Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 18

Ethnos

ISSN: 0014-1844 (Print) 1469-588X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/retn20

The President of the gold diggers: Sources of


power in a gold mine in Burkina Faso
Katja Werthmann
To cite this article: Katja Werthmann (2003) The President of the gold diggers:
Sources of power in a gold mine in Burkina Faso, Ethnos, 68:1, 95-111, DOI:
10.1080/0014184032000060380
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0014184032000060380

Published online: 02 Dec 2010.

Submit your article to this journal

Article views: 136

View related articles

Citing articles: 30 View citing articles

Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at


http://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?journalCode=retn20
Download by: [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana]

Date: 17 November 2015, At: 12:20

The President of the Gold Diggers

95

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

The President of the Gold Diggers:


Sources of Power in a Gold Mine
in Burkina Faso

Katja Werthmann
Johannes Gutenberg-Universitt, Mainz, Germany

abstract The article provides an example of how formal and informal modes of
power and legitimacy, as well as material and symbolic leadership resources, may
intersect and interrelate. It analyses the sources of power that a Big Man in West
Africa mobilised in order to appropriate mining rights and to establish leadership in
a gold mining camp. As an entrepreneur in an economic field directly regulated by
state laws and authorities, he has to operate within these structures while at the
same time subverting them by creating a system of personal power that resembles
Sahlins classic model of the Big Man in Melanesia. Although he is elected to represent
the gold diggers, his leadership position rests not so much on a formal vote as on
wealth, violence, and charisma. These attributes are underscored in performances
that draw on symbols of power and prestige, linking commonly held ideas about traditional rule and conspicuous consumption to personal legitimacy.
keywords Power, Big Man, gold mining, Burkina Faso

n 1998, about five thousand men literally invaded a small village in southwestern Burkina Faso and opened up a gold mine. Since then, several other
mining camps have sprung up there as well as in western Burkina Faso,
and they continue to do so. The appropriation and exploitation of mineral
resources is formally regulated by a mining code and monitored by state or
para-statal marketing companies. However, state authorities are not the only
actors competing for resources. This article describes the case of one Big Man
and the sources of power that he mobilised in order to appropriate mining
rights and to establish leadership in a gold mining camp. As an entrepreneur
in an economic field directly regulated by state laws and authorities, he has
to operate within these structures while at the same time subverting them by
creating a system of personal power (Mdard 1992:174) that allows for predethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)
Routledge Journals, Taylor and Francis Ltd, on behalf of the National Museum of Ethnography
issn 0014-1844 print/issn 1469-588x online. doi: 10.1080/0014184032000060380

pp.95_111

95

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

96

atory practices. Although he is elected to represent the gold diggers, his leadership position rests not so much on a formal vote as on wealth, violence, and
charisma. These attributes are underscored in performances, which draw on
symbols of power and prestige that link commonly held ideas about traditional rule and conspicuous consumption to personal legitimacy.
Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

Sources of Power
Power can be defined as an acquired individual ability to control certain
realms of society (including persons, knowledge, or communication; Alber
2000:39). Emic conceptions of power and its sources, as well as modes of
exercising power over specific realms, can be observed empirically. In her
study on pre-colonial Borgu (in present-day Benin), for instance, Alber differentiates physical force, wealth, and magic as mutually convertible sources
of power controlled by warlords who maintained a cycle of raid and redistribution. The balance between extortion and redistribution contributed to stability in a multi-ethnic region otherwise devoid of institutionalised power
and resembled pre-colonial political structures not only in other parts of Africa (see for instance S, aul 1998; von Trotha 1999) but also elsewhere, as for
instance in Sahlins now classic description of political systems in Melanesia
(Sahlins 1966).
In a seminal contribution to the discussion about power, politics, and
development in Africa, Mdard (1992) re-examines Sahlins concept of the
Big Man in order to explore its applicability to the realities of African political life and to explain the states failure to institutionalise. According to Mdard, the functions of politician, government official, and businessman are
often united in the same person, a political entrepreneur (Mdard 1992:168).
African political entrepreneurs use their access to state resources in order to
mobilise funds that are partly invested in economic activities and partly distributed in order to cultivate a clientele, who in turn will support the Big Man.
This strategy corresponds with the classic model of the Big Man who accumulates wealth by exploiting his wives labour and by receiving or extracting gifts from followers. Wealth is redistributed and thus turned into symbolic capital (prestige or renown), which can be converted back into wealth
and/or political support. This convertibility of resources explains why Big
Men (not only in Africa) are so commonly found straddling the political
and economic spheres: the ambition for political power and the desire for
wealth is one and the same, because power is needed to get rich, and riches
are needed to preserve power (Mdard 1992:172). In a similar vein, Chabal
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

