Review of Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity

This book, despite some of its doubtable positions, reads like a theoretical masterwork. It has great significance in understanding the political history of Africa, its colonial baggage, and its contemporary ethnic-racial conflicts.

Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity

Mamdani’s book is a compilation of three lectures which he delivered at the W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture series at Harvard University. He explains, in the introduction of his book, that the inspiration for these lectures arose from reading W.E.B Du Bois’s groundbreaking work The World and Africa and a question posed to him by a fellow scholar regarding what was different about the British indirect rule.

While the book inspired him to write about the world from an African vantage point, the simple question and his subsequent convoluted answer prompted him to engage with the issue more deeply. This short but very dense and detailed book consists of three chapters- The Theory of Nativism, The Practice of Nativism and The Theory and Practice of Decolonisation.

In the first chapter, Mamdani traces the shift in colonial policy from direct rule to ‘indirect rule’. This was in response to two events that shook the foundations of British Empire in the second half of 19th century, namely, the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India and the Morant Bay Uprising of 1860 in Jamaica. In the wake of these major revolts, Henry Maine, one of the leading British thinkers and legal anthropologist, was appointed as a member to the Viceroy’s Law Commission. In his analysis of the Revolt, he strongly criticised the utilitarian and evangelical project of ‘civilising’ the natives. He posited it was wrong to assume that these natives had no agency or loyalty to their history. And that the orientalists were no less guilty for gauging Indian society solely on the basis of elite Sanskritic texts. He theorised that ‘real India’ resides in her rural hinterlands where each community still lives by local customs and traditions, whereas the small cosmopolitan population was confined to the coastal and urban areas.

Defining Natives

Maine went on to formulate what is known as ‘the theory of Nativism’.

This theory both assumes and creates a binary between the west and the non-west. It rests on two major conceptions of his- (1) the theory of legal evolution and (2) the theory of social evolution.

Maine explains legal evolution through a conceptual binary between civil and customary law. In every society, a transition from unwritten customary laws to codified laws take place, authored by the aristocratic class. Whereas in the west, the aristocracy became secular and codified flexible laws, the non-western aristocracies became religious, making idealised laws which are impervious to change.

So, the western culture is characterised by a progressive, context-free universal civil law, transmittable through space and time but the eastern culture is chained to a culture-bound, stagnant customary law, making their society stationary and impeding progress, an example being the Indian civilisation. India, at its heart and soul, is tied to tradition, her masses live in accordance with ‘immemorial’ customs and traditions. Therefore, Maine argues:

“when authority emanates from a source external, when laws
replace observance, without the support of habit… law and sovereignty appear both external and coercive.”

The blunder of the British Empire was to replace legislation with custom, making obvious the rule of an external, alien, coercive power. The remedial step for the embattled British Empire was thus to regress from rule by legislation to rule by custom.

This theory of nativism pioneered by Maine was translated into a ‘new technology of governance’. The colonial government adopted a novel language of protection and preservation, instead of its pre-1857 rhetoric of ‘civilising and assimilating’ the natives. It enunciated a policy of nonintervention in areas of customs, religion, personal laws etc., the explicit document being the Queen’s Proclamation.

Mamdani argues that this policy of noninterference turned into a charter of all-round interference because now the colonial government took upon itself to ‘define the boundary of that in which it will not interfere, those aspects of religion which could not be touched, and also sanctify the ‘authentic’ authority that would define and safeguard religion in its pure form’. Such that in ‘claiming to protect authenticity…the settler defined and pinned the native’.

Indirect rule was ‘the understanding and management of difference’. It reproduced difference as custom and aimed at reframing the subjectivity of the entire native population, not just the native elites. It involved a change in language from exclusion (civilized, uncivilized) to one of inclusion (pluralism and cultural difference). Law was central to the project of indirect rule. As Mamdani points out, before managing difference, the colonial power set about defining it. For instance, Hindu and Muslim Personal laws acquired legal sanction, and minority group rights were institutionalised. Fluid traditional identities morphed into fixed (and potent) political identities. This ‘new and modern technology of rule’ not only acknowledged difference but also ‘shaped, even created difference’.

