Explaining the Mixed Legacies of Colonial Legislative Institutions

A large literature examines the institutional legacies of European colonialism. A common claim in these works is that a variety of contemporary institutional, political, and economic outcomes in former European colonies can be attributed to whether occupying colonial powers established “extractive” or “inclusive” institutions.[1] The idea is that relative to their counterparts that had inclusive institutions, colonies with extractive institutions were put on the path towards suboptimal (predatory) institutional trajectories. While these works have increased our knowledge of the importance of institutions in shaping political and economic outcomes, more research is needed to fully account for the long-run institutional impacts of colonialism.

This is for two reasons. First, for clarity of analysis, researchers should focus on specific colonial institutions – with a focus on their creation, evolution over time, and postcolonial trajectories. A common approach in the existing literature tends to be to associate proxy measures of bundles of colonial institutions (e.g., presence of settler colonies) and contemporary outcomes (e.g., property rights protection). New research should take the challenge of unbundling these proxy measures into their constituent institutions through detailed archival data collection. Furthermore, because institutional development takes time, there is need for temporal analyses of the evolution of institutions under study. Such an approach would uncover the specific mechanisms that drove colonial institutional design, persistence, and change.[2]

Institutional persistence is an inherent assumption in the “European colonial origins” literature. Yet, as demonstrated by the historical institutionalism literature, coherent accounts of persistence must also be able to account for change.[3] Furthermore, the “domestication” of adopted European institutions was significantly shaped by local political and social conditions. Colonized populations had agency in shaping the realized impacts of institutions. In colonies that did not see significant European settlement, administration was characterized by a “thin White line” of officials whose diurnal conduct was arbitrary, autocratic, and far removed from stylized accounts of Western institutional order.[4] Finally, the mere establishment of colonial institutions did not mark the end of politics. Different political actors in the colonies saw their powers wax and wane, in ways that shaped institutional development.

Assumptions of linear persistence of colonial institutions elides important mechanisms driving institutional persistence and change. This calls for detailed historical institutionalist accounts to uncover the sources of colonial institutional persistence and change. What specific institutions were created under colonialism and what factors shaped institutional design? What logics drove their internal operations? How did political realities in the colonies shape the persistence and/or change of specific institutional processes and outcomes?

Figure 1: Archival records listing Ordinances and Proclamations from the colonial Legislative Council in Kenya (1908)

Second, given the temporal expanse of variables involved, measurement is important for understanding the underlying dynamics of colonial institutional persistence and change. For example, if studying legislative or judicial institutions, how do we operationalize comparable measures of institutional inputs, processes, and outputs over time? Whether researchers are exploring institutional persistence or change, it is important to have commonly accepted measures of institutional features to facilitate comparative analyses across time and space. Standardized cross-country data collection on legislative inputs, processes, and outputs would vastly enrichen the literature on historical legislative development (which is currently dominated by material evidence from England and the United States).[5] As is shown in Figure 1, the archival data is available and can facilitate both qualitative and quantitative studies of colonial institutional development.

My own work on historical legislative development in African states employs the above approaches. My book manuscript (Cambridge University Press, 2019) explores how political development in the late colonial period structured postcolonial legislative development in African states (with detailed case studies of Kenya and Zambia).[6] The book is a caution against assumptions of linear institutional persistence and explores how democratic legislatures can emerge from autocratic foundations. It also shows that a common (British) colonial origin and institutional design was not sufficient to produce common postcolonial institutional trajectories in Kenya and Zambia. I employ original longitudinal data on legislative calendar/sittings, budget allocated to the legislature, remuneration of legislators, the share of executive bills passed, incidence of executive rule-making, legislative elections, and analytical narratives to document temporal variation in legislative institutionalization and strength in the two countries.

Figure 2: Graph illustrates the temporal changes in legislative institutional features in African states. Most legislatures have become stronger since their founding, with British colonies experiencing greater advances (Data from V-Dem).

Similarly, in a new paper, I explore the question of measurement of legislative institutionalization with an illustration from case studies of the colonial Legislative Councils in Ghana and Kenya. I use data from multiple cross-national datasets on legislative institutional features. The paper shows that colonial era indicators of legislative institutionalization are only tenuously correlated with contemporary measures of legislative institutionalization (with variation across different indicators of legislative institutionalization). In other words, intervening factors have since attenuated the correlation between initial colonial conditions and contemporary features of legislative institutions (see Figure 2).

