Quarterly Journal of Political Science > Vol 15 > Issue 4

The Mechanisms of Direct and Indirect Rule: Colonialism and Economic Development in Africa

Natalie Wenzell Letsa, University of Oklahoma, USA, nwletsa@ou.edu , Martha Wilfahrt, University of California, Berkeley, USA, martha.wilfahrt@berkeley.edu
Suggested Citation
Natalie Wenzell Letsa and Martha Wilfahrt (2020), "The Mechanisms of Direct and Indirect Rule: Colonialism and Economic Development in Africa", Quarterly Journal of Political Science: Vol. 15: No. 4, pp 539-577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/100.00019086

Publication Date: 08 Oct 2020
© 2020 N. W. Letsa and M. Wilfahrt
Comparative Political Economy,  Political History,  Political participation
Political economy of developmentAfrican politicscolonial legacies


Download article
In this article:
Direct and Indirect Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa 
(In)Direct Rule and Economic (Under)Development: Three Mechanisms 
The Creation of Cameroon's Dual Colonial Legacy 
Research Design 
Robustness Checks 


A number of studies have found that British colonialism — specifically its policy of indirect rule — improved local economic development relative to the French policy of direct rule. There is less consensus, however, as to why indirect rule would produce better economic outcomes. This article proposes three mechanisms linking indirect rule to development: the devolution of power to local communities, the empowerment of traditional authorities, and the reification of ethnic identities. Using a geographic regression discontinuity research design on Cameroon's internal anglophone-francophone border, a legacy of the country's dual colonial heritage, the article finds the most evidence for the first mechanism, that citizens on the anglophone side of the border are more likely to act locally and, indeed, see their local institutions as more legitimate. In contrast, we find mixed evidence for the other two mechanisms regarding the power of chiefs and ethnic identities.