Mamdani critiques:

“it created a system of state-enforced internal discrimination… effectively fragmenting the colonized majority into so many political minorities’.

The mechanism of this political project depended on the effective deployment of three instrumentalities- law, census and historiography; whereby census recorded, historiography memorialized and law implemented. In India, it created a population defined on grounds of religion and caste; whereas in Africa, the differentiation was based on race and tribe.

The Case of Africa 

An image depicting the continued effects of colonization. Image

The practice of Nativism and its repercussion is best exemplified by the case of British colonies in Africa. Here indirect rule began with classifying the population through census into categories of race and tribe. However, the distinction was not between the colonizers and colonized but the natives (defined as tribes) and nonnatives (defined as races). This distinction cut through the single category of ‘colonized’, by arbitrarily designating the natives as tribes and nonnatives as races based on the single criteria-place of origin.

The races European, Asian, Arab etc. would be ruled under a single law i.e. the civil law, whereas the natives would come under separate and myriad customary laws, the custodian of which was endowed upon ‘state-approved’ native authorities.

Mamdani finds it peculiar that the culturally diverse races were put under a uniform law which would serve to contain their differences, but the culturally similar tribes would have their differences reinforced and exaggerated. It implied that the different races were meant to have a common future but the different tribes were not. This politicisation of ethnic and tribal differences would later on lead to major conflict and violence. Mamdani argues that this distinction between civil and customary law institutionalized a hierarchical discrimination in the African colonies. Civil rights discriminated against the
colonized races and the latter were, in turn, privileged over the native tribes.

The native tribe identity gave rise to three exclusive privileges-right of access to land, right to participate in customary governance, and dispute settlement prerogatives. Even when the non-native tribes had lived in an area for generations, they became pariahs with little or no rights. What was earlier a society of multi-ethnic communities became violently exclusive and mono-ethnic. Indirect rule as such institutionalized tribal discrimination and established a regime of inequality. Mamdani thus labels the colonial powers as ‘the first political fundamentalists’ of the modern period because they advanced and put into practice the idea that every colonized group has an original and pure tradition to which it must be made to return.

In Darfur, the indirect rule policy was implemented as a response to the challenge that the colonial masters faced from the Mahdiyya movement. Mamdani refers to it as a translocal anti-colonial resistance which ‘shook the foundations of the Empire to the core’.

The Mahdiyya was an anti-imperialist movement which for the first time united the entire Sudanic belt under the banner of the ‘Prophet’ and called for loyalties transcending tribe and kinship. They were brutally defeated by the modern imperial forces, after which Darfurian society was effectively tribalized. The provinces were parceled into a series of homelands, called ‘dars’, each identified with a native tribe. This identity was attached to exclusive privileges for the ‘natives’. This system of institutionalised inequality fractured Darfurian society along multiple ethnic lines with disastrous consequences in times to come. Mamdani argues that tribes, understood as an ethnic group with a common language, has always existed, but as a political identity it originated with the British colonial rule.

Indirect rule divided and crystallized populations into fixed, static categories. This became a recurrent, powerful tool for racism and tribalism. He says: ‘Like race, tribe became a single, exclusive and total identity only with colonialism’. Besides the distinction between civil and customary law, indirect rule deployed a tribalized and racialized historiography of Africa. The ultimate purpose it served was justification for imperial rule through notions of racial superiority, civilizing mission and later, differentiation.

The Hamitic Hypothesis held that Africa throughout its history had witnessed civilizing influence in the form of lighter skinned, fine-featured migrants from north, whether it was the Pharaonic, Christian, ArabIslamic or Western civilisation. It is incredulous that, for these western historiographers, even a society like Sudan which had a six millennium long history of written records was painted as stagnant and ‘changed’ only by outsiders. The end product of the elaborate and insidious workings of indirect rule in the African colonies was the institutionalisation of both racial and tribal discrimination. Despite its benign pretensions, indirect rule was not a weaker version of direct rule; it was far more ambitious and sinister.

