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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
See also, Acemoglu et al. (2014a)
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.”
Frey and Eichenberger (2001) offer a similar analysis of what is referred to as ‘functional, overlapping, competing jurisdictions.’
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
See, for example, the discussion of the Fouta-Djalon kingdom in Suret-Canale (1970).
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).
Individuals rarely exited by themselves. They broke off as family units or as tribes from the chiefdoms or kingdoms.
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.”
In African societies, being “destooled” means to be “dethroned” because the chief or king sat on a stool as opposed to a throne.
Some historians note that exit was made possible because families and tribes were not tied to the land.
Additionally, I have some reference to chiefdoms closer to areas surrounding Sierra Leone, which also were colonized under British under indirect rule.
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
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.
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.
Lord Lurgard was the Governor-General of Nigeria, 1907–1912.
Native Administration refers to the chiefs Lugard’s report available through the online National Archives.
Acemoglu, D., Chaves, I., Osafo-Kwaako, P., & Robinson, J. (2014a). Indirect rule and state weakness in Africa: Sierra Leone in comparative perspective. In S. Edwards, S. Johnson, & D. Weil (Eds.), African successes, volume IV: Sustainable growth (pp. 343–370). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. (2001). The colonial origins of comparative development. American Economic Review, 91(5), 1369–1401.
Acemoglu, D., Reed, T., & Robinson, J. (2014b). Chiefs: Economic development and elite control of civil society in Sierra Leone”. Journal of Political Economy, 122(2), 319–368.
Akintoye, S. A. (1970). Qbas of the Ekiti Confederacy since the advent of the British. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 255–270). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Alexandre, Pierre. (1970). The problems of chieftaincies in French speaking Africa. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 24–78). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Amoah, G. Y. (1988). Groundwork of government for West Africa. Illorin: Gbenle Press.
Ashton, E. H. (1947). Democracy and indirect rule. Africa, 17(4), 235–251.
Arhin, K. (1985). Traditional rule in Ghana: Past and present. Sedco Publishing.
Asiwaju, I. A. (1970). The Alaketu of Ketu and the Onimeko of Meko: The changing status of two Yoruba rulers under French and British rule. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 134–160). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Atanda, J. A. (1970). The changing status of the Alafin of Oyo under colonial rule and independence. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 212–230). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Ayandele, E. A. (1970). The changing status of the Awujales of Ijebuland under colonial rule. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 231–254). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Ayittey, G. (1992). Africa Betrayed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Ayittey, G. ( 2006). Indigenous African Institutions (2nd ed.). Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers.
Bascom, W. ( 1984). The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Bates, R. H. (1981). Markets and states in tropical Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bauer, P. T. (1954). West African trade. Augustus M Kelley Publishing.
Berry, S. (1993). No condition is permanent: The social dynamics of agrarian change in sub-Saharan Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Boahen, A. ( 1986). Topics in West African history. Essex: Longman Group.
Boettke, P. J., Coyne, C., & Leeson, P. T. (2011). Quasi-market failure. Public Choice, 149, 209–224.
Boettke, P. J., & Palagashvili, L. (2015). Taming leviathan. Supreme Court Economic Review, 23(1), 279–303.
Boone, C. (1994). States and ruling classes in post-colonial Africa: The enduring contradictions of power. In J. Migdal (Ed.), State power and social forces (pp. 108–140). Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Bourdillon, M. (1976). The Shona peoples. Gwelo: Mambo Press.
Buchanan, J. M. (1965). An economic theory of clubs. Economica, 32(125), 1–14.
Busia, K. A. (1951). The position of the chief in the modern political system of the Ashanti. London: Frank Class and Company Limited.
Busia, K. A. (1967). Africa in search of democracy. New York, NY: Praeger.
Cohen, A. (1969). Custom and politics in urban Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Colby, C. (1938). Geographic aspects of international relations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Crowder, M. (1968). West Africa under colonial rule. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Crowder, M., & Ikime, O. (1970). Introduction. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. vii–xxviii). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Crowder, M., & Ikime, O. ( 2012). West African chiefs. In M. Crowder (Ed.), Colonial West Africa (pp. 209–230). New York, NY: Routeledge.
Davidson, B. (1965). A history of West Africa, 1000–1800. London, UK: Longman Group United.
Davidson, B. (1970). Discovering Africa’s past. New York: Longman.
Davidson, B. (1992). The black man’s burden: Africa and the curse of the nation-state. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
Deaton, Angus. (2013). The great escape: Health, wealth, and the origins of inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dorjahn, V. (1960). The changing political system of the Temne. Africa, 30(2), 110–140.
Dorman, M. (1957). Letter to C. G. Eastwood, 16 February. Kew: Public Records Office, CO554/1993. Referenced in Lange (2009), p. 104.
Easterly, W. (2001). The elusive quest for growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Easterly, W. (2013). The tyranny of experts. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Easterly, W., & Levine, R. (2016). The European origins of economic development. Journal of Economic Growth, 21(3), 225–257.
Ellis, G. (1914). Negro culture in West Africa. New York: The Neale Publishing Company. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/negrocultureinwe00elliuoft
Frey, B., & Eichenberger, R. (2001). Federalism with overlapping jurisdictions and variable levels of integration: The concept of FOCJ. In J. von Hagen & M. Widgren (Eds.), Regionalism in Europe: Geometries and strategies after 2000 (pp. 3–21). Boston: Kluwer.
