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close this bookThe Courier N° 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderMali : An omnipresent sense of history
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThree republics to create one democracy
View the documentInterview with Ali N. Diallo, President of the National Assembly
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View the documentInterview with Amadou Seydou Traoré, opposition leader and USRDA spokesman
View the documentThe magnetism of the unfamiliar... but unexotic
View the documentMali-EU cooperation
View the documentNGOs finally achieve tangible results


Some countries have a strong folk memory. Despite its size, Mali appears hemmed in by its frontiers. For more than a thousand years, this state was a splendid empire, constantly spreading outward and reflecting the history of the African continent with its conquests and alliances, reversals of fortune and moments of glory. At its height, it extended from the Atlantic to the Sudanese border, from the south of Morocco to the north of Nigeria. Mali's history rests in the minds of its people rather than in any structures inherited from the past. This acts as an antidote to the 'amnesia' often brought on by colonisation, which has the effect of paralysing the future. Although poor, the country has a well-established sense of its place in the world.

A racial melting pot
On the eve of colonisation, Mali was known es 'west Sudan'. In 1924, the territory then known as 'French Sudan' was split up and small portions of the Malian nation were incorporated into the seven states bordering it-a move certainly not calculated to have a cohesive effect on the remnants of the old empire. Mali has long been a melting pot of races, ethnic groups and cultures. They have learned to live together- intermingling, sometimes forming unexpected alliances, and occasionally fighting one another. The result today is a potpourri where true racial or ethnic confrontation is difficult to imagine. The interplay of history and the mixing of ethnic groups, families and individuals, has created what one intellectual de scribed to us as 'the anti Rwanda vaccine'. Historical mythology offers, perhaps, further evidence of the fusion of cultures in this country. As in ancient Greece or Rome, to take European examples, each ethnic group and each Malian empire, was 'backed' by a host of gods, spirits and totems. In this nebulous world, where dreams beget history and where vastly differing ethnic groups can trace themselves back to a common ancestor, the result was a multiplicity of interrelationships. Under various names, the python totem belongs to many different peoples, including the Peal, Ma/inke and Sarakolle. A study of the migrations of the peoples who make up Mali also reveals a great many relationships - for example, between the Dogon, who are black, and the Shongoi; who are more half-caste. They regard one another as cousins, originating from Aswan in Egypt.

Malians appear to share a genuine sense of belonging in keeping with their shared culture. The 'people' of Mali came into being long before the state of the same name. The guerilla war fought in recent years by the Tuaregs (this is the English plural, Tuareg already being the plural form of Targul) against the Malian army, is often viewed abroad as a struggle between whites (or Arabs) and blacks. But this is an illusion. Although the Tuaregs are probably the only 'white' minority in the country, they are an integral ingredient in the melting pot. They are also known as 'Kel-Tamasheq' - those who speak Tamashek, which was originally the language of their Bella slaves. Like all the country's ethnic groups, they have dominated and have in turn been dominated. They have forged alliances with one another, and, more commonly, have united against Arab or Berber invasions. The relative absence of bitterness overall is probably due to the fact that each of Mali's peoples has had its era of glory and imperial dominance.

Mali is lucky to have such knowledge of its history. For centuries, the most precise details have been collected by the griots. The same role has also been played by the many secret societies which have initiation periods lasting, in some cases, up to 50 years. They were, and sometimes still are, repositories for the secrets of history, magic, astrology and science, and also for the symbols of power-the religious objects and artefacts of the former emperors. There are written sources as well, something which is quite rare in Africa. These have been transcribed since the beginning of the millennium and, in recent decades, close collaboration between historians, griots and members of traditional societies has enabled a deeper knowledge to be gained of Mali's history.

A rich empire

Asselar Man, discovered near Timbuktu in the centre of Mali, was a contemporary of Cro Magnon Man.

Cave paintings from five thousand B.C. reveal similarities with those in Egypt and are probably the work of migrant populations from the east, who moved into Mali as the Sahara Desert expanded. Less reliable sources state that interbred populations of Jews and Egyptians under the command of an officer of the Pharaoh Dinga created the Soninke dynasty (originating from Aswan). These people probably laid the found ations of the first great Malian empire, that of Ouagadou. Other sources, equally unreliable, report that they were probably Judaeo-Syrians who arrived at the end of the third century A.D. and found a population already in place. What is more or less certain is that, during the first millennium, a Soninke dynasty was installed around the current frontier between Mauritania and Mali and that 40 princes ruled it in succession in the period prior to 750 A.D. Initially, these rulers were white but, with increasing intermarriage, their skins became darker and darker. To Arab chroniclers, Mali came to be known as Bafour or Bilad es-Soudan (the country of the blacks). At the beginning of the second millennium, the Ouagadou empire held sway over several kingdoms in the south, including the Nigerian delta and a number of Berber principalities. Documents dating from this period have replaced the name Ouagadou with that of Ghana, by analogy, perhaps, with the emperor's title. The empire was already very rich, the richest in the world according to an Arab chronicler who visited it in 970. A work by the writer A/ Bakri, which appeared a century later (1087) went into great detail about the empire's organisation-the system of matrilinear succession, the role of councils of dignitaries, and the capital, Koumbi (whose foundations were discovered in 1914 in southern Mauritania). This city was divided into two districts, one of these being the sacred, imperial city, home to the empire's python totem to which a young girl was sacrificed every year.