A detailed case study of Ghana (Gold Coast) and Kenya illustrates this fact. According to the stylized account of “extractive” versus “inclusive” colonies, Ghana represented the former and Kenya the latter. Yet it is Ghana that had representative legislative institutions under colonialism. From the outset in 1850, African merchants, lawyers, and chiefs were important members of the Gold Coast Legislative Council. Kenya, a settler colony, admitted its first African member in 1944 (see Figure 3). This simple descriptive exercise already complicates the stylized renditions of “extractive” versus “inclusive” colonial institutions common in the literature. Clearly, there is need for more descriptive accounts of the specifics of legislative institutional development during and after the end of European colonialism.

Figure 3: Nana Ofori Atta (left) embodied Gold Coast Chief’s prominence in the Legislative Council between 1915-1950. His long tenure in the institution lasted 27 years (1916-1943). In Kenya, Eliud Mathu (left in image on the right), the first African appointed to the Legislative Council, began his service in 1944.

As I argue in the paper, if one compared the two institutions in 1940, the Gold Coast Legislative looked relatively stronger than its Kenyan counterpart. It was more representative and therefore anchored in the territorial political economy. However, it is postcolonial Kenya that emerged with a relatively stronger and more stable legislature. In line with existing scholarship showing the importance of coalitions for institutional stability[7], I attribute these differences on the continuous dominance of institutionalist coalitions (or lack thereof) in Ghana and Kenya. Ghana’s decolonization process was accompanied by the rise of a revisionist coalition (newly educated elite “commoners” led by Kwame Nkrumah) that supplanted the previously dominant institutionalist coalition (constructed around chiefs like Nana Ofori Atta). By contrast, in Kenya the incorporation of Africans into the Legislative Council was gradual and yielded a dominant independence coalition that was incentivized to foster the legislature as the primary arena for managing intra-elite politics. Furthermore, Kenya’s lack of strong precolonial polities enabled it to avoid the “commoner-vs-royals” intra-elite discord that destabilized legislative development in Ghana in the late colonial period and right after independence. These are important details that would be missed by a simple “extractive” versus “inclusive” categorization of the colonial legislatures in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Kenya.

Overall, the study of colonial legislatures and their legacies is a promising strand of the historical political economy literature. As I show in Legislative Development in Africa, there are several reasons why stylized accounts of legislative development in England (and other high-income countries that are over-represented in the literature) do not necessarily travel to postcolonial contexts. As such, there is a need for not only original data collection in legislative institutional features, inputs, processes, and outputs, but also theory building. Such efforts will significantly improve our understanding of legislative institutional development in postcolonial states.

[1] Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson (2001) “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation,” American Economic Review, Vol. 91, No. 5 p. 1369-1401; William Easterly and Ross Levine (2016) “European Origins of Economic Development,” Journal of Economic Growth, Vol. 21 p. 225-257

[2] For an illustration of work that explores the mechanisms of colonial persistence over time, see Leonard Wantchekon, Marko Klasnja and Natalija Novta (2015) “Education and Human Capital Externalities: Evidence from Colonial Benin,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 130, No. 2 p. 703-757

[3] Kathleen Thelen (1999) “Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 2, No. 1 p. 369-404

[4] A. M. Kirk-Greene (1980) “The Thin White Line: The Size of the British Colonial Service in Africa,” African Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 314 p. 25-44

[5] On data collection for historical political economy analysis see Alexander Cirone and Arthur Spirling (2021) “Turning History into Data: Data Collection, Measurement, and Inference in HPE,” Journal of Historical Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 1 p. 127-154

[6] Ken Ochieng’ Opalo (2019) Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

[7] See, for example, David Stasavage (2003) Public Debt and the Birth fo the Democratic State: France and Great Britain, 1688-1789, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press


  • Ken Ochieng' Opalo

    I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My research interests include legislative institutional development, electoral accountability under multi-tier government, and the political economy of development. My first book, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies (Cambridge University Press, 2019) explores the cross-sectional and longitudinal variation in legislative institutionalization and strength in African states. My planned second book project will examine the subnational political and administrative legacies of colonial state-building in Kenya.

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