96

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

97

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

and Daloz argue: within a patrimonial social system, accountability takes


the form of redistribution. Where patrons nourish their clientelistic networks,
the manner in which they have managed to obtain their resources will very
largely be taken to be legitimate, even if it is illicit (1999:79). Exploiting the
state as a resource, however, requires a delicate balance between extraction
and redistribution, otherwise Big Men risk destroying the very foundation
on which their power is based.
Apart from the politicians/entrepreneurs who use access to state resources
as a basis for economic activities and vice versa, Mdard observes the emergence of a type of Big Man who appears in areas that are no longer or not
yet, one might add dominated by the state, and who thus assumes control
over the economic resources of these areas (Mdard 1992:186). Such areas
may turn into what Elwert (1999) calls markets of violence. In the absence
of a (state) monopoly of violence, a market of violence emerges as a selfperpetuating system ... which links non-violent commodity markets with the
violent acquisition of goods (Elwert 1999:86). According to Elwert, civil wars,
which present one characteristic type of markets of violence, are not rooted
in ethnic or religious conflicts as often (mis-)represented by the media, but
are primarily waged to defend economic interests. The managers of violence
(1999:87) or warlords apply rational economic calculations in order to secure resources and optimise profit. Trade, theft, smuggling, taking hostages
and extracting protection fees are economic strategies that generate wealth
or at least ensure survival. War thus becomes a mode of production in areas
open to violence and tends to dominate or incorporate other local forms of
non-violent production.
Both these types of Big Men in Africa politicians/entrepreneurs and managers of violence are defined by their relationship to the modern state. The
power exercised by the politician/entrepreneur is based on his position within
formal political hierarchies however weakly institutionalised whereas the
manager of violence operates against or beyond state structures. In the following pages, I will describe the case of a Big Man who is neither a politician
nor a warlord, but who operates according to a logic that resembles both
types at the same time.
The Gold Rush in Burkina Faso
Modern non-industrial gold mining in Burkina Faso began in the 1980s in
response to a drought that affected several West African countries in the Sahel
and Savanna regions. Many young men turned to gold digging as an alternaethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

97

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

98

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

tive to farming, petty trading, or plantation labour in neighbouring coastal


countries like Ghana and Cte dIvoire. Today artisanal gold digging is pursued both as a dry-season activity by farmers and as a full-time occupation
by itinerant gold diggers. These professional gold diggers move regularly from
mine to mine, sometimes staying up to several years in one location.
Although non-industrial gold mining has been practised in the central and
northern parts of Burkina Faso since the eighties, the Southwest was not affected until 1998. In that year, a lode of gold was discovered on the territory
of a village that had been founded in 1978 as part of an agricultural resettlement scheme a.v.v. (Amnagement des Valles des Voltas) in the provinces of
Bougouriba and Ioba. Within a few weeks, a kind of boomtown sprang up
right next to the village. Several thousand people arrived, not only gold diggers but also traders, butchers, barkeepers, prostitutes, and the like. In the
shops and stalls of the gold camp, commodities that were formerly restricted
to more urban areas such as bottled beer, coffee, white bread, cigarettes,
clothing and shoes, electronic gadgets and so forth became available.
The vast majority of the gold diggers were Mossi from Central Burkina
Faso. Other fortune seekers came from the neighbouring countries Niger,
Mali, Cte dIvoire, or Ghana. Although the presence of so many foreigners
and their different lifestyles was not appreciated by everybody, many people
from the village profited from the situation. Young men started working in
the mine as porters or gold diggers. Women sold water, firewood, food or
sorghum beer in the gold diggers camp, and a few villagers opened up stalls
in the camps market. Within a short period of time many village people earned
a lot more money than they would normally have done in a whole year by
cultivating cotton, growing vegetables or manufacturing karit butter and soap.
In fact, some farmers gave up cultivating cotton temporarily, either because
they pursued alternative economic activities in the gold camps or because
they lacked the manpower needed to continue farming. Their sons and other
young men who had previously been employed to do agricultural work during the farming season were now working in the gold camp. As a result of all
these factors, the village farming co-operatives broke down. Moreover, although the gold mine crossed several fields, none of the farmers were consulted before the mining began, nor were they ever compensated when gold
diggers destroyed these fields (Werthmann 2000a).
Just as in the Wild West one hundred and fifty years ago, the gold rush
attracted desperadoes, and for about two months, a small group of criminals
terrorised the gold camp. Several young men who had already established
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

