‘Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity,’ a review

Mahmood Mamdani. 2012. Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 154 pp.

Mamdani’s book which is organized into a brief introduction and three short, but concise and insightful chapters, is based on lectures inspired from the author’s reading of W.E.B. Dubois’s The World and Africa (1947) and from his realization that he had given an inadequate answer to an important question posed at one of the lecture events about how British indirect rule was different from previous empires (including the Roman Empire). Mamdani explores the dichotomy between settler and native as separate political identities and shows how this new politics of identity laid the basis of British indirect rule and native administration in British colonies worldwide. He argues that the crisis of the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century starting with a mutiny in India in 1857 attracted the attention of British intellectuals, especially Sir Henry Maine, who claimed that natives were bound by geography and custom rather than history and law. This view not only led to the re-examination of the colonial mission, but also to the transformation of colonial peoples’ cultural identities to political identities and to the establishment of administrative reforms starting in India and spreading to other British colonies in Africa and elsewhere. The author then analyzes the intellectual and political dimensions of the decolonization and nationalist movements in Africa.

The introduction contends that indirect rule was a form of governance considered the “holy grail” of managing pluralism and difference in modern statecraft. He argues that it was different from modes of rule in previous western empires (including Roman and British “direct” rule before mid-19th century) in two important ways: first, previous empires focused on conquered elites rather than masses of the colonized; and second, they sought to eliminate difference through a policy of cultural or political assimilation of colonized elites (pp. 1-2). The author views the political identity of ‘native’ as an invention of intellectuals of a British empire- in-crisis. Furthermore, Mamdani analyzes the distinction between settler and native and between natives on the basis of tribe, and the creation of indirect rule. He argues that the indirect rule state governed natives under the native authority and restricted their rights to land and power on the basis of native tribe or tribal identity designated by the colonial regime. Finally, while citizenship was accorded to the colonial settler, the native was denied the same. He then suggests that “the only emancipation possible for the settler and native is for both to cease to exist as political identities” (p. 4) once such identities are abolished. This was a position achieved in Tanzania under its first president, Julius Nyerere.

African Studies Quarterly | Volume 14, Issues 1 & 2 | November 2013


In Chapter One, Mamdani explores how Sir Henry Maine, using a theory of history and of law, distinguished the settler from the native by asserting that the former was guided by universal civilization, while the latter was influenced by local customs that were fixed and unchanging. This distinction constituted Maine’s theory of nativism. More importantly, Maine’s intellectual ideas were incorporated into colonial policies and native administrative practices as his important books, such as Ancient Law, were required reading for new and prospective colonial administors in Asia and Africa.

Mamdani argues that the transition from direct to indirect rule was precipitated by the dual crises faced by the British Empire (between 1857 and 1865): crises of mission and legitimacy. According to Mamdani, Maine’s larger point of distinguishing between western and non- western societies in terms of types of laws, identities, and political societies was to highlight his desire to slow down any meaningful change in colonies. He saw such changes in colonies not only as undesirable but as potentially fomenting anti-colonialism as had been the case in colonial India. Although indirect rule’s language seemed benign, its doctrine of non- interference in certain domains of colonial societies (such as religion) was contradictory. For example, by defining the customary realm and determining the list of natives to be “protected,” the colonial indirect rule state gave itself vast powers over natives (pp. 26-30). Mamdani observes that in the final analysis, proponents of indirect rule “had vast ambitions; to remake subjectivities so as to realign its bearers. This was no longer just divide and rule; it was define and rule” (p. 42).

