Significance of Pre Colonial History

  • To have an honest conversation about developing the third world we need to talk about their history before Europe
  • Pre colonial institutions can be shown to affect current development outcomes
  • the ability to build consensus & homogeneity has proven helpful for developing nations like Botswana

When asked what are the repercussions of the French Revolution in the twentieth century a Vietnamese politician replied “it is yet to be seen”. That is the thing about history, it is rarely ever gone, it’s not even past. For in our present we can easily find our history. Often ignored in analysis of post colonial political maturation is a historical context. While we may pay close attention to the colonial processes that entangled much of Asia and Africa, academics tend to ignore the existence of pre colonial politics in these regions and how they play a monumental role even today. Out of sheer laziness or eurocentrism the unique and varied histories of the world’s former colonies may hold the key to understanding their political processes now and in the future. The result of this oversight is an incomplete picture that devalues the current understanding of how nations democratize and develop.

 For example research done by Bernherd et al concluded British, Portuguese and Spanish former colonies realized better outcomes. While we cannot outright deny this study the failure to account for pre colonial societies does not give a complete picture. Without properly attesting for the pre colonial state major holes can appear. One such is the headstart Portugal, Spain and Britain had in the scramble for colonies. At head start it stands to reason these nations would go for those colonies close to ports and highly lucrative. This is how Britain came to dominate some of the larger ethno states such as the Zulu in South Africa and Igbo in Nigeria and Spain came to dominate the Bubi in Equatorial Guinea. These groups were part of the larger chiefdoms and states on the continent (Michalopoulos 2013). It is the central finding of this paper that a better understanding of pre colonial politics will allow a further understanding of what leads former colonies to democracy or autocracy, not to mention how these lead to human development. 

While limited, there does exist a group of literature dedicated to finding correlations with pre colonial politics and current trends in democracy and development. Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail (2012) point to the power of institutions in development and work by Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou (2013) shows that the complexity and hierarchical structure of pre colonial ethnic institutions correlate significantly with contemporary regional development. Collective works by these authors will illuminate the main processes promoted by pre colonial institutions that have the greatest effect today. First this paper chooses to highlight the failures of current paradigms in ignoring pre colonial institutions through an analysis of work by Larry Diamond. Much of his work is representative of the larger missteps of orthodoxy in political and economic analysis. Afterwards we will head into an analysis of Botswana’s pre colonial political system through work by Acemoglu and Robinson, finally reaching our own conclusions based on the work done on Botswana. Through the conclusion it is hoped an understanding of the importance of pre colonial history will be recognized, especially as it concerns the democratization and development process.

The problem with much of the literature of democracy and development, especially in Africa is the disclusion of pre colonial institutions when talking of the need for better contemporary institutions. While I admit this failure is slowly changing, the issue still grapples with most of academia. A good example is work from the prominent sociologist Larry Diamond. Looking at one of his works Developing Democracy in Africa, the massive oversight of pre European politics is dotted along everywhere. I consider it an oversight since Diamond feels no need to explain why it is not included. The article in question looks at African politics at a time of democractic renewal, Diamond paints himself as an Afro optimist, something that had been on the rise especially in the new century. The main idea is that more western aid is needed to support economic development, and a list of liberal democratic processes such as: freedom of press; freedom of association; judicial independence; electoral accountability; and independent means for monitoring the conduct of public officials and punishing corruption (Diamond 2000). Like many on the topic of democracy Diamond clearly states his preferences for a specifically liberal democracy in comparing many African electoral democracies as inferior to the more ‘substantial’ liberal democracies. Yet he does admit that liberal democracy is a slow crawl and these pseudo democracies may simply be in transition (Diamond 2000). The insinuation of a path dependency towards a liberal democracy seems to share methodological space with economic theories of modernization in that both assume that western paths of democracy and development are the only ones. Consequently, scholars like Hayashi (2005) have shown, those assertions are inconclusive. East Asian economic successes challenged modernization notions, which many claim is the result of “Confucian values’ (Hayashi 2005). To achieve the path to democracy Diamond much like this paper believes institutions are needed. 

“The roots of Africa’s developmental crisis – and the hopes for its renewal – are political and institutional. The overriding imperatives are to strengthen state structures and to implement procedures for greater transparency and accountability in governance. This in turn requires careful and creative institutional design, to give political leaders and groups incentives to behave in ways that will enhance democracy, lawfulness, stability, and trust, rather than destroy them’ (Diamond 2000)

