This is an essay I wrote for a class on the History of West Africa. (The block quotes are displayed as separate paragraphs, in quotation marks.)

How did the political structures of West African colonies differ from the political structures of pre-modern West African states?

Long before any European power came to Africa, there were states and societies with complex political systems and methods for administration.  The powerful ones usually gained wealth at first by monopolizing trade routes passing through their territory.  These states had sophisticated structures for administering their local territory.  In many cases there was a king or sultan, who often had a highly elevated status, which could be seen by his garb and adornments.  Sometimes he was considered divine.  He was surrounded, guided, and restrained by lower chiefs and ministers.

Yet somehow, when Europeans started conquering the states as colonies, they came to the conclusion that Africans were primitive and unsophisticated, and needed help.  The Europeans then made use of existing (African) political structures, which proved themselves not primitive at all, to run the colonies.  Mostly the colonizers centralized power in the hands of the chiefs of the native administration so that these chiefs could better accomplish the tasks given them, like the collection of taxes.

First I consider pre-modern West African states, and the bases of their power.  Then I examine the ways that the states were administered, paying specific attention to the members of the court.  Entirely different methods were used to keep control over vassal states, which I study next.  Finally I briefly go into how succession affects and reflects the other issues a state faces.  Then the European powers decide to take colonies, so I delve into the political structures they encounter, and what they think of these structures.  We next take a look at how the Europeans ran their colonies.  Why did they choose not to rule directly, and what was the nature of their indirect rule?  Europeans made very good use of intermediaries.  They also centralized power around the native chiefs.  Finally, we will look at how, once again, the issue of succession somewhat reflects the issues facing the colonizers.

A list of my secondary sources can be found at the end of this paper.  I usually did not quote from these books, but have attempted to use footnotes when a particular idea or phrase comes directly from one of these sources.  I have also used primary sources from West African History by Robert O. Collins, and from Ancient Ghana and Mali by Nehemia Levtzion.  These sources are from different times and different locations, including Antonius Malfante, writing from Tawat, to Lord Lugard, who founded the British principle of Indirect Rule.

There were a number of different types of political forms in Africa before European contact.  There were empires like Ghana and Mali, which were different than the city-states of the Hausa, both of which were different from the stateless, acephalous communities, such as the Grunshi or Birifor.  There are a number of shared features, especially among the “cephalous” societies – among the societies with chiefs or similar such central (though not absolute) rulers.  Many cities, states and empires gained wealthby regulating and monopolizing trade.1  Antonius Malfante wrote from Tawat, an oasis in the Sahara, through which passed important trade from the Hausa city-states to Air.  Tawat was divided into quarters, each of which was controlled by a local ruler.

"Everyone arriving here places himself under the protection of one of these rulers, who will protect him to the death: thus merchants enjoy very great security, much greater, in my opinion, than in kingdoms such as Themmicenno [Tlemcen] and Thunisie [Tunis].  [Antonius Malfante, as printed in Collins 24; Brackets in original]"

The rulers protect traders, and in return they collect fees from the merchants.  Levtzion, in The Early States of Western Sudan, explains that “Sahil is the Arabic word for ‘a shore’, which is well understood if the desert is compared to a sea of sand, and the camel to a ship.  Hence the towns which developed in the Sahil—Takrur, Ghana, and Gao—may be regarded as ports” (Levtzion, Early States 131).  Tawat, inside the Sahara, would thus be regarded as an island at which you can stock up on supplies during your trip across the ocean of the Sahara.  It was convenient for traders; it would have been convenient for local elites, too, who could earn money from the trade passing through.  Ghana, located on the Sahel, and on two trans-Saharan trade routes, had a similar opportunity to tax traders.  At first Ghana earned money by regulating and taxing regional trade, and later by taxing the developing trans-Saharan trade.  More extensive states were desirable in order to better control trade, and the money earned from regulation and taxation enabled the development of such states.  Stronger states allowed not only for better control of trade, but also for better protection, which encouraged trade still more.

There were other sources of wealth for a state or empire.  Ghana, for example, had access to gold fields, and it taxed the mining of gold.  States were also founded on agricultural surplus.  The Hausa city-states of Kano and Katsina, for example, became wealthy because of agricultural and crafts developments, and only after they were already wealthy did they attract large trade flows.  Non-trade taxation was also a very important revenue stream for a state.  Leo Africanus describes the taxes in the town and kingdom of Gago:

"They are continually burthened with grieuous exactions, so that they haue scarce any thing remaining to liue vpon.  [Leo Africanus, as printed in Collins 30]"

Gago collects these taxes from its people, and from the sound of it, the taxes form quite a revenue stream.  He also describes the taxes in the kingdom of Bornu:

"They paye vntu him none other tribute but the tithes of all their corne: neither hath this king any reuenues to maintaine his estate, but ouely such spoiles as he getteth from his next enimes by often inuasions and assaults.  [Leo Africanus, as printed in Collins 31]"

This is somewhat different from Gago, which imposes a high level of taxes.  Bornu is based much more on raids on neighboring states and regions than it is on taxation of its people.

