Warrant Chiefs, Africa

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Warrant Chiefs, Africa

The British administrative system of indirect rule incorporated the indigenous elite in the administration of some African colonies. Although the powers of African collaborators have been exaggerated, British rule would have faced severe difficulties of finance and personnel if Africans were not employed to administer local regions. British officials were paid higher salaries and were available in very limited numbers.

In areas with centralized political institutions, such as the Buganda Kingdom in present-day Uganda and the Islamic emirates of northern Nigeria, the British employed a policy of indirect rule in which existing indigenous chiefs helped to govern Britain's African possessions. The indirect rule system was elevated to the level of an administrative ideology by Frederick Lugard (1858–1945), first colonial governor of Nigeria, and the system was applied vigorously to Nigeria and other colonial territories in Africa.

The warrant chief system emanated as a matter of necessity from the lack of preexisting chieftaincy traditions in some parts of Africa. There were parts of British colonial territories, such as the Igbo region of eastern Nigeria, which had no tradition of chieftaincy intuitions. The British appointed willing participants or collaborators and gave them "warrants" to act as local representatives of the British administration among their people. The French, Belgians, and Portuguese, practicing so-called direct administration, also appointed provincial chiefs to assistant in local administration. The appointment of warrant and provincial chiefs was an invention of traditions that have continued in different forms today.

The British failed to realize, however, that some parts of Africa were unfamiliar with the idea of "chiefs" or "kings." Among the Igbo, for example, decisions were made by protracted debate and general consensus. The new powers given to the warrant chiefs and enhanced by the native court system led to an exercise of power and authority unprecedented in precolonial times. Warrant chiefs also used their power to accumulate wealth at the expense of their subjects. Through this process, colonial officials tended to create or recreate a patriarchal society because only men were appointed as warrant chiefs.

The appointment of warrant chiefs created significant problems and engendered large-scale resentment among African people. The warrant chiefs were hated because they were corrupt and arrogant. One of the most important acts of resistance to the warrant chief system occurred among the Igbo of eastern Nigeria during the famous 1929 women's revolt in which thousands of peasant women protested against the introduction of taxes, the warrant chief system, and the low prices of agricultural produce emanating from the global depression of the late 1920s. The indirect rule and warrant chief systems were particularly foreign to existing political structures.

The women's protests, which started in Oloko Bende Division in eastern Nigeria, quickly spread throughout the Owerri and Calabar provinces, culminating in massive revolts called Ogu Umunwanyi or the "Women's War" among the Igbo. By December 1929, when troops restored order in the region, the women had destroyed ten native courts and damaged a number of others, and about fifty-five women were killed by the colonial troops. In addition, the houses of warrant chiefs and native court personnel were attacked, European factories at Imo River, Aba, Mbawsi, and Amata were looted, and prisons were attacked and prisoners released. The women called for the revocation of the warrant chief system, the removal of warrant chiefs whom they accused of high-handedness, bribery, and corruption, and their replacement with indigenous clan heads appointed by the people rather than by the British.

Throughout late December 1929 and early January 1930, the commission of inquiry set up to investigate the remote and immediate causes of the women's movement sat in over thirty locations throughout the eastern region to collect evidence and recommend punishment for the actors or their communities. Nevertheless, the 1929 Women's War brought about fundamental reforms in British colonial administration. The British finally abolished the warrant chief system and reassessed the nature of colonial rule among the natives of Nigeria. Several colonial administrators condemned the prevailing administrative system and agreed to the demand for urgent reforms based on the indigenous system. Court tribunals that incorporated the indigenous system of government that had prevailed before colonial rule were introduced to replace the old warrant chief system.

see also Britain's African Colonies; Igbo Women's War; Indirect Rule, Africa.


Afigbo, A. E. The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in South-Eastern Nigeria, 1891–1929. London: Longman, 1972.

Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of the Igbo People. London: Macmillan, 1976.