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Development and administrative norms: the office du niger and decentralization in French Sudan and Mali.


This article analyses the historical roots of decentralization, a policy which is presented in the development world as the miracle cure to Third World evils. The text is based on the current literature on the topic as well as field research carried out in Mali in the Office du Niger region, which, already in the colonial period, represented a particular decentralization challenge. It offers a critical perspective on the concept of decentralization, which some trace back to the Middle Ages, and examines colonial experiences. How can the Malian state, inherited from the colonial state, decentralize everything whilst adopting the policy according to which the lands of the central delta of the Niger have been state-owned property since 1935? The aim is to show the analogy between problems encountered by the French colonial state and those that plague the Malian post-colonial state, whilst guarding against the sirens of a false authenticity reeking of neo-traditionalism.


Cet article analyse les antecedents historiques de la decentralisation, une politique qui, dans le monde du developpement, est presentee comme le remede miracle aux maux du Tiers-Monde. Le texte se fonde sur la litterature en cours sur le sujet ainsi que sur des recherches de terrain conduites au Mali dans la region de l'Office du Niger qui, deja a l'epoque coloniale, representait un defi singulier en matiere de decentralisation. Il jette un regard critique sur la notion de decentralisation que d'aucuns situent deja, au Moyen Age, et examine les tentatives coloniales en la matiere. Comment l'Etat malien, heritier de l'Etat colonial, peut-il decentraliser tout en faisant sienne la politique selon laquelle les terres du delta central du Niger appartiennent au domaine prive de l'Etat depuis 1935? Nous avons voulu montrer l'analogie entre les problemes qui se posait a l'Etat colonial francais et ceux qui taraudent l'Etat postcolonial malien et mettre en garde contre les sirenes d'une fausse authenticite aux relents neo-traditionalistes.


Development, the credo of modern times, means in the Southern countries the adoption or rejection of modernity, and this on a daily basis. (1) This conflict, running at full tilt against the clock, allows little time for the main actors to consider anything except what is immediately in front of them. It is like a flight into the future, which has at its origin a mentality of keeping up, having no time for retrospection or consideration of the path already taken. At the same time those responsible for development policy and its implementation have taken the time to learn about the knowledge and practices of the local people, albeit relatively recently, influenced by the West's crisis of confidence in modernity as a goal for developing countries, and with its own modernity in deep crisis. How is this knowledge taken into account when it comes to decentralization, another fetish term, new since it only became popular from the end of the 1980s?

To address this question I will focus on, but not limit my account to, an analysis of the world of the Office du Niger, the biggest agricultural development project in Francophone West Africa from its initiation in 1932 up to the present time. We need to look beyond what is happening under our noses, avoiding the trap of the ethnographic present. The present amnesia ranks alongside the waves of forgetting that obscured earlier decentralizations (see in particular Ribot 1999; Crook and Manor 1994).

We must look back to two intensively associated orders of time: that of the colonial power, and that of the local people. As the French empire's overseas colonization project matured, a colonial normative order emerged that appeared to give the initiative to the local people. How did imperial civil servants reexamine the initial project of administering the colonies when they encountered the local structures in place? In what ways did what was happening on the ground force the hand of a colonial institution comprised of men and women with different customs and opinions, living in a country they were coming to know and dominate? These questions are not purely rhetorical. Certainly, they are being asked in a context fundamentally different from the colonial period, but they remain at the heart of the problem facing the Malian state, the successor of the French state, in confronting questions said to be of development. Mali, in common with several so-called developing countries, decided to conceive and implement a post-colonial normative order in its administration, which it then decided to decentralize from the 1990s. The aim here is to analyse this experience.

This article thus first considers the way in which France approached the West African territory in the case of the Office du Niger. Two kinds of documents are used: first, written documents which deal with decentralization incidentally, but do lay the foundations for its analysis; second, oral documents derived from field work carried out since 1987.


A discussion of decentralization in Mali spans three historical periods: the precolonial period, the colonial and independence eras. Irresistibly, the first recalls the myth propagated in some neo-traditionalist milieux, according to which decentralization arises directly from the Malian 'tradition' of the Middle Ages. The nko movement, founded by the Guinean Souleymane Kante (1922-87), believes that decentralization is at the heart of all power practices in Mali. (2) Jean-Loup Amselle illustrates convincingly how Kante, whose movement assimilates wholeheartedly the evolutionist theory of Maurice Delafosse, establishes continuity between the family, the canton and the state. Thus with his followers he created a vision of the state flowing from the family, which plainly authorized 'the alternation between centralized and decentralized political formations' (Amselle 2001: 173). (3) Evidently, at no point was there any question of demonstrating the centralized character, or otherwise, of the political formations whether past or present. Richard Toe (1997), the spokesperson for the nko on matters of decentralization in Mali, without reference to convincing scholarly evidence, thinks that the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay (seventh to sixteenth centuries) were constituted of 'federations of autonomous provinces' adorned by an emperor. In turn, Bulletin 358 of the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam (KIT), titled Decentralization: from discourse to practice, and edited by professionals from offices with responsibility for decentralization, repeats this imprecise conclusion, which it applies indiscriminately to all Malian peoples. Moreover its authors--Diarra, Keita, Nelen, Coulbaly, Konate, Ag Mossa, Oste, Sene and Sy--are not satisfied merely with this approximation. They add to it by providing a false chronology situating these empires between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries. They claim that 'amongst the Malian peoples decentralization was a practice deeply anchored in the tradition of the administrative management of the family' (Hilhorst and Baltissen 2004: 15).

Such a claim misleadingly implies that the administered peoples would actively elect their representatives democratically--the only thing that would give meaning to the word decentralization in this context. We must not confuse consultation with the young, which social norms demand of the elders before taking decisions within the framework of family and village councils, with the democratic debate required when it comes to decentralization. (4) Brehima Kassibo (1998: 1-2) has criticized in his time this nostalgic 'traditionalist' position on the past. In the same way, Jacob (1998: 133ff.) and Mamdani (1996) rightly stress the various constraints suffered by the medieval actors of that time. For our part, none of these empires could validly claim to be decentralized structures, bearing in mind the presence of slavery, which was inscribed into the heart of the social system, and the dominant and deep-rooted inequality (Meillassoux 1975; 1986; Diawara 1990: 32-60).