A story of courage

The killing of the snake totem is the most significant myths in the country's history. The hero of the story is Amadou Sefedokete whose love for his beautiful fiancee Sia (who was about to be offered in sacrifice), prompted him to descend into the monster's lair and confront it. By killing the totem, he broke the thread of countless generations before him, who had carried out the ritual sacrifice. He is still remembered for this magnificent action, based on love and a sense of nobility, and he remains a subject for artists of all types. His brave action still causes young lovers in Africa to shudder in admiration. However, this act of deicide brought about a reversal of fortunes. The monster's seven heads, which the young hero is said to have cut off one after the other, are reputed to have been scattered to the four comers of the earth, thereby dispersing the empire's riches and leaving it penniless. The true story is more prosaic. Ghana's wealth was eyed greedily by the Arabs and Berbers who had long traded with it. The empire's resistance in the face of Islam gave Moroccan religious fanatics a pretext for organising a jihad. It was invaded by an army of 30000 devotees supported by forces from some of the empire's black vassal states. The 'holy war' began in 1042 ending 34 years later with the occupation of Koumbi.

The occupation did not last long but was followed by internal clan wars which brought about the end of an era. Restoration came about at the end of the 72th century , in the small Sosso kingdom, south of Ouagadou (also set up by a small group of Sonink One of the minor kings called Soumangourou Diarasso dreamed of recreating Ghana's empire, and, in 1203, he succeeded in sacking the ancient capital of Koumbi in a move designed to establish his own dynasty. This was an important symbolic act and in the fierce war which followed, Soumangourou subjugated Manda region which was overflowing with wealth. One of Africa's greatest heroes, Soundjata, rose up against him. He was supposedly the legitimate heir to the Mandingo throne, but was unable to walk, having been born an invalid of a deformed mother who had been married at the recommendation of the king's sorcerer. His young half-brother took his place on the throne and sent the paralysed prince into exile. At the age of 18, Soundjata decided to seize his own place in history and a 'giant' was thus bom. In 1235, his army fought that of the bloodthirsty Sosso monarch whom he himself is said to have cut down in an extraordinary battle. It was a fight which, according to the legends, saw the use of all types of weapon, including magic. Soundjata had forged a grand alliance in order to gain victory. Rather than reducing to vassalage the small kingdoms which had allied themselves with him, the new emperor decided to form them into a federation-although he wisely declared that from Niani (his capital), 'I shall see all'. His empire took the name of 'Mali' (the hippopotamus) on account of that animal's strength and mastery of bath water and land. For 20 years, the empire was to stretch as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Its structure, based on a number of warrior clans, craftsmen, freemen and marabous, is still characteristic of Mali and neighbouring countries today. The empire was rich in gold once again but also in terms of agricultural organisation with the development of cotton and groundout farming. Soundjata disappeared mysteriously in 1255, leaving a prosperous empire.

'Conquest' of America?

In 1285, there was a struggle for succession between two princes and a third, Prince Sakoura (a freed slave), took advantage of the quarrel to take power for himself. Sakoura expanded the empire by subjugating the Timbuktu Tuaregs and the Gao Shongoi: After his short reign, a genuine heir of Soundjata, Aboubakar II, ascended the throne. He had his eye on conquests over the seas and, according to the story, he set sail westwards leading a fleet of 2000 vessels. He was never seen again. However, recent studies favour the hypothesis that he was not lost at sea as had always been supposed' but did, in fact, reach the Americas. A series of ineffective monarchs succeeded this 'conqueror of the impossible', who preceded Christopher Columbus by 200 years, leaving little real impression on history other than the records of their exuberant behaviour. One of them, for example, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with a reported retinue of 60 000 and distributed considerable amounts of gold to all the dignitaries he encountered in that holy place. These kings, however, are acknowledged as having preserved the empire's unity, guaranteeing order without repression and allowing wide religious, moral and sexual tolerance, even for married women.

