Emperor of the Mossi Tribe : In Burkina Faso, Mogho Naba Lives On


Every Friday at dawn, a crowd gathers outside a dilapidated palace here in Burkina Faso's capital to attend a ritual faithfully repeated for centuries.

The ceremony involves traditional chiefs bearing the title of "Ministers," a lavishly-bedecked stallion and a mighty monarch called the Mogho Naba, or emperor of the Mossi tribe.

His great influence over local chieftains has survived French colonial rule and even the revolution initiated since 1983 by left-wing soldiers in this West African state.

The Mossi, Burkina Faso's majority tribe, built one of the oldest and most prestigious kingdoms of West Africa, dating back to the 12th Century.

The ritual derives from an old legend that each week the emperor asks for a horse to be prepared to fetch his favorite wife who has gone up-country to visit her father.

The brief ceremony, which allows a rare sight of the Mogho Naba, flanked by pages and young girls, ends when the saddled horse is taken back inside the walled compound, banned to visitors.

Nobles wearing richly embroidered caps, court drummers and minstrels seated in the dust at a respectful distance from the scarlet-robed Mogho Naba burst into applause when two shots are fired from a musket.

The emperor, revered as "the Rising Sun" by the Mossi people, is assisted by a court made up of Naba (chiefs, in the More language). They include the Gouaga Naba, head of the imperial infantry, and the Kamsogho Naba, the chief eunuch in charge of the harem.

So-called ministers in flowing robes--traders, dentists or teachers in private life--arrive at the Friday ceremony in battered cars, on mopeds or even bicycles to pay allegiance to the Mogho Naba, a burly man in his early 30s and the 37th emperor of the Mossi.

Regarded as a semi-god by his people, he cannot be addressed directly and speaks through the Widi Naba (literally the commander of the imperial cavalry) and his de facto prime minister.

Mossi warriors fought French army columns with spears and poisoned arrows until the then-Mogho Naba fled into exile into neighboring Ghana in 1897.

But his successors retained considerable influence over peasants, who make up 90% of the population.

Relations between the chieftaincy and the government of independent Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, deteriorated sharply after radical president Thomas Sankara came to power in 1983.

He tried to break the powers of elders and chiefs, regarded by him as feudal lords keeping the peasants in slavery. He antagonized them by giving extensive power to grass-roots militia.

The government also stopped paying part of the Mogho Naba's expenses.

Sankara was slain in October, 1987, by fellow officers. "The late president humiliated the Mogho Naba and local chiefs by denying them all consideration. Today, his successors are trying with some success to win back their hearts," an Ouagadougou-based diplomat said.

"Sankara waged an unnecessary battle against the traditional chiefs. One cannot make a revolution against them in Africa," President Blaise Compaore acknowledged in a recent interview.

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