Magazine article UNESCO Courier

West Africa; the Fight for Survival

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

West Africa; the Fight for Survival

Article excerpt

The period from 1880 to 1900 was the high-water mark of European conquest and occupation of west Africa. There were French campaigns in the western Sudan, Ivory Coast and Dahomey between 1880 and 1898, and British campaigns in Asante, the Delta region and in northern Nigeria between 1895 and 1903.

During this period, practically all Africans had the same objective, that of defending their sovereignty and traditional way of life, but the strategies and methods they adopted varied. Three options were open to the Africans, confrontation, alliance or acquiescence and submission. The strategy of confrontation involved open warfare, sieges, guerilla tactics, scorched-earth policies, as well as diplomacy.

From 1880, the French adopted a policy of extending their control over the whole region from the Senegal to the Niger and then Chad and linking these areas with their posts on the Guinea cost in Ivory Coast and Dehomey.

In their occupation of west Africa, the French resorted almost exclusively to the method of military conquest, rather than the conclusion of treaties as the British did. In terms of African reaction, all the options open to them, namely submission, alliance and confrontation, were resorted to. However, far more of the rulers opted for the strategy of militant confrontation than for submission and alliance, and opposition here was far more protracted that anywhere else in west Africa for two main reasons. The first was that as already indicated, the French themselves used the military option almost exclusively and this evoked a militant reaction. The second reason was that the people were far more Islamized than those of other areas of west Africa and, as one scholar, M. Crowder has pointed out, since "for Muslim societies of west Africa the imposition of white rule meant submission to the infidel which was intolerable for any good Muslim", they tended to resist the Europeans with added fervour and a tenacity often lacking among non-Muslims.

These general observations are well illustrated in the history and person of Samori Toure, the valorous leader of the Mandingo Empire.

Samori Toure chose the strategy of confrontation and not of alliance though he used the weapons of both diplomacy and warfare but with the emphasis on the latter, By 1881, Samori had already converted "the southern part of the Sudanese savannah all along the great west African forest" between the northern parts of modern Sierra Leone to the Sassandra River in the Ivory Coast, into a single empire under his unquestioned authority.

Unlike the Tukulor Empire, the Mandingo Empire was still on the "up-swing" by 1882 when the first encounter between Samori and the French occurred. The conquest of the are had also enabled Samori to build a powerful army relatively well-equipped with European arms. This army was divided into two wings, the infantry wing (the Sofa) which by 1887 numbered between 30,000 and 35,000 men and the cavalry wing numbering not more than 3,000 by 1887.

The infantry was divided into permanent units of 10 to 20 men known as the se (fet) or kulu (heaps) commanded by a kuntigi (chief), and ten se formed a bolo (arm) under the command of a bolokuntigi. The cavalry was divided into bands of 50 called sere. The bolo formed the main striking force while the sere rode alongside each bolo. Since these units were permanent, its members developed feelings of friendship first among themselves and of loyalty first to their local leader and then to Samori. Thus, the army soon assumed "a quasi-national character because it achieved a very remarkable homogeneity".

What was unique about Samori's army was the standard of its weapons and training.

Unlike most of the armies of west Africa, not only was this army virtually professional, but it was armed by Samori himself. Up to 1876, he armed them with old guns which the local blacksmiths could repair themselves. …

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