Studying Precolonial Legacies in the Present: Insights from Fieldwork

The West African state of Senegal’s precolonial geography often feels very much alive and well. Rather than traveling to Kanel or Podor Department, modern-day administrative divisions, Senegalese speak of traveling to ‘Fouta’ – short for Fouta Toro, one of the many precolonial kingdoms that populated the territory prior to French colonization. To take another example, local mayors are frequently referred to as bour, the precolonial title for king, in the former territory of the country’s Wolof-speaking kingdoms. Such anecdotes add credence to the growing interest in the legacies of Africa’s precolonial kingdoms, which have been associated with better development outcomes and higher state capacity as well as increased conflict.

My recent book, Precolonial Legacies in Postcolonial Politics, joins this literature by examining the long-run effects of precolonial statehood in rural Senegal. Studying Senegal’s nearly 400 local governments, I demonstrate that local governments that fall within the footprints of a precolonial state engage in spatially broader strategies of representation and redistribution across the many villages that comprise the local state. The goods delivered by the central government display no such pattern.

Senegalese Primary Schools in (left) Kaffrine Region, 2017 (Author’s photo) and (right) Kaolack Region, 1928 (Gallica).

I argue that Senegal’s precolonial kingdoms continue to matter today because they left behind robust social norms that continue to define local social life. In historically acephalous, or stateless areas, local elites speak of contentious and rivalrous debates over representation and redistribution within the local state, but such divisions are largely absent in historically centralized areas, where local elites invoke shared norms, such as those around minimizing conflict escalation, as important constraints on their behavior.

My book diverges from existing work on precolonial legacies in three ways. I first argue that when our theories pertain to active, on-going socio-political dynamics, we can gain unique insight into potential mechanisms by taking our questions into the field. I suggest secondly that precolonial legacies are not a property of groups, but rather are spatially dependent,and, third, that the effects of the precolonial past on contemporary development outcomes has been intermittent over time. All three of these points hold important insights for how we theorize and study mechanisms in HPE.

Insights into historical legacies can be found in the field

Many HPE questions seek to explain contemporary variation. This presents a unique – but all too often foregone – opportunity to study the social processes that keep the legacies we are interested in alive. This is a loss, since taking historical questions to the field offers an opportunity to develop and validate our theoretical mechanisms.

Working within rural Senegalese communities over a period of four years, I heard consistent narratives in local governments that fall within the territory of a precolonial state. In these communities, local elites reinforced shared stories of descent from a precolonial state and used this as a lens to justify and make sense of contemporary local politics. Two mechanisms reinforced these narratives: a shared sense of identification, or ‘we-ness’, and dense social ties across villages. Together, the identity and network mechanisms embed elites within interconnected webs of obligations across villages and reorient elite behavior towards group goals, but only when these networks are congruent with the bounds of the local state.

At the risk of sounding treasonous to the goals of this forum, I would have never discovered these dynamics if I had stayed in the archives alone. It was only by spending extensive time talking to local elites that I gained insight into how palpable precolonial histories remain in rural West Africa. Although archival research was a core component of my research design, alone it would have produced an incomplete understanding of why Senegal’s precolonial states are shaping distributional outcomes today.

Colonial map of the Djoloff (“Chemin de Fer du Djoloff” Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France; 1TP73) and the ruins of General Faidherbe’s residence in Yang Yang, former capital of the Djoloff, 2013 (Author’s photo).

Groups and institutions are not always coterminous

Fieldwork can help us develop new theoretical mechanisms, but it can also help us eliminate rival candidates. HPE scholars working in the African context have often theorized historical legacies as a property of ethnic groups. Gennaioli and Rainer, for example, argue that centralized ethnic groups facilitate greater accountability between chiefs and local populations, relations that have persisted over time. This requires us to assume that such norms of accountability are equally internalized by group members and, in this case, that precolonial centralization is an attribute of ethnic groups.

Yet, as historians have documented, most of Africa’s precolonial states were multi-ethnic, calling into question the assumption that centralization is an ethnic attribute. [1] Conceptualizing precolonial states as a set of political institutions that are not reducible to ethnicity suggests, in contrast, a distinctly spatial form of path dependence.

