The chiefdoms of Sierra Leone are institutions of colonial origin but nevertheless continue to serve as local government units in the post-colonial state. The prevailing view among scholars is that these institutions have little basis in indigenous political culture, and have furthermore become breeding grounds of political corruption. This view has tended to elide anthropological analysis of internal chiefdom politics. However, it is argued in this article that such conclusions are premature. With reference to the Biriwa Limba chiefdom of northern Sierra Leone, it is shown that historical precedent, in many cases relating to prominent political figures of the late nineteenth century, continues to serve as a primary means of ordering local rights in land, settlement and political representation. This phenomenon is not a product of innate conservatism but emerges rather as a pragmatic response to the persistent failure of successive Sierra Leone administrations to extend modern measures of citizenship to the bulk of the rural populace. Rights and properties have become progressively localised in villages originally registered for tax collection in the early colonial era. Here one finds one of the most telling legacies of the British policy of indirect rule in post-colonial Sierra Leone.
The chiefdoms of Sierra Leone were originally designed to harness `native authorities' to British colonial rule. They were inherited by the Sierra Leone Republic, and remain key institutions of local government. The longevity of these institutions has prompted much academic analysis. For example, political scientists have drawn attention to the paradoxical role of Paramount Chiefs as state agents commissioned to exercise `traditional' authority (Kilson, 1966; Barrows, 1976; Cartwright, 1978; Reno, 1995). They also reserve strong criticism for the Native Administration Scheme, introduced in legislation in 1937. The main aim of the scheme was to devolve the considerable economic and juridical powers formerly invested in Paramount Chiefs to a local assembly (Tribal Authority, later Chiefdom Council) directly representing, and funded by, local taxpayers (Kilson, 1966: 24-33; Clapham, 1976: 75-6; Barrows, 1976: 83-5). Yet little in practice was done to prevent Paramount Chiefs from continuing to collect payments for political and jural services, and appropriating tax revenue for private uses (Kilson, 1966: 53-68; Barrows, 1976: 98-142; Reno, 1995: 55-78).
It has been the avowed policy of successive governments of the Sierra Leone Republic to conserve the chiefdoms (Barrows, 1976: 98-142). All of Sierra Leone's parliamentary constituencies outside metropolitan areas follow chiefdom boundaries (Clarke, 1966). While all adult citizens are entitled to vote in parliamentary elections, many rural people remain unknown to the state except as chiefdom taxpayers and their dependants. Accordingly, government officials are reliant upon the Chiefdom Councils to supply them with the information necessary for compiling the electoral register, and parliamentary candidates are obliged to ally with local political factions in order to win votes. Furthermore, an amendment of 1972 to the Protectorate Land Ordinance of 1927 effectively left it to the Chiefdom Councils to determine the criteria of `native' status which confer chiefdom citizenship (Tuboku-Metzger and van der Laan, 1981: 30). These developments have provided Paramount Chiefs with renewed opportunities--and power--to act as political brokers (Kilson, 1966: 219-80; Minikin, 1973; Barrows, 1976: 143-242; Reno, 1995).
The apparent inertia of successive Sierra Leone administrations towards the reform of local government has prompted scholars to voice their own moral judgements. For example, Kilson (1966) saw the chiefdoms as anachronistic barriers to political modernisation. Reno (1995), writing in more pessimistic times, claims that the post-colonial era merely saw the extension of corrupt patrimonial politics to the higher echelons of government. …