The medieval empires were confronted with a vast territory, impossible to rule directly. So, as has been described by Bazin (1982: 319ff.), the empires and predator kingdoms functioned on the model of Segu in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the surroundings of the capital and in the country at the heart of the kingdom, a region at peace with the sovereign could be found. Further afield, entities that had not been formally pacified or annexed were preferred, which served to provide land for the raids of those holding power. If we keep in mind this convincing model to understand most of these predator political formations, then little can be said about decentralization and even less about democracy.

That said, it is appropriate to take stock of actual lived experiences of decentralization in French Sudan. According to the authors of Bulletin 358, from 1917 van Vollenhoven insisted on the need for the administration to be more in touch with the administered peoples, and to 'reconcile the interests of the dominant powers with those of the people' (Hilhorst and Baltissen 2004: 15). Kassibo shows convincingly, without going into precise details, that the exGovernor-General of Dakar was acting within the framework of the racial policies that some colonial milieux of the period dictated (1998: 2). (5) The author adds that what was happening at the time was a policy of imposed deconcentration. Let us bear in mind that deconcentration is a toned-down form of decentralization (Ribot 2002b: iii). I will return to this point.

What is there to say about the path of decentralization taken in Mali from the time of independence in September 1960? Decentralization featured in the Malian constitution, but it was never implemented in practice for reasons of national unity (Ribot 2002a: 4; Hilhorst and Baltissen 2004: 16-17). The slogan of the young republic, 'One people, one goal, one faith', does not anticipate a space for this kind of administration. The socialist-orientated authorities of the time were not in a hurry to change the names of certain colonial institutions. In 1966, the colonial 'urban communes' became communes with full powers to manage their territories, with those responsible being appointed by the state (Jacob 1998: 132-3; Magassa 1997: 117-18; Hilhorst and Baltissen 2004: 16-17). Politics encroached on everything, whilst the radicalization of the socialist option for Mali augmented the state. The military coup in 1968 changed nothing in this centralizing tendency. In 1977, an administrative reform made provision for establishing regional and local councils elected by the people. But these have never really functioned. The creation of districts provided for in the terms of this reform was postponed indefinitely (Diallo 1994: 1; Magassa 1997:118-19; Ribot 2002b: 6; Bakayoko 2007: 30). Since 1988, regional and national discussions which were supposed to set out a programme for decentralization have been inconsequential. On 26 March 1991 the intervention of a coup d'etat accelerated the process against the background of social turmoil, as a result of strikes in the towns, particularly in Bamako, and rebellion in the north of Mali (Hilhorst and Baltissen 2004: 16-17).

The current situation can be summarized in four points. (1) The appropriation of land has remained a state prerogative since the colonial period. (2) The land question, though at the heart of any decentralization process, was from the beginning excluded from the factors considered. (3) As in the past, the elders have continued to take advantage of the right to sell land, or to engage in straightforward land speculation in contravention of their entitlements (Bakayoko 2007: 28, 13ff., 80ff.). (4) The people are still not systematically involved in the management of land resources, and count on seizing the opportunity of decentralization to make themselves heard.

Against this background, what was the reality of the Office du Niger?


The quasi-absolute power that was held, or believed to be held, by the French colonial administration and its agents has been sufficiently studied and decried. The present analysis situates itself deliberately beyond the binary of oppression versus liberation struggle (Cooper 1999: 462; 2002: 4, 14-15). It is concerned with understanding the way in which power, in this case the power of those on the ground within the Office du Niger, is produced. Central to our concern is to understand the power of the Director-General and the Office du Niger over the project zone, which became a true 'state within a state'. How did the post-colonial state come to accept and implement a reform which weakened the state, at the first level, by restricting its sovereignty over natural resources, including land and forests? This question becomes ever more pertinent given that the state has invested heavily in the dead delta of the Niger by irrigating a surface area now estimated to be close to 80,000 hectares. What administrative norm was this intended to create? What practice would it engender?

The Mali era

According to a survey carried out in 2006 by the Universite Libre in Brussels, UNDP and the Centre Universitaire Mande Bukari of Bamako of around 400 Office du Niger plots, the company oversees a surface area of 80,000 hectares of controlled irrigation. On this land 25,000 family smallholdings produce 300,000 to 350,000 tonnes annually, based on an average return of four tonnes per hectare from an average plot of 3.7 hectares per family smallholding. On average thirteen people live on each plot. The Office du Niger zone comprises about 400,000 inhabitants (Defi Sud 2008:30 November). The Office estimates it irrigates up to 300,000 hectares of land (KfW 2006: 2).

Ten years after independence in 1960, Mali's history was marked by a series of famines and shortages, reinforcing the importance of the Office du Niger, which for a long time was the only major irrigated area of the country. At the end of the 1960s, during the years 19734 and throughout 1984, the country experienced its worst famines since those at the beginning of the twentieth century. The victims, concentrated in the north of the country, ran into the thousands, and tens of thousands more people migrated to more clement regions like the Office du Niger.

To save the country from this perpetual crisis in the Sahel, the Malian authorities turned the Office du Niger into a strategically important state enterprise. It had always been directed by someone close to the existing regime. Until 1968, bosses close to the party in power, the Rassemblement Democratique Africain, were in charge of it. After the military coup in 1968, military or civil personnel loyal to the cause of the regime held the reins of the company. This did not change despite the effects of the winds of liberalization from around the mid-1980s.

Whatever the political regime, the Director-General of the Office du Niger dominated the administration, including the head of its structure: the Governor of the region. The Governor, if only for the sake of one day benefiting from a rice field or company vehicles, had to pay tribute to the longstanding tradition of Segou, the capital of the Office du Niger and its administration. The Director-General always knew how to profit from his ambiguous status and location between the different departments: the Ministry of Agriculture, whatever its designations, the Ministry of Farming, on account of its large livestock holding, and the Ministry of Industry, since the Office owned rice-processing factories. In certain periods, owing to the scale of its financing, the number of its employees, the development projects it managed, the revenue it generated, and the European businesses to which it was contracted, the company became a true empire, expanding the influence of its own already well-established tradition. (6)

The colonial period

Pierre Herbart, anti-colonial journalist (1939: 33), and friend and travel companion of Andre Gide, was appalled by the actions of the colonial administration, particularly the Office du Niger. He decided to travel and see what was happening on the ground in French West Africa, leaving Bordeaux on 11 January 1938 for Dakar (ibid.: 23, 54, 117). Solid documentation gave him the chance to write his book, published in 1939, on the scandal of the Office du Niger (ibid.: 24). The main points in the following paragraphs are drawn from his account.

