Watching Hon. Sidia Jatta’s interview aired on The Fatu Network on 01/17/2021, one thing stood out to me, amongst many things. To be clear, I have no qualms about him or anyone else advocating for a proper understanding of the role of a modern day elected leader or president. Like Hon. Jatta, many have advocated for the ditching of the term “Mansa”.
Mansa (usually interpreted as king) or Mansa-yaa (kingship) is a Mandinka term coined out of a time period when kings reigned. The interpretation of the term however, has been unfortunately confined to those time periods even though they are still in use today.
The etymology of any word in a language that is entirely oral can be hard to trace, but the term Mansa has always been associated with authority. The question now becomes what kind of authority qualifies as Mansa.
In Mandinka, even the creator God is called Mansa. No native Mandinka speaker, the greatest majority of who are Muslim, would equate or confuse that Mansa to any king or worldly leader. What this means is that the term is generally preceded by a qualifier or an adjectives that is used to specify the status of the Mansa, or more specifically where or how that Mansa derived his or her authority from and over whom it is exercised.
The Creator God is referred to as Daa Manso; a warrior king, as was the norm in days gone by is referred to as Kelleh Manso etc.
The common theme wherever and whenever the term Mansa is used is authority, absolute or otherwise. Authority (kang-tee-yaa) in and of itself does not necessarily qualify one to be called Mansa, but for anyone to qualify as Mansa, they must have authority or be recognized as kang-tiyo (authoritative). Even in a democracy, certain powers are devolved to the executive away from the sovereigns with whom ultimate authority resides; in fact so much power that the chief executive has veto powers to override the decisions of the direct representatives of the people. That constitutional provision in democracies across the world is not confused as authority equating that of a king, there are justifications for according such powers to one individual.
In the same vein, when the term Mansa is used in reference to an elected president or government agent, the native users do not confuse the role of a president as one that is absolute and cannot be challenged. In fact, in a traditional setting, every Mansa had a council of advisers who are authorities in their own individual rights in the communities they represent. They are consulted with and they advise the king/ruler in the execution of his functions.
In recognition of the representative nature of the relationship between the council of elders (council of advisers) and the king, the term kang karafo/karafa kang’o (entrusted authority) is used to describe the authority of the king. In that term itself is the recognition that the authority with which the king, or any leader governs is a trust and trust can be taken away from the trustee.
The representatives of the Mansa or his court are generally referred to as Mansa Kunda, this term is now used to describe the modern day governmental structure. So the term Mansa, in and of itself embodies so much more than the authoritarian or absolutist connotation that it is now interpreted as. If the word Mansa has to be relegated only to historical narratives, then the term Mansa Kunda would also need a newer, more appropriate replacement.
I am in agreement that civic education needs to be a continuous engagement in the national political discourse to further enlighten people on the roles of their various representatives in a modern government, but assuming that the term used to identify such officials is the problem is a misdiagnosis of the actual problem.
The term itself is not the problem, because those who use it in every day speech know that it does not bear the same meaning today as it did in the era of absolute monarchs and warrior kings. In fact, the entire government machinery or any representation of it is called Mansa in short; whereas the president, unless he is being referenced within a certain context is not referred to as Mansa. The presidency embodies certain aspects of Mansa-yaa, but so does the police who are also referred to as Mansa because of the authority under which they operate.
The general understanding is that any authority that supersedes your individual authority and one that can exercise some power over you falls within the realm of the definition of what qualifies as Mansa.
Hon. Jatta is of course a much better Mandinka speaker than this author and has more understanding of the language as well, so this is by no means a challenge against him or his language skills, it is rather to highlight some of the overlooked connotations of the term Mansa, usage of which is increasingly being blamed for the authoritarianism that takes a hold over democratic culture once people seeking power are entrusted with it. That abuse of power lies solely and entirely on the individual who allowed himself or herself to be corrupted by state power.