The stated goals are very agreeable and to achieve them he properly calls for creative solutions. One of the more creative solutions over the past few decades to achieving development and democracy to some extent has been the East Asian model, Diamond refutes the possibility of that sort of model for Africa due to the ethnic fractures in society and political culture. Without further enunciation and specificity Diamond paints broad strokes of both Asia and Africa. He further highlights Africa’s inability to copy East Asia in presuming authoritarianism cannot live with sound economic policies which to his credit has been properly proven in a largely African context. This is due mainly to broken bureaucracies in all places but South Africa and Botswana according to him (Diamond 2000). For what reason we do not know. Should he have opened that pandora’s box it may very well lead to precolonial history, especially in the case of Botswana. Much of what Diamond says is agreeable, as he talks of institution building in Africa he confesses that African institutions must align with civil society and be based on a continuity (Diamond 2000). In that need for a more active civil society and continuity he believes that these nations should adopt federalism (Diamond 2000). As far as a creative solution goes he presents federalism, a concept that already exists on the continent as a solution. Should we understand continuity as a continuation of old then the most probable place for example would be within the specific history of the nations, yet instead he borrows from the United States. While not completely disagreeable federalism is neither creative nor continuous but Diamond makes a good point as to the possibilities for majority rule crippling nations with several ethnic tensions. This line of thinking is common for good reason but again does little for already existing federations like Nigeria. Going onwards Diamond makes valid points on aid but in all misses the larger contexts. Much of his article is applicable to the plethora of academic work that both seek to present creative solutions but further entrenches the biases they come with. Diamond does well to spell out what is needed, institutional change that is creative and establishes popular authority, but much like colonial administrations the solutions are European not African. Should we wish to open up our toolbox to more creative possibilities we must first see the nations in question from a larger historical point. While that may be possible for larger kingdoms like Mali or Zanzibar it does create issues for other smaller places of course, but that does not delegitimize proper historical analysis altogether.

Botswana, a small landlocked nation in southern Africa has stood out as one of the most miraculous development stories on Earth. About 1.6 million people live in Botswana. Much of the country is made up of the Kalahari Desert (Beulier 2003). From its independence to today Botswana has recorded some of the best growth rates in Africa. Botswana had a PPP-adjusted income per capita of $5,796 in 1998, almost four times the African average, and between 1965 and 1998, it grew at an annual rate of 7.7 percent, increasing their GDP per capita to approximately those in Mexico and Turkey (Acemoglu 2012). Through that time the political situation has been altogether stable with constant elections. This combination of democracy and development has become a darling to observers and proof of the possibilities for former colonies, especially in Africa. Botswana of course does present issues such as HIV with approximately twenty percent of the population HIV positive, which is a big issue for the area, as well as inequality is rampant in the country (Beuilier 2003). While there exists political contestation since independence the same party has one each election (Beulier 2003). A situation similar to places like Singapore. Yet given these issues Botswana still stands at a distinct level of development over many other nations. While economically diamonds are instrumental in Botswana’s success it is only useful because the state could capture rents on the resources. Many developing countries are imbued with huge reserves of natural resources but cannot due to their political makeup. According to Acemoglu it is the state’s ability to invest and exploit their reserves that propelled them to their position (Acemoglu 2012). The current institutional and political makeup of Botswana does not exist in a vacuum but is in fact a consequence of Botswana’s history. Most commonly understood, we can point to Beuchland and Tswana. The first being the name of the British Protectorate and the second the name of the state existing before European colonization. In Tswana, the political process of consensus allowed a high amount of dissidents but also created a sound ground of unity among decentralized groups, the leaders of this group were able to petition the British government for a more hands off colonization as a protectorate. These kept tribal institutions like the ktogla intact and working (Acemoglu 2012). One of the most powerful ideas able to survive was the existence of a sort of national assembly:

“The relatively integrative nature of Tswana institutions and the lack of colonialism seems to account for the current relative homogeneity of Botswana. Scholarly literature tends to emphasize the endogeneity of ethnic identities in Africa, and particularly how they were formed by the colonial state. “ (Acemoglu 2012)

While clearly there is a lot more that goes into the creation of democracy and development it stands that with the case of Botswana, the creation of homogeneity and survival of it through colonialism allowed the proliferation of development and seamless transition to a more western democracy. The homogeneity displayed according to Acemoglu is a result of the Tswana institutions (Acemoglu 2012). A good example is the creation of a ward just for ethnic outsiders in society. Like in most of Africa Botswana is made up of different tribes: the Bangwato (Seretse Khama’s tribe), Batawana, Bangwaketse, Bakwena, Balete, Bakgatla, Barolong, and Batlokwa. Yet unlike in Ghana or other nations Botswana dissociated the idea of state and ethnicity and instead integrated everyone into Tswana society. That is how a nation where less than fifty percent of the population is Tswana, we can understand Botswana as a homogenous state (Acemoglu 2012).