The 'state within the state': Herbart used this phrase in his text to define the Office du Niger (ibid.: 110, 122). Is this a case of one man's disgust, overcome by his experience of the colony, or is it a conclusion we find in other accounts? How did the Office come to fall under the leadership of Emile Belime? What command norms did he establish at the Office du Niger, as distinct from those in the rest of French Sudan?

Belime, soon after he arrived in Africa in the 1920s, was commissioned by the French government to carry out a study on building dams on the river Niger (ibid.: 39). Thanks to cotton production, he predicted a thriving future for the French textile industry. The Governor-General, Carde, an old colonial hand who replaced Merlin in 1923, did not know Belime (ibid.: 62). (7) When Carde carne from Dakar, he had refused to see Belime, sceptical of his plans. In November 1923 Carde asserted his confidence in the direct development of land by Africans themselves, as was the case in Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria and the Gold Coast. But he was unaware of the solid support for Belime in metropolitan circles, notably from the Niger Committee (ibid.: 624). Under pressure from the metropolitan councils, which weighed heavily on the decisions of governor-generals, the same Carde created by decree on 6 March 1924 the 'general textiles and hydraulic agricultural service' directed by Belime (see also Schreyger 1984: 47). The engineer's plans did not encounter any further hindrances from the main administration, and neither did his ambition. Between 1924 and 1929, Carde advanced Belime's agenda in all of his discussions with the Government Council (Herbart 1939: 64).

Twenty-six million francs were made available for the construction of the first section of the Segou canal, later called the Sotuba canal, which was handed to the 'Niger temporary irrigation works service' (STIN) (Schreyger 1984: 46). In 1929, it was Minister for the Colonies Andre Maginot himself who came to inaugurate the canal (Herbart 1939: 66); whilst, in 1932, President of the Republic M. Lebrun decreed the creation of the Office du Niger under the direction of Belime on an annual fixed salary of F321,000, which did not include the F500,000 insurance just in case French West Africa (AOF) decided to relinquish his services (ibid.: 70, 123). It was the AOF administration that was responsible for the works (ibid.: 69). Yet, on 25 July 1932, Minister for the Colonies Albert Sarrault announced at the first sitting of the Office's administrative council that Belime had free rein (see also Schreyger 1984: 29). Sarrault stated that the success of the company depended on 'continuity in ideas and programmes'; it could not remain 'inconvenienced, at the whim of changes in directives and personnel, either in the department or governments in the AOF' (Herbart 1939: 72). And thereafter 'The Office du Niger, directed on the ground by Belime and his colleagues, and in Paris by an administrative council whose members for the most part do not have particular colonial experience, will thus be practically free from the authority of successive AOF governor-generals who will be limited to assuring continuity in financing from the federal budget' (ibid.: 72; my emphasis).

It was expressly requested not to disturb the work of the Director-General Emile Belime (Filipovich 2001: 251), that indispensable man. To safeguard France's reputation, any reports which criticized the inadequacies of the project were hushed up (ibid.: 247). Maintaining France's colonial reputation was grounds for letting crimes perpetrated in the colony itself pass silently, without remark. Nor did political upheavals such as the coming of the Popular Front or Vichy change anything. The Occupation marked a turning point not in the nature, but rather in the magnitude, of the power of the Vichyist Belime, who gained in influence.

In November 1942, the 'movement for a free France' was launched. The metropolis had less and less time and means to deal with French Sudan. At the same time, Colonial Inspector Gayet, who resided in Segou and represented the Governor-General, proposed that the Office du Niger should be a separate territory administrated by French Sudan, given that there was an intermediary living in Segou. In these circumstances, this person could be no other than Belime (ibid.: 254, 255).

The absolute power of Belime was not established on the ground without resistance from administrators at all levels. The first to resist had been Governor-General Carde, who had moved astutely across to the side of the most powerful, as we have seen. The Governor of the French Sudan, M. Fousset, was alarmed by the fancifulness of Belime's projects and in 1932 wrote a telegram to the Governor-General of the AOF. Ill became of him, and he found himself in Madagascar! (Herbart 1939: 92). Four years later, Marcel de Coppet was named Governor-General of the AOF. He expressed reservations about the financing of the behemoth. During his visit to the Office in 1938, some rural people asked for his authorization to return to their homelands. Outraged by the conditions of the colonists, de Coppet decided that the administration would no longer be involved in the forced recruitment of workers for the Office du Niger industries. He had set himself against a strong tide. An unprecedented press campaign was unleashed against him by Gringoire, a Parisian journalist. The author of the inflammatory articles, Pierre Bonardi was hosted by Belime in the AOF just before the publication of his first article. Efforts were made to sack de Coppet, the senior civil servant who had put himself in the way of the ambitions of the engineer (Herbart 1939: 94). In 1937, the Office had been made officially responsible for the recruitment, whether forced or not, of the colonists, the rural people, to cultivate the rice fields. Its agents enjoyed almost limitless power (Filipovich 2001: 249).

A public disagreement between the French administration and the Office du Niger followed. The Office employed two collaborators, Kountou Coulibaly and Yoro-Diao, who traversed the region explaining to rural people that in order to avoid being exploited by the administration, which subjected them to taxes and all kinds of cruelties, all they had to do was leave their villages for the Office du Niger. There, peace, calm, machines, women ... all awaited them: deceitful propaganda for those who left, and demoralizing for those who stayed (Herbart 1939: 94-5). The oral testimony of Mamadou Doumbia was still vivid more than half a century later: the Office du Niger propagandists, dressed appropriately at the expense of the company, went about the villages riding splendidly caparisoned stallions (Interview, 25 March 2001). The split between the administration and the Office du Niger was settled, at least publicly.

