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Posted - 14 Jan 2011 :  17:53:15  Show Profile Send Momodou a Private Message
Democracy, governance and peoples' and human rights in the pre-colonial states of the greater Senegambia basin: institutional framework, traditional and practices from the 13th to the 19th century
Revised Edition By Ebou Taal Ndongo Daara Afdaay
Friday, January 14, 2011

Memorium to my Beloved Dear wife the late Aji Haddy Conteh who passed away on 2nd January 2010

European literature has generally presented the History of Africans, including the Greater Senegambia Basin, as if our ancestral past only started when some errant European explorers "discovered" us in the 15th century and colonized us for centuries. Yet the writings of earlier credible Arab historians and geographers like Ibn Batoutta, El Bakri, Leo Africanus (real name Al Hassan Ibn Muhamad al Wazzan al Fasi) and Ibn Khaldum dating back to the 10th century and earlier provide rich information and ample evidence that our History and glorious past clearly pre-date European incursion into Africa, the undisputed cradle of human existence. Eminent contemporary African scholars like the late Professor Cheikh Anta Diop, J. Ki - Zerbo, Ahmadou Hampate Ba, Edward Blyden and their illustrious peers as well as famous Senegambian traditional historians have made invaluable contributions that amply prove this point.

For the purpose of this essay the term "Greater Senegambia" means the geopolitical entity comprising the land area watered by the Rivers Gambia and Senegal and their tributaries, an area that includes the sovereign states of the Republics of The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania.

It will be shown in this brief presentation with strong supporting evidence that mainstream institutions, concepts, and practices that are commonly and mistakenly or perhaps deliberately attributed to Western and foreign values have existed in highly sophisticated forms in Africa long before civilization crossed the Mediterranean Sea from our continent to transform and modernize societies in Greece and Rome initially and Western Europe subsequently. Evidence will be adduced to show that democracy, respect for human rights and related governance issues that are so topical today were established practices that flourished in the Greater Senegambian States of the Mali Empire, the Fouta Jallon Imamate and the Lebou Republic, among others, centuries before the advent of colonialism and the heinous slave trade.


After SEVEN years of self-exile in Nema-Wagadou, now in present day Mauritania, and part of the Great Ghana Empire (6th - 13th century A.D), Soundjata returned to Mande to free his people from the oppressive tyrant Soumaworo Kanteh, ruler of Soso. At the battle of Narina in 1235 where Soumaoro was finally defeated, Soundjata reconquered and liberated Mande defintively. The first action of the new Mansa Manden was to make a solemn Declaration in which he vowed to unite all the peoples of the New Mande under a new democratic state system in which "the management of the affairs of the country shall not be the affairs of one family alone; it shall be the affairs of all."

To achieve his objective, Soundjata created the Great Council of Manden, an Assembly composed of representatives of all the diverse peoples of the Empire extending from the northern bend of the River Niger in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, with the mandate to take decisions on all national matters based on consensus and only resorting to voting in absolutely unavoidable circusmstances. In effect the Assembly was the Parliament representing the common people. At the first meeting of the Council that Soundjata convened at Kouroufoukan-Fouga, the town square of Dakakjalan, Mande's new capital, the Charter which contained SEVEN articles was adopted by popular acclamation. Its general objective articulated in the preamble read as follows: "Manden is founded on expectation and love, liberty and fraternity. This signifies that there will neither be ethnic nor racial discrimination in Manden," a commitment that guaranteed freedom, justice and the dignity and worth of the human-being, protected the equal rights of all the diverse peoples of the enlarged Mande Empire irrespective of gender and promoted the practice of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, a close resemblance to the preamble of the United Nations Charter signed on 26 June, 1945 in San Francisco more than 700 years later.

In article 5 it was stated: "Hunger is a bad thing, and slavery is not a good thing either; and as long as we have our bows and arrows (power) hunger will no longer kill anyone in Manden; War shall never again destroy villages in order to capture slaves to go and sell them; No one shall be beaten or put to death because he is the son of a slave."

Article 6 was even more unequivocal. It reads: "The existence of slavery ceases definitively today from one end of Manden to the other, and raids are banished in Manden with effect from today."

Article 7 provided as follows: "Man has a soul which makes him see three things: see what he wants to see, say what he wants to say and do what he wishes to do. If one of these is missing, his soul will suffer and he will deteriorate as a human being." It concluded, "Consequently as of now every one is entitled to the integrity of his own person, and each person has freedom of his own action but must respect what is forbidden and the laws of the land." In the concluding paragraph of the Charter it was stated "Such is the Charter of Mande proclaimed for the ears of the entire world" which makes it very clear that the Charter was addressed not only to the people of Mali but to the world as it was known then and could, therefore, be regarded as the first publicized universal Declaration of Human Rights centuries before Europe developed sufficiently to surrender the most basic rights to the common people, while in the United States Civil Rights movements were fighting for blacks and minorities to enjoy basic rights and against racial discrimination as recent as the 1960s.