98

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

99

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

claims were threatened, beaten up and chased away without being able to
retrieve their gold. Some women from the village who had brought food to
the gold diggers camp after sunset were raped. As a lot of gold diggers were
drinking hard liquor or taking drugs like amphetamines, violent encounters
occurred on a daily basis. Many villagers dared not enter the camp after dark.
Although two policemen had been posted there, they were not able to impose law and order. Eventually the situation became uncontrollable. A military unit was sent in, and four men who allegedly figured on a black list of
the gendarmerie were shot. After this incident, life in the camp became more
peaceful. The number of police and gendarmerie as well as representatives of
the state gold marketing company Comptoir Burkinab des Mtaux Prcieux
was increased.
The fact that a small group of bandits as the local people called them
managed to terrorise the gold diggers camp and the neighbouring village for
about two months is exceptional, but not unique. Because of the fleeting character of gold rushes, state authorities tend to hesitate before taking steps to
impose law and order. Normally they watch the development for some time,
thus involuntarily creating the kind of institutional vacuum (Kopytoff 1987:7),
which provides a space for disorder.
Land and Mining Rights
For about two hundred years the successive immigration of groups from
what is now northern Ghana into south-western Burkina Faso was based on
shared values and conceptions regarding the earth. In many societies of the
West African Savanna, the earth is considered a deity who ensures the fecundity of the land and the people who cultivate its surface (Zwernemann 1968).
Masters of the earth or earth priests (chefs de terre) are custodians of the
earth deitys shrine, performing rituals related to the agricultural cycle and
purifying individuals who have committed offences against the earth. They
also confer on newcomers usufruct rights to the land that is protected by the
earth shrine. Post-colonial land tenure legislation never completely substituted these previous practices regulating land rights. Although theoretically
all land is government property, the actual appropriation of agricultural land
is often negotiated on a local level. The more or less peaceful settlement history of several small, mostly segmentary societies in south-western Burkina
Faso was characterised by a variety of arrangements including ethnic assimilation or the exit option (Kuba, Lentz & Werthmann 2001). The recent massive
immigration of gold diggers upsets these established mechanisms of mutual
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

99

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

100

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

recognition and negotiation of land rights. In the case of a gold rush, the
local rural communities have to find ways of dealing with the sudden influx
of a large number of strangers, either by laissez-faire, negotiation, or expulsion (Werthmann 2000b).
According to Burkina Faso national law, all land is government property.
So are all natural deposits of mineral substances located either on the surface or underground (Art. 4, Burkina Minier 98-99:134). Both industrial exploration and exploitation require a mining title. Artisanal and small-scale
mining, however, are legal without a mining title, except in protected zones
like national parks, near property enclosed by a wall, or in areas considered
sacred by the local population. Furthermore, the Mining Code stipulates that
mining administration agents may act as criminal investigation police to search
for and prosecute infractions of the Code. Civil and military authorities are
obligated to assist the agents of the Mining Administration upon request (Art.
89, Burkina Minier 98-99:161). In many non-industrial gold mines, this function is carried out by the agents of the state gold marketing company Comptoir
Burkinab des Mtaux Prcieux (c.b.m.p.) in cooperation with the gendarmerie
and the police. Whereas the gendarmerie as a military force is not normally
present except to guard gold when it is transported to the capital, the police
conomique and district police maintain a constant presence in order to ensure security in the mining camps, arrest criminals and prosecute black market traders. Representatives of the state marketing company stay in the mining camps in order to monitor gold processing. They supervise the local gold
buyers who are obliged to sell their gold to the c.b.m.p., which until 1996
officially held (and de facto still holds) the monopoly on the purchase of gold
(for gold trade in artisanal mines in Benin and Burkina Faso see Grtz 2000).
However: It is estimated that the state marketing company ... controls only
about 40 percent of artisanal production, much of the rest being smuggled
out of the country (Englebert 1996:9697).
Theoretically, a percentage of the gold revenues from a particular area
should flow back into the budget of the province where the gold mine is located and should be used in part to improve working conditions in the gold
mines. The c.b.m.p. representatives may suggest adequate measures, such as
the drilling of wells for drinking water. In practice, such co-operation between these representatives, the province and the district authorities does
not always occur. As one district head (Prfet ) complained:

ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

100

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

101

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

[Gold] is the wealth of the district [but] you cannot talk to the gold diggers any
more. If you approach the gold diggers, even as an authority, there is no respect;
its the people from the c.b.m.p. who act like God there. ... It is now like a state within the state ... We only want to protect the interests of the local people. But they want
[to protect] the interests of the gold diggers who come from all over the place; there
are people from Gabon, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, and Mali. It is not normal that
Burkinas wealth leaves like that, and all this under the cover of a state structure.

This Prfets comparison of the c.b.m.p. with God and a state within the
state highlights both the extensive authority of these agents and their relative autonomy of action. Interestingly, his critique of the c.b.m.p. is articulated in terms of national interests and reveals xenophobic undertones. District heads, however, are not automatically advocates of local concerns. When
the discovery of a gold deposit led to confrontation between gold diggers
and the people of a village in his district, the same Prfet cited above acted as
a mediator between villages, gold diggers and the c.b.m.p. representatives eventually managing to reconcile the different parties. According to rumours, however, he ate considerable portions of the money that gold diggers had collected for the villagers as compensation (Werthmann 2000b:95f.). In another
case, the district head never contacted the villagers or the earth priest, not
even after a delegation of farmers came to him to file a complaint concerning
the gold diggers unauthorised appropriation of fields. He just informed the
village people that artisanal gold mining was legal and that they should not
interfere with these activities. When he visited the mining camp as he frequently did he was treated like a colonial chef de canton by the gold diggers
and c.b.m.p. agents who frequently bought him drinks.
The President of the Gold Diggers
Many Burkinab consider non-industrial gold mines to be a world apart
where drug abuse, criminality, and prostitution prevail. Contrary to this commonly held belief, gold mining camps are not necessarily spaces where anarchy reigns. The owner of a mining pit may run it himself or, in case he
lacks the financial means, lease it to a partner. The owner or leaseholder now
hires a team of labourers, which works the claim in day and night shifts. The
employer is responsible for food, clothing, shelter and in case of accident
or illness medical treatment. He may also provide his team with alcoholic
beverages. Until the gold-bearing rock is reached which can take up to several
weeks gold diggers do not receive a salary. Later they will get a share of the
ore produced in their mining pit. Once the gold-containing ore is extracted,
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

