The Segou Kingdom may not be as popular in the history books as the Songhai Empire of the Sahel region, but they ruled the ancient Central Sudan territory (present-day southern Mali) with great power and splendor back in the 17th century. Emerging as a power bloc in the mid-1600s, they expanded their influence through wars and built their system at a time when the region’s political authority and social stability had been weakened by the Moroccan sultanate’s invasion in 1591. The sultanate had destabilized the Songhai Empire, which opened up the political space for Morocco’s splinter power brokers.
The Armas, who were a mixed breed of Spanish and Arabic origins, were expected to fill the political vacuum, but had been weakened by the incessant incursions in the region, thrusting the 17th-century era in Central Sudan to weak political control. During this era, the local rulers of Segou usurped the space to exert their authority and found themselves located in a strategic position. The town of Segou-Koro was at the center of two Bamana states, both of which had witnessed their glory days in the past, according to Met museum.
What the Segou power brokers did was weave their influence around their model of governance; a system built around their indigenous social structure which was initially targeted at hunting, agriculture, and male groupings. In ancient times, the model was designed to address social and communal issues by leveraging the strength and will of the youth to fix their challenges. It however began taking a different form under the reign of Kaladian Coulibaly, who was a hunter and warrior, but his descendant, Mamary Coulibaly, also known as Biton, harnessed this strength to create a lasting political dynasty.
What consolidated Biton’s authority was the ton, a male grouping that had undergone circumcision and had been initiated as a unit. Segou was traditionally governed by a council of elders, and the ton was the base they used to rule and get the people to submit. It was in charge of electing the headman, who is usually the custodian of the values of the community. When Biton took over the reins of power in 1700, he transformed the mission of the ton from a group whose strength was used for agriculture and communal workforce to that of fighting wars.
When he built an army out of the ton, he used military power to overthrow the elders and installed himself as the sole authority of the region. From 1712 to 1755 when he passed away, he grew his influence through the many territories he conquered to include the wealthy trading posts in Macina and Jenne. During his reign, he brought Timbuktu under his influence and made them pay tribute to his dynasty after Segou conquered it around 1800.
Biton was succeeded by Ngolo Diarra, who used to be a Coulibaly family slave. He assumed power shortly after the death of his predecessor and established the Diarra dynasty, which ruled Segou until the mid-nineteenth century.