Role Of Traditional Rulers During Colonial Period

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Before the advent of colonialism, the traditional rulers or chiefs in many parts of Africa exercised unlimited powers. The chiefs performed legislative, executive and judicial functions.

The chiefs were the lawmakers, the law enforcer and the judges. With the introduction of colonial rule in West Africa, the chief’s powers and influence were drastically reduced. In many countries, especially in the French speaking West African countries, colonization actually resulted in the destruction of the chieftaincy institutions.

Although the British and the French appeared to dopt different approaches in dealing with the traditional institution, the so-called distinction between the two colonial powers were not real. Whether a chief was hereditary or appointed, whether he was under British or French rule, he owed his position to the approval of the colonial government. He retained that position so long as the colonial regime believed that he was playing the role assigned to him in the scheme of things.

The people of the colonial territories, on the whole, saw the chiefs as internal collaborators of colonialism and this partly accounted for the rulers’ unpopularity. In the former Gold Coast (Ghana), for instance, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) and later President of Ghana, had a running battle with the Ashanti chiefs.

The chiefs who did not cooperate with the colonial governments were deposed, destooled, or banished. In some cases, especially in the French speaking West African countries, the institution was abolished. New chiefs were created where there were no ruling houses.

In Eastern Nigeria, warrant chiefs without any traditional base, were installed. However, the final selection of chiefs was no longer in the hands of the people but the government.

All these reduced the influence and powers of the chiefs and brought resentment against the institution among the people. In Guinea, the institutlon was completely abolished. The French also deliberately broke up territorial units in the Futa Jallon region of the country in order to weaken the Chieftaincy institution.

Functions Of Chiefs During Colonial Period

In spite of the harassment and oppression of chiefs, they were assigned certain functions during the colonial era. The functions include:

  • In many parts of West Africa, especially in Northern Nigeria, the chiefs controlled the local people. The chief had control over the native treasury, police, prisons and courts. He was responsible for the appointment and dismissal of sub-chiefs or district and village heads.
  • The chiefs settled minor disputes including land disputes.
  • They were responsible for the collection of taxes in their domains.
  • The chiefs provided essential services in their local areas.
  • The chiefs were allowed to legislate on customary matters but this was subject to the governor’s approval.
  • They mobilized the people in support of government policies.
  • Chiefs served as members of law-making bodies in some countries like Nigeria where they were nominated as members of the Houses of Chiefs.
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