The Mossis constitute more than 50% of the population of Burkina Faso. From the 15th to the 19th century, on the plateau of the white Volta (Nakambé), they erected skillfully-structured States as far as northern Ghana…
According to the written data by Malian historian Saadi in the 17th century, combined with anthropological work, it is in a migration from East to West that the origins of the Mossi people should be traced. They were initially found in the north of Cameroon with the Mossah people who bore the same scarifications. They were also found in the north of Nigeria and then to the east of Timbuktu. In their displacement they founded two kingdoms called Diamaré, which is still the name of a territory in the north of Cameroon.
In the region of the Niger River, they went to war like lions against the armies of Soundjata Keita, Sonni Ali Ber and Askia Mohamed Touré for centuries. They were finally absorbed by the victors. From Mali-Niger, some of them went into early exile in the north of present-day Ghana, in the Gambaga region. It is this branch that is at the origin of the Mossi kingdoms.
Na Negeda, at the roots of the Mossi kingdoms
The foundation of the Mossi kingdoms really started from Na Negeda also called Gbewa, King in Gambaga. 3 of his sons, Tosougou, Ngmantambou and Siboutou founded the kingdoms Mamprusi, Nanumba and Dagomba respectively. Negeda also had a daughter named Yennenga. Celebrated for her beauty and for bringing good luck to the armies on the battlefields, she was so loved by her father that he would not let her marry. One day she was carried away by a mad horse and crossed paths with a Mande hunter named Rialé. From their union was born Ouedraogo.
Negeda, at first furious, accepted the marriage and provided Rialé with horses and soldiers for their departure to the north. Ouedraogo, son of Yennenga founded the kingdom of Tenkodogo. Oubri, grandson of Ouedraogo, founded the kingdom of Ouagadougou in 1495. Yedega, grandson of Oubri, founded that of Yatenga in 1540.
The 5 main Mossi states, Ouagadougou, Yatenga, Mamprusi, Nanumba and Dagomba were thus born in present-day Burkina Faso and Ghana. All these states were founded by the descendants of Na Negeda.
The Mossi organization
Mossi states were never governed by a central power. Although independent of each other, they all acknowledged the King of Ouagadougou as the most powerful and venerable of all.
When they forcibly conquered a territory and obtained the submission of its leader to their authority, the descendants of Na Negeda formed alliances by marrying local princesses or by marrying their daughters to local princes to seal the tutelage. They negotiated a share of the land with the local priests, who left the majority to the original inhabitants.
On pain of being considered as war captives, conquered peoples massively adopted the Mossi scarifications to maintain their status as free men and women. The Mossi society was divided into 3 main castes: the royal clan (Nakomse), the free and finally the captives or dependents. Although they were not abused and were free to enrich themselves, the captive caste was socially inferior.
The king bore the title of Mogho Naba. “Mogho” means “the country”, “the ordered space”; and also means “the divine laws” that govern this space. Naba means Chief or Master. As explained by Cameroonian anthropologist Nkoth Bisseck, Mogho is nothing but the Egyptian Ma’at. In the same ancestral language, Master was written – without vowel – Nb. The Egyptian Nb is therefore Naba when read within its African context. Naba Ma’at was one of Pharaoh’s the main titles. Like Mogho Naba, it means Master of the Ma’at.
Like Naba Ma’at, the Mogho Naba is “Wend Pusyan” in the language of the Mossi people, that is, the incarnation of the Sun, messenger of God. When he is enthroned, he appears at the rise of the life-giving star. Like Pharaoh who has the greatest Ka among humans, Mogho Naba has the greatest Nam (divine energy), which enables him to dominate evil forces and rule effectively. This higher energy was symbolized by a fire that was lit throughout the reign, a practice that was also found among the baTéké in Gabon and in the Zimbabwe Empire.
Mogho Naba is Horus, and through his privileged contact with the invisible world, he guarantees abundant harvests, births and the continuation of life. As it is the case before Naba Ma’at, one prostrates when approaching Mogho Naba. Like the Mansa of Mali, one cannot speak directly to the King even if he is close; a minister should be the intermediary.