Elsewhere, open conflict between the Office du Niger's enemies and adherents emerged amongst the top echelons in Paris, as well as in assemblies and the press, and had repercussions on the ground. Confrontations took place in the villages between the administrator, the commander of the district (commandant de cercle) (8) and Belime, the engineer. Recollections are still lively. The mainstay colonial administrators did not follow Governor-General Coppet. On the contrary, at the request of the Director-General, the commanders of the district testified that the 2,400 people who had set out under the influence of Belime's zealous agents--their pockets stuffed with bank notes and dressed in gleaming outfits--had done so of their own accord. As a consequence of his power, Belime substituted himself simply and completely for the local administration. The hyper-dominant position of the Office at the centre of the state had other consequences besides those described above. When Carde wanted to rid himself of the cumbersome Director-General back in 1923, we recall, the interests of the capital obligated him not only to keep him, but also to celebrate him.

The Director-General and the Office du Niger lobby also wanted the administration to draw a border which would encourage the flux of populations from the Upper Volta to the Delta. The administration certainly did not support this desire but Belime was no innocent bystander during the dismantling of the Upper Volta in 1933. If Cote d'Ivoire took the lion's share of reputedly abundant and disciplined labour, French Sudan was not to be outdone (Filipovich 2001: 248). Thus another colony was sliced up to meet the greater needs of the cause. Belime was the true king, not to be disturbed in his task of developing a part of the empire for the benefit of the mother country. That the lobby succeeded in getting national borders redrawn places this beyond doubt.

So what remained of the decentralization extolled among the top ranks of the colonial administration? It is tempting to answer: nothing. Powers were concentrated in the hands of one institution, indeed one man. In his striking study of French colonial administration, William B. Cohen (1971: 57-8) emphasizes the power of the men on the ground, the colonial administrators. According to Cohen, their authority came from three sources: the decentralized nature of the administration, France's overseas administrative doctrine, and the extensive power devolved to the commander of the district. These three factors assured them a central role in the constitution of the empire, which further minimized the influence of their superiors in the administrative hierarchy.

In theory, writes Cohen (1971: 57), the French administration seemed very centralized, but the reality was quite different (see also von Trotha 1994, in particular Chapter 2). Delavignette (1943: 91) underlines how this bureaucratic centralization allowed for no energy-sapping inefficiencies. The commander did not expect to receive orders from the Governor of Zinder, and the Governor of Zinder expected them even less from the Governor-General in Dakar. According to Cohen (1971: 57-8), a number of factors distorted the French administrative pyramid: geographical distance, slowness in methods of communication before the First World War, and instability at the level of the ministry, where the average length of service of a minister was barely one year (ibid.: 58). The Minister for the Colonies from 1905, Etienne Clement, had exclaimed on sight of the map of the French colonial possessions: 'I did not know that there were so many!' (quoted in ibid.: 58).

The French central administration was organized so as to discourage the development of a strong central authority. The law of 1894, which created the ministry, foresaw an administration sufficiently decentralized so as not to kill off initiative in the colonies or to crush their development. Consequently, instead of organizing the central administration organically, the preference was to divide it into regional offices. In 1981 Gerd Spittler noted that the indifference of the metropolis towards the colonies and the incompetence of the Ministry for the Colonies largely explained the de facto decentralization of the French colonial administration. Decentralization: the term was unleashed! (Spittler 1981: 52; see also Cohen 1971: 58; Hardy 1953: 47).

Generally, the further away a colony was, the less notice was paid to it. This was the case for Niger, which was partially inspected for the first time in 1930, whilst Mauritania was never inspected. (9) The purpose of the inspectorate, therefore, was not to centralize the system. Its aim, as Governor-General van Vollenhoven put it, was to inform the metropolis about actions that risked endangering the sovereignty of France (Cohen 1971: 59-60). In correspondence dating from 1911, civil servants from the Ministry for the Colonies complained thus of the fact that 'the Minister avoided giving orders to the Governor-General and to the Governor as much as possible' (ibid.: 61).

In 1965, Cohen conducted an anonymous interview with a retired Governor, whose authority did not come from the Governor-General, but rather directly from the Minister. The Governor admitted that he had never received instructions from the Minister for the Colonies during the thirty years of his service. He added that they were 'the true bosses of the empire', those with authority at their disposal (Delavignette 1939). Therefore we must conclude that it was not a case of decentralization that was intended a priori. Rather, it was a case of devolution of power a posteriori.

Was it a question of de facto decentralization, or rather of a deconcentration (Ribot 1999, and see the references he cites in note 3, p. 27)? In fact, it was neither. There was no deliberate attempt to delegate power downwards, despite Sarrault's suggestions. France was only pursuing its declared policy of association, instituted in 1920, which replaced the policy of assimilation initiated back in the 1890s. The idea was to associate to the administration those whose support it valued (Conklin 1997: 60ff., 71, note 34). But responsibility was not given to the colonial administration a priori, and to its African auxiliaries-mayors of communes, chiefs of cantons, or elites- even less so. All the powers remaining to them had been seized through the process of history, in the shadow of natural obstacles and deliberate attempts by the administrators on the ground to dominate their subjects, who were not expected to act, even less to react. The colonial government's profound ignorance of the local reality did the rest (Spittler 1981: 74ff.). The norm of command, conceived with no particular enthusiasm in Paris, was applied on the ground under the leadership of the 'true bosses of the empire'. The normative order which resulted (on the ground) was a plurality, marked by the seal of practice. How does the powerful institution to emerge from that order, the Office du Niger, function in a post-colonial context? And first of all, how did the Office du Niger come about?


How to deeentralize?

Decentralization poses specific problems depending on the regions where it is implemented. The situation of the Office du Niger is particularly complex for several reasons. The Office occupies a territory confiscated by the colonial state and its post-colonial successor. The masters of the land of earlier times found themselves faced with a powerful owner who ruled according to Roman law what was their property. In these circumstances, how to decentralize to the benefit of the peoples of 703 Malian communes? A sense of the different tone is given when we recognize that the assemblies advocated by the Third Republic in Mali are elected. But we do not know the extent of the elections in our towns, a fortiori in the rural areas (Ribot 1999).

