…the rigidities of these pre-colonial ethnic-based political centralisations explain the incapacity of some African states to exercise full authority over property rights, tax collection and the monopoly of violence till this day. Clearly, for better or worse, African ethnic institutions are a factor in its economic development. 


A high level of trust is a cultural trait associated with rich countries. A low level of trust has been observed among African populations. The historical origins of mistrust in Africa has been traced to the slave trade. “Individuals whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbours, relatives, and their local government.” The heterogeneity of African populations has also been attributed to for its relatively lower level of trust. This is because “heterogeneity increases the likelihood of mis-coordination and distrust, reducing cooperation and disrupting the socioeconomic order.” Little wonder, cultural affinities matter more than national institutions in Africa. When ethnic groups partitioned across different African countries were compared in one study, it was found that “there were no systematic differences in economic performance within split ethnicities whose partitions following independence would come to be subject to different national institutions.”

And even while colonialist choices still underpin the institutional framework of most African countries, they are not of the kind to bring about a positive change in values. This is not the case in general. A study shows that these institutional choices were correlated with the mortality rate of European colonialists. Where the colonialists faced high mortality rates, as they did in most of Africa, they set up extractive institutions (e.g. slave trade). Where they did not, like the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, they settled and set up institutions that enhanced growth factors like the rule of law and thus encouraged investments.

For instance,  the British colonialist divide-and-rule strategy has been found to be detrimental to state-building in its former African colonies. Unsurprisingly, former British African colonies place greater store in their ethnicity than their European-imposed national identity. There are some nuances in this regard, however. In areas close to capital cities, where incidentally European colonialists largely concentrated their developmental efforts, there is evidence of state capacity. But in areas far from capital cities, where state capacity is literally non-existent, ethnic insitutions prevail and hence explain why the economic performance of partitioned ethnicities are similar despite being under different national institutional arrangements.

For instance, using light density at night as a proxy for economic activity, one study finds a significant relationship between pre-colonial ethnic institutions (stateless ethnicities, petty chiefdoms, paramount chiefdoms, and pre-colonial states) and regional development in Africa. In other words, kingdoms, empires, chiefdoms and the like, that were in place before European colonisation continue to be relevant to African development. And the rigidities of these pre-colonial ethnic-based political centralisations explain the incapacity of some African states to exercise full authority over property rights, tax collection and the monopoly of violence till this day. Clearly, for better or worse, African ethnic institutions are a factor in its economic development. In light of these realities, ethnic institutions could very well be formalised to fill these gaps in state capacity.

The case of Botswana suggests colonialism is not an excuse, however. Parsons & Robinson (2004) show how the majority Tswana tribe of Botswana had a relatively egalitarian and accommodative political structure before the arrival of colonialists. Whereas tribal loyalties was a huge obstacle to state formation in many other African jurisdictions under colonialsim, and are adjudged to still be the case presently, the relative homogeneity of the Tswana’s pre-colonial political institutions in Botswana, which already integrated non-Tswana tribes almost seamlessly, made the transition to a unitary state almost a natural one.

Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

References are available at https://rafiqraji.com/2019/10/31/culture-development-the-case-of-africa/