The kingdom centred on Gao dates back to at least the first millennium but it was usually a vassal of the Ouagadou empire and of Mali. One of its kings, Sonny Ali Ber (known as Sonny the Great), came to the throne in 1464, profiting from the decay of the Mali empire. His reign was marked by a bitter struggle against the Uls of Timbuktu who, over a period of four centuries following the Almoravid conquest, had converted a large portion of the empire to Islam. The circumstances of Sonny's disappearance are uncertain, but he is thought to have drowned in 1492, the year when a certain Genoese navigator was to achieve the ancient goal of 'discovering' the Malian empire.

Sonny Ber's successor did not last long in the face of Islamic expansion. The new Askia dynasty was installed to lead the Shongoi empire, and this expanded with the annexation of Dahomey and part of Nigeria. However, a small part of the former Mali empire never passed under their rule. The Askia dynasty blew hot and cold in terms of religious fervour. Tyrannical at first, it later took a softer line. Under the reign of one monarch, the Gao court based in the university city of Timbuktu became a place of exceptional refinement-only to slide once again into a state of intolerance. One of the Askias, having destroyed the last symbols of the former Mali empire, the city of Niani, set upon his former Moroccan allies. Another emperor, Askia Daoud (1549-1582), turned out to be a fine administrator. He developed agriculture and set up a genuine bank in Gaol War with Morocco continued throughout his reign and beyond. In 1584, imperial force defeated 20 000 Moroccan soldiers, winning a victory which might have been decisive had it not been for internal dissent. This weakened the Askia side and enabled Morocco, with a band of Spanish mercenaries, to take over the empire, following a battle in April 1591. Success was due, above all on this occasion, to the firearms deployed by the winning side. Such weapons were unknown to the 45 000 Malian cavalry and infantry who were engaged. It also turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. The occupying troops sent the great scholars from Timbuktu University to Morocco, where their peers took up their cause. Moreover, the foreign soldiers were won over by the easy life in Mali-and one of the first results of their presence was a big increase in the half-caste population. In 1612, the troops rejected the Moroccan command: the occupation was at an end and the last few Moroccans were later expelled from Timbuktu by the Tuaregs.

Black religious proselytism and colonisation

To each dog his day. In the 17th century, the Bambaras set up an empire around Segou, but the debauched lifestyle of several of the sovereigns and disapproval of the part they played in the slave trade proved to be their downfall. Once again, the history of the country was to be shaped by a slave- Ngolo Diarra-who founded his dynasty in 1766. He was able to restore a degree of prestige to the kingdom, but his efforts were undermined after his death. As a reaction, a proselytising Black Islam then began to evolve.

Massina became a theocratic state around the beginning of the 19th century, in common with other kingdoms which appeared at the same time. One of their most famous rulers, the conqueror El Hadj Oumar, was defeated by the troops of the French General Faidherbe who forced him to give up West Senegal. The days of Malian independence were now numbered. The courage of his successor only delayed the progress of French colonisation, which finally prevailed at the end of the century.

Resistance fighters carried on the war from other points in the old empire, particularly from what is now Guinea. The country was dismantled by the colonial system and pacified, but the end of the Second World War and the return of African soldiers brought a renewed desire for independence. French Sudan became the rallying point for freedom fighters in the French colonies-the old dream of reunification was not dead and buried. In 1946, the Rassemblement Democratique Africain was set up, later to become the USRDA (Union soudanaise-Rassemblement democratique africain). In 1956, the future architect of Mali's independence, Modibo Keita, was appointed leader of the movement and elected to represent the 'Sudan' in the French Assembly. A 'Malian Federation' project was drawn up to include Dahomey (Benin), Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Senegal and 'Sudan' (Mali). A constituent assembly of independence movement representatives was set up in 1959. However, the constitution adopted by the local Malian and Senegalese assemblies was rejected by the other two. The Federation now had only two members but was nonetheless proclaimed independent on 20 June 1960. In the event, the spirit of unity was lacking and, on the pretext of a rivalry between the two leaders (the 'Sudanese' Modibo Keita and the Senegalese Mamadou Dia), Senegal withdrew from the union in August. On 22 September 1960, the 'Sudan', now without an outlet to the sea, adopted one of the most prestigious names in its history: Mali.

The new state was landlocked not only geographically but also, very soon, politically. Modibo Keita's socialist agenda prompted foreign investors to pull out, and the country was organised increasingly as a 'people's democracy'. Fortunately, the repression was not excessive but a sizeable proportion of the population disapproved of the system that had been chosen. Mali and Guinea still had modest aspirations to their old dream of unification. The founder of the Republic, Modibo Keita, was overthrown by a military coup on 19 November 1968. More than the break-up by colonisation, which left dreams of Sudan being reconstituted, this military putsch sounded the knell of the old empire. Mali became just another state whose colonial and post-colonial eras have been marked by a lack of success. Nevertheless, a sense of history is still omnipresent.
Hegel Goueier