It was a system of colonial administration, mainly British, by which colonial powers ruled through local chiefs. The concept was not new, as it stemmed from the fact that great African empires had been run this way too. The Asante for instance ruled their conquered territories via local indigenous chiefs. The Dutch absorbed native dynasties and ruled the Dutch East Indies using them.
The British employed indirect rule in India, two-thirds of which was ruled by Indian princes. Indirect rule was first used by the British in Africa in Buganda, developed it in Northern Nigera, later extending it to other colonies in Africa. The Uganda Agreement (sic) of 1900 clarified that Bugandans were to be governed by hereditary rulers. These made laws in accordance with the British Governor.
Indirect rule, as developed in Northern Nigeria was a practical means of administering a huge territory, with only limited manpower and cash. Local emirs were rulers but real power stayed with the Governor.
Native laws, for example Islamic, were maintained in Northern Nigeria, with the exception of those considered barbaric. Local law was enforced by local courts and the local police force. It was agreed that chiefs should have the responsibility for both raising and spending taxes, as well as for maintaining local law and order. A certain proportion of all revenue was passed on to the colonial government for spending on those services considered best provided by Europeans; health and railways for example.
Lord Lugard, Nigeria’s administrator said he saw indirect rule ‘as a road to political independence’. ‘Liberty and self-government,’ said this liberal, ‘can best be secured to the native population by leaving them to manage their own affairs through their own rulers’.
In Northern Nigeria, where there were strongly-established emirs, it was relatively easy to establish indirect rule, but in the regions east of the Niger most societies had no system of indirect rule. The British appointed local chiefs, but many thought this made them a form of satrap, were therefore unpopular and rejected by the people. Nevertheless, by the 1920s and 30s the idea of indirect rule was a generally accepted principle of British colonial administration. The system was adopted by other British governors, for example in Tanganyika from 1925 – 31.
Indirect rule came under fire from not a few colonial administrators because (they said) it had the tendency to strengthen traditional rulers, and often got in the way of economic and social progress. Educated Africans disliked it because it hindered the development of elected representative government, and left them without the political influence they craved.
They were the first to be pleased that after the Second World War the British abandoned the method of indirect rule and gradually replaced it with an elected system of local and central government, which led comparatively smoothly to complete independence.