101

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

102

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

the employer takes his share of the most valuable stones first. When a certain
quantity of ore has been amassed, the employer receives half and the crew is
left to share the other half. If the pit is leased, the owner also receives a share
of the ore. After an initial phase of violent appropriation, certain rules of etiquette are observed. Pit owners, for example, regard the theft of gold ore by
individual gold diggers not as a crime, but rather as an unavoidable nuisance.
For the most part these pit owners claim the most valuable pieces of ore for
themselves, citing the overhead costs of running the mine to justify their larger
share. Gold diggers, on the other hand, consider theft to be a form of selfhelp, which ensures that they are adequately compensated for their work.
Normally, the pit owners tolerate this kind of petty theft so long as it does
not involve the whole crew. The theft of an entire sack of stones, however,
may lead to the prosecution of a suspect. Likewise, friends or onlookers will
try to settle disputes amongst fellow gold diggers themselves. The police or
the representative of the gold diggers only become involved if mediation fails
or if there is threat of serious injury.
In the larger non-industrial gold mines, an elected representative (responsable or dlgu ) speaks for the gold diggers and serves as an intermediary between them, the district head and c.b.m.p. representatives. He is assisted by
a managing committee and is responsible for the mediation of conflicts between the gold miners and the local communities on the one hand, and the
settling of disputes among the gold diggers on the other hand. The representative may request that these gold diggers perform communal work such
as cleaning the processing and trading area. He is entitled to demand that
the pit owners make financial contributions to cover the costs of renting or
buying technical equipment for the mine. Even other professional groups such
as traders or butchers may be asked to contribute because they also profit
indirectly from the successful extraction of ore. The dlgu s position as a
de facto mine lord might bring him into conflict with the state marketing company. He can, for instance, incite the gold diggers to disobey the orders given
by the c.b.m.p. representatives. In the context of such a scenario, the state
authorities may depose the elected representative.
In the case of the gold mine presented here, one man managed to retain
his leadership position from the moment of the discovery until the present.
About four weeks after the arrival of the gold diggers, the district head asked
them to appoint a representative (dlgu ) who would speak on their behalf.
The person who was elected was Ousmane (the name is a pseudonym), one
of the wealthiest and most dreaded professional gold diggers. It was he
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

102

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

103

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

who, together with three colleagues, was the first to stake a claim on the newly
discovered gold deposits. According to him, he had no intention of running
for this office himself but was urged to do so by fellow gold diggers and won
the election that pitted him against two other candidates.
Well before he was elected, Ousmane was already known as a rich and
powerful entrepreneur. Like some other professionals, Ousmane had been in
the gold business for many years. Allegedly it was after he had deserted the
army (he himself spoke of a lack of promotion prospects due to his illiteracy),
that he began trading and probably smuggling goods between Burkina
Faso and Cte dIvoire. When the borders were closed after the overthrow
of the Sankara regime in 1987, he had to give up trading and began looking
for an alternative occupation. He started as an ordinary gold digger and was
one of the lucky few who got rich quickly and was thus able to employ other
gold diggers to work his claims. In 1998, he employed more than one hundred people to work for him in a gold mine in central Burkina.
Prominent mine lords like Ousmane do not hesitate to use physical force
to secure new claims. When he got wind of the discovery of a new gold deposit in the Southwest, Ousmane immediately sought to determine its precise location. The person who had discovered the deposit was a local farmers relative. Having worked as gold digger for several years, this man had
learned how to detect gold-bearing sites relying on certain indicators like
vegetation or rock formations. Although the finder tried to keep his discovery secret, Ousmane soon came to know about it. He put pressure on the
gold digger by taking the gold that the man had just extracted, threatening
not to give it back until he revealed the location of the new site. The gold
digger still refused and Ousmane increased the pressure, or, as he himself
said: I stayed with him for three days, and on the fourth day he started telling the truth (Kirscht/Werthmann 2002). The gold digger reported this incident to the c.b.m.p. representative, who promptly asked Ousmane to return the gold. Ousmane refused, even though the agent threatened to call
the gendarmerie. Finally the gold digger gave in and agreed to guide Ousmane
to the newly discovered deposit. Ousmane managed to divert the attention
of the state marketing company representative who wanted to accompany
him, and went off with three companions. After the gold digger had shown
them the gold-bearing rocks he had found near a village, the four men chased
him away. They inspected the place, recognised its potential, and marked
the most promising parts. A few days later, they came back with labourers
who started working their claims. Almost immediately, the rush set in.
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