Formerly this country was somewhat arid and sparsely populated (Diawara 2005). Irrigated from the 1930s onwards, the region has attracted throngs of both forced and voluntary migrants. The droughts of the 1970s and 1980s forced thousands of rural people to settle there for good. Only 80,000 of the million potential hectares targeted by the planners were developed. Besides the families of the rural people, the cattle are multiplying at a sustained rate, and tens of thousands of cows are migrating from the Mopti area in the Niger Delta to the region. How can this crowded land be decentralized?

Everywhere in Mali, following the example of the French colonial order, the land officially belongs to the state. This is more the case here than elsewhere, since the state has developed the land by virtue of its having been irrigated and managed by the Office du Niger. (10) The Office du Niger owes a large part of its lands to the rural people who have developed it uninterruptedly since the 1930s. It is clear enough that in terms of French law, after ten years of developing the land continuously, the peasant should be able to exercise full rights over his land, his home (Schreyger 1984). But this promise has never been kept. Since restructuring at the end of the 1980s, the Office has wavered about going into agri-business. Slowly but surely, private companies and individuals of Malian nationality, and foreign, notably Chinese, companies (China National Overseas Engineering Corporation, COVEC) have acquired thousands of hectares from the Office du Niger's estate. The Chinese experimental seed farm alone has obtained 1,500 hectares. The company Libyenne Malibya has grabbed 100,000 hectares. The Malian company Tomota has done the same. Senegalese, Brazilian, Libyan and American companies rank amongst them. The latter foresee going into sugar cane production, of up to 170,000 tonnes per year. According to some statements, extension projects being carried out by foreign companies are estimated to cover 360,000 hectares (Le Monde 15 April 2009). (11) Lands will in all likelihood be flooded and villages wiped out In all these cases, the state is granting emphyteutic (that is, usufructuary) or ordinary leases which will be valid for up to 99 years. (12) The state is attracting new investors. These may perhaps be more solvent owners, but they will certainly be more forceful in exerting their rights over the plots of land. So how to decentralize in a context shaped by the future of agri-business, about which the authorities themselves know and understand rather little?

The Office du Niger rules over the land and the people who depend on the administration of the company with the same name. It is still the case today that whereas the functions of the Office du Niger have been substantially cut back, land conflicts are first brought before the Office's administration. Matters are settled by tribunals only in some extreme cases, which have proliferated since the restructuring. With the relative withdrawal of the Office du Niger company, rural people are taking on more and more responsibilities. For example, they are organizing access to water, and the construction and repair of tributary canals. They are becoming involved. A drastic slimming down of the functions of the Office du Niger and a reduction in the number of its employees from 4,000 to 350 (Tall 2002: 93) has had an immediate and automatic consequence: rural people now carry out more and more of the work that was once done by the Office's paid staff. The agri-business future risks bringing this nascent spirit of the rural people to a fatal halt. How to decentralize in such a context?

A text book case: decentralization in Kala (13)

The object here is to provide a detailed case study of decentralization by the Office du Niger in a zone that was once flooded, as well as of the process of the creation of the rural Pogo commune. First, some historical background. Pogo occupies the south-east of the historic Kala Province, a landscape of fertile soils where long grasses grow, from which it gets its Bamana name (Traore and Diawara 2008:2 3). Kala delineates the land situated on the left bank of the river Niger, the chosen domicile of the Office du Niger since 1932. Pogo dominated the surrounding land in the epoque of the Segu kingdom, bridging the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and subsequently as the seat of the canton which went under the same name during the colonial period. As the head of what is known as the administrative district, Pogo continued to lay claim to this supremacy after Malian independence in 1960. The policy of decentralization, carried out from 1994, revisited the question of its recognized authority in the region. Formerly, the Office du Niger, which developed more distant villages, had hardly been concerned with once-flooded regions such as Pogo. (14)

The chiefdom of this village ended up with the Samake family, who had come from Jitumu in the region of Ouelessebougou, 40 kilometres to the south of Bamako. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, following an invitation sent to them by King Da Monson of Segu (1808 27) to move and settle close to him, the Samake and their entourage ended up choosing to live in Pogo. From 2002 M'Bewani-Camp--a rice growers' village that had experienced unprecedented change when the World Bank, the Netherlands and Japan financed extension of the zone irrigated by the Office du Niger-began to oppose the dominance of Pogo, run by the formidable warrior-aristocrat Samake. Pogo had once been a fortified village at the centre of the Segu kingdom's military plan. It was a so-called kelemasadugu, a warlord's village. That meant it was responsible for the security of the surrounding villages. The local normative order of exercising power, inherited from the nineteenth century, combines protection and power to create strong authority.

This prestigious political position, which did not assume any power for direct economic exploitation, was transformed from 1890, the year of the French colonial invasion. In effect, Pogo was transformed into a local centre of colonial power, the canton, whose chief came from the Samake family. This nomination was made possible thanks to rivalries dividing the indigenous people, who decided to hand the reins of the country to a neutral stranger. The French carefully avoided the village of Dosseguela, where the last battle against colonization had taken place.

From its role as a protector village, Pogo became an administrative capital at the centre of a canton of 74 villages. From now on at the heart of a repressive French system, which it used and abused, Pogo collected taxes, recruited and condemned people to forced labour, and administered justice (Traore and Diawara 2008: 8). And so a new conception of power, a new authoritarian norm, emerged which has continued to flourish on the ground since independence in 1960.

From the time of the administrative reform introduced after independence, the Malian state has established districts, cercles (15) and regions. The districts have replaced the cantons. Pogo, now the capital of the district, administers 24 villages and serves as the seat for the state representative, the head of the district, a civil servant. But the previous head of the canton was greatly vexed by the reform and did not accept the simple function of village chief, which he handed over to his younger brother. What has become of these new authorities?

