Mossi - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Mossi, in common with other Voltaic peoples, state and stateless, were organized in patrilineally defined lineages within clans. Membership in such units, however, was only rigidly constrained for those of royal and chiefly descent. Ordinary cultivators could and did incorporate new members into their lineages, whether affinal kin (sisters' sons seeking better opportunities matrilaterally) or outright strangers, even non-Mossi.

Political Organization. Survey literature often refers to the Mossi Empire. In fact, there were three independent kingdoms and around fifteen dependencies and interstitial buffers. The three kingdoms, in order of seniority, but not power, were Tenkodogo (Tankudugo), Ouagadougou (Wogodogo), and Yatenga. An easterly fourth kingdom, Fada N'Gurma, is sometimes counted as a Mossi state. The polities, as in most of Africa, were based on control of trade, whether of sources or routes. The burden of the state on the ordinary cultivators, then, was not great. Kings and chiefs possessed naam, the supernatural power required to rule others, which was conferred in consequence of a ruler having been properly chosen and installed. It is this intertwining of political power and religious legitimization that accounted for the well-known Mossi resistance to Islam. An occasional king or chief might convert, as several Ouagadougou kings did in the 1700s, but the system as a whole could not separate a ruler from the religion that conferred his power.

Kings had court officials who were each responsible for a sector of the kingdom; district chiefs in turn had twenty or more village chiefs reporting to them. Proper selection and validation indicated the possession of naam, without which one could not validly rule, but the officeholders were picked from their predecessor's patrilineage. Kings, district chiefs, and village chiefs all bore the title naba, with a geographic qualifier (e.g., Tenkdogo Naba, Koupela Naba). Only the king of Ouagadougou, the Mogho Naba, had a title (chief of Mossi country) that was not tied to a place-name; he was by far the most powerful of the various Mossi kings and chiefs.

Since Burkina Faso became independent in 1961, traditional kings and chiefs are not formally recognized by the government and its colonially derived administrative structure. They remain locally important, however, and have served as deputies during periods when there has been an elected legislature.

Social Control. Lineages, and village elders generally, exerted a good deal of influence upon people and their behavior. A society in which several crucial tasks (cultivating, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and, not least, roof replacement) depended on cooperative work groups allows effective ostracism for nonparticipation. The complex of Mossi chiefdoms and states and the expanding Mossi frontier at their edges allowed resettlement as a means of improving one's opportunities or escape from a difficult community, even before the French colonial regime intentionally stimulated massive labor migration by imposing a head tax payable in francs. Village chiefs represented the state and resolved differences brought to them.

In independent Burkina Faso, courts and police exist as well, although their impact on the countryside is variable. The avowedly revolutionary government of Thomas Sankara in the 1980s created "revolutionary defense committees" in every community, including rural villages, but their impact during that period and since the overthrow of that government in 1987 has not been reported.

Conflict. Military power was cavalry based. As was true across the Sahel, the absence of wheeled transport and semiarid conditions made garrisons impossible owing to the inability to feed a concentration of horses. In consequence, the power of a political center depended on its ability to mobilize local chiefs, with their horses and dependents.

The Mossi states were, however, strong enough to survive wars with the Muslim empires of the great bend of the Niger River, to their north. The Mossi are noted as the major—if not the only—Sahelian states to withstand the spread of Islam in the region. Mossi forces, like those of the other states around them, raided the stateless peoples around their perimeters for slaves. As a result of the loose nature of Mossi states and their weak military basis, there was also conflict between them. At the time of the French conquest, the oldest—but smallest and weakest—Mossi state, Tenkodogo, was engaged in a war of mutual raids with a chiefdom to its north, which in turn was a dependency of a buffer state on the edge of the largest Mossi kingdom, Ouagadougou.


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