West African political leader Modibo Keita (1915-1977) led the fight for independence of the French Sudan and became the first president of the Republic of Mali.
Modibo Keita was born on June 4, 1915, in Bamako, the capital of French Sudan (now Mali), a landlocked nation in western Africa. After primary schooling, he was educated in neighboring Senegal and returned home in 1936 as a teacher.
Following World War II, France permitted its African territories to send representatives to the French Constituent Assembly in Paris. This marked the beginning of organized political activity in the Sudan. Keita joined the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) and in 1947 was elected secretary general of the Union Soudanaise, the Sudan section of the RDA. In 1948 he was elected to the first territorial assembly of the French Sudan.
France opposed the RDA because of its close association with the French Communist party and its call for full equality. Considered a dangerous anticolonial, Keita was imprisoned briefly and released in 1947. In 1948, he was elected to the first territorial assembly of the French Sudan.
The Road to Independence
In 1952 and 1957, Keita was reelected to the territorial assembly and also served as mayor of Bamako. In 1956 he was elected deputy for the French Sudan to the French National Assembly and became that group's first African vice president. He twice held Cabinet posts in Paris: secretary of state for Overseas France and, later, secretary of state to the Presidency of the Council.
In November 1958, the Sudan became a self-governing republic within the French community and was renamed the Sudanese Republic. The following year, the republic joined with Senegal, Upper Volta, and Dahomey to form the Mali Federation. Keita was named president. Upper Volta and Dahomey soon withdrew, however, and the ill-fated union was plagued by disagreement and personality conflicts. The Mali Federation proclaimed its independence on June 20, 1960, but it broke apart in August when Senegal withdrew.
On September 23, 1960, Keita became president of the newly declared independent nation of Mali. He was also head of the Union Soudanaise, the country's only political party.
As president, Keita followed an austere socialist political path, moving his small country ideologically and economically closer to the Soviet Union and China. In 1963 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize for his attempts to rebuild the economy on socialist principles. Instead, Mali was beset by growing financial and economic problems, made worse by an especially poor harvest in 1968. This was the final straw that brought the government of Modibo Keita crashing down.
The president was ousted in a bloodless military coup on Nov. 19, 1968. He spent the remainder of his life, until his death on May 17, 1977, in military detention.
William J. Foltz, From French West Africa to the Mali Federation (1965); Frank Gregory Snyder, One-party Government in Mali: Transition toward Control (1965); Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa (1964). □