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The impact of colonialism on Africa’s traditional institutions

The advent of imperialism and colonialism had adverse effects for the institutions that were existent on the continent. Much were wiped away, distorted and used to benefit the parochial interests of the colonial masters.

Rather than strengthen their claims to legitimacy, the encounter of traditional rulers with colonial administrators, weakened them in many ways. First, traditional rulers were perceived by their subjects as willing tools of colonial control and collaborators in repression. In Abeokuta, for example Alake Ademola was forced to abdicate in 1948 in protest against payment of colonial imposed taxation. By relying on the cooption of traditional authorities colonialism undermined their legitimacy. Colonialism invested chiefs with more power than they traditionally enjoyed in return for their support and cooperation. The effect was to create a distance between the chiefs and their people, thus opening political space for new educated elites.

Secondly, colonial inherent logic set in motion the process that progressively weakened the power, and eroded the influence of traditional rulers, even where they were initially supportive of colonial administration. The introduction of Western education and culture introduced a more liberal value within the colonial milieu; a value that questioned the absolute grip of traditional rulers over their subjects. A debate thereby ensured on the relevance of acquired status which traditional rulers relied upon for their legitimacy vis-à-vis achieved status, which educated African nationalists professed. The debate was eventually resolved in favour of emerging educated nationalists who spoke the language of liberty, freedom and democracy and whose claims to be the natural successors to white rulers, were strengthened by their successful explosion of the myth of white superiority.

The fact that the first generation African traditional rulers were not educated made African growing intelligential to view them as irrelevant to post-colonial Africa. The explanation for this is simple. The African state today is a creation of imperialism; it inherited the characteristics of the colonial state and, by extension largely ineffective in advancing the interests of society. As historian Mengestaeb argues “the African state, run by functionaries whose interests are closely tied with external forces can hardly be expected to link itself with its institutional roots…” Noting the detachment of Africa’s present from its past, Eke also wrote: “the post- colonial era is not as differentiated from the colonial era as the colonial era from the pre-colonial era”. In other words, if there is any continuity in African political structure, it is only from the colonial to the post-colonial and not from the pre-colonial to the colonial.

What colonialism achieved therefore was to displace traditional rulers from their primacy. From the re-organization of the emirate system in Northern Nigeria, the desecration of the authority of the Ashante here in the old Gold Coast as symbolized in the revered “Golden stool”, to the disruptions of the Buganda in Uganda, the Mendes in Sierra Leone and the Wolofs in Gambia, colonialism successfully alienated traditional rulers from the people. It not only destroyed the consensus based equilibrium of Africa, caused tensions between the educated elites and traditional rulers, and also foisted political dualism, or what prominent scholar Sklar called :mixed polity” or “mixed” government” in Africa.


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