State Disengagement: Evidence from Former French West Africa

International Studies Quarterly

53 Pages Posted: 4 May 2020 Last revised: 7 May 2021

See all articles by Richard McAlexander

Richard McAlexander

Columbia University

Joan Ricart-Huguet

Loyola University Maryland; Yale University

Date Written: November 4, 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 French West Africa reduced public investments in districts where chiefs engaged in largely non-violent disobedience. However, we also show that chieftain disobedience reduced government taxes and fees on Africans, rather than increased them as punishment. Because the state was too weak to punish with higher taxation or to concede by increasing investments, the state disengaged in hard-to-rule districts. Our findings show that chieftain resistance helps explain why subnational development was so unequal during colonialism. Low-level and non-violent resistance, often overlooked in the conflict literature, also affect 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 (November 4, 2020). International Studies Quarterly, 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


Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

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