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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Afrique occidentale française
French West Africa
Federation of French colonies


Capital Saint Louis (1895-1902)
Dakar (1902-1960)
Language(s) French, Various African languages were also spoken by natives
Political structure Federation
 - Established 27 October 1895
 - Fifth Republic 5 October 1958
Currency French West African franc
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Senegambia and Niger
French Sudan
French Guinea
French Upper Volta
French Dahomey
French Community
Ivory Coast
Mali Federation
Upper Volta
Map of the seven colonies of the AOF 1936. Note that the eight colony, Upper Volta was in this period parceled between its neighbors. French Soudan also contains a large portion of what is today the eastern half of Mauritania.
The former Governors palace on Gorée Island, Dakar, Senegal.
Afrique occidentale française Commercial Relations Report, showing the profile of a Fula woman. January-March 1938.

French West Africa (French: Afrique occidentale française, AOF) was a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. It was formed from individual coastal colonies which the French had first seized as trading posts in the 17th and 18th centuries.

As the French pursued their part in the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s and 1890s, they conquered large inland areas, and at first ruled them as either part of the Senegal colony, or as independent entities, usually governed by French Army officers, and dubbed "Military Territories". In the late 1890s, the French government began to rein-in the territorial expansion of its officers on the ground, and transferred all the territories west of Gabon to a single Governor based in Senegal, reporting directly to the Minister of Overseas Affairs. The first Governor General of Senegal was named in 1895, and in 1904, the territories he oversaw were formally named French West Africa (AOF). Gabon would later become the seat of its own federation French Equatorial Africa (AEF), which was to border its western neighbor on the modern boundary between Niger and Chad.

Following World War II, the French Fourth Republic began a process of extending limited political rights in its colonies. In 1946 the loi Lamine Guèye granted some limited citizenship rights to natives of the African colonies. The 1956 Loi Cadre created popularly elected Territorial assemblies with only consultative powers. The French Empire was renamed the French Union. The Constitution of the French Fifth Republic of 1958 again changed the colonies structure from the French Union to the French Community. Each territory was to become a "Protectorate" with the consultative assembly named a National Assembly and the French appointed Governor renamed as "High Commissioner" and made head of state of each territory. The Assembly would name an African as Head of Government with advisory powers to the Head of State.

Legally the federation ceased to exist after the September 1958 referendum to approve this French Community. All the colonies except for Guinea voted to remain in the new structure, while Guineans[1] voted overwhelmingly for independence. In 1960, a further revision of the French constitution, compelled by the failure of the French Indochina War and the tensions in Algeria, allowed members of the French Community to unilaterally change their own constitutions. The new nations of West Africa were born. Senegal and former French Sudan became the Mali Federation (1960-61), while Côte d'Ivoire, Niger, Upper Volta and Dahomey subsequently formed the short-lived Sahel-Benin Union, later the Conseil de l'Entente.


Territorial changes

The administrative structure of French colonial possessions in West Africa, while more homogeneous than neighboring British possessions, was marked by variety and flux. Throughout the history of the AOF, individual colonies and military territories were reorganised numerous times,[2] as was the Government General in Dakar. French Upper Volta was formed and parceled out to neighboring colonies twice. The future states of Mauritania and Niger remained out of the federation until the 1920s and 40s respectively, as they were Military Territories, directly controlled by the French Army. World War II and the passing of the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act of 1956) both radically restructured the administration of the colonies. French Togoland, seized by France from Germany in World War I, was for most of this period not nominally a colony but a Mandate territory.

Federal structure

In theory the Governors General of the AOF reported directly to the Minister of Colonies in Paris, while individual colonies and territories reported only to Dakar. Originally created in 1895 as a union of Senegal, French Sudan, French Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire only, the federation was placed on a permanent footing in 1904 with a governor-general based first in Saint-Louis, then (from 1902) in Dakar (both in Senegal, the oldest French settlement). The AOF subsequently expanded to neighbouring French-ruled territories: Dahomey was added in 1904, after having been put under colonial tutelage in 1892; Mauritania in 1920,[3] and when the territory of Upper Volta was divided from French Sudan by colonial decree in 1921, it automatically also entered the AOF.[4] Between 1934 and 1937, the League of Nations Mandate territory of French Togoland was subsumbed into Dahomey, and between its seizure from Germany in World War I and independence it was administered through the AOF. In 1904, both Mauritania and Niger were classed "Military Territories": ruled by the AOF in conjunction with officers of the French Colonial Forces.