From the 1980s, civil servants and state employees operating in Pogo have preferred to settle in Siribala, a 25-kilometre daily round trip. This is because Siribala is situated on the regional tarmac Road 23 linking Markala to Niono, the heart of the Office du Niger. The village of Siribala was seen as the centre of a new extension zone of the Office du Niger's irrigated lands. From this emerged a massive sugar cane plantation. A factory producing sugar and alcohol started production in 1975-6 thanks to the development cooperation of the People's Republic of China (Schreyger 2002: 71-2). The Pogo state employees therefore quickly traded the austerity of Pogo for the comfort of Siribala. The centre of gravity of the district shifted, thrust by relative economic development along the Segou-Niono road. Pogo's authority is declining as much as the power that its people once enjoyed, which is located less and less within its walls. The political and administrative authority of the Malian state, without changing its face or form, is changing the places where it is exercised, a symbolic decline evident in Pogo.

In 2000, a couple of structures and a few huts still marked the barren landscape of the old M'Bewani village, itself situated 3 kilometres to the right side of the regional Road 23. By the end of 2002, as a result of progress in irrigation works, 200 families had already chosen to live in the place baptized as M'Bewani-Camp. This new creation serves as a market for the exchange of 50 per cent of rice production. The new village is openly defying Pogo, since the new mayor of Pogo commune, its secretary-general and two commissioners have decided to live there. Pogo and its officials are using all their economic and political influence to prevent the village receiving its new civic centre.

The above demonstrates the very complex context in which decentralization is unfolding. The authority of the Samake family and its allies in Pogo, emanating from the pre-colonial period, endures in several respects because they remain uncontested masters of the land and its cultivation. And even if this economic and administrative authority is tottering in Pogo, it is flourishing again in Niono on account of the same family, which despite everything would evidently like to maintain its influence in Pogo. The colonial administration had changed the nature of the Samakes' power and reinforced it to the point of allowing them to adopt a new colonial norm, which is far removed from that conferred by the consensus of the nineteenth century. In addition, the economic transformations have induced a reformulation of the implementation of power that is less and less concerned with the symbolic and more and more with the material. During this time the irrigation of the lands in the region has become a factor, because the cultivation of rice is considered here to be a wealth-creating business (Traore and Diawara 2008: 10). At the same time, 3,181 hectares of irrigated agricultural land from a potential 16,000 hectares were considered automatically under the authority of the Office du Niger, in charge of all the lands developed by the state since the colonial period. In truth this reality has never been refuted by the Malian state. (16)

Decentralizing in this context aggravates the situation of the former power holders and their people, who feel dispossessed by the Office du Niger-or, in other words, by the state, henceforth the owner of the lands. This group feels deprived of its functions to the advantage of the beneficiaries of decentralization policy-a role principally contested by the rice cultivators and the townspeople, amongst the wealthy. It was certainly not by chance that the first mayor was not only a former employee of the Office du Niger but also came from Dosseguela, the village that was the stage for the last Kala uprising against French troops.

The following is a brief account of the way in which the powers of the mayorality were invested in him. When the commune of Pogo was created, only five out of the twenty-four villages that make up the district declared themselves in agreement to become a part of it (Traore and Diawara 2008: 14). The recalcitrant abstained on the following grounds, as Souleymane Traore relates: 'We are not able to prevent the faama [authorities] from keeping us in the commune against our preference, but all that we know is that we will not be bothered to come to meetings in Pogo.' Intensive negotiations with the dissenting group were undertaken. The first political party of the era, the Association for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA), the chief of Niono village, the cadre influenced by this party and the elder brother of the chief of Pogo village all mobilized to make the rebels give way.

Amongst the numerous interpretations offered for the creation of this commune, two deserve to be highlighted. The first is that the people from Pogo wanted to make adherence to the extension scheme of M'Bewani-Camp conditional on belonging to the commune of Pogo. Thus a means of economic pressure to access the rice fields would derive from decentralization. The second is that had Pogo not been set up as a rural commune, all of the commune might have been lost by Niono to the benefit of Segou, which would have been a catastrophe! Here decentralization was an arena for brokering a deal between the great town of Segou, the administrative headquarters of the Office du Niger, which was losing momentum, and the dynamic little town of Niono, which was flourishing at the heart of the Office du Niger.

'Bringing power back home', that is to say, decentralization, is interpreted in very different ways by the people of Pogo and the state. At one extreme, for the former it is about returning them to power after the turbulence of the first decades of independence. Power should be returned to them, 'back home' strongly signifying those who have historically exercised political power. On the other hand, for the state, it is an unprecedented opportunity to reconstitute economic, social and political equilibrium.

The strong comeback of the state, which is seizing power over land to the detriment of the local populations, does not bode well for the idea of returning resources to those to whom they actually belong. As the zone of the Office du Niger is entirely threatened by this same development policy and despoilment of the villagers, how in these circumstances can this claim to be decentralization? The frustration of the Samake and their supporters in Pogo, whether justified or not, naturally reflects the deep contradiction which lies at the heart of decentralization politics, which claim to involve local actors but which reinforce state power that withdraws when the land is not developed and returns with force in the image of the colonial state- as soon as the lands are irrigated.

What should we think, therefore, of decentralization policies in this region and elsewhere, when we know that here in particular foreign firms and countries in search of land to colonize set their heart on the lands of the Office du Niger to the tune of hundreds and thousands of hectares? However, this analysis is not shared by the authorities of the Office du Niger.

Decentralization according to the Office du Niger

The Office du Niger is the pioneer in the area of decentralization, according to its director (Nancouma Keita, interview, 1999). He was certainly alluding to the implementation of national policy on the matter from 1992, which foresaw 'the transfer of competences, prerogatives and resources from the state to the collectivities and the recognition of the legal character of the collectivities and of their management autonomy' (Diarra and Sanogo 2002: 102). To this end the Office du Niger has established a partnership with 15 rural communes; at stake first of all was the management of land. In effect, decree No. 96-188/RM (statute 1695, article 3), bearing on the management of the lands assigned to the Office du Niger, provides that the Office du Niger 'will be able to entrust some of this management to the rural communes'. The Office has thus decentralized by implementing a contract plan defining relations between the Office du Niger, the state and agricultural developers for a period of three years, as well as the performance of the company. In the same way, the company's five administrative zones have become more and more autonomous since restructuring. (17) Granting development permits to the rural people which are transferable to their next of kin, setting up an account for managing resources under the co-responsibility of the rural people, the establishment of a separate account for rice fields, and proper budgets at the level of each zone are amongst the measures taken to deconcentrate the responsibilities of the Office du Niger to the benefit of the rice growers.