Reclaiming Subjectivity

In the final chapter, Mamdani elucidates the post-colonial, post independence confrontation with this heavy, intricate colonial legacy. It had to be confronted both at the ideological and politico-institutional level. The nationalist intelligentsia set out to disprove the ideology and write an alternative history for Africa; while the new sovereign government sought to deal with the legal and administrative apparatus of indirect rule.

Mamdani finds in the works of the postcolonial Nigerian intellectual Yusuf Bala Usman the most powerful critique of colonial historiography. Usman offers an alternative way of understanding the history of political communities in precolonial Africa and deconstructs the key categories of race and ethnicity. Usman posits that colonial historiography suffers from three basic weaknesses-it is ahistorical, gives a transcendental definition of culture, and it racializes and tribalizes culture.

The colonial historiography denied to African societies their history and historical movement because it perceived culture as a given, without exploring its ‘historical existence and development’. Usman explains how colonial historians showed great interest in physical and genetic characteristics. Racial bias underlined the dominant tradition of European history writing and this points to their unproblematic assumption that ‘the basic units of society and history are races, nations and tribes’. This was part of their framework understanding that these societies had always lived in traditional settings, composed of tribes.

It justified the prejudice that African society was stagnant and so any progress had to come from outside (such as the ‘civilized’ British).

By accepting that these ‘traditional’ societies had existed from time immemorial unchanged , the colonial scholars effaced the historical dynamism of these societies. This discourse on tradition, Usman says, was actually an admission of historical ignorance. Not only was tradition ossified but also racialized and tribalized. Usman argues that making political systems, which are historically defined, as peculiar to a particular people
institutionalized racism. By ossifying tradition, the colonists sought to check the integration of African society which the market forces were enabling. He argues that colonial historiography was dominated by narrow racial and ethnic categories. Because they saw these societies only as amalgams of ethnic groups in relations of domination and subordination to one another, they were blind to the historical process and movement of these political communities.

Mamdani concurs that taking identities existing in the present as given and generalizing them across historical time hinders understanding the process of identity formation through changes in society, culture, economy etc. By defining African societies as traditional and tribal, it followed that their political organisation would be based on the primitive ‘unprogressive’ kinship system. It cleverly justified an outside force coming in and inducing sociopolitical ‘advancement’. As Mamdani writes,

the popular idea of ‘the foreign hero who comes from afar (the British)… imposes himself… on a previously unorganised people… mustering them into new communities in the form of states.’

The colonizers thrived on fundamental dichotomies but ‘the binary between the west and
non-west is one based less on observation than on conception’. The postcolonial African
intellectuals challenged the uncritical acceptance of colonial historiography and gave an
alternative, more nuanced history of African societies.

Usman, in deconstructing the categories of race and tribe, reveals the inner logic of indirect rule and restores, in many ways, the historical dynamism and processes of so-called static and unprogressive traditional societies. Change and continuities were as much a part of these societies as in the West. However, an alternative historiography, though essential, would not be adequate to dismantle the colonial structures. Transformation was necessary at the politico-institutional level as well.

This political project, Mamdani finds, was most successfully carried out in Tanzania under the leadership of Mwalimus Julius Nyerere. Nyerere sought to build a sovereign nationstate based on common citizenship. His statecraft followed a two-pronged approach firstly, removing the race-based distinctions in civil law; secondly, removing ethnicity-based distinctions in customary law and dismantling native authority. His vision was to efface distinctions based on civil and customary law and establish a society of ‘individuals’ enjoying equality and justice. While some political parties demanded a racial political system, favouring the indigenous race others clamoured for a nativist policy of confining citizenship to African natives. Nyerere firmly denounced group rights especially race-based, and termed ‘Africanisation’ itself a form of racial discrimination.

