Indirect Rule and Weak States  
Friday, October 11, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our post last week, we discussed how the unrestrained power of chiefs is keeping rural Sierra Leone poor. That’s not the only economic institution stocking the cards against development in Sierra Leone, however.

Sierra Leone’s state, like that of many other nations in sub-Saharan Africa, is pathologically weak, unable to provide the most basic public goods or even keep a minimum of law and order. What explains this weakness of the state or the extreme lack of state capacity?

There has been no shortage of explanations. Jeffrey Herbst in his important book States and Power in Africa suggested that the African state is weak because African polities did not engage in the type of strong inter-state warfare and competition that European nations underwent, and linked this to the low population density in Africa, resulting from its geography and ecology, making the competition for land less severe. Alternatively, one could extend the arguments of Paul Lovejoy in Transformations in Slavery: History of Slavery in Africa or Nathan Nunn’s work to relate the lack of development of state capacity in Africa to domestic or trans-Atlantic slavery.

Frederick Cooper’s thesis probably has even greater validity. In Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present, he argued that colonial states developed as “gate-keeper states” which sat on the coast and were only interested in ruling and extracting natural resources, not building the institutions required to develop the colony. Such states persisted after independence when they were taken over by Africans, and naturally led to states with little capacity to rule over to the territory they control.

Perhaps the most intriguing perspective is that of Mahmood Mamdani in Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Mamdani suggests that African post-independence institutions have been shaped by colonial indirect rule, which delegate chiefs to run the daily lives of colonial subjects on behalf of colonial authorities. Crucially, indirect rule made chiefs mainly accountable to the colonial authorities and even more unaccountable to their people than they were before. This made them even more despotic and less subject to checks by and communication with the society over which they ruled. This unaccountable, despotic behavior persisted after independence and became the basis of African states. Extending this argument one could link the inability of the states to build capacity to provide public goods or enforce laws to their lack of legitimacy and accountability, and their focus on despotically look after the interests of the elites controlling the state.

In a short paper we have written with Isaías Chaves and Philip Osafo-Kwaako for an edited NBER volume, we argue that the legacy of indirect rule in sub-Saharan Africa is more complex.

Mamdani’s perspective has a lot of validity for Sierra Leone. Indirect rule persisted in Sierra Leone because the post-colonial state was largely created and then subsequently controlled by the traditional elites who were empowered by, and then did the daily running of, the indirect rule system. These traditional elites, for example, formed the first political party and dominated late colonial and post-colonial politics in the country. This enabled the institutions of indirect rule, under the control of traditional elites, to re-create themselves after independence and the traditional elites to capture the central state.

But the resulting state was weak and ineffective for several reasons. To start with, because indirect rule by traditional elites provided little accountability for rulers, those in control of the central state were simply encouraged to extract rents from natural resources and agriculture and to chronically under-provide public goods. In addition, as we saw in our last post on Sierra Leone, the local state was based on lineages and local ruling families, and this made the central state also patrimonial and thus in consequence, weak. It also made power rest at the local level, making it more difficult for a national identity and powerful central state to emerge. Finally, the indirect rule system, which delegated all power to ruling families and elders, also made it difficult for the central state to establish a monopoly of violence because it had created an underclass of “lumpen youths” alienated from the society and ready to engage in violence on behalf of state or non-state actors, and traditional elites were very willing to use this type of violence for their benefit.

But this path is very different from the one we observe another colonies that were also ruled indirectly, most notably Ghana and Uganda. What differentiates these from Sierra Leone is the presence within their borders of a dominant, powerful and to some degree politically centralized pre-colonial state — the Asante in Ghana and Buganda in Uganda. These pre-colonial states significantly altered the distribution of power within the system of indirect rule. Whereas in Sierra Leone the British had to create the ruling families and increased the power of paramount chiefs, they were already dealing with powerful kings in the Asante and Buganda, and they happily worked and conspired with them.

After independence the King of Buganda, the Kabaka, became president of the newly-created nation of Uganda. But this power also created a problem for traditional elites. They were neither the instigator nor the main driver of independence movement, and the leaders of the movement, often located in urban areas with roots in professional occupations, did not trust them and feared their powers. In Uganda the first Prime Minister Milton Obote, for example, did not wish to rule via the Buganda chiefs, and when he had the opportunity, he forced the Kabaka into exile and changed the constitution to strip him of his powers.

Perhaps its first paradoxically, this implies that the greater power of traditional elites in Uganda, and also similarly in Ghana, made it more attractive for the post-independence leaders took dismantle the institutions of indirect rule and marginalize traditional elites.

Of course, Ghana and Uganda have had their own political problems. Once indirect rule was dismantled, the military became more powerful and military strongmen, Ignatius Kutu Acheampong in Ghana and Idi Amin in Uganda, were able to overthrow civilian governments and rule despotically and kleptocratically. Nevertheless, the extent of state weakness appeared different than that in Sierra Leone, and the conflicts did not boil into a deadly civil war as they did in Sierra Leone.

Whether this thesis can help explain the differential post-independence political dynamics across Africa nations remains to be investigated. But it does suggest that, though the indirect rule is probably an important reason why the Sierra Leonean state is so weak, its implications in other parts of Africa appear quite different.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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