Continuity or Change? New Evidence on (In)Direct Rule in British and French Colonies

Pre-colonial institutions shaped colonial rule over African societies, but not in uniform ways. I show that British rule was more indirect in regions with centralized institutions, while the French tended to rule them more directly. This divergence affected African economic development and traditional institutions until today.

Much research in economic history has demonstrated that precolonial institutions continue to influence contemporary African development. In a pioneering study, Michalopoulos & Papaioannou (2013) have argued that areas with centralized pre-colonial institutions have persistently higher levels of economic development today. They argue that colonial indirect rule has left centralized pre-colonial institutions largely intact despite the significant upheavals of the colonial and post-independence periods. This account of little political change stands in stark contrast to the image of the colonial state as Bula Matari (crusher of rocks) that fundamentally transformed African societies (Young, 1994). In an article recently published in International Organization, I show that the use of (in)direct rule varied significantly between colonial empires and among pre-colonial polities within them. In follow-up work, I demonstrate that these differences are crucial to understand the degree to which pre-colonial institutions shape economic development (here) and contemporary traditional institutions (here). Taken together, these findings challenge overly general accounts of historical persistence and point to the role of colonization in mediating the legacies of precolonial institutions.

French and British Styles of Colonial Governance

My article highlights the power maintained by pre-colonial institutions and elites during colonial rule as a key dimension of indirect rule. The more institutions European colonizers replaced, and the more new governing elites they appointed, the more direct their rule. While all colonial powers relied to some extent on indigenous elites at the local level – Mamdani’s (1996) “decentralized despots” – the degree to which pre-existing and often supra-local institutions were integrated into colonial states varied between and within them.

A substantive historical literature has emphasized the tendency of French colonial governments to replace pre-colonial institutions with their metropolitan blueprint of comparatively uniform, direct rule. The British, in turn, were more pragmatic and attempted to rule through pre-existing African institutions wherever this served their interests. Encyclopaedical data on the lines of succession of the rulers of pre-colonial states, compiled by Stewart (2006), clearly illustrate these differences. Figure 1 shows that in British colonies 2/3 of pre-colonial polities featured an indigenous ruler throughout the colonial period, whereas only 1/3 of these lines of succession held on under French rule.

Figure 1: The survival of pre-colonial lines of succession

Notes: Differential survival rates of the lines of succession of precolonial states under British and French colonial rule. Original data from Stewart (2006).

Yet, not all indigenous institutions were equally useful to the British colonizers. While they could co-opt centralized precolonial institutions, decentralized polities lacked a ‘suitable’ institutional infrastructure for indirect rule. Here, the British bridged the administrative gap between the colonial centre and the local population by appointing rulers such as the ‘warrant chiefs’ in south-eastern Nigeria (Afigbo, 1972). Embedded in a more direct governance system, their main source of power was the colonial decree that made them chiefs in the first place. Consistent with my argument that pre-colonial centralization facilitated indirect rule, I find that British colonial governments invested less administrative effort and granted more power to ‘native’ administrations in areas such as Buganda or the Fulani Emirates in Northern Nigeria that were politically centralized before the colonial conquest. These areas featured, for example, larger districts, less colonial administrators, and their native treasuries had bigger budgets (see also Bolt & Gardner on this Blog) administered by chiefs of a higher status. These patterns are absent or even reversed in comparable data from French colonies.

Two Economic and Political Consequences of (In)Direct Rule

In two unpublished follow-up projects, I investigate the effects of indirect rule on economic and political development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Building on Iyer’s (2010) work on colonial India, the first project argues that indirect rule through precolonial institutions strengthened the capacity and accountability of local governments. This led to more public service provision in return for the taxation of local cash crop production, which was a main public revenue source. Figure 2 reveals that education rates under British rule increased more strongly with the suitability of local soils for cash crop agriculture in indirectly ruled centralized areas, than in more directly ruled regions without centralized precolonial institutions. This pattern affects economic development until today and is absent in French colonies where direct rule was applied more uniformly.

Figure 2: How indirect rule shapes the impact of cash crop suitability on public goods provision

Notes: The effect of cash crop suitability on primary education (0-100%) increases with precolonial centralization in British but not French colonies.

French and British styles of (in)direct governance also impact the status of traditional institutions until today. In a second follow-up project, Clara Neupert-Wentz (Aarhus University) and I use new expert-coded data providing comprehensive information on today’s traditional institutions in a large sample of African ethnic groups. We combine information on traditional institutions, their leaders, functions, and ties to the state into a simple index of institutionalized traditional authority. We find substantive differences in institutional persistence between former French and British colonies. Figure 3 shows that while our index correlates strongly with the level of precolonial centralization in former British colonies, it does not in former French. Even in the British sub-sample, the imperfect correlation hints at significant postcolonial change in traditional institutions.

Figure 3: Indirect rule and today’s traditional institutions

Notes: The institutionalization of contemporary traditional institutions increases with precolonial centralization in former British but not French colonies.

Historical Pathways and Some Limits of Quantitative History

My recent research sheds light on how pre-colonial and colonial institutions interacted in shaping colonial modes of (in)direct governance. The resulting variation in the continuity and power of pre-colonial institutions affected local development and left its imprint on today’s traditional institutions. My findings highlight that history rarely proceeds linearly, especially in such disruptive times as 19th and 20th century Africa. While we can discern average effects of precolonial institutions on contemporary socio-political phenomena, the historical pathways that connect the past with the present are marked by the turns of historical change. With that, our regression models complement the more precise yet less systematic qualitative characterizations of the continuities and change on historical pathways. By the same token, quantitative studies of African economic history can be improved by more carefully attending to historical change and heterogeneity across units.



Afigbo, Adiele Eberechukwu (1972). The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in Southeastern Nigeria 1891-1929. London: Longman.

Iyer, Lakshmi (2010). “Direct vs. Indirect Colonial Rule in India: Long-Term Consequences.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(4): 693–713.

Mamdani, Mahmood (1996). Citizen and Subject. Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Michalopoulos, Stelios and Elias Papaioannou (2013). “Pre-Colonial Ethnic Institutions and Contemporary African Development.” Econometrica 81(1): 113–152.

Müller-Crepon, Carl (2020). “Continuity or Change? (In)direct Rule in British and French Colonial Africa.” International Organization 74(4):707–741.

Müller-Crepon, Carl. 2020. “Indirect Rule, Cash Crop Production, and Development in Africa.” Unpublished Working Paper. Available:

Neupert-Wentz, Clara & Carl Müller-Crepon. 2021. “Traditional Institutions in Africa, Past and Present.” Unpublished Working Paper. Available:

Stewart, John (2006). African States and Rulers. McFarland.

Young, Crawford (1994). The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Feature image: The Omukama of Toro Rukidi III (center) and the British governor of Uganda, Sir Frederick Crawford (right) in Kabarole, late 1950s. UK National Archive CO 1069-200-5.

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