Abstract: We investigate the role of deeply-rooted pre-colonial ethnic institutions in shaping com- parative regional development within African countries. We combine information on the spatial distribution of ethnicities before colonization with regional variation in contempo- rary economic performance, as proxied by satellite images of light density at night. We document a strong association between pre-colonial ethnic political centralization and re- gional development. This pattern is not driven by differences in local geographic features or by other observable ethnic-specific cultural and economic variables. The strong positive association between pre-colonial political complexity and contemporary development ob- tains also within pairs of adjacent ethnic homelands with different legacies of pre-colonial political institutions.