Soundjata's revolution was not immediately endorsed by all the vassal rulers under Mali and in the peripheral states of the Moors and their neighbours, north of the River Senegal, who had prospered from the slave trade. But Soundjata was determined to ensure that his Freedom Charter, being the new Mande Constitution, was respected throughout Mali by all without exception. Such responsibility was effectively executed by cavalry divisions under the respective command of his greatest and most loyal Generals, namely Trimakha Traore (Conqueror of Gabou also known to have crossed the River Gambia at Basse), Fakoli Doumbouya (hero of the campaigns against the Kingdom of Jollof and the Moors) and Nan Koman Djan, the Emperor's own brother, all veterans of the battles of Krina and Narina which brought about the demise of Soumaourou Kante the tyrant king of Sosso, and the birth of the greatest Empire that ever existed in Africa..

The historic adoption of the Mande Charter is said to have been also been the occasion when the Mande Morey were designated to provide in spiritual leadership and guidance as well as the necessary checks and balances to the powerful secular authority of the Mali Empire. The most prominent of the five selected families were the Ceesays, Tourays and Jannehs who, today, continue to enjoy the same status in many parts of West Africa especially in The Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali all of which were an integral part of the ancient Mali Empire.

This is the background against which Soundjata reigned in peace and prosperity for about 45 years in a stable environment that enabled the people to convert to other lucrative activities like gold mining and trade following the discovery of gold in Boure and area lying between the Rivers Niger and Senegal and not far from the upper reaches of the River Gambia. This ancient golden trail has been perpetuated to this day by the Sarahulis who, through their pre-eminence and know-how in the ancient Soninke Empire of Ghana, had a monopolistic control of the lucrative golden trade with the Moors in northern Africa, a business from which they had successfully excluded Europeans whose early expeditions into the River Gambia by adventurers like Luiz de Cada Mosto (1455) were in search of this elusive fortune - gold. Sarahuli is synonymous with Soninke the name that these enterprising descendants of ancient Ghana call themselves, They just have a flair for the precious stones business whether in Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola, Antwerp or Tel Aviv. Only their ancient past can explain this economic phenomenon which has made many of them from Banjul to Dakar, Bamako and Conakry very wealthy.

Thus Soundjata proclaimed the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Abolition of slavery and trading in slaves. But this unprecedented historic event seems to have been totally ignored by European history which continues to bask in its erroneous pretensions that Africans have no History prior to the arrival of European explorers in the 15th century leading to the subsequent colonial occupation of Africa which only ended in the middle of the 20th century. For them Mali and its glorious past was, at best, a legend that did not deserve any prominence in African and world history. Yet Soundjata’s epic universal abolition of slavery and the slave trade was more advanced and far-reaching than England’s Magna Carta (1215) on the one hand, and preceded the United Kingdom Bill of Rights (1688); the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and the United States Bill of Rights, (1791) on the other.

At this point it is opportune to recall that it was over SIX HUNDRED years after the Manden Charter that the leading colonial powers were forced by the emergence of a changing world order to declare the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery much later in 1833 to end the human traffic that forceably transferred millions of our ancestors to the Americas and the West Indies which depended on cheap and free African labour for their prosperity and development. In fact the much hailed enactments in the Parliaments of Europe did not end the transatlantic slave trade or slavery promptly and effectively; it would take decades or may be a century of wars between European powers and within the United States before slavery in its formal form ended only to take other negative forms like colonialism and racism whose collective impact has contributed to ethno-cultural and religious cleavages and conflicts that now threaten world peace.

At the global level, it was only after the First World War (1914-1918) that the international community started to address the problem of slavery seriously. In l926 the Slavery Convention was adopted by the League of Nations, amended by the UN Protocol of 1953 and followed by the Supplementary UN Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 1956. At the continental level, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, born out of a Gambian initiative dating back to the Decision (XVI) of the OAU Monrovia Summit in 1979 and 2 Ministerial meetings in Banjul in 1980 and early 1981, was finally adopted at the 18th OAU Summit in Nairobi in July 1981. This is the background against which Banjul became the capital of African Human Rights with the OAU unanimously deciding, in recognition of the lead role The Gambia had played in the process culminating in the Nairobi Summit, to locate the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in The Gambia previously at Kairaba Avenue presently.