103

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

104

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

The desperadoes who followed the fortune seekers were already notorious gangsters. One of them, a young man barely twenty-two years old and
nicknamed Tiny (Petit), had recently for no apparent reason killed a man at
another gold mine by cutting his throat. Allegedly Ousmanes name, too, figured on the gendarmeries black list as a dangerous element along with
four other men who were shot. Apparently, however, he had been notified of
his precarious situation and managed to be absent when the soldiers arrived.
Shortly after the raid he came back and has ever since been the uncontested
Big Man of the gold mine.
The Colour of Blood
After Ousmane had been elected by the gold diggers to represent them,
he liked to be called prsident. Many gold diggers also addressed him by the
Mossi title naaba (ruler) or the French word for boss, patron. Even without
these terms of address, his pretension of being more than an intermediary
between gold diggers and state authorities was perceptible in Ousmanes outer
appearance. His powerfully built body and his authoritative demeanour were
emphasised by two accessories that symbolise power and prestige: a cap and
a car (at that time the only private automobile in the camp), both of them
blood red in colour.
During the phase of stabilisation after the military mission, Ousmane always wore a red fez on official occasions like meetings between gold diggers and villagers. Some gold diggers were convinced that this fez had been
treated with magic water or medicine that made the wearer of the cap immune to supernatural dangers. Others saw it primarily as a prestige symbol,
because it is a relatively expensive form of headgear. The association of the
colour red with blood, violence, and death, and the red fez as a sign of military rank or political title that was originally imported from the Near East
and Europe, are common to many parts of Africa. In Burkina Faso, the red
fez has become a symbol of Mossi rulership. In Tenkodogo, for instance, the
red cap is worn exclusively by the Tenkodogo naaba (ruler) and ten of the
superior titleholders, five of whom used to be responsible for war or executions and are accordingly called men of blood (ziim nedda). The red cap is
reserved for special ritual occasions, and it is always the naaba who is the
first to don the cap or to appear already wearing the cap. The five titleholders who are allowed to wear the red cap may keep it on in the presence of the
ruler while all his other subjects except the Muslims must take off their headgear (Hans Zimmermann, pers. comm.).
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

104

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

105

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

Wearing the red fez can also be interpreted as an attempt to counter-balance the supernatural properties of gold. In Burkina Faso as in other African
countries, it is commonly believed that gold is not merely a material substance, but a supernatural being. According to traditions and popular conceptions, gold is like a living entity that can move through the ground. It may
appear or disappear suddenly, and its presence can be detected at night by a
strange kind of light or sound. Its emergence may resemble biological processes like organic growth or excretion. Gold is said to belong to the bush
spirits and is both attracted to and appeased by blood. This belief in the dangerous power of gold is widespread in south-western Burkina Faso and other
West African countries (see for instance Acheampong 1996:18; Belan 1946;
Dumett 1998:60f.; Fodeba 1945; Garrard 1980:127f.; Keita 1946:31; Kithga
1983: 43; Labouret 1931:79, 81, 83; Moussa 1995:567; Perinbam 1988:457;
Schneider 1993:191) and is one of the reasons why some villages refused to
let gold diggers work on their land. These conceptions, however, are shared
by many gold diggers, who link the appearance of gold to bush spirits. Accidents in the mines are frequently explained by these spirits thirst for blood:
Gold likes blood because it is a thing of the spirits. If one of the gold diggers
working in a pit is injured and a lot of blood is spilled, one gains a lot more
gold than on the previous day. There are, of course, dissenting opinions. Another gold digger commented dryly: Whoever says that the gold likes blood
is wrong. Its the gold diggers themselves who like blood.
The red fez and the red car stood for power, wealth and conspicuous consumption. The president of the gold diggers intentionally displayed or staged
these symbols of power and prestige in order to emphasise his position as a
ruler and not merely a representative of his people. In Mossi culture, rulers
are said to be endowed with the supernatural force naam. By appropriating
an important symbol of authority and supernatural power, Ousmane demonstrated that he wished to be seen not merely as a spokesman for the gold
diggers, but as their leader whose power is legitimated by forces beyond the
immediate social and political field of the gold mine. This appropriation remained, of course, symbolic, since Ousmanes power was in reality limited to
a specific set of circumstances. As in the case of other patrons who struck it
rich, many gold diggers viewed Ousmanes success rather as the effect of his
command of powerful magic (wak).
A less symbolic but probably more effective mode of power exercised
by Ousmane was physical force and coercion, as he himself more or less openly
admitted when he talked about how he persuaded the finder of the gold
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