Within the framework of the new decentralization law, the company will be able to delegate a portion of the lands for communal purposes (rural slopes, movement of herds, homes, pastoral lands). The lands will therefore be deregistered for the needs of the twelve new communes. Modalities for power delegation between the communes and the Office du Niger are still to be finalized. At the same time the Office plans to form elected communes to manage their property. In terms of its continuing leadership, the Office du Niger has also trained its agents to better understand the challenges of decentralization and the environment.

An encouraging process enabling the appropriation of the Office du Niger's infrastructure by the rural people is under way; the instrument that has been developed is called the joint management committee. Elections of joint management committees have taken place at the village level and the next level up (the group of villages). The joint committee is working with the Office du Niger agents responsible for the management of water, waterways and rice fields, and with the irrigation and maintenance team leaders on smaller (less than 15 hectares) and larger (between 15 and 40 hectares) land areas. The committee responsible for the management of the funds for resources and taxes reports to the head office of the zone. The joint committee on land works with the zone's rural council. When works are set to start, the rural council alerts the committee, which alerts the rural people. The joint committee meets once a month with the zone director and with the heads of water management and finance. The joint committee has eight members-two delegates per land area. The four land areas are Kolongo (KO), Kala (KL), Gruber and Retail. (18) The delegates are chosen by the villagers.

The joint committees for the management of development are on the ground where work takes places. When repair works begin, the agents of the Office du Niger (the extension scheme workers, and the heads of the waterways and the rice fields) contact the village committee. The village delegate to the joint committee compiles a record of the faulty points of the network with the Office du Niger agents (field notes, Seriwala, October 1999).

The Office du Niger is seemingly confusing the deconcentration of the company's functions, which has been implemented since the end of the 1980s, with real decentralization on a quite different basis. It goes without saying that the peasants' organizations have a long tradition of collaborating with the Office du Niger and of struggle against the colonial and post-colonial administrations. This is not inconsequential for the communalization of the Office du Niger region. However, a final and not unimportant confusion is to give the contract plan the same weight as the policy implemented by the company. The management is constantly referring to the contract plan, which is no more than a document, systematically forgetting the concrete outcomes of its application.

Whatever the circumstances, it is the Office du Niger that delegates--if it judges it to be necessary a portion of its land to the communes. The people's organizations then make use of the land that is legally controlled by the state via the Office that developed it. (19) Moreover, the powers devolved by Paris to the Director-General of the Office du Niger should not be confused with decentralization in real terms. In the same way, taking the peasants into account at the level of detailed work granted by the Office is not the equivalent of a policy which gives real power to the rural people. It is apparent that we are confronting a new phase of deconcentration--unless, of course, we consider deconcentration as an initial and necessary phase for decentralization.


In theory, the colonial metropolis had decided to divest itself of some of its power to spread the initiative amongst its overseas agents. The normative order of the colonies tacitly anticipated the people on the ground having some room for manoeuvre. In the same vein, the administrators of provinces became autonomous in their particular domains. What is the relationship with the decentralization that is advocated nowadays? Power was not ceded to the rural people; it remained in the hands of the colonial administrators. The latter used and abused it, sometimes against the judgement of those who advised them to integrate the local people to some extent. Taking account of these factors presents real problems that challenge us today, even if the 'racial policy' differed fundamentally from the policy of decentralization as it is conducted today. At the same time, the administrators' power was undermined by the heads of the big companies such as the Thies--Dakar railway, and as was exemplified by Belime, the Director-General of the Office du Niger.

The aim in this article was to show the analogy between the problems facing the French colonial state and those plaguing the Malian post-colonial state. However, the two are not to be confused for a number of reasons that this article has emphasized: notably, the obligation to belong to the colonial empire, and the absence of elective democracy. Therefore it is important to avoid approximations, sources of grotesque analogies, which would equate Delafosse's race politics with the pro-indigenous politics of van Vollenhoven and with the decentralization of the Malian authorities.

To establish decentralization on fertile ground, it is essential to consider the past. However, this consideration must be objective, grounded in academic research. The imminent danger is to succumb to the sirens of a false authenticity reeking of neo-traditionalism. However things may be, it is not at all a question of centralization either in the pre-colonial period or in the colonial period; how to decentralize that which was never previously centralized? It is decidedly a false step to become fixated with this concept.

Exploitation and development were already the order of the day more than a century ago. Decentralization and centralization too. Sometimes the terms are strictly the same, the only difference being the political, social and economic contexts, which we are far from understanding and taking seriously, as they must be. Conversely, we are witnessing the resurgence of a normative order and a colonial practice all the more pronounced as emphyteutic leases and land grabs by foreign companies and countries intensify. The implication is that the rural people will lose, this time perhaps forever, de facto control over their lands. At the same time, the state wants to decentralize and turn the rural people into true managers and natural resource owners. A squaring of the circle which does not convince anyone.

Decentralization amounts to approaching a region in accordance with the constraints of the present, at the pace desired by the foreign donors. The authorities could not care less about the past, though they do not hesitate to invoke it in encounters with the villagers. In fact, they are forgetting the essential thing: to know thoroughly and appreciate the upheavals of local power through the long and fundamental transformations experienced under colonization. This has not been done, for according to the usual thinking of those development partners such research is judged to be slow and costly. The consequence is that we are living in the ethnographic present, a present without a history. The colonial history that is left out is concerned with the rural people of the Office du Niger and of the Upper Volta, but it must necessarily include others such as engineers and technicians, all nationalities mixed together, and those whose energies have been expended in the denuded plains of the fossilized Niger valley. As long as we do not situate current efforts in a longer historical process, we will continue to reinvent the wheel--an operation all the more thankless for the fact that the rural people who have to live through it every day are growing sick of it.


With thanks to the journal's anonymous readers for their incisive observations.



Association Villageoise de Seriwala, October 1999.

