British Indirect Rule: An Overview of the Colonial Policy. - OOU Campus Mirror

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Sunday 19 November 2023

British Indirect Rule: An Overview of the Colonial Policy.

 By Nuga Olasubomi. 

The British governed their colonies in Africa with considerable care. There was a very highly competent circle of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country. This was not something that the British achieved only in Africa, they were able to manage this on a bigger scale in India and Australia. The British had the experience of governing and doing it competently. Well, no one will justify colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run unlike the neighboring  colonial masters, the French

In British's only colony in West Africa, Nigeria; the indirect rule system was introduced by the country's first Governor-General, Lord Frederick Lugard, who felt that Nigeria being very vast would be impossible to handle if the British ruled directly. Lugard introduced the indirect rule system around the year 1906 when he was the High Commissioner of the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. 

The colonialists did not understand the local languages spoken in Nigeria. Thus, the British officials needed to communicate to the indigenous people if their rule was going to be a success. To achieve this, traditional rulers were employed with their traditional political system. The rulers were allowed to rule their territories but they were subject to the orders of the British administration. 

British governance made the traditional rules intermediaries between them and the people and allowed the people to retain their cultures. We may argue that this is to ensure that the people see them less as intruders but as partners with the traditional institutions already in place.

Well, the British knew exactly what they wanted; they needed the ignorance and timidity of the rulers and used this to their advantage. These rulers were only stooges and employees of the British administration. They had no mind of their own, an Oga Master and his servant case.

The elites and the educated members of the society were side-lined for fear that they would question certain policies. Chiefs and Kings welcomed their policies like a newborn baby, and only a few of them rejected this newborn policy and government. The latter were either banished or killed and then replaced, like the Jaja of Opobo and Nana Olomu. 

In the north, the political administration system was highly centralized and it had the full cooperation of the people. Islamic Religion recognizes obedience to traditional rulers, and a well-organised system of taxation as the money generated from the taxes was used for the running of the government by the British.

The Northern part of Nigeria is submissive, as the emir was the absolute ruler. An autocrat that the people feared and revered. The only change was that the emirs became a “boy-boy” to the British officials. It was easier for the indirect rule to thrive there. 

However, in the South, it was a little bit complicated. Southern Nigeria was not as homogenous as the North. It was divided mainly into the West and East. 

In the East, there was no centralized system of governance. Every man was a king in his own home. With the introduction of indirect rule in Nigeria, warrant chiefs, like Ahebi Ugbabe, were introduced to rule instead and collect taxes on behalf of the British. This development was met with great resistance from the people as they didn't see a reason to have a ruler. This resistance would later lead to a revolt - the Aba Women's Revolt in 1929.

The West on the other hand was on a middle ground. The indirect rule was partially successful due to the checks and balances inculcated in their political system. The Yoruba Obas were not absolute like in the North, thus, they were accountable to their people.

However, one thing in the favour of the indirect rule present in the Yoruba administration was the payment of taxes. The Yoruba people were already used to paying taxes, unlike in the East, where the people were not comfortable with it.

The major failure of the indirect rule in the West was that the Obas were devoid of Western education and did not understand the English language. This, the British used to their advantage in signing treaties in a language they didn't understand. However, some educated Yorubas, like Herbert Olayinka Macaulay, opposed the indirect rule and fought for nationalism.

The British, unlike the French, did not replace the culture of the people with their cultures, but, instead, used this to their benefit, enabling and developing the trust of the people.

The British in the quest to ensure a “balanced government” shot themselves in the leg and placed more powers than the traditional system granted. The chiefs became autocratic, greedy, and ruthless.

Even the few loyal chiefs were caught between serving the people as their representatives and obeying the British administration. They mostly preferred the latter to the former and it led to clashes between these chiefs and their people, especially in the east.

In summary, indirect rule was a kind of rule where existing tribal structures and traditions were used as channels for establishing rules and regulations while the British officials worked behind the scenes and could exercise veto power. In some cases, the British designated a person to act as "chief" in settings where there was no clear hierarchical structure in place.

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