105

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

106

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

deposit to disclose the location of the site. Ousmane usually carried a gun
that he brandished from time to time, and occasionally fired into the air to
make himself understood. Once he ordered all workers in a pit to get out,
and when one of them refused and stayed in the pit, Ousmane emptied a
sack of stones into the pit and the workers head was injured. When Ousmane
was particularly angry with one pit owner, he forced that man to carry a generator on his head while crossing back and forth on a narrow wall separating
two pits which at that time were about 40 metres deep! In this respect, the
power exercised by Ousmane corresponds with a Mossi concept of power
called panga, which can be translated as physical force as well as force to do
something, ability to coerce. When I asked one gold digger how Ousmane
managed to become a big boss in the gold mines, he responded:
He has become like this because he is a bandit and he defends people because he
does not accept being forced. ... In Ouahigouya, he was chased away because he
used to beat up people; he even hit a white man. ... He does not steal, and he is not
a robber, but he hits; whoever is going to provoke him will get beaten up. This is
why people are afraid of him. The gold diggers are afraid of him, and the white
people are also afraid of him. ... He never lies, whatever he says hes going to do to
you, he will be doing... This is why the people chose him as a president, because
he knows some important people who support him.

This explanation highlights several distinct features of Ousmanes power: his


lack of respect for superiors, the use of physical force, the ability to instil fear,
and the connections to influential persons beyond the immediate reach of
the gold mine which might extend so far as to enable him to ignore the local
representatives of the state marketing company.
As my interlocutor pointed out, Ousmane was elected president precisely
because he was already the leading figure in the mine. In analogy to what
Ellis (1999:280) said about the election of the ex-warlord Charles Taylor in
Liberia, one could say: voters appear to have made their choice for him less
out of any sentimental affection, and certainly not out of naivety, but largely
out of a recognition that he was powerful. But there is another side to Ousmanes power. An excerpt from the same interview shows that for many gold
diggers Ousmanes leadership was justified because he also protected gold
diggers against unjust accusations by their bosses (patrons):
All the patrons who are here are afraid of him, because he has more respect for the
gold diggers than for them. If you own a pit and you bring your team before him
and tell him that they did this and that [i.e. that they have stolen], he will say its
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

106

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

107

just because you are the owner of the pit that you want to make them suffer. ... If
you come and tell him that someone has stolen, [he asks] how did he do it? Have
you caught him red-handed? Or has somebody else seen it? You have to bring a
witness.

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

In the eyes of many gold diggers, Ousmanes position as president was justified by the fact that he served as a judge or mediator between them and the
pit owners. In fact, a lot of Ousmanes daily chores consisted in settling quarrels between labourers and their bosses, or in calming down gold diggers fighting amongst each other. He once complained that his position as a representative prevented him from properly supervising the work in his own mining pits. More important to the gold diggers, however, was that by electing
Ousmane as a leader, they both confirmed his de facto position as a mine lord,
while at the same time effectively curtailing the more arbitrary use of his power.
If Ousmane wanted to maintain good relationships with state authorities, village people, and gold diggers in order to extract as much as possible from the
mine, he was obliged to mediate between the different groups.
For the members of his crew as well as for several clients, Ousmane was
also a patron in the literal sense of the word. As a kind of father figure, he
protected his men, and he extended this protection to people who turned to
him in times of need. His compound which was by far the largest and most
conspicuous in the whole mining camp not only housed his labourers, but
also temporarily sheltered newly arrived fortune-seekers who had not yet
managed to find themselves a place to live and work. Ousmane would accommodate and feed them on the day of arrival and then put them in contact with other pit owners. When an accountant from Cte dIvoire arrived
in the camp after having lost his job for alleged embezzlement, he contacted
Ousmane, who employed him to guard the ore extracted from his pit. Such
a strategy, of course, expanded the group of people on whose loyalty Ousmane
could count.
Conclusion
In the first draft for this paper some time ago, the assumption that Ousmane
deliberately staged the symbolic elements of power was little more than an
interpretative guess. When I met Ousmane again one year after our first encounter, both the red fez and the red car were gone. Instead, he was now
wearing a red baseball cap. On one occasion, I asked him why he did not
wear the red fez any more. He chuckled, and answered: You know, there is
a time for everything, and when that time is over, its over.
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