Colonial administration

Each colony of French West Africa was administered by a Lieutenant Governor, responsible to the Governor General in Dakar. Only the Governor General received orders from Paris, via the Minister of Colonies. The Minister, with the approval of the French National Assembly chose Lieutenants Governor and Governors General.


Governors General[5]

Joost van Vollenhoven : 1917-1918
Noel Ballay : 1900-1902
  • Jean-Baptiste Chaudié : 1895-1900
  • Noel Ballay : 1900-1902
  • Ernest Roume : 1902-1907
  • William Merlaud-Ponty : 1908-1915
  • François Joseph Clozel : 1916
  • Joost van Vollenhoven : 1917-1918
  • Martial Merlin : 1918-1923
  • Jules Carde : 1923-1930
  • Jules Brévie : 1930-1936
  • Marcel de Coppet : 1936-1938
  • Léon Cayla : 1939-1940
  • Pierre Boisson : 1940-1943
  • Pierre Cournarie : 1943-1946
  • René Barthès : 1946-1948
  • Paul Béchard : 1948-1951
  • Bernard Cornut-Gentille : 1952-1956
  • Gaston Custin : 1956-1957.
High Commissioners

Grand Council of French West Africa

A gathering of former Governors of Senegal in Dakar, 1950s.

Beginning in 1946, a Grand Council of French West Africa was created in Dakar. Two representatives from each colony, usually the Lieutenant Governor and a representative of the French population there, were seated. This council had only consultative powers over the office of the Governor General. The functioning of such bodies rested on the Indigénat legal code of 1885. Those native to Frances colonies were not citizens of France. Rather they were "French Subjects", lacking rights before the law, property ownership rights, rights to travel, dissent, or vote. The exception was the Four Communes of Senegal: those areas had been towns of the tiny Senegal Colony in 1848 when, at the abolition of slavery by the French Second Republic, all residents of France were granted equal political rights. This special status was quickly overturned, and anyone able to prove they were born in these towns was legally French, and could vote in parliamentary elections, which had been previously dominated by white and Metis residents of Senegal. In 1914 the first black man, Blaise Diagne, was elected from one of these Communes, Saint-Louis. In 1916 Diagne pushed through the National Assembly a law (Loi Blaise Diagne) granting full citizenship to all residents of the so-called Four Communes. In return he had promised to help recruit millions of Africans to fight in World War I. Thereafter, black Africans of Dakar, Gorée, Saint-Louis, and Rufisque could vote to send representatives to the French National Assembly, as well as to the Grand Council.

Local administration

Despite this state of flux, and with the exception of the Senegalese Communes, administrative structure of French rule at the lower levels remained constant, based upon the Cercle system. This was the smallest unit of French political administration in French Colonial Africa that was headed by a European officer. They might range in size, but French Sudan (modern Mali) consisted of less than a dozen Cercles for most of its existence. Thus a Cercle Commander might be the absolute authority over hundreds of thousands of Africans.


A "Section Chief" in the building of the Dakar-Niger Railway, pushed by African workers. Kayes, Mali, 1904.

