to influence events in a desired. In anthropology, an acephalous society (from the Greek ἀκέφαλος “headless”) is a society which lacks political leaders or hierarchies. Such groups are also.

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They see the absence of the state as a recipe for chaos. These societies pushed the concept of liberty to its most radical extreme and would fiercely socjety any hint of tyranny. It also underlies the current chaos in Somalia.

Autocracy was always a theoretical possibility in government, a fact which concerned many ethnic acephlaous. To guard against this, many elected not to have chiefs or any centralized authority at all. Sociefy stateless societies went a step further by institutionalizing a social habit socjety impugning or deriding acepbalous political authority through its oral narratives.

Yelpaala noted that, through mythic, metaphorical and mimetic structures, leadership roles such as kings and chiefs in some stateless societies were cast in negative paradigms, while the ideal leadership was accented. To reinforce this cultural aversion to leadership roles, Igbo society also imposed such onerous obligations and religious restrictions on titleholders that their power was effectively neutralized or kept in line with notions of ideal leadership.

The Dagaaba oral narratives are similarly replete with mythic and metaphorical images of kingship. It is therefore obvious from the way societies like the Tiv, the central Igbo, and the Dagaaba were organized that they were well aware of the political structure of the centralized systems, but tried to eliminate them as much as possible. For instance, they recognized the tremendous advantage acephalohs centralized power during war and used a limited form of it only then. Leaders were given the power to command and carry out operations, but during peacetime, they became, like Cincinnatus, common people and ceased to exercise that power p.

There is evidence to support the thesis that ecological factors and livelihood also played a role in the choice of political systems; especially among pastoralists. The nature of their livelihood made centralized systems of government unfeasible.

To govern themselves, they formulated viable social systems with their own values, skills and wealth and successfully maintained their societies. In stateless societies, two principles from their descent system permitted them to govern their affairs with minimum of administrative burden and tedium: The first might be referred to as the structural regulation of internal affairs.

A quarrel between members of two sublineages is an exclusive matter of the immediate parent lineage, and a sociegy between two members of the same minimal lineage is of concern to that unit only. This principle tends caephalous limit the arena of concern to the smallest relevant unit.

However, despite the efficiency with which this limits relations, it tends to work against large-scale leadership. The second principle from the descent system which influences organization in segmentary stateless societies is related to the political functions of the groups and might be referred to as the rule of political practicality.

ACEPHALOUS SOCIETY means the society is without a head.

Political units must be viable in ways that lineages need not; as a result, considerations of size and contiguity, which are irrelevant to descent as such, are important to a political organization. For example, a political unit must defend itself, which implies a minimum size, and it must have internal cohesion, which implies both a maximum size and a local arena of such size that interaction is possible.

Political units, thus, are perceived as though they were units of the lineage system, even though the organization does not coincide with the lineage system Vaughan, ; p. Accordingly, the maintenance of justice as well as of cultural and territorial integrity were effected through the extended family organizations and the invocation of kinship behavior, not only in domestic but wider spheres.

This was characteristic of the hunting and pastoral peoples such as the!

Kung, the Pygmies and the Fulani. But precautions were taken. A system of checks and balances was instituted in which two or more power slciety were balanced against each other and applied in all levels of the community so that no single center predominated. Both types generally used kinship idiom and the norms of kinship behavior in their system of law and order.


In general there were no officeholders; only representatives of groups. Such societies reached compromises in conflict resolution rather than making judgments and applying sanctions. Thus, in many acephalous societies, there was a clear separation between power defined as the ability to influence events in a desired manner and direction and authority meaning the acknowledged or recognized right to exercise power.

One did not necessarily flow from the other. There is no leader and the maintenance of justice as well as of cultural and territorial integrity are effected societj the extended family organizations and the invocation of kinship behavior, not only in domestic but wider spheres. A system of checks and balances is instituted wcephalous which two or more power centers are balanced against each other and axephalous in all levels of the community so that no single center predominates.

The colonialists had the most difficulty in dealing with this distinction in stateless societies. But they lacked authority since they were not part of the kinship group and were treated as external representatives of an alien government. Within the ethnic group they had little legitimacy or authority and what little they had was considered tyrannous by the people under them. In fact, the Somalis mocked the titles which the British and Italian colonialists created for the officials of the first central government: The Somalis pushed the concept of freedom to its most radical limit.

They take orders from no one but their country has been in chaos since They have not had any effective government since they ousted the late dictator, General Said Barre. To Westerners, the chaos in that country reflects the turbulence in their own traditional society and their inability to establish a democratic order.

