Several recent studies have examined the impact of the First World War on the people, and rulers – alien and indigenous - of West Africa. Diverse societies responded in a variety of ways to a situation in which extraordinary demands from the colonial rulers - of which direct military recruitment was only one - were often accompanied by administrative and military contraction at the local level.
This paper examines the way in which wartime conditions in the Zouaragu (Zuarungu) and Bawku districts of what is now upper Ghana exposed the weakness of the indigenous administrative structure recently constructed by the British. Here, in many instances, chiefs had been imposed, or at least had had their powers qualitatively changed and substantially increased, in societies that were traditionally organized on a kinship basis. The War seemed to provide an opportunity for an overthrow of this structure, which had enabled many of the chiefs to establish harshly exploitative relations with their subjects. An upsurge of disobedience to chiefly orders was followed in the Bongo area by a land dispute which flared into disturbances in which a constable was killed. These disturbances and an incident in the neighbouring Bawku District were taken as a sign of revolt and ruthlessly crushed by a local administration intent on teaching an unforgettable lesson.
Governor Clifford in Accra anatomized the inadequacies of administrative control and condemned his officers' brutal response to the disturbances, but offered little in the way of suggestions for the reform of the chieftaincy system despite clear indications that local hostility was directed more against it than against colonial rule per se. Neither were reform proposals forthcoming from the Northern Territories administration. Thus the severity of the British response to popular opposition to chiefly power was a factor in enabling some chiefs to continue as ‘spoilers’ rather than ‘fathers’ of their people even after the introduction of formal Indirect Rule in the 1930s had nominally broadened popular participation in local administration.