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Warren Whatley

The Origins of Customary Authority in Sub-Saharan Africa

Project Summary


A dominant narrative in economics and political science is that sub-Saharan Africa is poor because it lacks the kinds of economic and political institutions that have incentivized growth and prosperity in the modern era. Local customary authority is a prominent example. It is wide-spread in Africa, has authority over the local allocation of resources and challenges federalism. Traditionally thought to be colonial in origin, recent econometric studies have identified pre-colonial origins stretching as far back as the slave trade era. These statistical studies, however, do not explain how pre-colonial authority structures passed through the colonial era. This project fills this gap in our understanding by collecting new spatial data on the penetration of colonial influence in Africa, data that will allow us to document how colonialism influenced the contours of the kinds of customary authority we see in Africa today - who does it represent and what are the sources of its legitimacy?


We build on two influential and recent empirical findings: (1) that the customary authority structures of pre-colonial African kingdoms are still operative today and continue to influences resource allocation at the local level; and (2) that people from ethnicities raided for slaves in the distant past are less trusting of customary authority today. We have run preliminary regressions to follow these pre-colonial “origins” through colonialism. We find that (1) the political and economic institutions of hierarchical kingdoms were not much affected by colonialism, including the institution of slavery; and (2) the slavery-induced mistrust of customary authority that we see today is confined to respondents whose ethnic groups were parts of hierarchical kingdoms in the past. These exploratory regressions, along with documentary evidence from the British Colonial Office, lead us to believe that colonial authorities used the local political authority of hierarchical kingdom to secure the cheap labor needed to build out the colonial infrastructure (railroads, roads, telegraph, schools, hospitals, etc.), and in the process strengthened customary authorities and transformed it from one more-representative of the peoples into one more-representative of the colonial state.


This project will collect new data on the British colonial infrastructure (from the British colonial Blue Books and the maps in the British Annual Reports) that will allow us to see: (1) if colonial infrastructure favored hierarchical kingdoms; (2) if this is a reason why these areas are more developed today; and (3) if this colonial experience is a source of the mistrust of customary authority today. The method of analysis is regression analysis of a time-series of spatial “snapshots” of African communities that spans the period 1500-2008. These snapshots will be stored in the Africa Explorer, which will become the centerpiece of a growing online repository of educational and research resources on Africa.