The British Empire Library

Le Commandant En Tournee - Une administration au contact des populations en Afrique Noire coloniale

Edited by Francis Simonis

Courtesy of OSPA

C W Squire (Nigeria 1953-59, later Ambassador to Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Guinea (Conakry) 1979-82)
There are many studies contrasting the theory and practice of France and Britain in the days of their African empires. This is not one of them. The purpose of this fascinating book is to give voice to the experience of generations of French colonial administrators who have now passed from the scene. It does this by looking at the role of the touring Commandant de Cercle (District Officer/Provincial Commissioner) in French African territories from the 1900's to the 1950's.

The book consists of an historical analysis of the purposes of touring and its results in practice, coupled with a selection of government circulars on the how, when and why of touring, some formal touring reports, and the whole illuminated by some vivid personal first hand accounts of life and events on tour. This approach provides an admirable perspective from conquest to independence.

The official French point of view on touring was clear from the early beginnings and did not really change until politics gradually took over in the post WWII period. A 1906 circular from the Lieutenant Governor in Bamako set out "... the advantages ... of direct contact (with the local population) ... in contrast with administering a territory from the local HQ through intermediaries like chiefs or other agents ..." He goes on to emphasise the importance of palabres (village meetings addressed by the Commandant in person) in bringing home to the general population the advantages of French rule.

A few years later Van Vollenhoven, the Governor General of French West Africa in Dakar, wrote in a circular of 1917 of "... the necessity of maintaining contact with the local population by constant touring ... there must be no intermediaries between the Commandant de Cercle and the natives..."

Contrast this with Lord Lugard's Memoranda to Political Officers issued in Nigeria in 1906. Whilst equally commending the need for "constant touring" the Memoranda give a different reationale, emphasizing the political rather than the administrative role. Because of the vast extent of the territory "... it is obvious that we cannot in any sense administer it. We must utilize the existing machinery (native chiefs) and endeavour only to improve it".

Despite such differences in approach, the desire to communicate with the general population is evident. Yet the emphasis on palabres as official French theory directed was rendered problematic at an elementary level by the use of interpreters. There was no equivalent in French territory to the requirement universal in British territories that proficiency in the local language was a condition of promotion. One cannot help thinking that the aim of 'direct communication' here gave way to the higher imperative of the spread of the French language.

Other difficulties arose from limitations in staffing and resources. The fiscal principle had early been established that territories had to be self-financing. This both set a limit on resources available, and high-lighted the role of touring officer as tax collector in the eyes of the local people.

Though the rights of the conqueror were clear, some touring officers found it difficult to reconcile the official line on the benefits of French rule received by the local communities in return for the taxes they paid. Nevertheless it was a constant concern of colonial administrators to justify their continuing rule in terms of an implied contract between the governors and the governed.

It would be interesting to consider how far modern African governments have the same concern to justify their rule in terms of benefits flowing to local communities. In some countries, control through access to military technology has replaced dialogue; in other mineral-rich countries royalties or export earnings from foreign companies has replaced the need to collect general taxes from the population, and hence the need to justify such tax collection. An important link between the governed and the government is thus removed.

Perhaps the Commandant on Tour, despite his military origins, represented after all an important attempt to govern with the consent of the governed.

British Empire Book
Francis Simonis
Seli Arslan
2 84276 113 8


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