A Review of “European Colonization and the Corruption of Local Elites – The Case of Chiefs in Africa”, by Merima Ali, Odd-Helge Fjeldstad and Abdulaziz B Shifa, “Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization”, November 2020

By Peter O’Brien

Colonization was about generating profits from the territories colonized, and creating methods for channeling those profits to the metropolitan centers. Efficient operation of the system required, to greater or lesser degree, co-opting those already in positions of power and influence in the places colonized. Very frequently, local chiefs constituted the key group which had to be used. The British chose to leave substantial autonomy to the chiefs, thereby offering them lucrative scope to shape everything from land allocation to the practical implementation of “justice” in ways which could ensure substantial financial benefits to the chiefs themselves. In return, however, the critical dimension of accountability was transformed – the chiefs were effectively rendered accountable to the Crown instead of the people in their localities. Where France was the colonizing power, the approach was quite different. Chiefs were, for most intents and purposes, made into servants of the French administration, carrying out tasks assigned to them but with most decision power retained by the Colonial authorities. Hence the scope for corruption conducted by chiefs was, in principle, greater under colonization by the British than by the French.

A Legacy of Corruption?

There are two major interpretations of these differing ways of organization of power and accountability. The first concerns the question of whether the British or the French methods of colonization left a heavier legacy of corruption. A frequent response has centered on the so –called “legal origins” argument. This states that the common law system, with its relatively strong guarantees of the security of property ownership, offers better protection against abusive behavior, including corrupt behavior, by the State and its officials. Thus a conclusion has been drawn that the British system was less damaging.  Put differently, it is asserted that countries which were colonized by France were left more vulnerable to post-colonial corruption.

The second takes a different tack. I will formalize it as follows. In many African countries, though certainly not all, the structure of the post-colonial State and the choice of those running it drew quite substantially on power systems that had been central in pre-colonial history. Where, as in countries colonized by Britain, the earlier structures had in effect been reinforced, the post-colonial architecture actually offered major prospects for corruption to flourish. Thus, this analysis suggests the opposite conclusion – quite possibly a British-influenced past left a heavier legacy risk of corruption.

In their detailed and valuable contribution, Professors Ali, Fjeldstadt and Shifa offer a careful examination of the evidence. They concentrate on a sample of 21 African countries, of which 12 were under British colonial rule and 9 under French rule. Cameroon, a country where German as well as both British and French rule existed in different regions, is excluded. Namibia, under German rule till 1919 and thereafter effectively under South African control, is included. Since their core subject is the corruption vulnerability left by different colonizers (the British and the French), they have to find a way of linking present to past. This they do by taking the rich findings of Afrobarometer surveys (using two different years to check robustness and longevity of perceptions), which give us information about perceptions held by representative samples of the populations, to derive evidence of how people view chiefs now.

The two core issues are the extent to which chiefs are perceived as corrupt, and the degree to which they are trusted. Simple indices are constructed to represent the degrees of corruption and trust. The authors then employ a very wide range of control variables (meticulously selected and frequently ingeniously measured) to ensure, to the degree possible, that their empirical findings do indeed demonstrate that the perceived corruptibility is in fact significantly greater in the ex-British colonies. The control variables allow for factors including differences in resources of perceived value across regions and countries, distances from the sea (thereby thinking of export possibilities in the valuation of deals), and countless others. The study is also careful to allow for “border regions”, ones where ethnic groups were effectively split when colonial borders were drawn (an aside in the study reminds us that 44% of colonial borders in Africa were straight lines). Results from the various statistical tests performed suggest that the differences of perception are substantial and very real. In countries ruled by the British, people perceive things to be worse, both in terms of corruption and trust.  In short, the legal origins interpretation suggesting the opposite is strongly contradicted by the evidence. This example of cliometrics (the application of statistical and econometric methods to historical issues) is successful.

Peter’s Take & the “Long Arm of History”…

I would argue that the study provides critical insights into the problems we have with corruption today. The following paragraphs enumerate those insights.

First and foremost, the nature, type and form which corruption takes in any place is certainly a function of many things. But among them, the history plays a central role. History explains the contours of power, who exercises it, and how. Assuming that a specific location has valuable assets to offer (minerals, agricultural land, advantageous fiscal systems, large and recurrent public procurement contracts), there will be fierce competition to acquire control, full or conditioned, over them. The higher the estimated returns from obtaining rights over those assets, the more risks the economic agents will take.

The legal risk of being discovered to have engaged in corruption to obtain favorable decisions from the authorities exists today in almost every country in Africa (though there remain quite wide divergences in the extent of that risk – the scope of the law and how it is actually implemented varies substantially from country to country). If an economic operator has access to those who can both influence the decision and minimize the legal risk, so much the better. The authors of this study have underlined that the colonial legacy in terms of where the locus of influence/power lies remains a genuine factor affecting decision making.

Second, history seems to have a long arm. The 21 countries in the sample have all been independent for several decades. Of the people whose perceptions were analyzed, it is more or less certain than a substantial percentage of them were born after their country had become independent. Furthermore, the chiefs of today are, mostly, descendants of those in colonial times. The poor perception of them may, in certain cases, be due to events which have occurred recently and thus based on real experiences of the respondents (if this is the case, then the corruption indicator should register more strongly than the trust indicator). Yet if that is not the case, then the burden of history certainly weighs against them. Their ancestors were considered to be “corruption tempted” – and they have not been able to free themselves from that stigma.

