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Africa, Cradle of Democracy and Human Rights?

Democracy and human rights are often attributed to the West, but in Africa, long before Montesquieu or Rousseau, there were communities that successfully implemented social groupings based on the democratic model. Europeans often claim to be the originators of the norms and rules that govern "of the people, by the people and for the people". Westerners in general often take credit for this, and make it the values they are responsible for sowing throughout the world. And yet, while democracy - for that's what it's all about - is the political system that comes closest to perfection, it's not really peculiar to Western civilization.

In Africa, long before the arrival of the Europeans who were to become slavers and colonizers, there were communities with modes of governance that guaranteed democracy and the principles of human rights. Particularly in West Africa, empires and kingdoms (organized as small states) had succeeded long before the 14th century in creating a mode of governance and respect for human rights close to the democracy we know today.

The Charter of the New Manden

In Mali, the beginnings of democracy can be traced back to the 13th century. Returning from a victorious expedition against Soumangourou Kanté, king of Sosso, Soundjata Keita, emperor of Mali (which extended from southern Mauritania to Niger, via Senegal and Guinea), convened an assembly of his "leading men" and proclaimed the seven-article "Charter of the New Manden" at Kouroukan Fouga. According to some sources, the year was 1236, but according to Malian ethnologist and historian Youssouf Tata Cissé, himself an initiated hunter who has worked on the history of the Mali Empire, these seven precepts, also known as the "hunters' oath", date back to 1222.

Among other things, the charter deals with social peace in diversity, the inviolability of the human person, education, the integrity of the homeland, food security, the abolition of slavery by razzia, and freedom of expression and enterprise. Although the legitimacy and credibility of this charter are questioned by some, in 2009 it was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. For many African thinkers, it remains confirmation of the existence in Africa of a real democracy and a mode of governance mindful of human rights long before the arrival of Europeans on the continent.


The Torodo Revolution

North-east of Senegal was Fouta Toro (or Fuuta Toro), a territory that had been penetrated by Islam since the 19th century and remained under the domination of the Empires of Mali and Ghana (called the Tekrour at the time), then under the authority of the Kingdom of Djolof, before being invaded by Koli Tengella, a Fulani chief, who subsequently founded the Deeniyankoobe dynasty there between the 16th and early 18th centuries. The fall of the Deeniyankoobe dynasty was precipitated by a revolution among the Muslims of Fouta Toro, led by Ceerno (Thierno) Suleyman Baal de Boodé (Tooro) between 1770 and 1776. The movement turned the Foutu into a theocracy with strict rules of governance inspired by its instigator.

Suleymaan Baal convened a general assembly of Fuuta ulama and notables in Cilony (Hoorefoonde in some sources). He created a political regime called Almamiyat, with principles ranging from justice and respect for the rights of all ("equality of all before the law", "every individual has the right to appeal to the Almaami if he feels wronged by a ruler or a judgment") to the distribution and management of public funds ("taxes, the proceeds of fines and all State revenues must be used for actions in the general interest").

Thierno Suleymann Baal places particular emphasis on the way in which the Almaami is chosen, and even gives examples of cases in which he could be removed. He recommends the following to his people: "- demand a disinterested man to assume the office of Almaami, who will not mobilize the goods of this world either for himself or for those close to him; - if you see him getting rich, dismiss him and confiscate the goods he has acquired. - if he refuses to resign, remove him by force and banish him; - replace him with a competent man whatever his lineage; - make sure that the Imaamat is never hereditary - enthrone only a deserving person" (Source: "Les recommandations de Ceerno Suleymaan Baal, fondateur de l'Almaamiyat(1770-1880)").

We could cite other modes of governance in Africa, such as that of the Lebous Collectivity (created in 1770) in Senegal, seen as a "Republic" by several thinkers. But the African oral tradition, still the most widely used means of preserving history, has not always been able to credibly recount the beginnings of democracy in Africa. This weakness has mainly benefited the West in its narrative of the precursors of democracy in Africa. But on the continent, the fundamental principles of justice, social equity and freedom existed long before the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens.


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