107

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

108

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

Mdards model of the politician/entrepreneur is based on Sahlins classic definition of the Big Man in Melanesia. It stresses the economic foundation of power but makes only passing reference to other resources that Big
Men according to Sahlins must mobilise in order to be recognised as
such: la parole, la magie, et mme la violence (mastery of speech, magic,
and violence) (Mdard 1992:168; cf. Sahlins 1966:167). Personal charisma,
supernatural forces and the exercise of violence, however, are typical features of Big Men in Africa.
The president of the gold diggers, and many other patrons like him, embody features of two types of Big Men, the politician/entrepreneur and the
manager of violence. Gold mining camps in Burkina Faso and elsewhere are
temporary social and spatial arrangements of multinational, translocal communities that continually dissolve and resurface (Douglass 1998). In these
highly fluid social spaces, the clientele of Big Men like Ousmane is not determined by kin, ethnic, political, or religious affiliation. Though the majority of
gold diggers are Mossi, informal voluntary associations are formed according to regions of origin and ethnic differences vis--vis other groups are not
emphasised. In order to cultivate a clientele and to attain and preserve a leadership position, Ousmane and those like him have to employ a variety of strategies. Although not politicians, these actors operate in a field where they
have to establish working relations with representatives of the state. At the
same time they create a system of personal power that ultimately serves to
increase individual wealth. This system is based on a mixture of (actual or
potential) violence, generosity, diplomatic skills, and at least according to
commonly held belief powerful individual magic.
Although management of the gold mine is based on formal rules stipulated by the government and monitored by state officials, individual Big Men
like Ousmane may follow their own agenda relatively undisturbed. He resembles other Big Men such as those politicians/entrepreneurs whose economic, social, and political sources of power are mutually complementary
and convertible (Lentz 1998; Mdard 1992). For them, power is defined as
not power in the conventional political sense, but the ability to prosper, from
which all else will follow (Ellis 1999:286).
As in the classic case of Melanesian Big Men, Ousmanes power is based
partly on the exploitation of other peoples work, partly on magic and violence, and partly on conspicuous consumption and generosity. His position
as representative of the gold diggers requires specific knowledge and diplomatic skills, but at the same time provides sufficient leeway for him to pursue
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

108

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

109

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

his own ends. Whereas Ousmane commands multiple sources of power, his
antagonists like other entrepreneurs, the state marketing company agents,
or the district heads, can each only draw on one or two of these sources. This
ability to draw on several sources of power simultaneously leads to a greater
stability and continuity of Ousmanes leadership. Seen in Weberian terms,
the power exercised by Ousmane even resembles the three types of legitimate domination: traditional, rational, and charismatic his different activities, offices and titles each corresponding to one particular aspect. As an
entrepreneur and patron, he fulfils the traditional function of a father figure
or a sponsor both for his workers and for an assortment of clients. His role as
elected representative and spokesman of the gold diggers corresponds to the
bureaucratic aspect, whereas his command of powerful magic, symbolised
by the red fez, highlights the extraordinary qualities of his personality that
are deemed supernatural and thus charismatic.
The example of a gold mine in Burkina Faso represents a microcosm of
what is happening on a large scale elsewhere not only in Africa: individuals
or elites exploit valuable resources by means of underpaid and unprotected
labour; violence or coercion exercised by these rulers is subsequently legitimised in terms of democratic elections; on a local level, power is not necessarily in the hands of state representatives, but in the hands of Big Men who,
through a combination of paternalism, entrepreneurship and brutality, manage to appropriate and defend resources, a share of which is redistributed to
their clients. As Chabal and Daloz (1999) point out, Western moral judgements about the often predatory nature of economic and political leadership
in Africa systematically overlook the fact that in the absence of an institutionally autonomous and relatively impartial state (1999:28), Big Men are
considered to be legitimate leaders by their followers, in so far as they sponsor and protect their clientele, thus providing a degree of stability in a complex world of violence and economic insecurity. But even in a comparatively
stable and democratic state like Burkina Faso, economic and political developments may lead to the emergence of a semi-autonomous social field (Moore
1978:57; see also Grtz 2002) as a unit of interaction that generates its own
rules and compliance with them, although these rules may subvert or contradict the rules imposed by the larger social and political frame, in this case
the nation-state. The gold mine constitutes such a semi-autonomous social
field where the representatives of the state are not necessarily the most successful competitors over resources.

ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

109

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

katja werthmann

110

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

Acknowledgments
Fieldwork was carried out between 1998 and 2001 and funded by the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft through the interdisciplinary project West African Savanna at the University of Frankfurt/Main. Many thanks to Sibbila Dabilgou
and Dominique Tiendrebogo for fieldwork assistance and other invaluable help.
The participants of the essa workshop in Marburg, June 1999, and of a panel at
the 43th asa meeting in Nashville, usa, November 2000, as well as Georg Elwert,
Tilo Grtz, Holger Kirscht, Carola Lentz, Christoph Peltzer, Katja Rieck, and
three anonymous reviewers of Ethnos made helpful comments on preliminary
versions. This paper is dedicated to Volker Linz who shared my first encounter
with the president of the gold diggers in 1998.
References
Acheampong, Julian. 1996. Galamsey Go for Gold. New African, December, 1819.
Alber, Erdmute. 2000. Im Gewand von Herrschaft: Modalitten der Macht im Borgou
(Nord-Benin) 19001995. Kln: Rdiger Kppe Verlag.
Belan, A. 1946. Lor dans le cercle de Kdougou (Sngal). Notes africaines, 31:912.
Burkina Minier 9899. Deuxime dition. Collection essentielle. Groupement
professionnel des miniers du Burkina (gpmb). Ouagadougou.
Chabal, Patrick & Jean-Pascal Daloz. 1999. Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. Oxford: James Currey & Indiana University Press.
Douglass, William A. 1998. The Mining Camp as Community. In Social Approaches
to an Industrial Past: The Archaeology & Anthropology of Mining, edited by A. Bernard Knapp, Vincent C. Pigott & Eugenia Herbert, pp. 97108. London: Routledge.
Dumett, Raymond E. 1998. El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-Mining Frontier, African
Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 18751900. Athens/Oxford: Ohio
University Press/James Currey.
Ellis, Stephen. 1999. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious
Dimension of an African Civil War. London: Hurst & Company.
Elwert, Georg. 1999. Markets of Violence. In Dynamics of Violence: Processes of Escalation
and De-Escalation in Violent Group Conflict (Sociologus, Beiheft 1), edited by G.
Elwert, S. Feuchtwang, & D. Neubert, pp. 85102. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
Englebert, Pierre. 1996. Burkina Faso. Unsteady Statehood in West Africa. Boulder, Colorado:
Westview Press.
Fodeba, Keita. 1945. Autour du placers du cercle de Siguiri. Notes africaines, 25:1618.
Garrard, Timothy F. 1980. Akan Weights and the Gold Trade. London/New York:
Longman.
Grtz, Tilo. 2000. Gold Trade in the Atakora Region (Republic of Benin): Social
Networks Beyond the State. Paper presented at the 17th biennial conference of
the vad, Hamburg 2000.
. 2002. Gold Mining Communities in Northern Benin as Semi-Autonomous Social Fields.
Working Paper No. 36. Halle: Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology.
Keita, Mamadou. 1946. propos des placers du cercle de Siguiri. Notes africaines, 29:
2932.
Kithga, Jean-Baptiste. 1983. Lor de la Volta Noire: Exploitation traditionnelle: histoire
et archologie. Paris: ditions Karthala.
ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