In the previous paragraph we outlined homogeneity as a trait that according to academics like Robinson and Acemoglu caused the success of Botswana as a well developing country and democratic stalwart in Africa. The prevailing Tswana institutions left intact through a hands off colonial approach allowed such institutions to survive today. Let us choose to accept homogeneity as a main factor and the pre colonial political institutionalization as integral to that. From this ground we can now assess the larger political landscape of the sub saharan region in particular. Let me be more specific before going on. Homogeneity in this regard alludes to the integrative nature of the political institutions. Of course the homogeneity, ethnically, has a lot to do with this as well. But how does homogeneity predict democracy or development? The answer is specifically with Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou (2013) and their work on pre colonial institutions centralization. Their correlation between centralization in pre colonial institutions and development have important findings for this paper. While centralization may not equal homogeneity the two processes are inextricably linked. The Tswana state in its political homogeneity required a certain level of centralization with a cadre of officials leading higher towards a Tswana chief. The 2013 paper lists centralization on a four point system ranging from 0 to 4, that describes the number of political jurisdictions above the tribe. A zero score lacks any form of centralized political organization. A score of 1 represents small chiefdoms, a score of 2 represents larger chiefdoms, and 3 and 4 indicate groups that were part of large states (Michalopoulos 2013). The Tswana state in particular would get a score of 2 (Michalopoulos 2013). Talking specifically about Tswana and Zulu …

“ The Naron and the Kung are two stateless societies, whereas the (Ba)Ngwato (a traditional Sotho-Tswana tribe) and Ndebele (which originate from the the Zulus, the dominant ethnic group of one of the largest pre-colonial states in Southern Africa) are centralized groups. On average, 278% of the homeland of the Ndebele and the Ngwato is lit, while only 54% of the homeland of the Naron and the Kung is lit.”  (Michalopoulos 2013)

By lit the quote refers to the measurement for development in the study. The authors use satellite light density to assess development. Aggregate light density increases approximately 8 percentage points when moving from the homeland of stateless ethnicities to regions with ethnic groups that pre-colonial were part of a centralized state  (Michalopoulos 2013). The ease of centralization hinges heavily on a more ethnic homogeneity, which for Africa is rare. The less ethnic diversity there is the easier it is to centralize authority. Numerous studies have rightly noted Africa as the most diverse continent of the globe, without even taking into the mix how these ethnicities have been carved into states. A Harvard study goes even further equating exact growth figures to ethnic fractionalization Alesina et al 2003). Fractionalization is measured along different lines including language, religion and ethnicity. Annual growth in Uganda as compared to South Korea is depressed 1.77 percent just from ethnic fractionalization. This can be due to rent seeking, civil war and other factors (Alesina et al 2003). To reconnect to the main point, it has been shown how ethnic fractionalization is bad for development. The proliferation of fractionalization in Africa is large and part of that comes from the lack of central authority. Realistically we can see how centralization of pre colonial institutions changed ideas of fractionalization over time. Take our case study of Botswana, the level of ethnic fractionalization under the PREG index there exists no difference between ethnicities but under the ELF that number goes to 0.5, still relatively low but not zero. The difference is calculation the PREG looks at political contestation and a lingua franca as variables in fractionalization, yet Tswana institutions avoid contestation for consensus, and the lingua franca tends to be Tswana because it is taught in schools (Posner 2004, Acemoglu 2012). The ELF used in a majority of studies do not look at political contestation, counting more on specific linguistic and ethnic differences. The lack of contestation as a result of institutionalization may be the reason Botswana scores nearly zero in the PREG but not ELF. Taken as a whole, democracy and development in former colonies need to be understood from a pre colonial context as they are what build the institutions that create a political homogeneity, avoiding heavy fractionalization and fostering higher centralization.

Towards the question of what leads former colonies to democracy or autocracy, the debate is long, but it is my hope that a better understanding of the historical legacy of these states, not as colonies but fiefdoms, tribes, empires and states. Part of this growing understanding of the past needs those best placed to understand it come into focus. Academics from these places need to add their voice to a crowded academic field, but those of us from other nations have much to add as observers and thinkers. Should a proper analysis be done, taking into account the full history of these places, it stands to reason certain patterns will evolve. According to what has already been done it seems that those centralized states create institutions that supersede and in certain cases change ethnic fragmentation, allowing for more democratic institutions to take place. An answer thus requires research beyond the scope of this paper, but it is only once we get all the right information we get a full picture. The past is never dead, it is not even really the past. 

Acemoglu, D. et al. (2012) ‘An African success story: Botswana’, in In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth. Princeton University Press. pp. 80–119.

Alesina, Alberto et al. (2003) Fractionalization. Journal of Economic Growth. 8 (2), 155–194. [online]. Available from:

Beaulier, Scott & Beaulier, Scott (2003) Explaining Botswana’s success: the critical role of post-colonial policy. Cato Journal. 23 (2), 227–240. [online]. Available from:

Bernhard, Michael et al. (2004) The Legacy of Western Overseas Colonialism on Democratic Survival. International Studies Quarterly. [Online] 48 (1), 225–250.

Diamond, Larry (2000) Developing democracy in Africa: African and international imperatives. Cambridge Review of International Affairs. [Online] 14 (1), 191–213.

Hayashi, S. 2010, “The developmental state in the era of globalization: beyond the Northeast Asian model of political economy”, The Pacific Review, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 45-69.
Posner, Daniel N. (2004) Measuring Ethnic Fractionalization in Africa. American Journal of Political Science. [Online] 48 (4), 849–863.

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