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Article

The Sahel in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves. Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another. Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.

Article

Slavery and the Making of West African Muslim Empires in the 19th Century  

Paul Naylor

The various Muslim theocratic states that emerged in West Africa over the 18th and 19th centuries (including Sokoto, Masina, and, later, the Umarian state) came to power in a series of conflicts, or jihads, against political systems in which slavery preexisted as the basic system of labor extraction and population control and in which slaves were the medium of exchange in wider Atlantic and trans-Saharan economic networks. The conflicts promised emancipation for Muslims enslaved in these systems but also involved the capture and enslavement of large numbers of people. The economic and political rationales for mass enslavement remained. However, for the first time they were framed within a written, Islamic discursive tradition, circulated by the leaders of the jihads. These texts enforced a new policy of enslavement that drew upon Islamic legal traditions but, for the most part, recycled preexisting arrangements of slave raiding in non-Muslim areas. Over time, what emerged were societies in which slavery was essential to the growth, functions, and reproduction of state power and in which slave labor of various kinds fueled the majority of economic, political, and social activity. Because of the multidimensional uses of slavery, the institution continued well into the European colonial period and continues to inform social dynamics in the early 21st century.