The Mossi are the most predominant ethnic group in Burkina Fasso, West Africa. Their population is estimated between 6 to 7 million about 40 per cent of the population. Mossi are also the second-largest ethnic group in Cote d’Ivoire numbering about 3 million. Until 1984, Burkina Faso, meaning “Land of Incorruptible People” was known as Upper Volta. Several Mossi people live in Ghana, Togo and Benin. The Mossi are central in the history of West Africa dating back to the 11th century. Mossi kingdoms were examples of the oldest and stable polities of West Africa. Mossi had historical links both to the north-to Mali and Songhai; and to the South-to the Middle Volta States of Mamprussi and Dagomba. Mossi tradition claimed descent from warrior groups that migrated to the modern-day Burkina Faso and established an empire that has spanned almost 1,000 years. They had strong allegiance to the sacred king, Moro Naba whose capital is located at Ouagadougou. Mossi language called Moore has several dialects that are widely spoken in West Africa.
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The Mossi occupy the central region of Burkina Faso as their homeland. They live predominantly in the Volta River Basin where they make subsistence living from agriculture in an arid land cultivating maize, millet, sorghum, peanuts and indigo. Mossi established a strong foothold in the bend of the Niger River from where they resisted Islamic incursion led by the Mandinka and Songhai Muslims. Some lived in the north on the Sahelian desert steppes and further south on the tree-field savannas and forestland. The diversity of the vegetation influenced their practice of agriculture and pastoralism. Distinction has been made between “Northern Mossi” of the Niger Bend and the “Southern Mossi” of the White Volta basin. The later lived on the environs of Say, on the Niger River in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the 14th century, “Northern Mossi” moved to the confines of Mali Empire, from where they invaded Timbuktu. The “Southern Mossi” moved to the Volta basin. “Northern Mossi” was defeated by the rising Songhai Empire in the second half of the 15th century. Subsequently, the two divisions of the Mossi became reunited and consolidated the Mossi kingdoms.
Mossi kingdoms have a common descent. Oral traditions conceptualize the link between the various Mossi kingdoms in terms of the descent of the founders of the dynasties from Na Gbewa. In the stories, three sons of Na Gbewa, namely Tusugu, Sitobu and Nmantambu, and Yanenga, a daughter were revered. Tusugu, the senior son is considered as the ancestor of the rulers of Mamprussi and Sitobu; and Nmantambu as ancestors of Dagomba and Nanumba. Both Dagomba and Nanumba are regarded as the ‘junior’ of Mamprussi. Yanenga’s marriage to an elephant hunter, Riale produced a son called Wedraogo (the stallion) who is regarded as the ancestor of the rulers of Wagadugu and Yatenga. Both Wagadugu and Yatenga are regarded as ‘grandchildren’ of Mamprussi. Wedraogo founded a new dynasty and established tenkodogo in 1120, south-east of Wagadugu that is still regarded as the cradle of the powerful Mossi Empire. Mossi language is Moore which belongs to the Gur group, one of the largest African languages within the Niger Congo language family. They speak more specifically Lobi-Dogon, Grusi, Gurma and Mole-Dagbane.
The founders of the Mossi kingdoms reached the basin of the Volta as conquerors. They were referred to as the nakomse, ‘possessors of political power.’ They established their political overlordship through military prowess on the autochthonous tegbisi, ‘the owners of the land,’ from whom they collected tributes. The power of the early Mossi was based on the possession of horses and mastery of cavalry warfare. Mossi society continues to be influenced by the distinction between those who possess nam, political authority, and those who possess tengasobundo, ritual control over the land. This military attributes enabled the Mossi to dominate the entire region. Mossi religion has three basic characteristics: the belief in all-powerful creator, Wende; the fertility spirits of the rain and the earth; and the ancestors, who influence the lives of their ancestors. The fertility spirits are worshipped through animal sacrifices. Each household has a shrine dedicated to its ancestors that are honoured annually during the harvest festival.
Among the Mossi, Political development, especially the evolution of ruling aristocracies and centralization of power predated the advent of Islam in Savannah zone of West Africa. When Islam was introduced into the North Sudan, almost all the states, except Mossi adopted as the royal cult. Indeed, the political institutions of the Mossi were connected to their religion. This was partly why Mossi rulers resisted Islam, although aspects of Mossi culture highlight Muslim influence. Thus, the Mossi were less affected by the progress of Islam in the Sudan before and after A.D. 100. Two prominent Mossi kingdoms were Wagadugu founded in about 1050 and Yatenga founded around 1170 A.D.
Other kingdoms included Mamprussi, Dagoma and Gurma. These kingdoms covered part of the basin of the upper Volta in the centre of the Niger Bend north of modern Ghana. It’s significant to note that Mossi was surrounded by powerful states that adopted Islam. The Tekrur, the Madingo and the Bambara in the west, the Dja, the Songhai in the centre, and the Hausa and the Kanuri were in the east. Yet, Mossi resisted Islam and prevented its expansion southeastwards. In effect, Mossi had no direct links with North Africa unlike other states that had accepted Islam. Indeed, after the reign of Mansa Suleiman of Mali (1341-60), Mossi kingdom of Yatenga, the pagan neighbor of Mali to the south invaded the empire and conquered Timbuktu around 1400 A.D. Mossi also attacked Benga in the lacustrine area upriver from Timbuktu. Between 1464 and 1492, Mossi struggled with Songhai over the control of the Niger Bend. By the early 1480s, Mossi sacked the desert town of Walata but were repulsed. Sunni Ali, the king of Songhai in turn invaded the capital of a Mossi king, Nasiri capturing slaves and booty. Before the end of the 15th century, Songhai was able to curb the expansionist drive of Mossi to dominate the Middle Niger. Sunni Ali’s successor, Askia Muhammad (1493-1528), filled with religious zeal after his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, launched a jihad against the Mossi in 1498-9 in which Nasiri was again invaded. Askia Muhammad defeated the Mossi but failed to Islamise them. Songhai campaign against Mossi continued in the mid-16th century which put an end to the Mossi threat to Songhai control of the Niger Bend. In the nineteenth century, the expansionist tendencies of the Jihadist states of Gwandu and Masina spared Mossi domain. Earlier in the first two decades of the 16th century, Askia Muhammad Toure had launched an unsuccessful jihad against the Mossi. In 1744-5, Opoku Ware the king of Ashante invaded the southern Mossi kingdoms. The war between the Asante musketeers and Dagomba cavalrymen ended in stalemate. In order to prevent another invasion, Dagomba accepted Ashante overlordship.
