State Disengagement: Evidence from Former French West Africa

48 Pages Posted: 4 May 2020

Date Written: April 7, 2020


How do states respond to political resistance? The standard repression or concession logic presumes that the state is strong enough to punish or co-opt dissent effectively. Instead, we argue that the state may disengage when it is weak. We show that colonial governments in former French West Africa reduced public investments in districts where chiefs engaged in (typically nonviolent) disobedience. However, we also show that chieftain disobedience reduced taxes and fees on Africans, rather than increased them in retaliation. Because the state was too weak to punish via higher taxes or to concede via higher investments, the state disengaged instead in districts that were difficult to rule. Our findings show that chieftain resistance helps explain why subnational development was so unequal during colonialism. Low-level and non-violent resistance, too often overlooked in the conflict literature, also affects state-society relations and state formation.

Keywords: colonial state, conflict, public investments, taxation, West Africa, chiefs

JEL Classification: D74, F54, N47, H50, H70

Suggested Citation

McAlexander, Richard and Ricart-Huguet, Joan, State Disengagement: Evidence from Former French West Africa (April 7, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Richard McAlexander

Columbia University ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States

Joan Ricart-Huguet (Contact Author)

Loyola University Maryland ( email )

4501 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21210-2699
United States


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