The British Empire Library

Colonial Administration In Africa Between Central Policy And Local Reality

Edited by Erik Volkmar Heyen

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr C W Squire (N Nigeria 1953-59.)
This valuable collection of essays brings together papers on the differing approaches of European powers to the administration of colonies in the period 1890-1960; and contrasts these policies with realities on the ground as seen in the lives and careers of individual officers.

The essays discuss the differing ways both of organizing a colonial administration, and of defining its role. They describe, in a thought provoking way and with a wealth of concrete examples, how the aims and principles laid down by the metropolitan power are translated and modified when confronted by realities on the ground. The examples are drawn mostly but not exclusively from Africa, reflecting the immense variety of peoples, language and geography of that continent. Thus the reader can see the differences as well as the common features of colonial administrations in territories as varied as the old German colony of South West Africa, French West Africa and the Belgian Congo in the period before WWI. There are also articles on the Portuguese and Italian Ministries of the Colonies.

One valuable contribution of this collection lies in the different ways in which problems common to all colonial powers are dealt with: the tensions between the metropolitan government and the colonial administration (J Vandelinden on The Government of the Belgian Congo 1908-1960); the differences in handling the local administration of the Eingeborene ” indigenous population in German East Africa and South West Africa; the blend of French and British colonial organization discussed in Guido Melis’ article on The Italian Ministry of the Colonies.

A British reader brought up to think of indirect rule as a primarily British device, originating in the Indian Native States in the Nineteenth Century and developed particularly by Lord Lugard in Nigeria in the early Twentieth Century, may be surprised to see the concept discussed and used in some form in German East Africa, Rwanda and Burundi and parts of French West Africa as well.

A particular feature of this collection is the treatment of the work of individual colonial administrators on the ground. Again, the range of material is wide, from the case studies of individuals in French Sub-Sahara in J-P Royer’s article on The colonial administrator as ''Jack of all trades'’ to Anthony Kirk-Greene’s discussion of the British district officer, which uses one man’s background motivation and career to illuminate a generation. The British emphasis on ‘all round qualities’ when selecting and training future administrators is paralleled by the importance attached to the “qualities morals indispensable” by successive directors of the Belgian University Institute of Overseas Territories (L. De Clerck p.l92).

There are some particularly good quotes from reports and diaries of the early French administrations. What strikes this reviewer are features of the French administrator’s life which would be instantly recognizable even to someone coming relatively late to colonial administration in a British territory. For instance, the emphasis on the importance of touring. Of course the means vary and change from the early days of pacification in the late Nineteenth Century to the pre-independence period of the 1960s, paralleled in the transition from bush paths and tracks to laterite and even tarmac roads. There are descriptions here of touring by bullock cart with a retinue of bearers, police and medical staff. But even post WWII the horse (and the bicycle) was still a valuable means of transport for the touring officer. What stayed the same was the ethos which saw direct contact with ordinary life in the villages as essential to the formation of good judgment in the touring officer, and to his ability to interpret and implement policy in the light of local circumstances.

Perhaps the most vivid passages in this collection relate to the careers and individual experiences, particularly of the first generation of administrators. Few in number and often spread over vast areas (in 1910 there were 140 territorial administrators for the whole of the Belgian Congo), civilian administrators often had to manage difficult relationships with the military as well as with the expatriate commercial interests.

One Commandant de Cercle in Timbo, French Guinea, in 1898 criticised the penal methods used by his military colleagues to enforce ‘discipline’ on the local population. He says of the captain in charge of the local military contingent: “Le coup de corde lui est familier”. The district officer, as representative of the civil power, had to fight hard to confine the military to disciplining the soldiers, and not to use summary justice on the civil population (J-P Royer, p.225).

This is not a book which aims to discuss the ends of policy or the evolution of European colonial policies as the era of independence approached. Nevertheless remarks of early administrators make clear some of the benefits they saw themselves as providing “... Le role pacificateur et les avantages ... de notre justice impartiale et gratuite” . The colonial administrator was seen as an “ambassadeur de la civilization frangaise et des valeurs de la Republique”. Lord Lugard expresses essentially the same idea, less grandiloquently, in speaking of the role of political officer as to “educate (the Native Chiefs) in the duties of Rulers according to a civilized standard ...(to end) a system which holds the lower classes in a state of slavery or serfdom... and to incalculate the unspeakable benefit of justice, free from bribery and open to all”.

Such sentiments and the concomitant emphasis on the preservation of law and order, which might have been greeted with cynicism a generation ago, take on a new value in the light of the breakdown of civil society in many parts of Africa in the post-colonial period.

Critics of the colonial period have seen the slogan of ‘Philanthropy and Five Per Cent’ as far too favourable a characterization of the aims of the colonial power. Yet alongside the aspirations of the early bush DO to end slave raiding and slave trading, to do away with violence, bribery and corruption, it is difficult not to sense the silent assent of those forgotten village meetings.

For all the emphasis on economic development in the post WWII period leading up to independence, the main articulated request of the local western educated elites was for the transfer of political control. Successive British governments responded to this by the drafting of ‘Westminster’ style constitutions. It was recognized that the timescale was short; in Nigeria barely 60 years or three generations. But it was politically incorrect (although the term was not yet current) to query whether other powerful cultural forces such as family, ethnic solidarity, religion and education - not to mention economic resources - were in place to ensure the successful transplantation of a political system assumed to be the expression of universal human rights.

Contemporary events elsewhere have shown the shortcomings of policies whereby outside governments, neglecting local factors and institutions, seek to impose ‘democracy’ on societies with complex social, political and religious institutions of their own. In the colonial era under discussion, and with few exceptions, the withdrawal of the colonial powers from Africa exposed the political institutions they had sought to build as fragile experiments, unable to sustain the transfer and exercise of power through stable institutions. There must be a lesson here for those who seek to bring democracy by force of arms to societies suffering from evil rulers.

British Empire Book
Erik Volkmar Heyen
Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and Co KG
978 3 8329 2333 4


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