October 30, 2020

How Colonial Rule Contributed to the Decline in the Power of Traditional Rulers in British West Africa

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Today, you will find the solution to the WASSCE Government question about how colonial rule contributed to the decline in the power of traditional rulers during the colonial period in British West Africa.


Below are the factors that were responsible for the decline in the powers of traditional rulers in British West Africa (Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone).

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1. Introduction of Indirect Rule

Indirect Rule was arguably the single most significant factor that led to the rapid decline in the power and prestige of traditional rulers in British West Africa.

Among other things, traditional rulers became subservient to the authority of the colonial administration.

Such powers as the power to raise and maintain an army, the power to preside over criminal trials and enforce capital punishment were taken away from them.

Traditional rulers in British West Africa now took instructions from the governor regarding many of their traditional functions.

2. Introduction of Christianity and Islam

The influence of religion especially, Christianity and Islam during the colonial period accounted for the decline in the power of traditional rulers.

Except for those who lived in villages, the colonials began to feel reluctant to go to the chief for advice or settlement of disputes.

Many colonials now turned to their church leaders for moral guidance and spiritual development

Moreover, natives who became Christians and Muslims now regarded certain customary practices such as libation and ancestral worship as fetish.

3. Provision of Social Amenities

The provision of social amenities by the central government is another factor that contributed to the erosion of the power of traditional rulers.

During the period of indirect rule in particular, the chief was responsible for the collection of taxes.

The traditional ruler was the one who determined which developmental projects should be undertaken and where.

The above privilege made them very powerful but at the same time corrupt. They never kept any proper accounts and started putting on an arrogant attitude.

The effect was that this new privilege lowered their prestige in the eyes of their subjects.

4. Introduction of Western Education

Furthermore, the introduction of Western education also contributed to the decline in the power of traditional rulers in British West Africa.  

The educated elite, in particular, began to resist the authority of their traditional rulers.

Read Also:

Why the Educated Elite Opposed Indirect Rule in British West Africa

The Difference Between Power, Authority and Leadership

Again, as more colonials received formal education, they started questioning many traditional norms and values of which the traditional rulers were custodians.

5. Power to Appoint and Destool Traditional Rulers

This was another factor that contributed to the decline in the power of traditional rulers in British West Africa.

Henceforth, the colonial governor exercised the power to appoint and destool chiefs.

Most of the chiefs were not legitimate traditional leaders.

Going by traditional practice, these people lacked the qualification to sit on the thrones they now occupied.

Their appointment was done, and only became effective, by gazette notices. In some cases, people who had no royal qualifications became so-called Warrant Chiefs under the authority of the colonial government.

Needless to say, the people never recognized such people as their legitimate rulers.


Thus, the traditional ruler who once commanded respect and absolute loyalty from his subjects lost his prestige due to the introduction of colonial rule and indirect rule in particular. In fact, by the time of the granting of self-rule to colonies in British West Africa, the chieftaincy institution had undergone a profound transformation never seen before.

Thank you!

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Photo by Marcelo Gerpe from FreeImages

Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph has a passion for the teaching and learning of Language and Literature mainly because these two help him to understand and appreciate why people act the way they do. Over the past two decades, he has coached over 5000 students and adult learners to achieve their educational goals. Ralph is the founder and CEO of Cegast Academy.

View all posts by Ralph Nyadzi →

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