Assessment of the legacy burden is delicate for two further reasons, both of which affect assessment of corruption today. In more or less all societies, there appear to be perceptions that people in positions of power and influence (whether public or private) are highly likely to be in some degree corrupt. Put differently: the scale of measurement rarely starts at zero. When colonization existed, persons from the colonized country who were closely involved with the governing power were almost certainly regarded with great suspicion by their fellow citizens. Are today’s perceptions worse than they were in those times? The answer is – we don’t know. Bits of pieces of anecdotal evidence are available in various countries. They can suggest some responses. But systematic evidence is not at all easy to come by.

Corruption occurs at many levels, with risk/reward combinations shifting dramatically according to circumstances. Crudely categorized, in many countries we have to cope with three broad situations. One relates to major activities, such as a multi-year license for a minerals contract. A second comes from constant risks of conflicts of interest affecting public figures (politicians, civil servants). A third is what is often labelled as “petty corruption”, a regular stream of things where small sums of money are paid to administrators to ensure that forms are signed, items are stamped, and so on.

It is very hard to know in detail whether the “morphology of corruption” was markedly different in colonial times from what it is today. It seems probable that petty corruption, almost everywhere, has always been with us. Its frequency may not have been too much different as between the French and British systems. Where the observed departures occurred, were most likely in the two larger scale types of corruption. It is perhaps there that, under the British, the chiefs had much more opportunity to collect illicit earnings.

Third, networking is critical to successful corruption (and likewise often critical to its discovery – a type of networking usually labelled “international cooperation”). Networks take time, often a long time, to create. They need their own forms of trust, where perpetrators of corruption tend to show  a strong preference for working with those they have known for years. Now the people they work with are of two different types, come from two different places. One is the group close to home. This alone may be sufficient for corruption where the gains can be realized just through operating in your home country. If, however, the gains depend on links with external agents, then trust in them becomes critical to collecting the profits.

Let’s apply this to Britain, France, and corruption in Africa today. Most of the headline cases (what Americans might call “big ticket items”) of corruption in fact involve trans-continental networks. While, increasingly, such schemes bring in other non-African countries (China, Russia, India, the Gulf States), Britain and France continue to play important roles. It is possible that, in this category, the more “statist” historical approach of France might weigh as heavily as that of Britain. Yet whichever it may be, the important point is that the historical links remain very valuable in the chains of corruption.

Fourth, the study suggests just how vital detailed mapping of the “decision terrain” is to efforts to prevent corruption. So much time and energy today are expended on trying to sort out corruption that has already occurred, while the corresponding use of resources to try and prevent corruption risks is disappointingly small. The past decade in Africa saw a focus on producing laws, and in some instances creating institutions to support their implementation, that might hike the commercial and criminal penalties for corruption, should it be detected. Yet an anti-corruption culture can only be developed through vaccinating people and institutions against the contagion. For there to be any hope of significant progress along that road, mapping of the decision terrain is essential. Corruption stems from the institutional structure, and that structure is a product of the past.

Fifth, the study tackles the question of the past-present bridge by using perceptions (just as Transparency International and many others do) as a proxy for assessing the legacy burden. In my view, the authors have better justification for so doing than is the case in much other work on corruption. Why? In OECD countries, for example, there is actually a great deal of data, coming from legal decisions, public enquiries, investigative work undertaken by NGOs and think tanks, which provides solid evidence on what has been going on, and on what is going on. Comparisons of vulnerability to corruption can therefore be made to an important degree on the basis of factual knowledge, rather than perception surveys.

For the moment, this type of evidence is more scant in most African countries. Of course it would be ideal to have very precise case material about the involvement of chiefs in corruption in Africa today. Some evidence does indeed exist, but it is not really adequate to sustain the whole argument. Meanwhile, the use of perceptions can serve as a valuable signal for where policy making and action might have the most impact. Among the myriad negative consequences of corruption (all well mentioned by the authors in their introductory remarks), one of the easiest to forget is the extent to which its prevalence discourages people and organizations from doing things. The loss comes not from what happens, but from what never happens.

Sixth, a methodological comment which derives from the preceding observation. Despite the huge amount of work on corruption, in Africa and across the globe, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that this work remains quite disjointed – the whole is significantly less than the parts. Why is this so? Certainly a part of the explanation lies in the apparently all-encompassing use of the word, which throws very different phenomena under one very broad heading. Plenty of people are doing specialized and valuable things, but they are living in silos. Plenty of people are also using “corruption” as a war cry. In the political field it is the stock accusation to use against any and all adversaries (as the current behavior of the outgoing President of the USA so vividly shows).


In the end, the frenzy of activity, well-directed or utterly misguided, is failing to keep sight of why corruption happens, of what drives it. The point of all corruption is to secure benefits, pecuniary or otherwise, for the persons and entities engaging in it. To “do corruption” the perpetrator risks some negative reactions. The bet is that he will get away with it. The perpetrator can obtain a more or less good insurance against the risk through a whole series of methods, none of which uses an insurance company. The best insurance of all, though, is summarized in the age-old adage of the ‘what you know and the who you know.’ Colonialism was a total exercise in WYK to the power of two. The study discussed here is a timely reminder of how to keep our sights on what matters.

In the work that our firm, Primerio, is conducting, we place major emphasis on the use of the law as the prime instrument for tackling the problems we confront. We know, however, that decisions taken (or not taken) on the ground depend on the manifold ways in which agents assess prospects and risks. How people do those assessments is intricately bound up with what they have seen and lived. In short, their ideas on how they will act cannot be separated from their history. This study demonstrates just how far that history reaches back.

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