Professor Chinua Achebe of blessed memory, once questioned: “Does the white man understand the custom of our land? How can he, when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our brothers who have taken up his religion also give same condemnation”. How possible then can we (Africans) confront this misconception when our own brothers have turned against us? The white is undoubtedly, very clever. He came peaceably on the platform of religion. Africans never took this serious, thereby allowing him a foothold. He succeeded in tricking our brothers, resulting in our disunity as a people. The things that held us together have been torn into shreds. We have fallen apart.
Pa Chinua Achebe
A chief or a group of chiefs from a given community or village were given warrants or “certificates of recognition”, which empowered them to become the sole (executive) heads of their local communities. They were entitled to being invited in the trial of cases in their “Native Courts”, established under the system. This warrant chief system began as a matter of necessity due to the lack of pre-existent chieftaincy tradition in most parts of Africa. Such part of British African colonial territories including the Eastern region of Nigeria, had no tradition of chieftaincy institutions. The British, spotting this out, appointed willing vessels (collaborators) who were given “warrants” to act as their local administrative representatives amongst the indigenous people.
The French, Belgians and Portuguese who adopted the practice of “direct administration” in their African colonies, also appointed “provincial chiefs”, to assist in local administration. The appointment of these warrant and provincial chiefs, was an invention of strange traditions that have remained persistent in the continent. The British failed to realize however, that the introduction and adoption of the ideology of “chiefs” or “kings” in some of the African colonies were strange phenomenon. Amongst the Igbos for instance, decisions were made through general debates and consensus. The powers given to the warrant chiefs which were enhanced by the native court system, really led to an exercise of power and authority, unprecedented during pre-colonial years.
The warrant chiefs also employed their powers in amassing wealth for themselves at the expense of their subjects. Through this process, the colonialists tended to create a patriarchal society due to the fact that only men were so appointed. These appointments threw up significant problems, thereby engendering large scale resentment among the African people even up till date. These warrant chiefs were hated because of their corrupt and arrogant antecedents. No wonder, A. E. Afigbo stated that : “The Warrant Chiefs generally, were unscrupulous and grasping, and were not averse to luring unsuspecting simple folks into bootless litigation, by promising to lend them often, at exorbitant rates, the money with which to pursue litigations”.
One of the most important acts of resistance to this warrant chief system of administration, was especially what transpired amongst the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria during the famous 1929 women’s revolt. Thousands of these peasant women strongly resisted in protest, the obnoxious introduction of taxes by these British appointed warrant chiefs and the low prices of agricultural produce that arose from the global economic depression of the 1920s. The indirect rule and warrant chiefs administrative systems were particularly foreign to the then existing political structures.
According to Van Stenseel, “This system was for the good of the colonial rulers, who sought peace and favorable circumstances for trading. But it was not for the good of the population. The warrant chiefs became so corrupted and misused their powers. The court clerks sometimes became even richer than the warrant chiefs as they were completely in charge of the records. The British colonialists never paid much attention to complaints, because they needed the chiefs to run their government”. This is yet what Africans suffer today in the hands of these warrant chiefs known as politicians. It is most unfortunate that these men seem to have forgotten that political power is only given to those who possess it primarily for the benefit of those who entrusted them with such. They have turned such a gesture into fleecing means against the populace, destroying the very life-supporting structures of the society. They have turned political power into a license for financial/ administrative recklessness and egoistic aggrandisement, at the detriment of a grossly impoverished populace.
Different States are presently collapsing because they are ruled by what I may term “extractive economic institutions, as orchestrated by these Fredrick Lugard’s “Warrant Chiefs”, which destroy incentives, discourage innovation, indulge in wasting the talents of citizens and robbing them of opportunities. These warrant chiefs are not in place by mistake but on purpose. Their appointments are for the benefit of the British colonialists who massively gain from this subsisting criminal extraction. Such comes in form of valuable mineral resources, forced labor or designed elongated monopoly. The elites benefit from rigged political institutions too, welding their powers to tilt the system to their favor. These evil “warrant chiefs” knowned as politicians have placed their knives on the things that bound us together as a people and we have equally fallen for it, hence the center could no longer hold. But the only antidote to this, yet remains that we for strongly utilize this knowledge and proactively put in place, measures that will facilitate our freedom from their encagements.
Written by Obulose Chidiebere N.
Edited by Peter Oshagwu