In more hierarchical societies, local rulers collected taxes and kept a portion, sending on the rest to the central authority.  The Hausa had an interesting way of gaining revenue.  Their government was made up of titled offices, the most important of which were given to members of important lineages.  As the governments of the city-states became more complex, though, more offices were created; commoners could fill these offices, but had to pay for the privilege.  There were many different other types of fees.  It often cost money to be heard by the king or in court.  Chiefs did not always get rich, though.  Elliot Skinner says that a village or district chief among the Mossi

"was seldom wealthy, because he always had to use his revenue to fulfill unexpected obligations toward his subjects, his superiors in the political hierarchy, and his household.  [Elliot Skinner as printed in Engelbert 15]"

He was expected to be generous and take care of the needs of visitors, newcomers, messengers, and his own large family, and was responsible for providing for his villages in the case of a famine.

The chief, king, emperor or sultan did not have absolute power.  He was aided by ministers, members of court, and sub-chiefs, but his power was also limited by them.  Ibn Battuta witnessed one such occurrence when visiting the Sultan of Mali.  The Sultan was angry with his chief wife, Qasa (“the Queen”), and threw her in prison.

"The people talked about it, and disapproved of his actions…The chiefs [also] spoke in Qasa’s favour, and so the king assembled them in the audience chamber, and Dugha [the linguist] said on his behalf: ‘You have said much in favour of Qasa, but she committed a capital crime.’  [Ibn Battuta, as printed in Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali 67]"

The Sultan then went on to show that Qasa had been planning his overthrow, and only then do the chiefs agree to her death.  The Sultan had to account to his chiefs and, to some extent, to the people.  In the Hausa city-states, also, the king had limited power.  There was one particularly important titled office, called the Magajiya, which was always held by the official queen mother.2  She had various powers, including the ability to recommend to the council that the king be removed from office.  She alone among all the other ministers did not have to swear allegiance to the king, and she could not be removed from office by the king.  She acted as a powerful check on his authority.  In the kingdom of Mali, a weak king on the throne threatened the entire empire.  In such a case a powerful court official would intervene, either making the king into his puppet, or taking the throne by force.  No matter the method, the ruler had far from absolute power.

There were ways, though, that a king could increase his power.  He often won over the favor of his chiefs by giving them gifts, slaves or even villages.  In the Hausa city-states, when several people were vying for an important office, the king could create debts by granting the office.  The Mossi king had a similar method; he could appoint a nakombse (descendant of a warrior and thus in line for chieftaincy) who had lost his naam (right to rule) to some important position.  This appointed official would owe his position wholly to the king and so would be loyal.

The king could also increase his power by appointing slaves to important positions.  Slaves were ideal because they were low in status and would therefore owe the king a debt for lifting them up in society.  The king of Mali, Mansa Musa, found them especially useful because through them he could decrease his dependency on his family ties; the slaves would be loyal to him alone, not to his lineage.  Kings of Mali in general appointed them to some of Mali’s provinces to act as governor, to keep an eye on the vassal state.  In Songhay slaves often ran farms and the chief slave, after delivering a quota of foodstuffs to the central government, was allowed to keep the surplus.  Many slaves grew rich this way and so supported the system.  The Hausa found slaves to be particularly useful.  Attacks from nearby enemies necessitated the creation of more offices for military chiefs.  But these chiefs often grew powerful enough to rebel against the Hausa city-state.  Slaves were appointed to fill these positions more loyally.  Leo Africanus describes a very specific use for eunuchs in Gago:

"The king of this region hath a certaine priuate palace wherein he maintaineth a great number of concubines and slaues, which are kept by eunuches…[Leo Africanus, as printed in Collins 29-30]"

For obvious reasons a eunuch would not present the threat to the king’s harem that other slaves would pose.  The strategy of appointing eunuchs to watch over a harem was widespread through the kingdoms of West Africa.