The Mogho Naba is assisted by Togo Naba, that is to say the Prime Minister, who is from the freemen’s caste and chosen in an alternating manner amongst the country’s clans, by the big families’ representatives. The 3rd personage of the State is Rassam Naba who is from the captives’ caste. He is the minister of finance and the treasury custodian. He is the master of blacksmiths and the chief of a territory. Although being a captive, the Rassam Naba has exceptional power and commands many free men and women. The king reigns with a council of ministers who represent the people in its diversity.
Like everywhere in Africa, when the King of the Mossis dies, the Horus is no more, the Ma’at he defends is broken, evil forces win. Drought will fall, life will stop and disorder settles in the whole country. Then, as among the Shilluks of Sudan, the Bend Naba (royal drummer) ritually exclaims “Bougsaré Kimé, Mogho sama mé” (“the fire is extinguished, the country is damaged”).
The King’s eldest daughter wears her father’s clothes and holds the office for the duration of the funeral. All the nobility come to bow down before her. As for the King’s widows, they shave their hair, like the Bamilekes in Cameroon.
It is then an electoral college of free men led by the Prime Minister who elects the new King from among the brothers or sons of the late King. When elected, the new Mogho Naba, under the control of vitalist priests, takes an oath in the name of the divine ancestors and swears to obey the laws of Naba Wende and Napaga Tenga, respectively the male and female parts of God. The King is the highest judicial authority and can order the killing of a wrongdoer or his castration.
Economy and knowledge
The Mossi kingdom was crossed by no less than 6 trans-African trade routes. Mossi people became experts in crossing and breeding horses and donkeys which were in demand everywhere. The Mossi cavalry protected the country from intrusions for 4 centuries. The kingdoms also exported cottons and cotton clothing. They imported perfumes, carpets and embroidery. Agricultural production, the main activity, was flourishing. There were all kinds of cereals, tobacco, pepper, etc. All this work enabled the States to raise taxes and maintain the administration.
Vitalism and nothing else!
The Mossi people considered Islam and Christianity to be the mental weapons of the conquest by the Arabs and Europeans. As they needed Arab traders and caravanners for international trade, the Mossi people regulated their presence on the ground with remarkable strictness. The Arabs were forbidden to settle in the country and to own the land. They were forbidden to practice their religion openly and to proselytize. Islam and Christianity were outlawed. Only African Vitalism was allowed.
But after 3 centuries without threat and assured by their strength, the ban began to be lifted and the Mogho Naba Kom at the end of the 18th century, was the first to let Islam in.
At the end of the 19th century, the Mossi kingdoms were surrounded by English, French and German settlers who conquered the surrounding countries by war. The haughty Frenchman Louis Binger entered Ouagadougou and, proposed to the Mogho Naba Sanum that he puts the country “under the protection” of France. The King violently rejected the offer and drove Binger out. The Mossi armies that communicate through the talking drums were being too strong, so the 3 colonial nations decided to weaken the country by destroying the merchant caravans that crossed it.
French Officer Voulet, at the head of his infamous murderous column, then crossed the country’s borders and entered Ouagadougou in 1896. The Mossi soldiers faltered, the Mogho Naba Wobgho resisted heroically. He refused to surrender and continued counterattacking for months.
Wobgho, whose birth name was Boukary Koutou, made the following statement to Officer Destenave who came to offer him the possibility of putting the country under a French protectorate: “I know that the Whites want to kill me in order to steal my country from me. And you claim that they’re going to help me organize my country! But I think my country is fine, just as it is. I don’t need the white man’s help. I know what I need and what I want. I have merchants. You’re lucky I don’t get your head cut off. Get out of here. And above all, don’t come back.”
The country finally gave in. Wobgho fled to Ghana. France replaced him with Siguiri who signed the surrender. The Mossi country became a colony within French West Africa, then Upper Volta at the independence, renamed Burkina Faso by Thomas Sankara, the most famous of the Mossis.
The Mossi Kings continue to exist, although they no longer have the full extent of their past power. The Mogho Naba of Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, remains one of Burkina Faso’s main moral authorities.
- Histoire de l’Afrique noire (History of Black Africa), Joseph Ki-Zerbo
- The destruction of black civilization, Chancellor Williams
- General History of Africa, volume 5, Unesco; chapter by Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Michel Izard.
- Pre-colonial Black Africa, Cheikh Anta Diop