African chiefs: comparative governance under colonial rule


This paper analyzes how British colonial rule altered the club-like and competitive features of chiefdoms and weakened the incentives of political leaders to be accountable to citizens. Political institutions in late pre-colonial West Africa aligned the incentives of the chiefs such that they were responsive to their people. Alignment arose because of a high degree of competition between governance providers and because political leaders were effectively the residual claimants on revenues generated from providing governance services. I identify the mechanisms by which colonialism severed the link that aligned the incentives of government with those of its citizens. British indirect rule did that by reducing political competition and softening the budget constraints of the chiefs. Toward the end of colonial rule, chiefs became less accountable to their people as evidenced by the widespread corruption and extortion by the chiefs and by their unprecedented constitutional violations and abuses of power.

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  1. 1.

    See also, Acemoglu et al. (2014a)

  2. 2.

    See Busia (1951, pp. 6–7; 1967, pp. 22–28), Ayittey (1992, pp. 49–50) and Asiwaju (1970, pp. 136–148). Rattray (1929, p. 7) describes the Ashanti government as federalist: “the heart of the whole success and wonder of this loosely bound confederacy was the practice of decentralization.”

  3. 3.

    See also Crowder (1968), Hill (1963), Ayittey (1992, 2006) and Berry (1993) for more discussion of colonialism creating unaccountable chiefs and the negative consequences for development.

  4. 4.

    The French engaged in direct rule, which effectively made the tribal chief an agent of the French administration and stripped him of his powers. That was the opposite of British indirect rule, which gave more power and discretion to the chief.

  5. 5.

    See, for example, Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) on creating civil wars and political unrest, Acemoglu et al. (2001) for extractive institutions, Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) for a culture of mistrust. Countless other studies document the direct and negative consequences of colonialism.

  6. 6.

    A number of studies document the beneficial aspects of colonization on economic development (Glaeser et al. 2004; Easterly and Levine 2016), on opening trade and providing access to European markets (Bauer 1954), and on creating water supplies, railroads and other important infrastructure (Colby 1938).

  7. 7.

    Boettke et al. (2011) also suggest how local governance services provided through clubs can mitigate many of the problems associated with service provided by a more monopolistic government.

  8. 8.

    However, one of the features of a club good is that it is non-rivalrous only beyond a certain congestion threshold (Sandler and Tschirthart 1997).

  9. 9.

    Leeson (2011, p. 302, fn. 3) also writes that a “system of clubs may be seen as a more radical or extreme form of the polycentric political system.”

  10. 10.

    Frey and Eichenberger (2001) offer a similar analysis of what is referred to as ‘functional, overlapping, competing jurisdictions.’

  11. 11.

    In terms of understanding government accountability to citizens, though, tax revenues are not sufficient. That is because, as Leeson (2011) explains, responsiveness to citizens may include implementing minimal taxes or not implementing productivity enhancing policies. While a government may be a residual claimant on revenues from citizens, as in McGuire and Olson, it is not a residual claimant in supplying governance services.

  12. 12.

    The following quote by a historian illustrates the perception of pre-colonial Africa: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none; there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness … and darkness is not the subject of history” (Hugh Trevor-Roper 1962, quoted in Crowder 1968, p. 10).

  13. 13.

    European colonization spans the mid-to-late nineteenth century until 1950–1970, when African states gained independence. The pre-colonial period I study runs from the mid-eighteenth century until European colonization. I refer to that time as the late pre-colonial period.

  14. 14.

    See, for example, the accounts of Pierre Alexandre (French colonial service) and John Smith (British colonial service) in edited volume titled West African Chiefs: Their Changing Status under Colonial Rule and Independence (1970).

  15. 15.

    At the time of writing, Pierre Alexander was serving as an Administrator in the French Colonial Services. This essay is reprinted and translated from “La problème des chefferies en Afrique noire Francaise—Notes et Etudes Documentaires, 2508, 10 Feb. 1959).

  16. 16.

    However, even within specific kingdoms, the political organization changed over time. One kingdom may have been more centralized in the early pre-colonial period, but became more like a constitutional monarchy in the late pre-colonial time period.

  17. 17.

    See, for example, the discussion of the Fouta-Djalon kingdom in Suret-Canale (1970).

  18. 18.

    Busia (1951, 1967), who later served as Prime Minister of Ghana from 1969 to 1972, observed this in his earlier fieldwork with the Ashanti people in 1940–1941. He describes this relationship between the chief and the council of elders: “The chief was bound by his oath to consult the elders on all matters, and to obey their advice. The government thus consisted of the chief and the elders” (Busia 1951, p. 14).

  19. 19.

    Individuals rarely exited by themselves. They broke off as family units or as tribes from the chiefdoms or kingdoms.

  20. 20.

    Mamdani is relying on Transkei Land Service Organisation (TRALSO), “Rural Local Government and the Transkei Region.” In Note 14, p. 306: “This document has been prepared by Tralso researcher Andre Terblanche, who draws extensively from the communities that we work with.”

  21. 21.

    In African societies, being “destooled” means to be “dethroned” because the chief or king sat on a stool as opposed to a throne.

  22. 22.

    Some historians note that exit was made possible because families and tribes were not tied to the land.

  23. 23.

    Additionally, I have some reference to chiefdoms closer to areas surrounding Sierra Leone, which also were colonized under British under indirect rule.

  24. 24.

    Although it was not the official policy of the British to engage in indirect rule since they altered the type of rule depending on where and which groups brought under their hegemony, it was their main and most common method of colonization

  25. 25.

    Furthermore, to assist the traditional chief, the British administration appointed a district officer (known as the British Resident) to each chief, and that Resident assumed the role of adviser to the chief.

  26. 26.

    Akintoye is drawing on unpublished reports from the British colonial office: N.A.C. Weir, The broad outlines of the past and present organisation in the Ekiti Division of Ondo Province, 13 Feb. 1934.

  27. 27.

    Lord Lurgard was the Governor-General of Nigeria, 1907–1912.

  28. 28.

    Native Administration refers to the chiefs Lugard’s report available through the online National Archives.

  29. 29.

    The contrast has been documented by Crowder (1968), Crowder and Ikime (1970), Mamdani (1996), Lange (2009), Hill (1963), Migdal (1988) and Berry (1993).


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I thank Pete Boettke, Pete Leeson, Chris Coyne, Don Boudreaux, Solomon Stein, Paola Suarez, Kyle O’Donnell, Ennio Emanuele Piano, and the anonymous reviewer for valuable comments. I also wish to thank the Mercatus Center and the Bradley Foundation for their support at various stages in the development of this research.

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Palagashvili, L. African chiefs: comparative governance under colonial rule. Public Choice 174, 277–300 (2018).

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  • Governance
  • Clubs
  • Political competition
  • Pre-colonial Africa
  • Colonialism

JEL Classification

  • P48
  • N0