110

27/2/03, 3:41 pm

The President of the Gold Diggers

111

Downloaded by [Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana] at 12:20 17 November 2015

Kirscht, Holger & Katja Werthmann. 2002. Sanmatenga: Gold diggers in Burkina Faso.
Video documentary. Gttingen: iwf (45 min., subtitled in English, French, or
German).
Kopytoff, Igor. 1987. The Internal African Frontier: The Making of African Political
Culture. In The African Frontier: The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies,
edited by Igor Kopytoff, pp. 384. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kuba, Richard, Carola Lentz & Katja Werthmann. 2001. Introduction. In Les Dagara
et leurs voisins: Histoire de peuplement et relations interethniques au sud-ouest du Burkina
Faso, edited by Richard Kuba, Carola Lentz & Katja Werthmann, pp. 927. Frankfurt/
Main (Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268, Bd. 15).
Labouret, Henri. 1931. Les tribus du rameau Lobi. Paris: Linstitut dethnologie.
Lentz, Carola. 1998. The Chief, the Mine Captain and the Politician: Legitimating
Power in Northern Ghana. Africa, 68(1):4667.
Mdard, Jean-Franois. 1992. Le Big Man en Afrique: esquisse danalyse du politicien
entrepreneur. Lanne sociologique, 42:167192.
Moore, Sally Falk. 1978. Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach. London: Routledge
& Kegan Paul.
Moussa, Bantenga. 1995. Lor des rgions de Poura et de Gaoua: les vicissitudes de
lexploitation coloniale, 19251960. The International Journal of African Historical
Studies, 28(3):563576.
Perinbam, Marie B. 1988. The Political Organization of Traditional Gold Mining:
the Western Loby, c. 1850 to c. 1910. Journal of African History, 29:437462.
Sahlins, Marshall D. 1966. Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in
Melanesia and Polynesia. In Readings in Australian and Pacific Anthropology, edited by Ian Hogbin & L.R. Hiatt, pp. 159179. London/New York: Melbourne
University Press.
S,aul, Mahir. 1998. The War Houses of the Watara in West Africa. The International
Journal of African Historical Studies, 31(3):537570.
Schneider, Klaus. 1993. Extraction et traitement rituel de lor. In Images dAfrique et
sciences sociales: les pays lobi, birifor et dagara, edited by Michle Filoux, Jacques
Lombard & Jeanne-Marie Kambou-Ferrand, pp. 191197. Paris: Karthala/orstom.
von Trotha, Trutz. 1999. Forms of Martial Power: Total Wars, Wars of Pacification,
and Raid. Some Observations on the Typology of Violence. In Dynamics of Violence.
Processes of Escalation and De-Escalation in Violent Group Conflict (Sociologus, Beiheft
1), edited by Georg Elwert, Stephan Feuchtwang, & Dieter Neubert. pp. 3560.
Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
Werthmann, Katja (ed.). 2000a. Rue vers lor dans un village au Burkina Faso: le journal intime de Dominique Tiendrebogo. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch (Working Papers
on African Societies, 48).
. 2000b. Gold Rush in West Africa: The Appropriation of Natural Resources:
Non-industrial Gold Mining in Burkina Faso. Sociologus, 50(1):90104.
Zwernemann, Jrgen. 1968. Die Erde in Vorstellungen und Kultpraktiken der sudanischen
Vlker. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

ethnos, vol. 68:1, 2003 (pp. 95111)

pp.95_111

111

27/2/03, 3:41 pm