Saturday, June 18, 2016

Archives in Africa, a Cultural Heritage of Humanity

This article about the situation with archives in Africa was published online by Le Monde on March 20, 2015.  I thought the information might be useful and of interest to other researchers, so I've translated the article from French to English.

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At the National Archives of Senegal, Dakar.  Credit:  AFP.

At the Foccart symposium taking place on 26 and 27 March [2015] in Paris, Le Monde Afrique will publish a brief on the famous consultant and on archives in Africa.  Report of the former director of the Senegal archives, Saliou Mbaye.

Archives allow one to glimpse the past and to write the future.  They delve into the history of societies, peoples, and states.  Archives in Africa are currently a key issue of good governance, democracy, and development.  An archive is, among other things, knowledge of the state about the state, namely the peoples themselves.  Our societies and our African states therefore cannot develop without full knowledge of their own history.

Archival heritage, in West Africa for example, is not confined to yellowed papers from colonial administrations.  It’s about a heritage produced and admittedly received by colonial administrations and those of independence, but to it must be added all private archives, copies of archives of former colonial powers, collected and stored oral archives, objects and materials produced by West African societies, and finally manuscripts in Arabic or ajami (Arabic characters used to transcribe African languages:  Pulaar, Soninke, Hausa, etc.).  Oral sources and the extraordinary vitality of our societies based on oral tradition, as well as new information and communications technologies, are also part of this cultural and archival heritage that Africa has shared with mankind.

Dakar, the “Holy Mecca” of Archives in West Africa

In the early 2000’s, Africans decided to take charge.  Africa relied on itself.  It established the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD;, which intended to use private funds to implement development programs.  Among NEPAD’s priorities were indeed mastery of the new information and communications technologies and the development of records management capabilities.  What about today?  Efforts were certainly made.  But the great majority of countries are still deficient in rational management of their archives.

At the National Archives of Senegal, Dakar, in February 2013.  Credit: Nicolas Courtin.
The archives in Dakar, the "Holy Mecca" of archives in West Africa, as my late colleague J. Enwere from Nigeria said, "are recorded in the Memory of the World Register [since 2000] and were classified as World Heritage documentary" by Unesco.  The archives of French West Africa, held in Dakar, are also an exception, that we in Senegal today like to rank among the "Senegalese exceptions."

On the other hand, while the archives of Indochina, Madagascar, Equatorial Africa, and Algeria, based on the principle of sovereignty, are now found in the National Overseas Archives (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence, France, the French West Africa (AOF) archives remain in Dakar.  This collection is undeniably a "common heritage."  This means that "the collection is kept physically intact in one of the relevant countries, where it is integrated into the national archival heritage, with all the responsibilities for security and processing that implies the State as acting owner of this heritage."

The archives have been microfilmed since 1961, but a good portion of these microfilms have deteriorated, and microfilming operations have been reduced for about a decade, which it is hoped will be of short duration.  In the 2000’s, several countries have made efforts to microfilm all or part of the archives relating to the histories of their countries preserved in the AOF collection.  These are Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

But in fact, to do it well, the entire collection should have been scanned, so each party could freely access it and in its own territory.  Total digitization would protect and save this "shared memory" between France and Africa.  Reducing the technology gap also begins with scanning everything.

The AOF Archives, Sources for African History

Although they originate from colonial institutions, the AOF archives unquestionably constitute sources for the history of Africa.  Of course, they have been grouped to illustrate colonial actions.  But they serve Africans and specialists in the history of Africa, who analyze them as bona fide sources of African history.  So, based on territorial principles (they were mainly produced in Africa) and relevance (the majority are focused on Africans), they belong to the heritage of Africa and Africans consider them as such.  They are correct.

These two sculptures stand guard at the bottom of a staircase at the National Archives of Senegal.  Marianne's feet are surrounded by mango trees, each representing a new colony.  Credit: Nicolas Courtin.
At independence, governments made efforts to provide archival services.  The challenge is how developed the nation is and that archives are viewed and maintained as a tool for development.  Moreover, most archives are under the authority of either the president of the country (e.g., Burkina Faso), the prime minister (e.g., Senegal, Madagascar), or the Ministry of the Interior (e.g., Ivory Coast).  In doing this, the administrations want, in effect, to present archives as an interdepartmental service that can provide historical information needed by any active bureaucracy.

Although repositories have been built here and there to house the archives, the oil crisis of the 1970's and the emergence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the economy of our country, with their structural adjustment programs, have dampened the enthusiasm of the 1960's.  It was not until the years 1990–2000 that a building construction policy resumed.  This is the case in Benin, Mali, Niger, and Ghana, where buildings were constructed for archives.  Guinea and Cape Verde have renovated old buildings.

But curiously, Senegal, which has had a construction plan since 1972, remains stuck at the starting line.  The project was started, but political changes that occurred 19 March 2000 terminated it.  However, since 2012 (after a second round of political changes), there are rumors that generate a lot of hope in the national community of archivists.

The development of democracy, the issue of good governance, and the requirements of new citizenship demand more transparency in government actions and greater access to administrative information.  The governments of African countries must give their citizens free access to administrative information and create privacy legislation.  Another obstacle is that only a few countries, such as Senegal, have adequate legislation, characterized by a number of laws, notably on archives (2006) and the protection of personal data (2008).  It is hoped that such laws will be adopted in the near future in all of Africa, giving the countries of the continent the opportunity to be included among the countries of the world where archives count.

Saliou Mbaye is a palaeographer and archivist.  Former director of Senegal's archives, he is a university professor.

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I've tried for the past year to obtain official permission to publish this translation, but Le Monde says it isn't their intellectual property but the author's, and they won't help me contact the author.  I found an e-mail address for the author online, but no one responded to my message.  If anyone can help put me in touch with Saliou Mbaye, I would appreciate it.

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