Type of Government
In its own language, the Mali Empire was called the Manden Kurufa (Manden Federation). This prosperous confederation of Mande-speaking peoples reached its peak in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when it dominated nearly all of West Africa. It was ruled by a clan of royal lineage who were also devout Muslims, and the emperor’s post was a hereditary one. His government consisted of the Gbara, or assembly of various tribal chiefs, and was guided by a constitution that delineated each tribe’s rights and responsibilities.
The Mali Empire was the successor state to the earlier Empire of Ghana, which dominated the region after 800, thanks to its control of the gold trade. The area that became the Mali Empire was bisected by the Niger River, an important artery that stretched from the Gulf of Guinea to the Atlantic Ocean via one of its tributaries. Trade routes went north-south—from West Africa up through present-day Mauritania and Morocco—and east-west, to the Horn of Africa and the thriving Swahili traders along the Indian Ocean coastline, and trade was conducted by both boat and camel caravan. A series of wars in the area ended when Sundiata (d. 1255), a Mandinka chief, emerged victorious in 1235. A century later, the empire’s population had reached an estimated fifty million and encompassed an area roughly the size of western Europe.
Sundiata proclaimed himself mansa (king of kings) at the first assembly of chiefs he summoned near Kangaba, his ancestral home. This inaugural assembly, called the Gbara, was notable for its proclamation of the oral document that came to be known as the Kouroukan Fouga, a constitution that outlined how the Mali Empire was to be governed. The Fouga was divided into four sections—social classes, property rights, environmental relations, and personal responsibility—and its forty-four edicts became the first federal uniform law in West Africa.
The Fouga’s first section clarified the thirty-two societal divisions, each of which was granted a seat in subsequent Gbaras. There were to be sixteen clans known as the Djon-Tan-Nor-Woro (carriers of quiver) that were responsible for the defense and regional administration of the tinkurus (provinces) and kafos (counties). Religious life was supervised by the five Mori-Kanda-Lolou (guardians of the faith) clans. There were four elite maghan (princely) clans, and among them were the Keita and the “masters of the waters,” an amalgamation of clans with rights over fishing and river travel. Finally, there were seven Nyamakala clans, each of which had jurisdiction over specialty trades, such as tanning, smelting, and oral history. Another edict in this section stated that women had to be represented at all levels of government. The Fouga’s rules on private property included Article 32, “All object found without known owner do not become public property until the end of four years,” and those regulating environmental relations included Article 39, which stated that “domestic animals must be kept only temporarily or as needed by the cultures then liberated after the harvests.”
The twelve kingdoms whose chiefs or kings had pledged their allegiance to Sundiata made the empire a sizable one, and it expanded even further over the next century. Its territorial outline was made up of what were called Twelve Doors of Mali, the lands considered the possession of the mansa. The ruling chiefs were given the title farba (great commander) and were responsible for collecting the tribute from their provinces. Within the provinces were villages, which were controlled by traditional chiefs but still expected to abide by the laws of the Kouroukan Fouga.
Political Parties and Factions
The Seita clan that ruled the Mali Empire until 1670 claimed ancestry back to Bilal ibn Ribah (sixth to seventh centuries), allegedly the first African convert to Islam and the muezzin of the prophet Muḥammad’s (c. 570–632). Among the Seita mansas, the most legendary is Mansa Mūsā (d. 1332?), the grandnephew of Sundiata. He ruled from 1307 to about 1332 and presided over what became the Mali Empire’s golden age.
Mansa Mūsā led a military effort to subdue areas of Niger, which effectively doubled the empire’s territory and made it as large as western Europe, and captured the important trade-route city of Timbuktu in 1324. Later that year, he made a famous pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. He traveled via Cairo and reportedly brought with him a retinue of twelve thousand, as well as several trunks of gold dust that he traded for various goods. He traded with so much gold that the price of this precious metal on the important Cairo gold market was depressed for several years after his departure.
Mansa Mūsā was the last strong leader of the Mali Empire. His descendants failed to maintain unity, and as a result, Mali territory was lost to invaders. The Tuareg headed into northern areas, and elsewhere the Songhai emerged as a formidable rival and eventually overtook what remained of the Mali Empire. Reports of Mansa Mūsā’s foreign travels, and the obviously immense wealth of his empire, circulated in Europe long after his 1324 journey, and undoubtedly sparked interest in the expeditions that led to the colonial exploitation of Africa. For generations, a common representation of West African lands on primitive maps was a black king sitting atop a gold nugget, said to represent Mansa Mūsā and his empire’s riches.
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Ki-Zerbo, Joseph, and DjiBril Tamsir Niane, eds. UNESCO General History of Africa . Vol. 4, Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.