Gellar, S. (2005). Democracy in Senegal. New York, NY: Palgrave.
Gennaioli, N., & Rainer, I. (2006). Precolonial centralization and institutional quality in Africa. In M. Gradstein & K. Konrad (Eds.), Institutions and norms in economic development (pp. 21–46). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gennaioli, N., & Rainer, I. (2007). The modern impact of precolonial centralization in Africa. Journal of Economic Growth, 12(3), 185–234.
Glaeser, E. L., La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F., & Shleifer, A. (2004). Do institutions cause growth? Journal of Economic Growth, 9(3), 271–303.
Government of Sierra Leone. (1955). Protectorate disturbances: Sierra Leone. Kew: Public Records Offic, CO554/1329. Referenced in Lange (2009), p. 104.
Government of Sierra Leone. (1956). Sierra Leone: Report of commission of inquiry into disturbances in the provinces (Nov. 1955 to March 1956) (the Cox Report). London: HMSO. Referenced in Lange (2009), p. 104.
Greve, M. (2012). The upside-down constitution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hayford, C. (1903). Gold coast native institutions. London: Sweet and Maxwel. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/goldcoastnative00confgoog
Hill, P. (1963). The migrant cocoa-farmers of Southern Ghana: A study in rural capitalism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kornai, J. (1986). The soft budget constraint. Kyklos, 39(1), 3–30.
Lange, M. (2009). Lineages of despotism and development: British colonialism and state power. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Leeson, P. T. (2005). Endogenizing fractionalization. Journal of Institutional Economics, 1(1), 75–98.
Leeson, P. T. (2007). Trading with bandits. Journal of Law and Economics, 50(2), 303–321.
Leeson, P. T. (2008). Social distance and self-enforcing exchange. Journal of Legal Studies, 37(1), 161–188.
Leeson, P. T. (2011). Governments, clubs, and constitutions. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 80(2), 301–308.
Leeson, P. T., & Boettke, P. J. (2009). Two-tiered entrepreneurship and economic development. International Review of Law and Economics, 29(3), 252–259.
Lugard, F. (Oct. 1919). Amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria and administration, 1912–1919. Confidential Report, Colonial Office. Retrieved from Empire Online.
Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
McGuire, M., & Olson, M. (1996). The economics of autocracy and majority rule: The invisible hand and the use of force. Journal of Economic Literature, 34(1), 72–96.
Michalopoulos, S., & Papaioannou, E. (2015). On the ethnic origins of African development chiefs and pre-colonial political centralization. Academy Management Perspectives, 29(1), 32–71.
Michalopoulos, S., & Papaioannou, E. (2016). The long-run effects of the scramble for Africa. American Economic Review, 106(7), 1802–1848.
Migdal, J. S. (1988). Strong societies and weak states. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nunn, N., & Wantchekon, L. (2011). The slave trade and the origins of mistrust in Africa. American Economic Review, 101(7), 3221–3252.
Nzewunwa, N. (1985). Pre-colonial Nigeria: East of the Niger. In R. Olaniyan (Ed.), Nigerian history and culture. London: Longman Group Limited.
Ostrom, V. (1972). Polycentricity. Workshop archives, workshop in political theory and policy analysis. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. Presented at workshop on Metropolitan Governance, American Political Science Association Meeting, Washington, DC, September 5–8, 1972.
Ostrom, V., Tiebout, C. M., & Warren, R. (1961). The organization of government in metropolitan areas: A theoretical inquiry. American Political Science Review, 55, 831–842.
Packard, R. (1981). Chiefship and cosmology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Paden, J. (1970). Aspects of emirship in Kano. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 162–186). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Patton, A. (1989). An Islamic frontier polity: The Ningi mountains of northern Nigeria. In I. Kopytoff (Ed.), The African frontier: The reproduction of traditional African societies (pp. 1846–1902). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Rattray, R. S. (1929). Ashanti law and constitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sandbrook, R. (1985). The politics of Africa’s economic stagnation. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Sandler, T., & Tschirthart, J. (1997). Club theory: Thirty years later. Public Choice, 93(3/4), 335–355.
Smith, J. (1970). The relationship of the British political officer to his chief in northern Nigeria. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 14–22). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Suret-Canale, J. (1970). The Fouta-Djalon chieftaincy. In M. Crowder & O. Ikime (Eds.), West African chiefs: Their changing status under colonial rule and independence (pp. 79–97). New York: African Publishing Corporation.
Tiebout, C. M. (1956). A pure theory of local expenditures. Journal of Political Economy, 64, 416–424.
Weir, N. A. C. (1934). The broad outlines of the past and present organisation in the Ekiti Division of Ondo Province (Ekiti Div. Office, unpublished, 13 Feb.); pp. 62–5, 153–160.
Wunsch, J., & Olowu, D. (Eds.). (1990). Failure of the centralized state. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Young, C. (1994). The African colonial state in comparative perspective. New Haven: Yale University.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Palagashvili, L. African chiefs: comparative governance under colonial rule. Public Choice 174, 277–300 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-018-0499-3
- Political competition
- Pre-colonial Africa