Pre-Colonial Governance in British West African Territories

Before the arrival of colonial rule, the people of West Africa governed themselves through a system based on customs and traditions.


In this post, we shall examine what governance looked like in West Africa before the coming of the Europeans. By the end of this lesson, students should be able to discuss pre-colonial governance im British West African territories.

Precolonial Governance in West Africa

Before the arrival of colonial rule, the people of British West African territories, including Nigeria, governed themselves through a system based on customs, traditions, and local norms.

Image Credit: Michelle_Raponi on Pixabay.

The governance structure was deeply rooted in the culture and social organization of the various ethnic groups in the region. Here are the key aspects of pre-colonial governance in British West African territories:

  1. Customary Governance: The primary basis of governance was customary law and practices. Customary rules and norms governed various aspects of life, including social interactions, property rights, and resolving disputes.
  2. Paramount Chief at the Apex: The paramount chief held the highest authority in the administration of a community or ethnic group. They served as the supreme ruler and decision-maker.
  3. Chiefs and Council of Elders: Chiefs and council of elders played significant roles in governance. They were responsible for making laws and policies that affected their communities. These chiefs and elders acted as lawmakers.
  4. Age Grades Execution of Laws: Age grades, which were groups of individuals of the same age set, were responsible for enforcing the laws and regulations set by the chiefs and council of elders.
  5. Concentration of Powers: Traditional rulers and elders exercised legislative, executive, and judicial powers, without a clear separation of powers as seen in modern systems.
  6. Religious Functions and Checks on Power: Chief priests and secret societies had significant religious roles. They performed religious functions and also acted as checks on the arbitrary use of power by chiefs and leaders.
  7. Role of Queen Mothers and Palace Women: Queen mothers and palace women had important roles in the governance structure. They settled disputes among women and provided advice to the chiefs.
  8. Contributions of Commoners: Commoners, the ordinary people in the community, played essential roles in community development and defense through manual labor and other contributions.
  9. Revenue Collection: Revenue was raised through tributes and taxes levied on the members of the community. These funds were used to support the administration and communal projects.
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