Doumbia, Mamadou: former agent of the Office du Niger and a retired trade unionist, Niono, 25 March 2001.

Keita, Nancouma: Director-General of the Office du Niger, October 1999.

Kulibali, Sajo: rice grower, Niono KM26, 18 March 2002.

Joint committee of the village of Seriwala, Office du Niger, October 1999.

Members of the office of Pogo District, July 2004.

Mayor of the Pogo Commune, July 2004.

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(1) This article was translated from French by Stephanie Kitchen. The original French text (unedited) is available online at

(2) Nko means 'I say' in Bamana, Malinke, Jula and other dialects of these languages. Kant6, a cultural nationalist, proposed in 1949 a nko alphabet meant to replace the Arabic and Latin ones, and able to transcribe the Qur'an and other texts, and to record African languages. Amselle (2001 : 145-206) writes that the need to establish texts in his own language with a script of its own underlines Kante's anti-colonialism, as much towards the French as to the Arabs. Followers of nko were organized in associations in Guinea, Egypt and Mali. Taking advantage of the policy of decentralization in Mali at the beginning of the 1990s, some of their intellectuals close to those in power set out to produce the philosophical and historical reasons underpinning the process that was seen solely as a return to the ancient harmonious order of things. Nko ideologues do not hesitate to claim a range of antecedents extending from the Kurukan-fugan proclamation by Sunjata in the Sunjata Epic to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and to the French Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789. Sunjata, founder of the Malian empire, following his victory over Sumaoro Kante, defined (e. 1235) the attributes and functions of the different ethnic and professional groups of medieval Mall, whom he brought together in a great meeting to hear his proclamation (for more details, see Amselle 2001: 151, 158, 163; see also Madina Ly-Tall 1977).

(3) Jean-Loup Amselle (2001: 173) elucidates Delafosse's evolutionist perspective, according to which 'the state is on the one hand contained as a seed in the family, whilst correlatively the family is simply a form of state in miniature'.

(4) I will support my argument with the unambiguous statement by Jesse Ribot (2002a 4; see also the bibliographical references in note 23): 'effective decentralization is defined by an inclusive local process under local authorities empowered with discretionary decisions over resources that are relevant to local people. It is an institutionalized form of community participation. It is local democracy' (emphases my own). See also Jean-Pierre Jacob (1998: 134, 138, 140-1). In the case we are concerned with here, there is visibly no 'significant break with traditional modes of governmentality' (ibid.: 138).

(5) Faced with the failure of the policy aiming to make administration of the French colonies dependent on metropolitan administrators supported by educated Africans, and with the fear that the latter inspired in the colonial power in the aftermath of the First World War, Delafosse championed integration of the indigenous councils, with the French authorities and indigenous chiefs responsible for implementing decrees. The authorities, be wrote, had to proceed 'by truly legitimizing race'. This is what was called 'racial policy' (on this subject, see Marc Michel 1998: 84).

(6) Belieres et al. (2002: 225) state that 'today the Office du Niger exercises a quasi-absolute control'.

(7) Jules Carde was a classic product of French colonialism. Born in Batna in Algeria, his career spanned Senegal, Madagascar, Martinique, Cote d'Ivoire and Congo.

(8) This would originally have been a military commander. It was the lowest-ranking French administrator of the smallest unit of French political administration in French colonial Africa to be headed by a European officer. Cercle was the term used to designate 'district' until the 1990s.

(9) Mauritania, relatively close to the metropolis, was the exception that proved the rule. This country was not inspected because it only became an overseas territory in 1946, whilst its capital, Saint-Louis in Senegal, was only transferred to Nouakchott in 1957.

(10) In 1935 France incorporated the lands of the central Niger Delta into state property and then registered them in its own name in the cadastral survey in 1953 (Belieres et al. 2002: 222).

(11) A group financed by American and South African capital has obtained 15,000 hectares; whilst 11,000 hectares are attributable to the investments of eight countries from the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa. A further 14,000 hectares have been financed by the American government in partnership with Mali within the framework of the 'Millennium Challenge Account'. See Le Monde, 15 April 2009.

(12) The management decree of 1996 allows the Office du Niger to authorize ordinary or emphyteutic leases on land that is not developed (Belieres et al. 2002: 223). It should be noted that the decree of I July 1996 'organizes the management of the lands assigned to the Office du Niger by different kinds of tenures: annual contract to utilize the land, permit for agricultural development, emphyteutic lease, ordinary and occupancy lease' (Diarra and Sanogo 2002: 102).

(13) I refer here to the detailed study on the ground carried out by Souleymane Traore under my direction. In 2003-4 Traore had a scholarship from the Point Sud research centre for the study of local knowledge. We furrowed a part of the land together and most importantly debated and analysed the materials collected. From this resulted a document published on the Point Sud website, <>.

(14) The region was flooded during prehistoric times.

(15) See footnote 7.

(16) The first stage of development, 475 hectares, was financed by the World Bank; the second stage, 310 hectares, by the Netherlands, thanks to its rice-growing improvement programme within the perimeter of the Office du Niger (ARPON) in 1998; then ARPON financed the third stage in 1999, as well as the fourth stage of 580 hectares. The fifth stage was divided into two schemes: the first of 811 hectares was entrusted to ARPON and the 615 remaining hectares to Japan (Traore and Diawara 2008: 34). On the subject of the ARPON project see Zanen and Diallo (2002: 104-10), Toure et al. 1997.

(17) Rice cultivation is divided into five zones of the Office du Niger, each managed by a chief. These are Niono, N'Debougou, Molodo, Kouroumari and Macina.

(18) The names are taken from the countries they are irrigating, or a person (Gruber), or a development project (Retail).

(19) Jesse Ribot (1999: 35) describes the same delegatory structure in its application to the election of village chiefs elsewhere in Mali.

MAMADOU DIAWARA is Professor of Anthropology in Frankfurt. He has lectured in Paris, Bayreuth, Birmingham, Yale, Leiden and Georgia (USA). Founding director of Point Sud, the Centre for Research on Local Knowledge in Bamako, Mali, and fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, he is currently John G. Diefenbaker fellow at the Universite Laval, Canada. Email:

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Author:Diawara, Mamadou
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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