Indirect rule had institutionalized racism and tribalism by conferring rights and duties based on group membership. He aimed at equality and dignity for all, rejecting privileges based on race and tribe. His politics was the basic rights of all individuals, irrespective of colour or creed. He was successful in institutionalizing the formal equality of all citizens. Rights were endowed on individuals, not on groups and irrespective of race or tribe. He was able to put in place a racially inclusive form of citizenship, against the odds of a colonial legacy ‘defined by politically and legally enforced racial and tribal privilege’. To resolve the problem of tribalization, he implemented what is called the Villagization project.

Here, the state apparatus was extended to the local levels thereby removing native authorities. The colonial practise of conferring administrative and judicial functions in the native authority was dismantled. The separation of civil and customary law was also dissolved. A single integrated legal structure was created and thus a single set of laws applied to all citizens, with no distinction whatsoever.

Nyerere proudly declared:

“The new Constitution outlaws any racial or tribal or religious discrimination. We are now a nation of citizens absolutely equal before the law in theory and practise.”

In contemporary times, Tanzania is one of the few postcolonial countries in Africa to have escaped the horrors of ethnic cleansing and tribal/racial wars.

Critical Analysis

Mamdani throughout the book critiques Maine’s Theory of Nativism as the singular cause of racial and ethnic divisions in the African colonies. However, there are many who support Maine’s arguments for restoring native agency and reinforcing their customs and traditions.

Gandhi himself used Maine’s thesis that the natives were inheritors of a civilisation that had representative institutions in his fight for the voting rights of Indians in South Africa. And in India he used Maine’s thesis for his lifelong campaign on behalf of the Indian village.

Mamdani also is strongly critical of the political status given to customary rights and laws by the colonialists as well as postcolonial governments. However, proponents of group rights especially for tribal minorities, would argue that customary rights when recognized by the state helps in protecting the land and resources of vulnerable groups. That instead of increasing conflicts, it has mitigated conflicts which arise due to land alienation and state interference in people’s ‘customs’ and ‘traditions’ in countries like India.

To allude a conspiratorial political design to Maine’s works is not wholly convincing. Also, Nyerere’s nation-building project, as Mamdani himself points out, was not a model of democracy and it is questionable whether his means justified the ends, or if it ought to serve as a model for other African states, many of which have witnessed brutal dictatorships in the postcolonial era.

Maine’s book ‘Define and Rule-Native as Political Identity’, reminds one of his well-acclaimed 1996 book ‘Citizen and Subject’, wherein also he develops the idea that racialization and tribalization in Africa has massively hindered democratisation in post-independence Africa.

Define and Rule is written along a similar trajectory of fractured African societies and the deeply embedded legal and administrative structures of the colonial legacy. This book, despite some of its doubtable positions, reads like a theoretical masterwork. It has great significance in understanding the political history of Africa, its colonial baggage, and its contemporary ethnic-racial conflicts.

As Mamdani set out to do, this book succeeds in making the reader see the world through the ‘African’ vantage point. It also serves as an important contribution to the postcolonial
literature on Africa. More importantly, by analysing the intricacies of indirect rule through an insightful critique of the predominant western historiography, Mamdani reveals its racial biases and pretense of objectivity.

In concluding his lecture/book with the two striking examples of Usman’s alternative historiography and Nyerere’s successful postcolonial statecraft, Mamdani indicates radical possibilities for the ‘natives’ to define themselves and to rule themselves rather than be defined and ruled.

*Mamdani, Mahmood, 2012, Define and Rule- Native as Political Identity, Harvard University Press, USA


2 thoughts on “Review of Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it Ane. I heard that this book was not an easy read. You have simplified it very well. I think I may not need to read the original book… keep it up!


    1. Prem, haha..yup, it was quite a torture reading it again and again..not sure if it’s a good summary but yes, most details are included here if u’d like to skip the book..and thanks!:)


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