While Chapter One deals with Maine’s theory of nativism, Chapter Two discusses the practice of such nativism. In particular, Mamdani views indirect rule as a new and modern method of governance aimed at understanding and managing differences in British colonies. He believes that the primary focus of colonial power (especially after the 1857 mutiny in colonial India) was defining colonial subjectivity. Colonial civil law was seen as central to managing and reproducing differences in the indirect rule state. It not only recognized systems of customary law but also defined traditional societies as tribes under the jurisdictions of tribal authorities with rights of power and access to tribal lands. The law used the census as a tool of intentionally dividing the population into two politicized identities; race and tribe (rather than between colonizer and colonized). More importantly, as a political strategy, “tribalization was the kernel of native administration and indirect rule” (p. 71). The focus on race –tribe distinctions obscured the pre-colonial history of native migrations and effectively portrayed “the native as a product of geography rather than history” (p. 47). However, the reality is that natives and non-natives alike were influenced by both residence (geography) and origin (history), as Mamdani so clearly demonstrates.

Furthermore, the race-tribe dichotomy laid the basis for discrimination and inequality during the indirect rule state and in some situations continued during the post-colonial era. Indirect rule and its system of native administration institutionalized tribal discrimination under the guise of cultural diversity and the so-called doctrine of non-interference. Mamdani contends that British adoption of indirect rule was “less to civilize the elites than to shape popular subjectivities. In this sense … indirect rule was vastly more ambitious than what the Romans had imagined or practiced” (p. 84).

African Studies Quarterly | Volume 14, Issues 1 & 2 | November 2013


Mamdani observes in the final chapter that the intelligentsia and the political class, the two key groups preoccupied with decolonization, were propelled to create a nationalist movement with the goal of establishing an independent post-colonial nation-state. He argues that during the struggle for state formation, the intelligentsia sought to give the independent state a history it had been denied while the political class worked hard to create a shared citizenship within an independent and sovereign state. Among the intelligentsia, the famous Nigerian historian, Yusuf Bala Usman, argued for an alternative approach of understanding the historical movement of political communities in pre-colonial Africa by using multiple sources to deconstruct key ethnic and racial categories starting with Hausa and Fulani speaking peoples in Nigeria. The challenge he set for historians was to locate the development of political identities in an historical context of internal migrations and state formation prior to colonialism.

In post-colonial Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere and TANU peacefully dismantled the structures of indirect rule and ‘successfully implemented an alternative form of statecraft” (p. 107). During the first phase of nation building, Nyerere not only rejected indirect rule and its racialist policies but relied heavily on the single-party system to create a national language (Swahili) and a national army, and sought to detribalize the Tanzanian society. And during the second phase (1967 to 1977), Nyerere used the Arusha Declaration to intervene in the economy for ideological and pragmatic reasons. Under the era of villagization, Nyerere “called upon peasants to form Ujamaa villages and to increase their productivity and welfare through collective self-help” (p. 119). Unfortunately, once this policy failed, Nyerere and TANU resorted to the use of “coercion” to settle peasants in Ujamaa villages and partitioned the country among donors by region. Regarding Nyerere’s achievements, Mamdani suggests that his seminal accomplishment was “creating an inclusive citizenship and building a nation-state” (p. 108).

Mamdani’s book does not attempt to explore “how the rulers of empire re-examined their own hegemony in the face of the divisions within their own camp and the challenges from the people they were trying to rule” (Cooper and Stoler, p. 609). In particular, it is claimed that tensions among colonizers meant that efforts to define natives as political identities in order to govern them using indirect rule were not always easily accepted, but were rather “problematic, contested, and changing” (ibid.). This implies there was a constant struggle to define and manage difference in colonial states. The decolonization era clearly underscores the tensions and struggles between the colonizer and the colonized.

Overall, the book represents a carefully argued and insightful analysis of the intellectual origins and contextual practices of indirect rule as a new and modern strategy of governance aimed at understanding and managing difference in British colonies worldwide. The book is a must read not only for students of colonial government policies and history but also for contemporary scholars preoccupied with understanding the challenges facing the post-colonial state in Africa and Asia.


Frederick Cooper and Ann L. Stoler. 1989. “Tensions of Empire: Colonial Control and Visions of Rule,” American Ethnologist 16.4: 617-21.

Johnson W. Makoba, University of Nevada, Reno

African Studies Quarterly | Volume 14, Issues 1 & 2 | November 2013

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