Besides their own local area, many kingdoms, states or empires had vassal states.  From these they extracted tribute in the form of money, goods, soldiers, or slaves.  Leo Africanus described it thus:

"Izchia [Askiya Muhammad, 1493-1538—ed.] subdued the prince of this region, and made him his tributarie, and so oppressed him with greeuous exactions, that he was scarce able to maintaine his family.  [Leo Africanus, as printed in Collins 28]"

Askiya Muhammad made the prince a vassal, and extracted a heavy tribute on threat of another invasion.

The conquering state used different methods to keep their vassals from rebelling or breaking away.  Most bound the vassal state only very loosely to the central state.  Chiefs paying tribute retained autonomy; the Hausa, for example, paid tribute to Bornu, but were otherwise autonomous.  Loosely-bound vassal states were more likely to rebel at the first sign of weakness.  There was always the threat of military action if the tributary state failed to pay, but a weakened state would not be able to make this threat credible.  Mali, for example, only controlled Tadmekka when headed by powerful kings (Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali 78).  Leo Africanus records an example of such a threat from the kingdom of Tombuto:

"They haue often skirmishes with those that refuse to pay tribute, and so many as they take, they sell vnto the merchants of Tombuto.  [Leo Africanus, as printed in Collins 29]"

Tombuto carried out its threat against vassals that did not pay, and sold those captured into slavery.  This would convince other vassal states to continue paying.  Ibn Khaldun describes another instance of invasion:

"Later the authority of Ghana waned and its power declined whilst that of the veiled people, their neighbours on the north next to the lands of the Berbers, increased.  The latter overcame the Sudanese, plundered their territories, imposed upon them tribute, and converted many of them to Islam.  [Ibn Khaldun, as printed in Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali 52]"

We see Ghana on the decline, and the “veiled people” on the rise.  These veiled people have taken the Sudanese as vassals, and imposed tribute, which is a common way of extracting money since it is easier than trying to assess a tax.  They have also converted the vassal states to Islam, which may help keep them in line. 

Another strategy states used was to take the sons of the rulers of vassal states hostage.  Mali kept the sons of the ruler of Songhay.  This is described by Abt-al-Rahman al-Sadi:

"When the two children [Ali Kolon and Salman-Nari] were old enough to enter the service, the Sultan of Mali took them with him.  At that time, in fact, these princes were his vassals, and the prevailing custom dictated that the sons of kings were compelled to serve their sovereign.  [Abd-al-Rahman al-Sadi, as printed in Collins 32]"

The kings would be less interested in revolting or even holding back on payment, knowing that their sons were in the hands of their suzerain.  Ali Kolon and his brother, however, managed to escape the grasp of the Sultan of Mali, and made it back home where they successfully rebelled against the Sultan.  So this was not a completely successful way of binding vassal states.

There were many other ways of trying to prevent vassal states from breaking away.  The King of Tombuto offered peace to a fleeing prince:

'In my time this region was conquered by the king of Tombuto, and the prince thereof fled into the deserts, whereof the king of Tombuto hauing intelligence, and fearing least the prince would returne with all the people of the deserts, granted him peace, conditionally that he should pay a great yeerely tribute vnto him, and so the said prince hath remained tributarie to the king of Tombuto vntill this present.  [Leo Africanus, as printed in Collins 28]"

The king, knowing that this prince might come back to fight in the future, offered peace, and gained a tributary rather than an enemy.  Mali held onto some of its vassal states even in the face of instability by colonizing them with Malinke.  The king of Bornu killed all the warriors in the land of Barak, so that Barak would not easily be able to rebel.  Many times the leader of a vassal state was asked to swear allegiance to the new ruler.  The Sarkin Kano lived in one province he conquered to consolidate it.  Sarki Sulimanu split up one troublesome province into two to prevent it from rebelling.

When the ruler of a powerful state died, the degree to which vassal states were bound to that state became very important.  Times of succession would often be times of crisis for a state.  In a way, succession was a microcosm of the issues faced by the state.  A state with loosely-bound vassal states might lose much of its revenue when vassals dropped away, or even disintegrate if the vassals attacked.  If ministers and members of court were powerful, many of them would grab for power.  If, on the other hand, vassal states were tightly bound and there were clear laws or customs for succession, the state would have only minor problems.  During one of Mali’s succession disputes, its provinces seceded, Mossi attacked, and Songhai finally filled the power vacuum left by Mali’s deflation.  Ghana had no law of fixed succession, and its administrative capability never caught up to its military exploits; during one succession it was attacked from without and within, and it collapsed.  Asante, on the other hand, was very tightly knit and kept the death of its ruler secret until a new ruler was chosen.  Successions were not nearly as problematic for Asante.


