Kouroukan Fouga

The Kouroukan Fouga or Kurukan Fuga was the constitution of the Mali Empire (1235-1645). It formally established the federation of Mandinka tribes under one government, outlined how it would operate and established the laws which the people would live by. Mansa (Emperor) Sundiata Keita presented the document at a plain near the town of Ka-ba (present day Kangaba), and it has survived through oral tradition passed down by generations of djeli or griots. The djeli have preserved much of the history of the Mali Empire including its kings, battles and system of government.

Rediscovery and Publication

In 1998, a regional workshop was held in Kankan, Guinea specifically to publish and preserve the oral history related to the area's djeli or griots. Assisted by modern communicators and Guinea linguists under the supervision of Siriman Kouyaté, the leading traditionalists authority from Niagasole in Guinea, the laws and edicts preserved in different regions from the core of the Mali Empire were transcribed and translated. Kouyaté then organized the recorded edicts, making sure not alter their original translation.

The Kouroukan Fouga, as published by Kouyate, contains 44 edicts. They are divided into four sections concerned with Social Organization (edicts 1-30), Property Rights (edicts 31-36), Environmental Protection (edicts 37-39) and Personal Responsibilities (edicts 40-44).

Historic and Cultural Importance

The Mali Imperial constitution was a landmark achievement in the history of Africa and the world for several reasons. As far as global significance, the document is one of the earliest declarations of human rights. Its importance to Africa is demontrated in three main achievements. First, it established uniform laws and regulations over a significant portion of West Africa (equal to the size of Western Europe) for the first time in recorded history. Second, it afforded uniform rights for all citizens including women and slaves, unheard of in many parts of the world. Third, it is uniquely African in that it does not directly borrow from any existing law documents as opposed to the Ethiopian Fetha Negest. The prominence of the Mandinka in West Africa allowed the ideas and values within the Kouroukan Fouga to spread far beyond the borders of the Mali Empire. Many peoples related to the Mande still abide by its traditions.


The Kouroukan Fouga divided the new empire into ruling clans (lineages) that were represented at a great assembly called the Gbara. There were 16 clans known as the Djon-Tan-Nor-Woro (carriers of quiver) responsible for leading and defending the empire. There were also 4 clans known as the Mori-Kanda-Lolou (guardians of the faith) that guided the ruling clans in matters of Islamic law. There were 4 nyamakala clans (men of the caste) who had the monopoly on certain trades (smelting, woodworking, tanners, etc). Lastly there were 4 clans of djeli (masters of speech) who recorded the history of the empire through song. Combined these would make up the 29 seat Gbara at the plain of Kouroukan Fougan (named after the event where Sundiata "divided the world"). The 30th seat was likely occupied by the mansa's djeli called the belen-tigui (master of ceremonies). Or it may have been reserved for a female monitor since the constitution states women are to be represented at all levels of government (edict 16).

