Indirect rule in Nigeria

Indirect rule in Nigeria: What is Indirect rule ?

Indirect rule was a system of governance used by the British and French to control parts of their colonial empires by using preexisting traditional ruler. These dependencies were often called “protectorates” or “trucial states”. By this system, the day-to-day government and administration of areas both small and large were left in the hands of traditional rulers.

Indirect rule in Nigeria

This system was introduced by Frederick Lugard considered as the father of Indirect rule. He assumed the position of high commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1900. He had served in India, Egypt, and East Africa, where he expelled slave traders. Lugard strongly believed that indirect rule was the ideal and only policy for the advancement of Nigeria. Consequently, in 1914, the Colonial Office officially declared indirect rule as the administrative policy in Colonial Nigeria with Lugard as Governor-General. So British colonial officials used the Nigerian traditional rulers as a way to enforce their policies and control the people. Since the traditions of the Nigerian people was respected by the British officials, the system was successful but to some extents.

But why Indirect rule ?

  1. Indirect Rule was a cheaper form of Administration.
  2. There was lack of trained European Staff to rule the vast territory.
  3. High possibility of native rebellion.
  4. The Existence of a well Established traditional Administration.
  5. High rate of illiteracy.

See also Why did Britain adopt Indirect Rule ?

But why was this policy successful in some territories as well as unsuccessful in others ? Firstly, we will talk about the reason it succeeded.

Why was Indirect rule Successful in Northern Nigeria ?

The system was highly successful in the northern parts of Nigeria. It was possible because

  1. There was already the existence of an efficient centralized system of traditional administration headed by an Emir. They were obeyed without being questioned by their people and this was really beneficial to Lugard.
  2. The existence of a native judicial system which applied Islamic law in the administration of justice.
  3. The existence of an efficient taxation system long before the introduction of Indirect Rule.
  4. It did not threaten, interfere with the traditional authority of the emirs.
  5. Lord Lugard also did not interfere with the Islamic religion.
  6. There was little opposition to Indirect Rule from the people of Northern Nigeria.
  7. The indirect system was economical for the British government.

How about Western Nigeria ?

The system was partially successful in the western part of Nigeria due to the existence of a balanced precolonial political system. Equally, the educated elite claimed that the British officials intently used the uneducated, who could not oppose any decisions. In addition to that the educated elite were not recognized hence could not be involved in administration issues.

Why did Indirect rule Failed in the Southern part ?

Since the indirect rule policy was quite successful in the northern part, it was then replicated to other parts of British west Africa like southern Nigeria. But unfortunately the system was unsuccessful due to:

  1. The System was not suitable Them.
    The administrative structure that existed in southern Nigeria was not eligible for indirect rule. Although it was well organized, the people were not used to a powerful Oba (a king)
  2. Presence of educated elite in southern Nigeria.
    A considerable number of educated elite lived in southern Nigeria and they constantly kept an eye on the British officials. These educated elite, some of whom were lawyers and journalists, were British-trained. They opposed the policies of the British if it was found to be detrimental to the interest of the local people. That is why the indirect rule did not succeed in southern Nigeria.
  3. There were no powerful chief.
    In southern Nigeria, especially among the Igbos, there were no chief with absolute powers as in northern Nigeria. Chiefs in Igboland ruled with a Council of Elders. As a result decisions were taken based on the discussions that were held there.
  4. Appointment of Warrant Chiefs.
    Since there was no chief, the British official appointed any local person to play the role. These chiefs were clothed with wide powers. Since this was in contradiction with the traditional politics of the area the people refused accept indirect rule.
  5. Other reasons were the non participation of educated elite and the absence of traditional system of taxation.


However, some people considered indirect rule as a way to exploit, use and control Nigeria. While some natives believed that Nigeria could gain more education, stability and freedom through it.



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