Richard W. Franks and Barbara H. Chasin, Seeds of Famine: Chapter 3.



French colonial policy in West Africa subjugated, weakened and destroyed the fabric of the indigenous African society.  It did this through reorganization of agriculture, the labor force and through a divide and conquer strategy used to turn the local population against itself. Eventually this strategy led to famines and a sharp deterioration in the standard of life for native West Africans.



European colonialism expanded to include the Sahel region of Africa, adapting it to a cash crop, profiteering economic model. The area had long been a center of regional trade when the French established their first outposts in 1659. It was slowly recognized that the region offered many economic opportunities for the French, including slaves and gum arabic. The French gradually moved deeper into the continent, reorganizing it for their own interests as they went. At times they met resistance, like El Hadj Omar, though no one was able to permanently resist the French. The French established schools, with military officers as teachers, to inculcate the natives with a sense of allegiance to France.

Frances defeat by Germany in 1870 prompted a rethinking of the role of the colonies. They became more economically important than before and soon agencies with civilian faces were established to carry out and legitimize Frances policies in West Africa. Their rational was often that bringing European trade into the interior was a positive force, bringing wealth and advancement to all corners of Africa. Alongside this, lobbying agencies were established to drum up public support for a French African Empire. Mostly made up of military and businessmen, these agencies enjoyed broad financial support.

At times, European powers conflicted on the issue of Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 laid down guidelines for the partitioning of Africa. The rule was that any territory could be claimed by simply occupying the land and then notifying the other European powers. Other dealings included a British acceptance of French claims on one area in a return for French acceptance of British claims on Egypt. In this way, the fates of millions of Africans were determined.

European domination was destructive in many ways for Africans. Animal herds were requisitioned, all but destroying them and men were drafted into the military in an attempt to create “La Paix Francaise.” African troops were well regarded because the French believed that they were calmer under fire than whites. Africa would continue to be a major source of manpower for the French until the break up of their colonies. Because of the low chances of ever returning home, many men hid from recruiters. Many also died, not from combat, but from diseases like tuberculoses that were brought back to their villages.

African society was changed indirectly as well as directly. With the focus of trade moving to the coastal areas, inland trading routes and nomadic traders found their volume of trade and their profit from it diminishing. They were dealt a further blow by the expansion of the railroads into the interior, a development that made their role even more unnecessary. The end result was poverty for the once prosperous nomads.

            In their main role of enriching France, cash cropping emerged as the dominant economic activity in many parts of West Africa with the peanut the predominant crop. There was a large demand for vegetable oils beginning in the 1840s in France and therefore, peanut oil was profitable.

            The peanut is well adapted to the Sahel region, preferring the low level of rainfall and the type of sandy soil there. It was decided that the French would not establish large plantations because it was thought to be more profitable to let the small grower absorb the costs of production. In this way, the authorities absolved themselves of responsibility for the well being of the workers. The poor conditions of the peanut farmers ensured that they could not observe proper farming practices such as fertilization and crop rotation and eventually this led to a deterioration of the land. With the deterioration of the land, peasants were forced to move to new, more fertile land, thus spreading the destruction further.

            Because there was little incentive for the average peasant to grow peanuts, a system had to be devised to encourage their cultivation. The main method was Tax schemes. Unable to pay taxes without a marketable commodity, peasants were forced to cultivate peanuts. Tax evasion was dealt with severely and different tribes were pitted against one another in an attempt to enforce the tax codes while reinforcing tribal prejudices to ensure that there was no united resistance. Kidnapping and torture were even resorted to in order to punish tax evaders. Even at the time many of the arrangements were characterized as “forced labor” or “prison labor.”

            A small group of Africans were elevated to the ranks of Administrators. These leaders replaced the traditional authority figures. Professions other than farmer or native colonial administrator were gradually eliminated and in this way the West African economy fell under complete European control. The French in particular forbade economic relations with entities other than France through decree and taxation. Africans were forbidden from roles of business while Syrians and Lebanese were allowed to emigrate and assume these roles at a low level.  Native Africans were left with only one their labor to market.

As a result of the shift to widespread cultivation of peanuts, food production declined. Famine became common and studies showing the shockingly low caloric consumption of the natives during certain seasons were met with disbelief by the French and disregarded. What food was grown was susceptible to droughts and locust swarms. Further disrupting the production of both food and cash crops were the indiscriminate demands of the French for African manpower for military service. This caused many Africans to try to immigrate to Britain’s African Colonies where the conditions were somewhat better. Malnutrition took a further toll by lowering the overall population.

The French established “Indigenous Provident Societies” with the purpose of storing grain and seed reserves. These reserves were accumulated through forced donations from peasants. In reality, they reduced the peasants own reserves while poor storage conditions ensured that many of the reserves went bad.

            Though their policies were clearly having a disastrous effect on the indigenous population, the French worked to further expand peanut production. As a result of many of the inefficient farming practices employed by peasant farmers, peanut yields were declining. To address this, the colonial government set up scientific missions to try to develop disease and drought resistant strains. They also attempted to develop strains with higher oil content. They developed varieties specific to certain geographical conditions. Because of these efforts, peanut cultivation grew.

            In 1946, a plan was created for the development of the colonies. The plan involved large state investments and heavy state involvement. A development bank was established to handle development loans to the colonies. The largest investments were infrastructure investments. In particular, transportation was heavily favored because it could increase profits by making it easier to bring crops to market. The French also seemed to recognize the importance of the West African woodlands, enacting legislation to protect them. This attempt at protection however came to little.

            The French were also faced with a peculiar religious development. With traditional social networks destroyed, the indigenous populations turned to religion. One of these sects, the Mourides enjoyed widespread support. Luckily for the French, the leader of the Mourides used his influence to espouse pro-French ideas and encourage pro-French behavior that included peanut farming and enlistment in the French army. Most useful was the Mouride work ethic. Through this, they gave religious legitimacy to peanut farming. They also acted as pioneers, cultivating regions that had never been used for peanut production. The French were more than happy to accommodate the Mourides.

            Because the Mourides had little prior experience with agriculture (they had been principally warriors prior to the French occupation of West Africa) their yields were lower than peasants who came from agricultural backgrounds. Furthermore, they were more prone to over farming the lands. The French directly used the Mourides to further their agenda. The long term effects of these policies are still being felt to day as the soil and forests have been squandered and the regions are particularly susceptible to changes in rainfall.


Peter Siegesmund

ECO 357