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Continuity or Change? (In)direct Rule in British and French Colonial Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 June 2020

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Current political order in Africa is often linked to legacies of colonialism, in particular to legacies of indirect colonial rule. However, evidence about the application of indirect rule is scarce. In this paper I argue that empire-level characteristics interacted with precolonial institutions in shaping the indirectness of local rule. First, British governments ruled more indirectly than French administrations, which followed a comparatively centralized administrative blueprint, came with a transformative republican ideology, and had more administrative resources. Empirically, I find that French colonization led to the demise of the lines of succession of seven out of ten precolonial polities, twice as many as under British rule. Second, precolonial centralization was a crucial prerequisite for indirect rule. Local administrative data from eight British colonies show that British colonizers employed less administrative effort and devolved more power to native authorities where centralized institutions existed. Such a pattern did not exist in French colonies. Together, these findings improve our understanding of the long-term effects of precolonial institutions and draw attention to the interaction of characteristics of dominant and subordinate units in shaping local governance arrangements.

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Copyright © The IO Foundation 2020

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