Ambassador Lamin Kiti Jabang was at the time the Minister of External Affairs and one of the most popular, influential and effective Foreign Ministers in Africa. I was privileged to be his Permanent Secretary for several years supported by a team of competent, hardworking, committed, and well trained young officials all of whom, it is gratifying to recall, have risen not surprisingly to the highest administrative, diplomatic and political positions in The Gambia and as International Civil Servants at the United Nations, the AU, ECOWAS etc as well as at renowned foreign academic institutions where their exemplary performance has greatly enhanced the image of The Gambia and for which all Gambians should be proud.

The Peul migration from the East into the Greater Senegambian region goes a very long way back in History. The first wave of migration was followed by a bigger westward movement dating back to the Middle Ages through to the 17th and 18th centuries. While the earlier migrants were mostly pagans, the newcomers who were muslims conquered the indigenous Jallonkes and created Fouta Jallon in 1726 as an Islamic State. The new masters of Fouta Jallon established a system of government so complex and sophisticated which many so-called modern states would find hard to match. Some of those institutions and practices are highlighted below to support our postulate about the very early existence of a sophisticated system of democracy and accompanying institutions in our Greater Senegambia subregion. This was the Alfaya and Soriya system of alternate succession to the position of the ruler, the Almami of Fouta Jallon.

Alfaya and Soriya constituted an ingenious device of power sharing by limiting the term of any ruling Almami (sovereign) to two years. This system of bicephalism promulgated by the Great Council of Elders of Fangumba (the Assembly) provided that each faction of the ruling family must accept the principle of rule by rotation as a precondition for accession to power. The Assembly constituted the electoral college composed of Nine dignitaries sitting not in their individual capacity but as representatives of the 9 provinces of Fouta and their people. This arrangement enabled two rival eligible candidates, who were in fact descendants of the different branches of the ruling family, to be elected Almami simultaneously with the understanding that each will rule for only TWO years and voluntarily cede his position as Almami to the alternate (Almami) who would, in the interim, be waiting in another location far away from Timbo the seat of the central government. This was the only way to ensure peace and stability in the new Islamic State of Fouta Jallon.

Thus the leaders and people of Fouta Jallon entrenched in their constitution representative institutions providing the checks and balances limiting the powers of the ruling Almami as guarantee against dictatorship and oppression so that all would enjoy their hard won and God-given freedom. The system was accordingly institutionally organized bottom up from hamlets to villages in the Provinces and to towns in the centre of which the most important were: the Council of Elders of Labe, the Council of Elders of Timbo and the Great Council of Elders otherwise known as the Federal Assembly of Fangumba; the last mentioned was the most powerful.

While most Almamis ruled alternately and in some even enjoyed more than one term, although not successively, a few tried to tamper with the system tempted by personal ambition and greed to overstay and perpetuate their rule as Alfaya Yaya (born 1850 ), famous ruler of the Province of Labe, did to his detriment. By breaching the established rule,tradition and the sacred Islamic Oath of Office in place in Fouta, Alfa Yaya became vulnerable for the first time to French hegemonic intentions opening the way to his elimination by firstly being deported to Dahomey (modern Benin) from 1905 to 1910 and again to Mauritania in 1911 where he died in 1912. Notwithstanding, the Alfaya/Soraya system worked successfully and for a very long time before the French exploited the new situation created by Alfa Yaya and completed their occupation of the entire territory of Guinea.

So when certain so-called specialists today extol the virtues of the rule of law, separation of powers, democracy, human rights and so on (which per se have exemplary virtues based on universal principles of justice) as if these are recently invented ideas and sacrosanct values exogenous to Africa, we must go back to our origin and sources to discover or rather re-educate ourselves and the world as a whole about the fact that historically Africa had sophisticated systems which would have survived but for the destructive interruption of colonialism and the heinous slave trade that our continent suffered for several centuries.

The Lebou Republic
The Lebou Republic was formed in 1790 after a successful and last battle of resistance led by Jal Jobe, a charismatic and brave muslim cleric, against the territorial ambitions of the Damel (ruler) of the neighbouring Kingdom of Cajorr on the strategic Cap Vert Peninsula, on which Senegal's capital stands today. To avoid the concentration of powers in a single lineage as was the case in the bellicose neighbouring states, the Lebous opted for a political system based on the sharing and exercise of political and social functions and responsibilities by different eligible lineages. Accordingly, all the clans that participated in the struggle for independence from Cajorr were given clearly defined political or social functions. This translated in institutional terms into a state system composed of the Executive (Government), Legislature (Assembly) and Judiciary (Shariya and Cutomary Law Courts) with absolute respect for the separation of powers.