Upon penetrating the West African coast, Europeans did not frequently came across familiar forms of political organization.3  The would-be colonizers concluded that the natives were primitive and inferior, and needed European guidance.  When the Europeans decided to take the heavy burden of self-rule off the shoulders of the primitive Africans, though, they did not end up taking off much weight.  They had to rule indirectly, through existing political structures and intermediaries.  The colonizers centralized power in the hands of the native chiefs (or sometimes created chiefs altogether) to make rule over African colonies easier.

Throughout West Africa there were many stateless societies; these societies had no ruler or chief other than the head of each family or clan.  A village containing multiple families might have a group of elders that made decisions, but there was no paramount ruler.  C. H. Armitage, the British Chief Commissioner for the Northern Territories, writes:

"Col. P. F. Whittall D.S.O. held a meeting at Kwouchoggo of all the Issalla chiefs with a view to finding out whether there was any real hereditary chief of the Issallas.  All chiefs gave the same statement:- viz. that before the white man came there were no Issalla chiefs.  [C. H. Armitage, as printed by Mendonsa 362]"

These societies had had no rulers, which clearly confused the Europeans.  Sometimes the Europeans found societies that did have chiefs, but the chiefs did not meet the expectations of the colonizers.  Dr. William Ryan, the District Commissioner (1913-14), wrote of the chief of Sekai, a Sisala village:

"Sekai is an old man clad in a short shirt which is filthy dirty.  He has absolutely no attributes of a chief: No appearance: Dirty: No wives: No personal possessions: No authority… [Dr. William Ryan, as printed in Mendonsa 359]"

The colonizers expected to find a political structure somewhat similar to their own hierarchical one, and upon failing to find such structures, they concluded that the Africans were not advanced enough to have developed such political forms.

With the attitude that the Africans were primitive and unsophisticated, the Europeans decided that they could benefit the Africans by bringing order.  Lord Lugard envisioned

"powers which rightly belong to the controlling Power as trustee for the welfare of the masses, and as being responsible for the defence of the country and the cost of its central administration… [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 232]"

Lugard, among others, felt that the Europeans had a responsibility to look out for the welfare of their colonies, and he seemed certain that they would not be able to look out for themselves.

The colonies were not administered directly by Europeans, however, for a number of reasons.  It would have been impractical to try to rule directly, as Lugard explains:

"the British staff, exercising direct rule, cannot be otherwise than very small in comparison to the area and population of which they are in charge.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 236]"

To administer a state requires a large number of people, Lugard goes on to explain, such as police and couriers, as well as special government employees who make sure that others are working hard and meeting standards.  There were simply not enough Europeans in Africa to rule directly.  In addition to this practical reason, there was an ideological reason not to rule directly, according to Lugard:

"To abandon the policy of ruling them through their own chiefs, and to substitute the direct rule of the British officer, is to forgo the high ideal of leading the backward races, by their own efforts, in their own way, to raise themselves to a higher plane of social organization... [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 236]"

Ruling through the native chiefs, in other words, will give the poor, uneducated Africans a chance to experience and learn from a true system of governance, which will greatly benefit these Africans.

The indirect rule of the colonizers consisted mostly of taking advantage of existing power structures.4  Lugard explained that existing emirates or tribes should not be broken up into different administrative units (Collins 229).  He also advocated taking control of native states:

"Comparatively little difficulty…would be experienced in the application of such a system to Moslem States, for even if their rulers had deteriorated, they still profess the standards of Islam, with its system of taxation, and they possess a literate class capable of discharging the duties I have described.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 231]"

He says that non-Muslim states with tax-systems can just as easily be used.  In either case it is easier for the British to collect taxes through the native leaders than to do it themselves.  The French used existing Mossi government functions for collecting taxes and for recruiting men for corvee labor and conscription (Englebert 21).

The principle of indirect rule is built upon intermediaries who know African society, and can interact with Europeans.  British administrators relied heavily on Wangrin (The Fortunes of Wangrin, Ba); Lord Lugard lists some various ways intermediaries are important to colonial rule.

"The district headman, usually a territorial magnate with local connections, is the chief executive officer in the area under his charge.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 229]"

It was important for a part of the administration be made up natives with connections and an understanding of West African society; it made sense to give such a person the ability to make certain decisions.  Lugard also explains that the Fulani, not conquered, were conquerors themselves, and that some fear they will always chafe under British rule.  But he explains that

"there be now doubt that such races form an invaluable medium between the British staff and the native peasantry…Their traditions of rule, their monotheistic religion, and their intelligence enable them to appreciate more readily than the negro population the wider objects of British policy.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 233]"

They, unlike the masses, apparently, will be able to sympathize with the British and be effective rulers because of this.  Furthermore,

"Their close touch with the masses—with whom they live in daily intercourse—mark them out as destined to play an important part in the future, as they have done in the past, in the development of the tropics.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 233-4]"

Since they are in such close contact with the masses, and have actually become inextricable from these masses, as Lugard explains, they are ideal intermediaries since they understand African society extremely well.

