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Mar 16, 2020
Colonial Government through Direct
Rule: The French Model
ROBERT DELAVIGNETTE *
When I was head of a subdivision on the Upper Volta, I went on tour in the first months of my stay, and landed un- expectedly in a distant village, little visited. The chief gave me a good reception. I came back there two years later, at the end of my tour, and had a still better reception. The chief, however, did not seem to me to be the same man. I had before me an old man, while it was a young man who had received me the first time, and I recognized him, stand- ing behind the old man. I asked the two of them why the chieftainship of the village had passed from the one to the other without my being told of it. The old man said to me: "He whom you see behind me was in front of me," and he explained, "It is I who am the chief, today as the other time, and in front of this man, as behind him. But two years ago we did not know you, and he showed himself in my place." It is not unusual to fail to recognize the real chief right away, but it makes one stop and think. And I propose to analyze the machinery of our administration through the chiefs, bearing this incident in mind.
In all territorial administration, the native chiefs act as cogwheels between the colonial authority and the native peoples. In French West Africa, which is a federation of
* From Robert Delavignette, Freedom and Authority in French West Africa (London, 1940).
Adaptations to Colonial Government 7 9
colonies, the supreme authority in each colony is vested in the governor. Within the colony, authority is exercised, in the name of the governor and under his control, by the commandants of districts ( cercles) ; the cercle may be divided into subdivisions, but nevertheless it constitutes the administrative unit, and the commandant of a cercle repre- sents the administrative authority. How does the govern- ment, which is centered in the cercle, establish relations with the native peoples? This is precisely the function of the cercle. It is the motor mechanism which directly en- gages with the native machinery, the canton, which in tum sets in motion a certain number of villages. Colony and cercle on the one hand, cercle, canton, and village on the other, these are the interlocking parts of the administrative machinery. Commandants of cercles and heads of subdivi- sions belong to the Colonial Administrative Service, 1 and to the Civil Service of the Federation of French West Africa. Chiefs of cantons and villages are the native chiefs properly so-called, and by abbreviation "the Chiefs."
In French West Africa, which is eight times the area of France and comprises a population of fifteen million, the territorial administration is like a power current passing from the 118 cercles to the 2,200 cantons and the 48,000 villages. The native policy that affects fifteen million men depends to a considerable degree on the character of the 118 cercle commandants and their collaborators and the 50,000 native chiefs.2 Native policy is worth what they are worth. It is what their relations with each other and with the native peoples make it.
The importance of these relations must be thoroughly understood. The cercle is only a motor mechanism so long as it is a transformer of energy. The commandant of the cercle is not truly a commander except in so far as he can understand the chiefs and get a hearing from them. If his
1. In 1937 there were 385 Colonial Administrators in French West Africa, half of them posted to offices at headquarters in each colony.
2. See the chart on pp. 80-81.
80 COLONIAL AFRICA
Chieftainships in the Colonies of
Provincial chiefs, or Canton chiefs, or chiefs of a group of chiefs of tribes cantons or tribes
SENEGAL 2 135 (auxiliary chiefs, temporary chiefs, chiefs, deputy chiefs)
Circonscription of DAKAR and 1 dependencies
MAURITANIA 3 50
SOUDAN 1 paramount chief, 719 8 provincial chiefs or
chiefs of a group of tribes
NIGER 3 183
DAHOMEY 5 161 (known as chefs
IVORY COAST 10 516 canton chiefs, 62 tribal chiefs,
117 chiefs of groups of tribes
Totals 32 2,206
Adaptations to Colonial Government 8 1
French West Africa
Village chiefs or assimilated to that status: (48,049)
Ordinary I Independent
Assimilated (Ward chiefs)
Dependent I Independent Divisions Divisions
819 village chiefs, or chiefs of divisions or sub-divisions
6,585 I 5
9 (mixed communes of Konakry and Kankan)
3,494 I 20
47,147 145 95
82 COLONIAL AFRICA
authority is to be effective he has to work through the chiefs, in daily contact with them. And this brings me back to what happened to me : authority is like a force running to waste if it contacts a false chief instead of finding the real one. And among the hundred-odd villages of the dozen cantons of my subdivision, I had at least once lost my au- thority.
What, then, are the characteristics of a real native chief? As a rule, the chiefs are studied according to the classifi-
cation used by the administration: first of all the village chief, then the canton chief, sometimes a chief of a prov- ince, more rarely still a great chief whom we call king or emperor. But this is merely an account of the hierarchy of authority among the chiefs, and not a definition of the chiefly power itself. But the power of a chief may be defined in relation to its quality rather than its extent; it may hap- pen, for example, that an ordinary village head-man wields more power in his village than a chief of a province in his province. Instead of considering chiefs in relation to the hierarchy in which we place them, let us consider their authority as it is exercised in relation to their own territory. And let us remember that the real chief does exist, though he may be concealed.
Chiefs like the one I saw the first time in the village where I learned my lesson are, so to speak, more or less men of straw. They play the part which, in certain big de- partment stores, is assigned to the employee who has to receive the complaints of short-tempered customers. At any demand from the administration-tax, labor service, re- cruiting, census, new crops to be tried-the fake chief is put forward. On him will fall the wrath of a hoodwinked administration.
Canton chiefs rarely have "straw chiefs." Obviously it is more difficult for them than for village chiefs to hide themselves and mislead the administration. But, more than this, it seems that after fifty years of colonization, the spir- itual quality of native power has left the big chiefs to take
Adaptations to Colonial Government 8 ~
refuge with the small ones, who have not been so mud affected by European influence.
The canton is in most cases a former feudal province turned into an administrative district. The village, on the other hand, is not an administrative creation. It is still ~ living entity. And, in spite of appearances, it is the village chief who retains the ancient, intrinsically African au- thority.
It does not matter if the chief is old, infirm or blind; the essential thing is that he should be there. If necessary h can take a young and active man as his colleague. If he i illiterate and has some difficulty in dealing with natives educated in our schools, let him be given clerks and assist- ants. Only one thing counts, and it does not depend on edu- cation, age or health: that is the sacred character of his power. In the old Africa, the community which the chief represents lives in him and there can be no life without a supernatural element. Hence the force which binds the peo- ple to the chief; hence the ritual which permeates social unity and solidarity, which orders the form of greeting ad- dressed by the people to the chief and gives a religious sanction to the authority of the humblest village chief, the chief of the cultivated and inhabited land.
What principles of action in colonial administration can be drawn from these facts? We must proceed, so to speak, from the "straw chief" to the chief of the land, who seems indeed to be the product of the land itself, and it is almost always in the village that he is to be found. Thus we are driven to make an important distinction between the vil- lage chief and the chief of a canton.
As the village chief derives from a primitive feudal Africa based on the holding of land, so the chief of a canton be- longs to modern Africa, and is part of the mechanism of colonial administration.
The administration nominates all chiefs, whoever they may be and in all circumstances. The most frequent case is also the simplest; the government has only to follow native
84 COLONIAL AFRICA
custom, which varies from hereditary succession to elec- tion, according to the locality.
Greater care is needed where there is no hereditary dy- nasty or well-established rule to take into account. There are two cases to be considered: either the chief will be drawn from the country, or from outside. Except in very rare cases the village chief will never come from outside. If the family which provided the village head has died out, it is still from within the area that the branch must be chosen which will bear the new chief. And if the whole village is awakening to a new life, it will be possible to