British colonial rule may have undermined the building of effective states in Africa today due to its legacy of ethnic segregation. This is the conclusion of research by Merima Ali, Odd-Helge Fjeldstad, Boqian Jiang and Abdulaziz B. Shifa published in the April 2019 edition of The Economic Journal, which compares the colonialisation of Africa by Britain and France.

Drawing on data from around 100,000 respondents from 12 Anglophone countries and nine Francophone countries, the authors show that Anglophone respondents report a weaker sense of national identity.

To control for possible differences within countries, the authors use observations from Cameroon, whose territory was divided between France and Britain by a border that appears arbitrary, cutting across existing ethnic and religious boundaries. The results also show a weaker sense of national identity among respondents in the former British regions of the country.

The researchers also assess countries’ taxation, powers and security and all suggest weaker state institutions among Anglophone countries such as lower tax enforcement and less security. The broad picture portrayed by these results associates the legacy of British colonial rule in Africa with weaker state capacity today.

An important part of building an effective state is creating a sense of shared identity among its citizens but this becomes a challenge where there are ethnic rivalries. The authors show that British rule may have undermined the formation of a shared national identity across ethnic groups, empowered local chiefs and weakened the central state.

A prominent feature of British colonial rule was its emphasis on ‘native administration’ and a system of decentralised control in which the local population was segregated along tribal lines and ruled indirectly by local chiefs. In contrast, France’s colonial policy featured a more centralised approach in which ethnic differences played a less significant role.

The French and English legal systems also have different implications for the power of the executive. French civil law leaves more political power and control in the hands of the central state, whereas judicial independence from the executive is a defining feature of British common law.

The researchers took account of the arbitrary nature of colonial borders during colonialisation by checking whether the findings also applied for respondents near the borders and controlled for ethnicity-specific pre-colonial factors which may affect state-building, such as the exposure to slave trade, urbanisation, and complexity of institutions.

‘Colonial Legacy, State-building and the Salience of Ethnicity in Sub-Saharan Africa’ by Merima Ali, Odd-Helge Fjeldstad, Boqian Jiang and Abdulaziz B. Shifa is published in the April 2019 issue of The Economic Journal.

Abdulaziz B. Shifa

Assistant Professor of Economics at Maxwell Syracuse University | abshifa@maxwell.syr.edu

Merima Ali

senior researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute and Assistant Professor at Syracuse University

Odd-Helge Fjeldstad

Research Professor at Chr. Michelsen Institute and Extraordinary Professor at the African Tax Institute, University of Pretoria

Boqian Jiang

former Research Assistant at Syracuse University