One more advantage noted by Lugard is the fact that native rulers, being much more in tune with the movements in society, will notice any attempted rebellion.  He explains that

!the personal interests of the rulers must rapidly become identified with those of the controlling Power…the rulers soon recognise that any upheaval against the British would equally make an end of them.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 234]"

Lugard recognizes that the Europeans have given legitimization to the native rulers, and this legitimization will diminish if the Europeans leave.5  He writes that the Fulani Emir in Nigeria helped the British put down the numerous “Mahdi” with fanatical followings.

In order to be able to rule effectively, the Europeans needed native administrators who could carry out orders completely.  Europeans therefore needed to increase the powers of the native chiefs.  Lugard writes:

"The object in view is to make each “Emir” or paramount chief, assisted by his judicial Council, an effective ruler over his own people.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 229]"

Each paramount chief needs to have a certain amount of power and responsibility; mostly he needs to be obeyed by those below him.  Lugard says an important step is to

"induce those who acknowledge no other authority than the head of a family to recognize a common chief.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 238]"

It is necessary to impose chiefs, in other words, where they do not already exist.  The French also imposed chiefs on stateless societies.  Having a subordinate, native chief with executive powers was important for the rule of the colony.

European control over the succession of native leaders is interesting in that it is fairly representative of the whole of European rule in West Africa.  Lugard writes that in principle the governor has the right to confirm, deny or choose new successors for native rulers.  But in reality,

"Succession is governed by native law and custom…It is important to ascertain the customary law and to follow it when possible, for the appointment of a chief who is not the recognised heir, or who is disliked by the people, may give rise to trouble… [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 235]"

It is found convenient to follow native law when it works well.  Lugard finds, for example, that some Moslem countries maintain two rival dynasties and rulers are chosen from each in alternation (Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 235).  As with all of colonial administration, the colonial power has the right to make all decisions, but finds it useful to allow the indigenes to make some of their own decisions.  Furthermore, the colonial power often finds that existing structures solve problems quite well.  There is even a further parallel between succession and colonial administration; Lugard writes:

"The formal approval of the Governor after a short period of probation is a useful precaution, so that if the designated chief proves himself unsuitable, the selection may be reversed without difficulty.  [Lord Lugard, as printed in Collins 236]"

This is an excellent example of colonial paternalism.  As with administration of the colonies, the Europeans felt they can make the best decisions in most things and want to keep power in their own hands.

The West African states prior to contact with Europeans took on a wide variety of political forms.  They usually became strong through taxation of trade and nearby natural resources, then through demanding tribute from conquered vassal states.  They administered themselves with intermediate chiefs and ministers with some power and ability to check the ruler; slaves were also very important in the administration of most West African states.  Vassal states were usually bound weakly to the suzerain, and broke away in times of internal dispute, although there were many different strategies used by the conquering state to hold on to wayward vassals.  Succession was often a time of weakness, and reflected many of the issues facing the state.

Upon contact, things did not change dramatically or immediately, since the Europeans had to make use of existing political structures to run their colonies, due to their own small numbers.  They did change some things, though, by implementing a systematic tax system and by centralizing power in the hands of the native chiefs.  Finally, we see that succession was important and reflective of the issues facing the colonizers, just as it was with the pre-contact states.



  1. Mendonsa, Levtzion, Engelbert and others mention that in Europe, feudalism arose because of the fertility and scarcity of land; lords gained power and wealth by controlling land.  In Africa people are spread out, and the land is both plentiful and delicate.  Thus control of land is not worth as much and control of people is not easy since people can easily move elsewhere to find better working conditions.  Trade, therefore, is the easiest to control.
  2. She was never the biological mother of the king; she was instead a senior member of the powerful lineages.
  3. I.e. a hierarchical form of society.
  4. The French claimed to rule directly, but they were forced to use indirect rule for the same reason the British had to: insufficient Europeans in Africa.  Both the French and the British used native power structures to administer, though the French tended to alter these structures dramatically.
  5. His statement is not merely conjecture; other British administrators noted that when they left for World War I, Africans stopped obeying the native rulers.


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