Spatial Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa

African states regularly rank as some of the least developed countries in the world. A closer look within the borders of each state, however, unveils a rather different story; there exists significant subnational variation in levels of development (Migdal 1988; Herbst 2000; Boone 2003; van de Walle 2009). For example, while many parts of Nigeria, including northeastern Nigeria where the terrorist organization, Boko Haram is active, may rank in the bottom quintile in the world in terms of access to public services, other parts of the country rank near the top. This spatial inequality is not unique to Nigeria but prevalent across sub-Saharan Africa. Such spatial inequality is a fact that has plagued these nations in more ways than one. Envy for the lifestyle of those who are better off can ignite anger and in some cases ultimately leads to conflict, terrorism, and eventual state failure (Stewart 2008; Østby 2008; Østby et al. 2009; Cederman et al. 2011; Cederman et al. 2013).


We cannot begin to combat the occurrence of violence and state failure rooted in such inequality until the root of the problem is fully understood. What accounts for spatial inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa? If regional inequality increases the risk of conflict, why do governments provide some regions with much better public services than others?


However, previous research has encouraged me to look even before the 75 years of Colonialism to pre-colonial centralized kingdoms (large states with vertical accountability mechanisms) which are believed to have had greater political influence during colonialism that led to some preferential treatment relative to areas that lacked such organization. One cannot understand the organization of the colonial state without an understanding of pre-colonial authority structures that existed and how they interacted with colonialism. For example, war against the indigenous Ashanti Kingdom in the Gold Coast led to the building of a railway to Kumasi as part of the pacification effort. This railway in turn became the key route from which cocoa was exported from the colony. Such an observation is consistent with a study by Gennaoili and Rainer (2007), which finds that colonial administrators were more likely to contract with centralized groups to cultivate agriculture and mine minerals. This suggests that subnational variation in development is actually rooted in pre-colonial institutions and colonialism was merely riding on the backs of these highly organized societal groups.


Therefore, I plan to delve into this Pre-colonial Kingdom Hypothesis. With the assistance of a Charles Center Summer Fellowship, I plan to systematically study the 50 most centralized groups at the time of colonialism and better understand the strategic interactions between them and the European imperial powers to unravel exactly how pre-colonial kingdoms shaped colonial policy. I aim to test three different mechanisms by which pre-colonial kingdoms shaped colonial investments: 1.) strong groups put up greater resistance to the European imperial powers, necessitating greater war-making investments during pacification; 2.) strong groups were better organized and thus more effective partners in cash crop cultivation and building of public goods; 3.) strong groups tended to be located near the capital and thus more likely to work for the colonial bureaucracy and have strong inter-personal ties with colonial administrators.


Example of GIS digitized data that I will analyze

Example of GIS digitized data that I will analyze



  1. nagrawal01 says:

    Your research is really fascinating, Layla! I just wanted to get a better understanding of your project. How would you define spatial inequality exactly? For me, the term “spatial” can be broad. In this context, does it refer only to access, and “spacial inequality” specifically to access to public services? How will you be testing the mechanisms by which pre-colonial kingdoms shaped colonial investments? Will it be primarily through your readings and identifying trends in the development of spatial inequality? What do you hope to do once you’ve completed your research this summer? In other words, do you hope to make this a long-term project, maybe making this your thesis? I think that this work is applicable to other countries as well, for example, India, where the caste system is still very active.

  2. cmcrowley01 says:

    Hey Layla,

    Cool stuff! This concept of a “strong group” is really interesting, but I’m not sure exactly how you define this term. How do these groups form? Are they organised formally or informally? Along ethnic/class lines?

    Is this research qualitative?

    Looking forward to see what you find!