How did Mali get here? (Part 1: Echoes of decolonization)

Introduction: Recently I’ve been drafting a brief overview of Mali’s modern history and present trajectory. The aim is to excavate the long-term political, economic, and historical underpinnings of Mali’s ongoing instability. This post is the first in a series on this overview; subsequent posts will survey more recent history and the distinct but overlapping analyses of Mali’s postcolonial development. As I work to improve my draft for publication, I invite readers’ comments and criticism.

The final years of French control over what was then called le Soudan Français or French Sudan set the mold for much of what followed independence. The legacy of seven decades of colonial rule continues to shape questions of governance, relations among various segments of society, and foreign relations for Malians today. Indeed, reading the Malian press in the early 21st century, one often finds that political discourse about key issues has scarcely changed since the late 1950s.

The government of France’s Fourth Republic (1946-1958) sought to preserve its influence over French possessions in Africa and elsewhere. It created the French Union, a political framework that bestowed certain rights upon erstwhile colonial subjects, including political participation and representation in the metropolitan National Assembly. On the heels of French military defeat in Indochina, a bloody war for independence in Algeria–France’s largest colony and Mali’s neighbor to the north–helped bring down the Fourth Republic and put Charles de Gaulle back in power. To forestall the breakup of its overseas possessions, in 1958 de Gaulle’s government created the French Community, granting limited self-rule to former colonies but maintaining the metropole’s power over their defense, diplomacy, and currency. A territorial body known as the Organisation commune des régions sahariennes or OCRS had been established in 1957 to keep French sovereignty over a vast expanse of the Sahara Desert stretching from the eastern borders of Morocco and Mauritania to northern Chad and its borders with Libya and Sudan (see map below). This territory was meant to guarantee French access to newly discovered mineral resources in the region, including oil and gas, as well as France’s nuclear testing site in southern Algeria (N. Keita, 2005; Lecocq, 2010).


Both the French Community and the OCRS were overtaken by events, however. The Community became defunct as former colonies opted for full independence. In 1959 French Sudan and Senegal formed a union called the Mali Federation, taking its name from the Empire of Mali which spread over much of the western Sahel from the 13th through the 17th century. The Federation fell apart just weeks after independence from France in August 1960, splitting into two sovereign republics. As for the OCRS, it was dissolved after Algerian independence in 1962 (Mann, 2015).

Throughout this gradual transition from colony (French Sudan) to member of the French Community to member of the Mali Federation to independent republic, a new generation of leaders in Bamako fought to assure their homeland’s emerging sovereignty. The Union 220px-keita_stamp_1961Soudanaise – Rassemblement Démocratique Africain or US-RDA, a pan-Africanist party headed by former schoolteacher Modibo Keita and drawn from a small cadre of civil servants educated in French colonial schools, became the dominant faction. In many respects the US-RDA stood firmly against lingering French control, opposing the OCRS in particular. After becoming Mali’s first president in September 1960, Keita demanded that French military personnel evacuate their bases on Malian soil (including Tessalit in the far north, which was useful for the war effort in Algeria). He forged military links with the Soviet Union and communist China, and later established a new currency, the Malian franc. In these regards Mali diverged from its neighbors such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, which continued to house French military bases and retained a currency, the CFA franc, pegged to the French franc. Yet the Malian government made no diplomatic or economic break with France, and retained French as its official language (I. Sidibé, 2005; Joly, 2013). Moreover, Mali’s first constitution was heavily drawn from France’s 1958 constitution, marked by a strong presidency and highly centralized state authority (Baudais, 2015). While the people governing had changed, the same style of governing–secular, bureaucratic, autocratic and occasionally brutal–endured (I. Sidibé, 2005).

Perhaps the most significant resistance to Malian government authority in these early years came from northern Tuareg communities. Tuareg nomads had long roamed large swathes of the Sahara; their zone of activity straddled the borders of five newly independent states in the region. French colonial administrators had upended Tuareg society by banning slavery, dismantling local polities and favoring some clans over others (N. Keita, 2005). Despite, perhaps even because of, their repeated armed opposition to colonial rule, Tuareg people occupied a “privileged place in the French colonial imagination” (Lecocq and Klute, 2013: 425) and were exempted from forced labor, conscription and schooling requirements.

Like their French predecessors, Malian leaders in Bamako interpreted the hierarchies within Tuareg society as evidence of an essentially feudal political order marked by vestiges of slavery. The ruling US-RDA, guided by pan-Africanist and modernist ideals, worked to coalesce a unified Malian national identity and historiography, but did so largely around the dominant Mande cultures of the south (Lecocq, 2010; Baudais, 2015). In promoting this model of nationhood, Malian government officials saw themselves as opposing an unjust Tuareg social order that permitted light-skinned elites to impose their will upon darker-skinned vassals as well as other racially “black” peoples inhabiting the region (Lecocq, 2010). The US-RDA spoke out against the forces of “ethnic particularism” and “obscurantism,” not to mention the lingering influence of colonialism throughout the country. This struggle was especially acute in the north, where several Tuareg and Arab leaders had lobbied French officials in the late 1950s for inclusion in the OCRS instead of a new, black-led nation-state (N. Keita, 2005; Hall, 2011; Koné, 2017).