The value of this distinction can be illustrated with the case of the Wolof, Senegal’s largest ethnic group that assumed the ruling nobility in many of precolonial Senegal’s most powerful kingdoms. If we think that the Wolof as a group are inclined to centralization, then we should expect any local government run by a Wolof majority to perform better in the present. Yet this is not what I find. In contrast, my fieldwork reveals that Wolof-run local governments perform differently as a function of their spatial exposure to a precolonial polity. This is not to deny the idea that there are widely held norms within ethnic groups. Indeed, I find that Wolof respondents broadly invoke the same set of social norms across the country. The key difference is the scale at which these norms were understood to apply. Only in areas home to precolonial states did respondents describe these norms as transcending the village-level to embed local elites across the villages into shared understandings of appropriate comportment.

This suggests that there is something specific about residing in the spatial extent of a precolonial polity that is distinct from ethnicity. In this case, exposure to centralized precolonial institutions scaled the question of who is subject to a given set of social expectations up out of the village to the local government as a whole. This led me to conclude that what persists is a remnant of how precolonial polities integrate their populations together via political institutions and not some generic cultural attribute that has endured to the present.

Legacies may be intermittent in their effects 

My study of the Senegalese case further reveals an important set of temporal implications for HPE. I find no support for arguments that areas that were home to precolonial states are doing better today because they have always done better. In sharp contrast, my data reveal that exposure to Senegal’s precolonial states only appears to matter for local service delivery following the onset of the country’s introduction of democratic decentralization in 1996. Explaining why precolonial legacies in the country are time-varying in their effects demands a theory that is both rooted in precolonial political geography and that is logically consistent with the precolonial past only impacting the local level and only under certain formal institutional configurations.

Effect of a one standard deviation change, with 95% confidence intervals, in a local government’s congruence with a precolonial state on village-level basic service access (health facilities and primary schools). The benefits of falling within the territory of a precolonial state become apparent for village-level access following democratic decentralization in 1996. Data coded by author from archival and ministerial reports.

Echoing concerns about assumptions of linear persistence, I argue that the spatial boundaries of identities and social networks inherited from the precolonial past only came to overlap with the realm of decision making following democratic decentralization. Importantly, this pattern seems to have wide traction in West Africa, where I find that the introduction of decentralized service delivery generates greater gains in historically centralized areas. Crucially, decompressing history also allows us to assess patterns of non-persistence. In contrast to the reappearance of precoloniallegacies in the 1990s, for example, I find that while the French colonial state did intimately influence the contours of rural Senegal’s social service infrastructure, these effects have almost entirely faded by the early 2000s.

To the extent that mechanisms are the ‘next frontier’ in HPE, taking historical processes more seriously offers us one vehicle for assessing why historical causes produce the outcomes we observe. But decompressing history is not the only means to improve our ‘library of mechanisms’ and to build better theory in HPE. Archival research was critical to my project’s theory development, but my ability to make sense of the resurgent role of precolonial geography was deeply informed by what I heard from local Senegalese elites, who spoke about a changing local political arena following the 1996 reforms, rooting their local experiences within the spatial-bounds of local norms.

When our research questions relate to contemporary, on-going outcomes, one of the most classic tools of comparative politics – fieldwork – still has much to offer. For example, two recent studies successfully employ behavioral games and outcome measures to establish plausible mechanisms linking the precolonial past to the present. Digging deeper into important cases through original fieldwork can reveal previously unrecognized candidate mechanisms, help us rule out alternative pathways and shed light onto patterns we discover in the archives. Of course, fieldwork is time-consuming, and it is rarely easy. Studying historical legacies in the field demands careful attention to individual incentives to inflate the glory of the past, but it also provides opportunities to triangulate between sources and listen for disconfirming views. Thus, while not all work in HPE is amenable to fieldwork, for the set of questions that is, one route to theoretical progress might be found in actively engaging the communities we study.


[1] As argued, for example, in: Colson, Elizabeth. 1969. “African Society at the Time of the Scramble.” In Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960, edited by Lewis Gann and Peter Duignan. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.



  • Martha Wilfahrt is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of California-Berkeley where she studies African politics and political economy of development. Her research interests center around how the past shapes contemporary dynamics of redistributive politics, political identity and state-society relations. Her first book, Precolonial Legacies in Postcolonial Politics, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2021.

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