Effects Of Indirect Rule In British West Africa

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Indirect rule is the system of government in which a colonial power makes use of the traditional institutions of the local people in the administration of a territory.

Margery Perham in 1934 defined the policy as “a system by which the tutelary power recognizes existing African societies and assists them to adapt themselves to the functions of local government”. The indirect rule policy permits the traditional ruler to continue to exercise executive and judicial powers under the guidance and supervision of colonial officials.

Lord Lugard was the architect of the indirect rule policy in Nigeria having previously tested it in Burma and Uganda.

Positive and Negative Effects of Indirect Rule

The indirect rule policy had both positive and negative effects on the political system.

  • In the short run, the indirect rule increased the power and authority of traditional rulers. Ironically, this happened at a time when traditional power was experiencing decay as a result of social change. In the Northern Nigeria, for example, the Emirs (kings) became autocratic and repressive. Brand new traditional institutions were even created where they never existed and they were performed important roles in the system.
  • In the belly of the policy was a seed of its own destruction which eventually destroyed the powers of traditional rulers. The traditional institutions were destroyed in the following ways:

(i) The exploitation and modification of traditional institutions to achieve the purpose of indirect rule and colonialism alienated the traditional rulers from their people.

(ii) The identification of the chiefs with colonialism and exploitation created a distrust between the traditional rulers and their subjects.

(iii) The creation of mutual suspicion between traditional rulers and the educated elites worked against the overall interest of the African society.

  • The power to elect and depose chiefs was transferred from the people to the governor. As a result, there was unnecessary government interference (even today), in matters which were essentially local and traditional.
  • The indirect rule strengthened the position of traditional rulers in relation to the educated elites and this generated incessant conflicts between the two groups throughout the colonial era.
  • The opposition by the educated elites to the indirect rule policy led to the development of nationalism and formation of political parties.
  • The indirect rule system provided the foundation upon which the local government system in Nigeria was erected.
  • Indirect rule had social and economic consequences for the country. Many college and university graduates were produced as a result of the rapid expansion of educational facilities to cope with the need of indirect rule. There was also improvement in health facilities and this led to increase in standard of living and life expectancy.
  • Indirect rule created a new crop of middlemen in the export business. Many mines were opened up, industries were established, and roads and airports were constructed. All these boosted the country’s economy.
  • The improvement in social infrastructure led to the setting up of new towns such as Port Harcourt and Kaduna in Nigeria.
  • Certain false assumptions which Europeans had about Africans were rejected by the educated elites. The British, for example, assumed that Africans were inferior and that Africans tolerated and welcomed foreign rule.
  • The British also claimed that African political institutions were static and did not change to reflect changing circumstances. They therefore felt that Europeans had a mission to shape the African society.
  • The educated elites, in particular, were able to demonstrate that the major objective of colonialism and its baby, indirect rule, was to exploit and harness the resources of the colonial territory satisfy the interests of the British and that colonialism simply represented a mask or cover for the realization of this economic goal.
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