Checks and Balances

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Democratic Republic of the CongoLuba peoples

Chief’s staff

Wood, metal

H. 104 cm (41")

Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.874

A recurring misconception about African kingdoms is that power rests in the hands of a king, who sits at the summit of a political hierarchy. In fact, precolonial African political systems often were governed not by a single imperial center, but rather by a web of institutional and ideological arrangements and affiliations. These “circulating centers of power" included diverse officeholders such as court dignitaries and client chiefs; professionals such as diviners, spirit mediums, and healers; and institutions such as secret associations with particular functions.