Skip to main content


Log in

The Immortals in Our Midst: Why Democracies in Africa Need Them

  • Published:
The Journal of Ethics Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Africa lacks the particular history of liberal institutions and values that has served as the foundation for democratic institutions in the West. Without such a foundation, prospects for well-functioning democracy in African are not good. I argue that a possible alternative basis for African democracy may be found in “civic immortals,” extraordinary individuals capable of introducing dramatic shifts in political values. Civic immortals occupy the highest rung of a hierarchy of personhood in many indigenous African cultures, each of which is considered to share in a different degree of life after physical death, and each of which corresponds to a different class of citizen. I examine three examples of African civic immortals: Nelson Mandela, Sunjata Keita (founder of the Malian empire and author of the Oath of the Hunters), and Ngonnso (the founder of the Nso dynasty). These extraordinary individuals shared an ambition to achieve lasting political change, and succeeded in transforming their political systems. Understanding the critical role that these civic immortals play in creating political change—both by directly changing political institutions and by inspiring ordinary citizens—offers us another tool for establishing stable and effective democratic institutions. It also highlights the ironically impersonal nature of contemporary liberal theory, and suggests a way that individual personalities and diversity among citizens may have a role in understanding political theory and practice.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Cyrogenics offers a more naturalistic version of the resurrection narrative. [See Harmon (2015) describing 23-year-old cancer victim who chose to have her brain preserved with the dream that neuroscience might 1 day revive her mind].

  2. Among the Akan of Chana similar phrases are used to describe people: onye’ nipa (“he is not a person”) or onipa hun (“useless person”). According to Wiredu:

    In normative usage an individual of good standing is an onipa, and one of superior attainment is an onipa paa, (paa meaning, ‘very much’ ‘to a high degree’). On the other hand, one wallowing in social futility is regarded as bereft of personhood: Onye onipa (Onye = ‘s/he is not’). If radical degeneracy becomes chronic, s/he – Akan has no pronominal differentiation of gender – is said to be very, very much a non-person (onye onipa koraa, the word koraa here expressing pejorative intensification. (Wiredu (n.d.)

  3. At death, such individuals are said to join the ancestors and continue to affect the lives of the living. After death, the body is interred with honors; a year following the interment, an even bigger ceremony referred to as “the coming” (kiwiy) in Nso, celebrates the person coming back to the lives of his or her fellow citizens.

  4. Of course, there is recognition of mental illness or other factors beyond one’s control that may stand on the way of a person’s deliberate of free action. Such a person is considered by the society to be non-responsible (not irresponsible) and declared unfree and a human being and endowed with protections and recognition in virtue of her status as a human being. She is the trustee of the society as a whole.

  5. For a detailed discussion of moral or civic orthopedic, see Waldron (2012).

  6. A particularly clear example of such a disruption is Lincoln’s reformulation of the United States’ original purpose in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (see generally, Wills 1992)

  7., last visited October 2015.

  8. In a different context Abraham Lincoln shared similar fear of these civic immortals. He referred to them as “the family of lion and the tribe of eagle.”, last visited November 17, 2015.

  9. I have criticized the propensity of citizens everywhere, but particularly in African, to focus on electing the “right” person who, will by sheer force of personality or will be able to correct institutional problems (Wingo 2016).

  10. King George III is said to have remarked on being that George Washington would likely return to Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington, of course, famously walked away from power after both the victory in the war and after two terms as president, and thereby won his status as an immortal.

  11., last visited November 17, 2015.


  • Achebe, Chinua. 1994. Things fall apart. New York: Anchor Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Althusser, Louis. 1983. Politics and history: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx (trans: Ben Brewster). London: Verso.

  • Barker, Ernest. 1995. Aristotle politics (trans: Ernest Barker). Oxford: Oxford University Press. .

  • Cave, Stephen. 2012. Immortality: The quest to live forever and how it drives civilization. New York: Crown.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harmon, Amy. 2015. A dying young woman’s hope in cryonics and a future. N.Y. Times (Sept. 12, 2015).

  • Mill, John Stuart. 1993. Utilitarianism, on liberty, considerations on representative government, remarks on Bentham’s philosophy, ed. Geraint William. London: J. M. Dent.

  • Nelson Mandela Foundation. Last visited 17 Oct 2015.

  • Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as freedom. New York: Anchor Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Viroli, Maurizio. 2000. Niccolo’s smile: A biography of Machiavelli (trans: Anthony Shugaar). New York: Hill and Wang.

  • Waldron, Jeremy. 2012. Dignity, rank, & rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wills, Garry. 1992. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The words that remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wingo, Ajume. 2016. A free person as a maker of surprises. In Comparative political theory, ed. Diego Von Vacano. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wingo, Ajume. 2013. “Nelson Mandela’s Greatness? He stepped Aside,” Denver Post, 12-08-2013: Last visited 17 Oct 2015.

  • Wingo, Ajume. 2003. Veil politics in liberal democratic states. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wingo, Ajume. n. d. The paths for the perplexed: The perils of leadercentrism in African States (unpublished manuscript).

  • Wingo, Ajume. n. d. Unbound: The zeroth factor of production after capitalism (unpublished manuscript).

  • Wiredu, Kwasi. 1992. The African concept of personhood. In African-American perspectives on biomedical ethics, ed. Harley E. Flack, and Edmund D. Pellegrino. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wiredu, Kwasi. n.d. The normative self: An African perspective on personhood (unpublished manuscript).

Download references


Thanks to the generous funding from the Templeton Foundation and the University of California, Riverside’s Immortality Project. My thoughts on this essay are informed by my ongoing conversation with Michael Kruse which began in graduate school. He read through the manuscript and made it better. I am grateful to him. I traveled with Dan Demetriou to Ghana, South Africa and Cameroon in search of an understanding of honor cultures and in the course discussed some of the issues in this essay. Thanks to Dan.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ajume H. Wingo.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Wingo, A.H. The Immortals in Our Midst: Why Democracies in Africa Need Them. J Ethics 19, 237–255 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: