Although the historiography of indirect rule in Africa is abundant, the subject is still generally misunderstood, misunderstood in its origins, meaning, operation, and significance.
Historically, imperialist regimes generally controlled conquered peoples through the agency of the local ruling elite. They did so for practical reasons. While the elite were allowed to reign according to their local laws, customs, and political institutions, they were required to acknowledge the overlordship of the conqueror and to respect it. Failure to do so resulted in their deposition and replacement with those willing to accept the new dispensation. This is indirect rule broadly defined.
There was a degree of cooperation between the colonizer and the colonized, and it exhibited various manifestations to suit prevailing circumstances. Indirect rule was not, therefore, a concept invented by the British colonial administrator Frederick Lugard (1858-1945) as the proper system for governing the Islamic emirates of northern Nigeria. Even in Nigeria, such a system was already in place in the south before Lugard conquered the emirates. In addition, a ”warrant chief’ system, which was devised for societies where no centrally recognized authority existed, was in operation in southern Nigeria by 1891.
Nevertheless, it was Lugard who modified and popularized indirect rule, elevating it to the status of a doctrine. A passage in his Political Memoranda (1906), a set of official instructions to his colonial administrative officers in northern Nigeria, states: ”There are not two sets of rulers—British and Native—working either separately or in cooperation, but a single Government in which native Chiefs have well-defined duties and an acknowledged status equally with the British Officers. Their duties should never conflict and should overlap as little as possible” (Bello 1962, p.73). The chiefs, in short, were not subordinates or inferiors to the officers but were agents who cooperated with them in the great civilizing mission.
Later, Donald Cameron, former colonial governor of Tanganyika and Nigeria, respectively (1872-1948), and a ”Lugardian,” explained that it was vital that African institutions, which the chiefs ”have inherited, molded or modified as they may do on the advice of British officers,” should ”develop in a constitutional manner” (Karugire 1980, p. 116). The contradictions inherent in both passages are clear and need no further explanation. The bottom line is that native chiefs were not independent actors but rather junior partners in the colonial enterprise who could be dispensed with at will by the senior partner. Lugardian indirect rule, whether of the emirate or warrant chief variety, was a paternalist concept, replete with irreconcilable contradictions, and indeed, a convenient fiction necessary for the justification of colonialism. It did not take long to realize that Lugardism could not be applied in practice without undermining colonialism.
In 1922 Lugard published his famous The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, ostensibly a reiteration and elaboration, but actually a rationalization of a doctrine that was clearly in trouble.Indirect rule became a sort of occult science, the quintessential bible for governing colonial peoples. The British government adopted it for most of its African colonies, except in those colonies where the existence of prefabricated white colonial collaborators made it superfluous. The League of Nations also appointed Lugard as its advisor regarding the proper governance of colonial peoples. France, Portugal, and Belgium joined the bandwagon, perhaps against their better judgment, and adopted modified forms of indirect rule.
Indirect rule was considered necessary for practical, economic, and climatic reasons. It functioned within ”Native Councils” and minor courts, which were responsible for local administration. The councils, which comprised traditional rulers, made bylaws, regulated matters of local interest, tried minor cases, enforced the construction of community access roads and buildings with no monetary compensation for the workers, and performed other functions dictated by the colonial officials.
For the most part, this flawed system functioned better in societies where, prior to colonization, government was centralized; in the noncentralized societies it was less successful. In either case, the chiefs generally were unaware of their powers, obligations, and rights; their place was not properly defined; they were under the thumb of colonial officers; and the exclusion of the Western-educated elite from participation in local administration caused the system to come under sustained attack by the emerging nationalists in the post-1930 period, primarily because the system was an impediment to the rise of nationalism, the establishment of democracy, and the regaining of independence.