Indirect Rule | Definition, Features, Pros & Cons

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An important principle of British colonial administration in West Africa was the indirect rule policy. The policy was first introduced and practise in Northern Nigeria by Lord Lugard on his assumption of office as the High Commissioner of the protectorate in 1900.

The Indirect Rule System
The Indirect Rule System

The policy was later extended to the Southern part of Nigeria. Sir Gordon Guggisberg, the Governor of the Gold Coast also adopted it in that country in 1922.

Meaning Of Indirect Rule

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 (1934) defined the policy as follows: “Indirect rule is 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.

Features of Indirect Rule System

  1. Traditional rulers and chiefs were used in governing the people;
  2. The traditional political system of government in place was utilized;
  3. The customs and traditions ofthe people played a significant role in the administration;
  4. The cultural values of the people were respected by the British officials;
  5. The British officials were to guide and where need be, enforce colonial regulation. Examples of such British officials were the Resident and District Officers;
  6. The traditional rulers were respected and given exalted positions in the administration and this elicited their cooperation.
  7. The cost of administration was not high because those involved were paid peanuts.
  8. The colonial masters made use of natural agricultural produce in the collection of taxes;
  9. Native courts were used for administration of justice;
  10. Native police and prisons were utilized in the system;
  11. Officers or chiefs were appointed where there were no traditional chiefs or rulers and;
  12. The system did not disrupt the existing traditional system of administration and political order.

Merits & Demerits of Indirect Rule


Native Authority was an institutions of local administration of indirect rule system in British West African colonies.

Reasons For The Introduction Of Indirect Rule System

  • Lack of British Personnel: The system had few Europeans to control effectively areas under their power.
  • Insufficient fund: There was no sufficient fund from the British government to engage British officials for direct administration.
  • Poor climate: Poor climate condition also aggravated the situation Many British refused coming down to be involved in the administration, due to poor climate and the presence of mosquitoes. Africa was nicknamed “the whiteman’s grave“, as a result of these factors.
  • To satisfy their economic needs: The colonialists wanted to mate markets for their goods and to encourage West Africans to produce those raw materials.
  • The role and position of traditional rulers: Britain saw their uniqueness, the role and positions occupied in the administration before the Introduction of indirect rule. The people saw these rulers as of divine and should be respected. For example the Emirs. Therefore, not using them might mean chaos and instability in the system.
  • The use of traditional rulers and their institutions: Britain saw that there was no need destroying the institutions in place, and that, introducing different system altogether, might not produce any desired results.
  • The success of this system: Lord Lugard felt that the success of this policy in India, Uganda etc was enough proof that the system would succeed in any of the British colonies.
  • Large expanse of land: Areas administered by Britain are so large that indirect administration was a better option. For example, Northern Nigeria is a large area to be ruled by the few whites.
  • Language barrier: lndirect rule succeeded in removing the language barrier that would have posed a problem to the British colonial administration if direct rule was adopted. English language used by Britain was quite different from languages of most of her colonies, for example, Nigeria and Ghana.
  • Stable political system: Obedience to constituted authority is a must for a stable political system. The subjects in Northern Nigeria were so obedient to their rulers and the institutions and the result was stability in the system. Britain, therefore had to allow the system to stay. Any interference, would have incured the wrath of the people.
  • The British Officials: These offlcials lacked adequate knowledge of the local areas inthe country.
  • The System was very cheap: The cost of administration was very cheap and this was because little amount was paid to the traditional rulers used for the system.
  • Poor communication system: The system of transportation and communication was poor and this also necessitated the adoption of indirect rule.

Why Traditional Rulers Are Involved In The Colonial Administrations

  • Few British personnel: Very few of them were ready to serve in the colonies, therefore, shortage of personnel made the colonialists rely on the chiefs.
  • The status of the traditional rulers: The British encounter with the chiefs during the period of occupation proved to them that the chiefs were powerful and were highly respected by their people.
  • It was economical: It was very convenient for the British government to use the chiefs since they were being paid peanuts as salaries.
  • Past experience: Local chiefs had been successfully used in the colonial administration in other Colonies, for example, India.
  • Maintenance of law and order: As the custodian of the people’s culture, the traditional rulers were found useful in the maintenance of law and order in the colonies.
  • Collection of taxes: The traditional rulers were found useful in the collection of taxes and rates.
  • Political stability: The British felt that, the presence of the local chiefs in the administration would bring about political stability.
  • They were easily manipulated: The chiefs were used as tools instead of the educated elites because they were easily manipulated.

The Collapse and The Decline Of Traditional Rulers During Colonial Period

Ways by which colonial rules contributed to the decline of the powers of the Traditional Rulers in West Africa are;

  • Collapse of the existing links: Colonial rule led to the collapse of the existing links between the traditional rulers and their subjects making the former appendages of alien government.
  • Independent of the ruler: The introduction of salaries job to the working subjects empowered the subjects to be independent of their rulers
  • Impact of western education: The impact of western education and westernization of life led to the collapse of tradititional norms and values of society e.g, homage to and respect for the traditional rulers. Traditional values were eroded by the new values of the Whiteman.
  • Influence of foreign religion: It scaled down the power of traditional rulers as the spiritual authority of their people.
  • Law Courts: The establishment of law courts by the colonialists reduced the law making functions of traditional rulers.
  • Establishment of legislative council by the colonialists: Equally reduced the law-making functions of traditional rulers
  • Colonialism: Introduced native/local authorities which took over the traditional rulers absolute control over taxation and its disbursement.
  • Forced labour and conscription by the colonialists: They reduced the popularity of the traditional rulers.
  • Inter-tribal wars: stoppage of inter-tribal wars put an end to the means by which traditional rulers accumulated wealth.
  • Appointment and deposition: Power to appoint and depose which was vested in the colonial governors reduced the prestige of traditional rulers and misdirected their loyalty.


  • Policy of indirect rule: They took part in the colonial government policy of indirect rule.
  • Law and order: They assisted in the maintenance of law and order.
  • Preservation of culture and customs: The traditional rulers helped to preserve the culture and customs oftheir communities that were approved by the British.
  • Acted as a link: They acted as a link between the colonial masters and their people.
  • Communal work: They organized communal work on behalf of the British.
  • Law-making: The traditional rulers took part in law-making, as some of them were members of the legislative councils and later Houses of chiefs.
  • Settlement of disputes: They helped to settle disputes arising from customs and tradition of the people
  • Tax assessment and collection: They helped in tax assessment and collection for the colonial government.
  • Conscription of youths: The traditional rulers helped to conscript youths to perform forced labour and serve in the British army during the world wars.
  • They presided: They help to preside over native courts established by the British.
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