Does precolonial political centralization matter in Africa?

7-KumasiKumasi in the late 19th century, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

For a long time, Northern scholars of Africa used to write about the continent as though the colonial period was the beginning of history.  Jean-François Bayart famously argued against this, but even after his book appeared well-known authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young made the case that colonization changed everything in Africa.

More recently, however, Northern researchers have started to take precolonial politics seriously again.  I was thinking about this recently when Tanu Kumar sent me a link to this working paper by Mark Dincecco, James Fenske, and Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato.  They argue that precolonial warfare in Africa led to greater levels of political centralization, but is also associated with higher rates of civil war today.  Since civil war is generally bad for state capacity and development outcomes, this suggests that more centralized states in the precolonial era should be less developed today.

How does this argument hold up?  Jacob Hariri suggests that stronger precolonial states outside Europe tended to resist the spread of European institutions which could promote democracy and economic growth, leading to lower income levels and higher rates of autocracy today.  However, a number of other authors find that precolonial centralization in Africa is actually good for development.  Nicola Gennaioli & Ilia Rainer and Stelios Michalopoulous & Elias Papaioannou all find higher rates of local public goods provision in places that had strong precolonial states.  The mechanism here is presumably that strong states are able to solve coordination problems and engage in more economic activity.  Philip Osafo-Kwaako & James Robinson also find that stronger precolonial states lead to better development outcomes today, although they argue that centralization wasn’t driven by warfare like Dincecco, Fenske and Onorato suggest.

It’s a really interesting literature, and I think it would be even stronger with more of a focus on mechanisms, and more explanatory case studies.  If you look at subnational examples within Ghana and Uganda, you do tend to see stronger economic growth in the southern parts of those countries where precolonial polities were strongest (the Asante and Buganda kingdoms, respectively).  But does this mean that the kingdoms were solving coordination problems somehow, or that centralized states simply arose where the economic prospects were better in the first place?  Similarly, the link between precolonial centralization and contemporary civil war isn’t very intuitive to me.  Civil war is badly overdetermined in Africa, in that most countries fit the criteria (poverty and weak institutions) that are thought to increase civil war risk.  Academics still don’t seem to have a good model of why war happens when and where it does, rather than looking at aggregate risk factors, and I think until we understand more about the specificity of civil war it’s hard to know how to add precolonial centralization into the equation.