Under this system the three highest personalities of the Republic appointed by a college were Seringe Ndakarou, Head of State; Ndeye Ji Rew, Prime Minister; Ndeye Jambour, Speaker of the Assembly of Elders (Jambours). Six ministers were appointed by Serigne Ndakarou in his capacity as Head of State and these included Jaraff, Minister of Finance and Agriculture; Khali (Cadi), Minister of Justice; and Ndeye ji Fre, President of the Assembly of youth deputies. Coexisting with the Executive was the Legislative Assembly of Elders composed of 36 elders elected by the 12 wards of Dakar on the basis of equal representation of 3 elders per ward. No major decision was taken by the Executive without prior consultation with and the expressed opinion of the Assembly. It should be noted that the Seringe Dakar is a secular ruler and not a religious leader as the title "Seringe" may suggest.

Furthermore, there existed over and above the Executive, a seven-man Authority composed of older elders and community dignitaries constituting a kind of Council of State whose advice was solicited and respected on important questions. Only the Council of State had the power to nullify decisions made by the Executive or the Legislature if they conflicted with the institutions of State; thus the Council played the important role of last resort.

The whole system was based on the strict respect of the principles of democracy. All the dignitaries were not only elected but could also be removed from office by the body that elected while all important decisions were made only after extensive consultations or vote taken if it was absolutely necessary. In the event of a power vacuum consultations were held between the Ndeye Ji Rew (Prime Minister), different state organs as well as the electoral college already mentioned above to determine the eligibility of a candidate or candidates.

On the investiture of the Serign Dakar, he was reminded of his responsibilities and what the people expected of him regarding their welfare and advancement during his reign. Holding the Holy Coran he swore to always respect the institutions of State and the traditions and customs of their ancestors. Significantly it seemed a generalized practice in all the states in the Greater Snegambian basin and even beyond, swear to an oath of office holding a Koran or a traditionally recognized symbol of a deity or spiritual authority.

Much of the political system and ancestral practices of the Lebou have survived from ancient times with very little change. The Seringe Dakar is still the influential customary ruler of the Lebous, the indigenous inhabitants of Dakar and the surrounding Cap Vert Region albeit with a kind of mutually advantageous /understanding with the various governments of Senegal from colonial times to the present day. En passant, it is worth mentioning that a Gambian, (deceased many years back) of the prominent Jagne family of Banjul would have been the most eligible candidate for the position of Serigne Dakar, a few years back, but for the vicissitude of colonialism which has separated many Senegambian families on the one hand and the inevitability of natural forces on the other.. This information came from reliable and authoritative sources of the descendants of the Jagne clan in Banjul.

Apart from the Mali Empire, Fouta Jallon, and the Lebou Republic, the political system described above was widespread in the vast area of pre-colonial West Africa especially in ancient Ghana (8th -13th century A.D) Songhai (15c A.D), Kabou of the Nyanchos (18th -19th century) and in the Mossi Kingdom of Yatenga ruled for centuries by the powerful Moro Naaba, to name few.

The democratic values and practices that exemplified the stable and developed political systems of the States of our ancestors in Greater Senegambia before we were occupied, enslaved and colonized, have been recapitulated briefly in this essay as a reminder of their earlier existence to western civilization and the new and alien values imposed on us in the name of civilization and the safety of our souls.

Against this background I consider it fitting to conclude by recalling the erudite and inspirng writings of two Senegambian intellectual giants. In his pontifical book, Precolonial Africa, the late Cheikh Anta Diop asserts that the Ghana Empire antedated by 500 years that of Charlemagne who was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D. From the dismemberment of the Roman Empire in the 4th century until that date, Europe was nothing but chaos, with no organisation comparable to that of Ghana. With Charlemagne commenced the first effort at centralization; but one may say without exaggeration that throughout the Middle Ages, Europe never found a form of political organization superior to that of the indigenous system in African states The Gambia's prolific and avantguard writer, Baba Sillah whose books, When the Monkey Talks and Dabbali Gi, strongly challenge the stereotype moulding of our History through the myopic lenses of colonial occupiers. His insightful writing, both in its profound scholastic contents and culturally stimulating richness, vividly reminds us of the splendor of our glorious past and will help in the restoration of our dignity and pride in who we really are as Gambians and Africans.

Finally, one of the great lessons of History is that the conquerors and the more powerful have always written History for the vanquished and the weak. But no one has the right to alter a page from the history of a people; for a people without its own history is like a society without a soul. It is this falsification of History, whether deliberate or due to an inexcusable omission or ignorance, that glorifies Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America when in fact Africans from the "New World" (America) nearly two centuries before Columbus; similarly the discovery of quinine has been attributed to European pharmacists when in fact this great medicine produced from a tropical tree may have been discovered by an African whose name sounds very Senegambian. These two historic events will be the subject of subsequent articles in these series

Author: Ebou Taal Ndongo Daara Afdaay

Source: The Point

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