A Cercle consisted of several cantons, each of which in turn consisted of several villages, and was almost universal in France's African colonies from 1895 to 1946. The "Cercle Commander" ("commandant de cercle") was subject to the authority of a District Commander, and the government of the colony above him, but was independent of the Military structure (outside of Military areas, eg: modern Niger and Mauritania prior to the Second World War). Below the "Cercle Commander" was a series of African "Chefs de canton" and "Chefs du Village": "chiefs" appointed by the French and subject to removal by the Europeans. As well, the "Cercle Commander" made use of a large number of servants, employees, and African officers such as the "Gardes-de-cercle" police, any military units seconded to them by government authorities, and sub administrators such as the Precepteur du marché trade inspectors, etc. Because of administrative practice and geographic isolation, Cercle Commanders had a tremendous amount of power, both over the lives of Africans around them, but also over the economic and political life of their territories. Legally, all Africans outside the Four Communes of Senegal were "subjects" under the Indigénat legal code of 1885. This code gave summary powers to French administrators, including the rights to arrest, try, punish and imprison subjects. It also gave French local authorities the right to requisition forced labour, usually limited to able bodied men for a few weeks a year, but in practice having few restrictions. These tools, along with the Civilizing mission ideology common in the period following the First World War, meant that every new Cercle Commander might bring with him vast projects of development and restructuring of the lives of the people he governed.

King N'Diagaye, a local chief near Dakar Senegal, receiving a French Administrator. c.1910.


The other official office particular to the local administration of French West Africa was the "Chief". These were Africans appointed by French officials for their loyalty to France, regardless of their rights to local power. These chiefs were assigned created territories based on the scale of a French Canton, as well as on the small scale tribal structures the French found in the coastal areas of the Rivières du Sud colony in the 1880s, modern Guinea. The Canton, then, was much smaller than, and qualitatively different from, the precolonial states of the Sahel (such as the Toucouleur Empire) which the French would later conquer.[6]

They were styled "Chefs de canton", "Chefs du Village", or occasionally taking the title of Precolonial states assimilated by the French structure whole. This last was uncommon, but became more prevalent in the later colonial territories conquered, as fewer administrators were available to rule over larger, less populated territories with strong pre-colonial state structures.

Where these larger polities resisted the French, they were often broken into small chiefdoms. Larger polities which presented a segment of the elite who would work with the French, were maintained under new leadership. The Sultan of Agadez, the Sultan of Damagaram, and the Djermakoy of Dosso are examples of these large scale "Chefs de canton". But even these rulers were replaced by individuals handpicked by French authorities.

Regardless of source, chiefs were given the right to arm small numbers of guards and made responsible for the collection of taxes, the recruitment of forced labour, and the enforcement of "Customary Law". In general, Canton Chiefs served at the behest of their Cercle Commander, and were left to see to their own affairs as long as calm was maintained and Administrative orders were carried out.


With an area of some 4,689,000 square kilometres (1,810,000 sq mi) (mostly the desert or semi-desert interior of Mauritania, Sudan and Niger) extending from Africa's westernmost point to the depths of the Sahara, the federation contained more than ten million inhabitants at its creation, and some 25 million at its dissolution. The AOF included all of the Senegal River valley, most of the Niger River valley, and most of the West African Sahel region. It also included tropical forests in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea, the Futa Djallon highlands, and the Aïr Mountains of modern Niger.


See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ for a progression of maps of the border changes of individual sub-entities, see:
    WHKMLA Historical Atlas of French West Africa.
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ruth Ginio, French Colonial Reading of Ethnographic Research, Cahiers d'études africaines, 166 | 2002, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 10 juin 2005. Consulted 16 January 2009.
  • Robert Aldrich. Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. Palgrave MacMillan (1996) ISBN 0312160003.
  • Alice L. Conklin. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa 1895-1930. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1998), ISBN 9780804729994.
  • Patrick Manning. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, 1880-1995. Cambridge University Press (1998) ISBN 0521642558.
  • Jean Suret-Canale. Afrique Noire: l'Ere Coloniale (Editions Sociales, Paris, 1971); Eng. translation, French Colonialism in Tropical Africa, 1900 1945. (New York, 1971).
  • Crawford Young. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. Yale University Press (1994) ISBN 0300068794

External links

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Proper noun

French West Africa


French West Africa

  1. French West Africa is the (literal) English rendering of Afrique Occidentale française (abbreviated AOC), a geographical group of French colonies in West Africa under the supervisory authority of a single governor-general, comprising the following colonised countries (present names as independent republics in perenthesis if different): Dahomey (Benin), French Guinea (Guinea), the French Sudan (Mali), Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso); the last governor-general was also the first of two successive High commissioners, charged with the transition to independence as independent republics, without a common administrative level

See also



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