Social Organization

  • Article 1st: The people of great Mali will be divided into 16 carrying quiver, 5 classes of marabouts, 4 classes of nyamakalas. Each one of these groups has a specific activity and a role.
  • Article 2: The nyamakalas must say truth to the Chiefs, to be their advisers and to defend by the word the rules laid down and the order on the whole of the kingdom.
  • Article 3: The morikanda Lolu (five classes of marabouts) are our Masters and our teachers in Islam. Everyone owes them respect and consideration.
  • Article 4: The people shall be divided into age groups. With the head of each one of them an elected chief. People (men or women) born during any three-year period are of the same age group. Kangbès (intermediate class between the young people and the old men) must be invited to take part in the catch of the great decisions concerning the company.
  • Article 5: Each one is entitled to life and the safeguarding of its physical integrity. Consequently, any attempt to remove said life shall next be punished with the death penalty.
  • Article 6: To gain the battle of prosperity, it is instituted the Kön¨gbèn Wölö (a mode of monitoring) to fight against laziness and idleness.
  • Article 7: It is instituted between the Mandenkas the sanankunya (cousinage with joke) and the tanamanyöya (form of totemism). Consequently, no different among these groups shall cause them to degenerate, the respect of the other being the rule. Between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, between grandparents and grandchildren, tolerance of the uproar must be the principle.
  • Article 8: Clan KEITA is designated the ruling family of the empire.
  • Article 9: The education of the children falls on the whole of the people. The parental rights belong consequently to all.
  • Article 10: We address the hardships mutually.
  • Article 11: When your wife or your child flees, do not involve your neighbor.
  • Article 12: The succession being patrilineal, never give power to a son so that alone from his father he may live. Never give power to a minor because they possess bonds (can be manipulated by their father).
  • Article 13: Never offend them the nyaras (nyara is Mandinka term having some relation to maternity or those seeking it).
  • Article 14: Never offend the women, our mothers.
  • Article 15: Never carry the hand on a woman married before having utilized without success her husband.
  • Article 16: The women, in addition to their daily occupations must be associated in all our Governments.
  • Article 17: The lies which lived 40 years must be regarded as truths.
  • Article 18: Let us respect the right of seniority.
  • Article 19: All men must go to the mother and father of the girl they want to marry and receive their consent. One owes them respect and consideration.
  • Article 20: Do not maltreat the slaves. Grant them one day of rest per week and make it so that they cease work at reasonable hours. One is a Master of the slave and not bag which it carries.
  • Article 21: Do not continue your diligence (ambition) you wives: of the Chief, of the neighbor, the marabout of the fetichor, the friend and the associate.
  • Article 22: Vanity is the sign of the weakness and humility the sign of the greatness.
  • Article 23: Let there be no betrayal between you. Respect the word of honor.
  • Article 24: Do not maltreat the foreigners.
  • Article 25: The charge of a mission is not a risk to the summoned.
  • Article 26: The bull left in one's care should not be maltreated.
  • Article 27: A girl can be given in marriage as soon as she is pubescent without age determination. The will of her parents must be followed by any suitors.
  • Article 28: A young man can marry at age 20.
  • Article 29: The dowery is fixed at 3 cows: one for the girl, two for the father and mother.
  • Article 30: Let us come to the aid of those that have need of it.

Of Goods

  • Article 31: There are five manners to obtain property: purchase, donation, exchange, through work and through succession. All other forms without convincing testimony are equivocal.
  • Article 32: All object found without known owner do not become public property until the end of four years.
  • Article 33: The fourth cow placed in the hands of a custodian is his/her property.
  • Article 34: One cattle is equal to, in exchange, four sheep or four goats.
  • Article 35: An egg laid on the property of the custodian of a hen is its property.
  • Article 36: To satisfy one's hunger is not theft if one does not take anything in his bag or his pocket.

Preservation of the Nature

  • Article 37: Fakombè is designated Master of the hunters. He is in charge of preserving the bush and its inhabitants for the happiness of all.
  • Article 38: Before setting fire to the bush, do not look at the earth. Raise your head and look to the summit of the trees.
  • Article 39: The domestic animals must be kept only temporarily or as needed by the cultures then liberated after the harvests. The dog, the cat, the duck and the poultry are not subject to this rule.

Final Disposals

  • Article 40: Respect kinship, marriage and the neighborhood.
  • Article 41: Kill the enemy, do not humiliate it.
  • Article 42: In the big assemblies, be satisfied with your place as legitimate representatives and tolerate one another.
  • Article 43: Balla Fassèkè KOUYATE is designated master of the ceremonies and principal mediator of the summoned ones. He is authorized to joke about all the tribes. especially that of the the royal family.
  • Article 44: All those that will infringe upon these rules will be punished. Each is in charge of watching to their own application.

Further reading

Ki-Zerbo, Joseph & Djibril Tamsir Nianie, "UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. IV: Africa from the Twelfth to the sixteenth Century" UNESCO/ University of California Press (1998)


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