Indirect rule was a system of ruling Africans that sought not to displace African authority, but instead to rule through it. It was first used by the British and later adopted by other European powers after they witnessed its success. Indirect rule is largely considered a more humane alternative to its counterpart, direct rule, which placed colonial powers in charge of all aspects of African administration. Despite this, there were numerous problems with indirect rule in both theory and in practice. Ultimately, indirect rule was hopelessly flawed.
In 1922, F.D. Lugard, a colonial officer in Uganda and later Nigeria who came up with the idea of using indirect rule in Africa, published a book titled Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa. In it, he advocated leaving management of African colonies to Africans, subject to the laws of policies of the British colonial staff. He took this position in part because he believed that European culture could not be adopted by Africans, because they were an inferior people (Lugard 76). This is an extraordinary weakness of the theoretical foundations of indirect rule, as Africans have adapted to European society remarkably well in modern times. A theory of governance based on the idea that Africans were innately inferior made the entire approach flawed from the onset. Mahmood Mamdani, who likened indirect rule to “decentralized despotism,” argued that “The central claim of indirect rule… that natives are by nature tribal” (Mamdani 10). Not surprisingly, this claim was cited many times as a justification for the myriad human rights violation that occurred under indirect rule. Indirect rule was not established out of concern for the Africans. It allowed Britain to say that they were colonizing “less advanced people” in order to help improve their lives, as opposed to appearing to be conquerors. It also made Africans less likely to revolt, which was a boon for any colonial power (Gilbert and Reynolds 325). For example, Britain took over Zanzibar in 1890, but, as they were ruling it indirectly, they left the sultan’s government intact, despite it permitting slavery. It was not until 1907, 17 years after the British took over, that slavery was outlawed in Zanzibar (Gilbert and Reynolds 300). Slavery was not abolished in Northern Nigeria until 1935, despite being held by Great Britain since 1900 (“BBC”). Colonists were clearly more concerned with stability and personal fortune than the inhabitants’ wellbeing.
One could still argue that, despite its selfish intentions, indirect rule was good for its subjects. Indeed, it was often idealized as a humane form of governance because of its common juxtaposition with direct rule, which was widely regarded as inhumane. Being a superior alternative to direct rule, though, hardly says anything about how good indirect rule was. There were numerous signs of unrest in colonies that were indirectly ruled, such as worker strikes in British colonies like the Sierra Leone railway strike of 1926, and the Gambian sailor’s strike of 1929 (Akintola). Sir Lee Stack, the governor general of Sudan was assassinated in Cairo in 1924 (“Country Studies”). Britain had used brutal measures to keep Sudan and Egypt in control, which is what inevitably results when one group claiming to be “superior” forcibly rules another group of people regarded as “inferior.”
Because indirect rule utilized existing African rule, indirect rule was highly ineffective in colonies where there was no centralized system of authority. Warrant chiefs, African rulers propped up by the British, were not generally liked by the communities that they were selected to rule, as was the case in Southern Nigeria (Collins, and Burns). Immediately after Southern Nigeria gained constitutional independence from Britain, thousands of Nigerian women protested against what they considered the Warrant Chief’s unjust system of taxation on women in what is known as the Igbo Women’s War....
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