Mossi economy was agrarian. The commoners engaged in the cultivation of yam, cereal, legume and indigo. Some engaged in cattle breeding. During the French rule, the cultivation of cotton was introduced. Commoners paid tribute to the local village chiefs from the surpluses. Mossi kingdoms enjoyed little commercial importance. The kingdoms lay in the interstice of the two great trading networks: Dyula or Juula to the West and Hausa to the east. Additionally, the kingdoms were distant from the major ports of the West African trade, especially those on the Guinea Coast to the south and the Sahara to the north. By the 18th century, Mossi rulers pursued interests in the development of trade and encouraged Muslim merchants to settle in their territories. The presence of Muslim traders opened channels of commerce and communication between Mossi and her neighbours which ended the isolation that had dominated the early phases of Mossi history.
Mossi had a centralised administrative system and enjoyed profound political unity. The social and political structure in Mossi was headed by a sacred king who served as the leader of a conquering aristocracy, the Nakomse. The sacred king served as the Chief priest who was in close communion with his ancestors. The supreme king of the Mossi referred to as the Moro-Naba, “a symbol of the sun,” possessed the nam, “power” or “the force of God” which granted him the right of life and death over all his subjects. He held religious powers and has the duty to initiate the yearly rites dedicated to the ancestors so that his subjects could have bumper harvest, multiply and live happily. The Mossi constitution has no provision for deposing the king. Mossi tradition claims that only one of their kings was ever deposed, and that he abdicated the throne due to French invasion. Another tradition, however, states that one sovereign, Karfo (c. 1800) was forced to commit suicide by his Ouidi-naba, Chief Minister. Moro-Naba was elected by senior dignitaries of the court. Power resided with the Moro-Naba, who served multiple functions as the commander of the army, supreme judge and the general collector of taxes and tributes. The empire consisted of kingdoms divided into provinces that were further subdivided into fiefdoms comprising villages. The centralization of power promoted internal security, peace and preserved the empire from anarchy and devastation by invaders.
The king was assisted by Ministers called the Naba who were palace advisers and provincial administrators. Four of the provincial governors discharged important functions at the capital. One served as the Prime Minister and administrator of palace slaves and eunuchs. The second one was in charge of the cavalry. The third one controlled the infantry and the fourth one was in charge of the royal tombs. Even though many of the provincial governors were of slave descent Mossi had a strong army for internal security and external defence. The kingdoms of Mossi repulsed the invading armies of Mali, Songhai and Arma. The Mossi are still being ruled by the old dynasties that survived till today.
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The Mossi first encounter with the Europeans was during the travels of Heinrich Barth, J. Dupuis, and Edward Bowdich. However, the first European, G.A. Krause did not enter Mossi until 1888. When Louis G. Binger arrived six months later, the Mossi closed their territory to Europeans due to suspicion. By 1894, Ferguson, a British mulatto, arrived Ouagadougou, the Mossi capital and signed a treaty with the Mossi king. The treaty placed the Mossi region under British protection. But in September 1896, the French denied the British Treaty with the Mossi, conquered and secured the control of the territory.
Mossi Empire was well organised that the French preserved the indigenous political system throughout the colonial period. By so doing, the Mossi indigenous political system was adapted to suit the French colonialism and modern government. Through this process, the Mossi perpetuate the rule of an ancient dynasty in modern Africa. This has influenced the Mossi to play active roles in modern politics. The Mossi are still held to their traditional religion, especially the practice of traditional ancestor worship, fertility rituals and pubescent circumcision which allow the oldest son to live independently from the family. Mossi continues to practice that give wives status only after their first child. The Christians among them are predominantly urban elite who are Catholics. Islam is widely practiced among the commoners and ruling class.
During the colonial period, the Mossi of Upper Volta migrated southwards to the cocoa plantations and docks of the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) and the Gold Coast. Their migration was aimed at sharing in the rising wages, and to escape from the authority colonial officials and local rulers to the freedom of the city. They also migrated to Cote d’Ivoire in order to earn money to pay the French colonial taxes. They worked as farmers in the South in order to remit money back to their families in the north. They were equally traders and served in the French army as soldiers. The population of the Mossi in Cote d’Ivoire soared as commercial and agricultural opportunities exited for them in the cities and small towns.
Dr. Joseph Conombo served as Minister of the Interior in the Mendas-France government of 1953. He was on his way to the United States as a member of the French United Nations delegations when his government was defeated. Also, the late Moro Naba Sagha was the president of the United Democratic Party of the Upper Volta. Like most West African countries, Burkina Faso got independence from the French in 1960. After the reign of the first elected President, Ouezzin Coulibaly; Maurice Yameogo, a Mossi came to power.
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