These tensions formed the backdrop of Mali’s first Tuareg revolt in 1963-64 when nomads in the northern Adrar mountains–probably no more than a few hundred in all–took up arms. Malian troops violently suppressed the rebels and abused civilians suspected of aiding them; trauma from this period remains seared into many Tuareg communities’ memories (Lecocq, 2010; Rasmussen, 2017). Suspecting a French hand in the uprising, Malian authorities courted the support of historically marginalized segments of Tuareg society to cement their control over the north (Boilley, 2005). Much of northern Mali would remain under direct military administration for decades.

Political power, marked by the authoritarian culture of commandement inherited from French colonial administrators, became increasingly personalized under Keita’s presidency. Official socialist rhetoric and economic policies proved divisive. The government was forced to devalue the Malian franc in 1963 and again in 1967, and cracked down on groups it accused of undermining its revolutionary aims, such as migrants seeking work abroad and merchants opposing import controls. Heavy-handed rule sapped the state’s legitimacy and stoked disaffection in segments of society and the state apparatus (Baudais, 2015). New troubles were brewing.

Coming up in Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics

Offline references

  • Baudais, Virginie. 2015. Les trajectoires de l’Etat au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Boilley, Pierre. 2005. Un complot français au Sahara ? Politiques françaises et représentations maliennes. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 163-182.
  • Hall, Bruce. 2011. A History of Race in Muslim West Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Joly, Vincent. 2013. The French Army and Malian Independence. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 75-89.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2005. De l’identitaire au problème de la territorialité : L’OCRS et les sociétés Kel Tamacheq du Mali. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France: Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 91-121.
  • Koné, Kassim. 2017. A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali. African Studies Review 60(1):53-75.
  • Lecocq, Baz. 2010. Disputed desert: Decolonization, competing nationalisms and Tuareg rebellions in Mali. Leiden: Brill.
  • Lecocq, Baz and Georg Klute. 2013. Tuareg separatism in Mali. International Journal 68(3):424-434.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2015. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rasmussen, Susan. 2017. Global media and local verbal art representations of northern Malian Tuareg. African Studies Review 60(1):77-100.
  • Sidibé, Ibrahima Baba. 2005. Les relations franco-maliennes à la recherche d’un nouveau souffle. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 341-362.
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9 Responses to How did Mali get here? (Part 1: Echoes of decolonization)

  1. Thanks Bruce for the concise and thought-provoking analysis. Looking forward to the next installments! Wish I had “From “Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel” in 2014, sounds helpful.
    One thing to consider: what of the Projet du Niger and other so-called development projects of the post-war era? How did they influence early independent and later Mali? Just a thought. Thanks again.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      You’re referring to the Office du Niger and similar large-scale infrastructure projects? What other development work do you have in mind? I appreciate your suggestions.

      • That’s the only one I could think of at this time but I remember reading once comments by postwar colonial administrators about the value of development projects that I found intriguing. I’ll send them if I can find them.

      • In case you don’t have them, there is some good food for thought in terms of colonial ideas on development in Monica Van Beusekom’s 1997 article, “Colonisation Indigène: French Rural Development Ideology at the Office du Niger.” The other article I was thinking of was Frederick Cooper’s 1997 article, “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept.” The latter is from the book, International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge. Let me know if you can’t obtain the first and I’ll send it along.

  2. Nice and succinct!

    A small thing that is a bit of a can of worms given MANSA’s name and a long history of Americanist usage: have you considered using Manding in place of Mande? Or do you mean a larger grouping that would include Susu, Soninke, etc? If you mean ‘Bamanan, Maninka, Jula etc.’, I’d argue that “Manding” would be more straightforward.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      All the literature I’ve seen (mainly in French) uses “Mande”–could you help me understand the distinction between “Mande” and “Manding”? Is it that the latter is just a narrower category?

  3. Pingback: How did Mali get here? (Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics) | Bridges from Bamako

  4. Pingback: How did Mali get here? (Part 3: Anti-imperialist explanations) | Bridges from Bamako

  5. Fatoumata Kane says:

    Hi Bruce, I am just discovering your blog now and reading with interest ALL the posts. I am really impressed by all your knowledge about my country. I was trying to make sense of all the brutal changes happening now in Mali and reading your blog help a lot !

    I would like to just correct one information here: US RDA was headed by Mamadou Konate. Keita took over after Konate passed.
    Many thanks this great analysis.

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