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The lowest level of government in sub-Saharan Africa is often a cadre of chiefs who raise taxes, control the judicial system and allocate the most important scarce resource—land. Chiefs, empowered by colonial indirect rule, are often accused of using their power despotically and inhibiting rural development. Yet others view them as diligent representatives of rural people, and survey evidence suggests that they maintain widespread support. We exploit the colonial history of Sierra Leone to investigate the impact of chiefs’ power on economic development, peoples’ attitudes and social capital. At the end of the 19th century the British colonial government in Sierra Leone created an aristocracy, the ruling families, whose number was idiosyncratic across chieftaincies. Because a chief must come from one of these ruling families, chiefs face less competition and are more powerful in places with fewer ruling families. We show that, consistent with the chiefs as despots view, places with fewer ruling families have significantly worse development outcomes today—in particular, lower rates of educational attainment, child health, and non-agricultural employment. But, consistent with the chiefs as representatives view, these powerful chiefs’ authority is highly respected among villagers, and their villages have higher levels of “social capital,” for example, greater popular participation in a variety of “civil society” organizations and forums that might potentially be used for keeping chiefs accountable. We argue that these seemingly paradoxical results reflect the capture of civil society organizations by chiefs. Instead of acting as a vehicle for disciplining chiefs, chiefs have structured these organizations to control society. Our results present a challenge to the standard principal-agent approach to governance dominant in political science and economics.