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Horses, Firearms, and Political Power in Pre-Colonial West Africa

Pre-colonial political structure in West Africa in reality rose to fame and standard with different responsible factors.

In other words, pre-colonial West African political disposition developed gradually as results of some factors like geography, economy and particularly, military technology.

Robin law attempts to objectively examine the impact of military technology in the development of pre-colonial West African political structure in his Horses, Firearms and Political Power in Pre-colonial West Africa. 

Was military technology responsible for the centralisation or decentralisation of West African states’ political organisation?

Before attempting to examine this course, it is important to state that military technology is not a holistic parameter to examine the different patterns of political organisation in pre-colonial West Africa, but rather dependent on other factors like geography and economic character of the region in discourse.

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In a chronological and simplified manner, the impacts and implications of military technology and the developments of different patterns of political organisations in pre-colonial West Africa will be examined as presented in Robin law argumentative article.

Notably, this simplified work is usually derived from the work of Robin Law and other academic materials inclusive of lecture notes explain by anti Adedamola Adetiba, Ph,D. 1

It will render this work useless to talk about military technology without talking about the economic activity- warfare- that revolved around during the period of our study.

The conception of welfare is different from the normal perception people have as presented in his work. Welfare has to be considered not only as a subordinate instrument of national policy but also as an industry in its own right2.

In other words, instead of seeing it as destruction, it was an important economic activity and industry for advancing national policy in the sense that welfare was institutionalized and conducted by formalized rules; this was due to two major reasons: labour needed for domestic purposes and the purchasing power needed to acquire foreign imports.

The exportation of slaves as commodities for the acquisition of foreign imports which were military tools contributed to the institutionalization of warfare.

At this juncture, it is very important to remind us that the topic that degenerated to this level. Military technology was seen through the lens of the development or two major innovations that is the importation of horses and firearms. Warfare was first dominated by bow and arrow and afterwards, of mounted spearmen and swordmen and secondary of firearms.

There are several innovations in the introduction of horses in West African region, ranging from the shifting from chariotry to Calvary around 300 BC, introduction of new breeds of horses and equestrian techniques during the 14th and 15th centuries, to the adoption and innovation of saddle, bit and stirrup.

Al-Bakri’s account of Ghana and al-Idrisi’s account of Kawkaw implied the use of calvary footsoldiers armed with bows and arrows.

Many West African rulers imported horses and exported slaves in return. According to Leo Africanus, the founder of the Bulala dynasty in late 14th century imported large numbers of horses from Egypt, while Borno imported from North Africa in Leo own time  (early 16th century)3.

Lastly, to make it short, Mansa Musa of the Mali empire during his pilgrimages to the holy cities in 1324 was presented by the Sultan of Egypt with horses equipped with saddles and bridles.

Among the problems of cavalry at the problem of keeping horses in a disease environment (where there is tsetse flies which can cause trypanosomiasis) cavalry only effective in suitable terrain and the logistical difficulties of maintaining large numbers of horses in the field4

Importations of firearms mark the beginning of new development in West African military technology. The use of firearms was mostly attached with the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century.

As for West Africa, Mai Idris Aloma of Borno in 1570s obtained both muskets and Turkish musketeers from across the desert (according to Ibn Fatuwa).  

Firearms did not only get to West Africa through the Sahara but also through the Europeans in African coasts in the second half of the seventeenth century. Al-Hajj Umar, Samori Babatu and Rabih Ibn Fadlallah were notable West African rulers who made use of firearms.

Another argument is the (effectiveness) superiority of firearms over the cavalry. The use of firearms did not totally guarantee victory as evidenced by the defeat of the Dahomian musketeers by Oyo cavalry in 1726 and also the short-lived victory of Gonja cavalry over Asante’s musketeers in 1744-45.

Studying the natures of horses and firearms (military technology) in West Africa, it is obvious that slaves remained the only commodity for exchange and increased unending demands for slaves and the raise of and afterwards, the institutional of warfare in West Africa, when the annual slave hunt made the market.

Law objectivity argues that, the impact of military technology in Africa from different scholars’ perspectives. It would be silly and baseless to quickly jump into conclusion that the use firearms or horses led to this and that.

The dynamic nature of the argument makes Law to examine thIS with evidence and credence. Aristotle emphasised that the economic demand at a particular time can well relate the different patterns of political organisation in terms of different systems of military technology.

With this assertion as posited by him, cavalry states practice oligarchy, infantry states practice democracy while naval power is to radical democracy (as the poorest citizens to serve as rovers in the galleys).5

Cavalry was often tagged with decentralisation while firearms attached to the centrality of state institutions. Lynn White posited that the “development of decentralised form of government usually called feudalism in (8th century) Europe… the dominance in that period of heavy cavalry.

The introduction of firearms became a factor of facilitating the emergence of centralised monarchy during the 16th and 17th centuries. This assertion was often justified with the controlling/commanding nature of firearms, as differed from cavalry which required exorbitant resources for maintenance.

As stated by Robin Law, the introduction of firearms has facilitated the re-establishment of effective central authority in Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate.6

To Goody, firearms states are centralised while calvary states are decentralized. He stated Benin, Dahomey and Asante as centralised forest states and Oyo, Bariba, and Gonja as decentralised savannah states.

At this juncture, it is important to state that attaching the use of firearms with the centralisation of state will misleading.

The Asante, who were quoted by Goody to be a centralised state due to the acquisition of firearm, had their king Osei Kwadwo deposed in c. 1801.

The bureaucratization of the states (in the Sokoto Caliphate), according to Joseph Smaldone, was of due to the introduction of firearms, enabling rulers to build private armies of slave musketeers to replace the feudal organisation which characterized cavalry forces It is further argued that Benin had already been a centralised state prior to its acquisition of firearms in the 1690s. What was responsible for its centralization prior to this period.

 Lastly, the nature of firearms as posited, facilitated central control- (guns and gunpowder are centralisable unlike horses)  -could  be stored in a central arsenal like guns.  According to Law, in Dahomey, guns could legally be sold to the king, the right to buy guns restricted to Samori’s agent and this made the king dominated the market; therefore, the centrality of state institution was birthed with the nature of firearms which was centralisable unlike cavalry, whose horses required huge capital for maintenance and could not be stored in a central arsenal (though in central stables).


  1. Adedamola Adetiba, Ph,D. is a lecturer, Nigerian History in the department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.
  2. Inclusive of other references(3,4,5,), Horses, Firearms, and Political Power in Pre-Colonial West Africa Author(s): Robin Law. Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society.
  3. Internal Link

Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.