But nothing could be farther than the truth on both counts. Traditional Somali society is peaceful. It is governed by customary laws, known as xeer, that come very close to natural law. Such societies are described as near-kritarchies. Near-kritarchies such as Somali society have one fundamental weakness, however. They are defenseless against a powerful external aggressor. Acehalous a result, the Somali found themselves cut up in five ways under colonial socoety.

The same can be said about the Hmong and the Kurds. For more on the Somali, see van Notten and Lewis It was therefore in the societies without chiefs or kings where African democracy was born scoiety where the concept that the people are sovereign was as natural as breathing.

And this is why in traditional Africa, the rights of the individual never came before the rights of the community…These selfgoverning people did not have a Utopian society in any idealistic sense.

Theirs was a practical society in every way. Their laws were natural laws, and order and justice prevailed because the society could not otherwise survive. Theirs was, in fact, a government of the people; theirs was, in fact, not a theory, but a government by the people; and it was, in fact, a government for the people.

The colonialists had the most difficulty in dealing with stateless societies. Within the ethnic group they had little authority and what little they had was considered tyrannous by the people under them. In the following section, we examine the political organization of some selected stateless societies.

The Igbo occupy what was formerly Eastern Region of Nigeria but is now broken into four separate states: Anambra, Cross River, Imo and Rivers. They belong to the NigerCongo dialect but subdivided into two subfamily groups: The Igbo subscribe to a set of beliefs which conflicts with centralization of authority.

Acephalous society

The Igbo were individualistic and egalitarian, every man considering himself as good as everyone else and demanding a voice in his local affairs. Since everyone had a right to rise in society Igbo culture emphasized competition, competition between families, between lineages and between clans Webster and Boahen, Consequently, they adopted a flexible democratic political system which, though based on the lineage structure, was characterized by autonomous federations of lineages or villages organized through lineage heads, age grades and title societies.


The policymaking body was composed of representatives of lineages within the autonomous political groups. The Igbo village was divided into wards. The wards were grouped around a large village market which operated every four or eight days depending upon its size and importance.

Each ward was made up of sections and each section of a number socieyt extended families whose compounds were close together. The Igbo village government consisted of two basic institutions: The lineage head in the east Niger Delta was elected and he sat in court with adult male members of the group. Among the EfikIbibio, the bond of lineage and the village did not lie strictly in kinship or blood as among the Igbo and the Annang, because the lineage and the village members were of diverse ancestry who had moved into the site from different settlements.

Unity lay, however, in the political autonomy, obligations of mutual aid and the territorial isolation of the lineage or village Olaniyan, Other persons were co-opted into the council.

They were usually wealthy personages and some title holders, particularly the ozo title holders. The council was presided over by the senior okpara, the head of the family whose ancestor either founded the village settlement or first acquired the ozo title.

The council was the controlling authority in the village. It performed all the functions which a chief and his council of elders performed in a chiefdom. But other groups, such as ritual functionaries and age-grades, helped with the maintenance of law and order. With regard to government of the village group as a whole, the controlling authority was the general body of the heads of families in each of the villages forming the group.

This body was sociey over by the senior okpara of the village in the village group which was the first to be founded in the locality. At the village level, every adult Igbo male had the right to sit in on the council meetings. But, as with the Fanti of Ghana, this right was seldom exercised ssociety a decision was to be taken which affected the individual in axephalous important way. In routine matters the elders ruled by decree and proclamation but where decisions likely to produce disputes were to be taken, the Societh could order the town crier to announce a village assembly in the market place or in a ward square.

At the assembly, the elders laid the issues before the people. Every man had a right to speak, the people applauding popular proposals and shouting down unpopular ones. Decisions had to be unanimous…If the Amaala acted arbitrarily and refused to call the assembly, people could demand it by completely ignoring them and bringing town life to a halt a village strike!

By ignoring and refusing to speak to an unpopular elder, social pressure often acephhalous the elder to bend to the popular will. The village assembly characterized Igbo democracy.


It was there that the elders presented issues to the people, acephallous had a right to speak freedom of expressionand decisions had to be unanimous. The village assembly therefore was a body in which the young and old, the rich and poor could be heard.

Decisionmaking could often be timeconsuming, but the slow procedure guaranteed greater individual participation p. After a close study of the various power bases decisionmaking in the Igbo political system, Olaniyan discovered five general features: The traditional archetype whereby decisions are reached by consensus among the lineage representatives among whom age, wealth or privilege have no overriding influence.

A slight modification of the above is found among the Awka Igbo where members of title societies and lineage elders constitute the political decisionmaking group. In all these categories the socity of government remained the same.