Article published on 21 November 2023
last modification on 9 February 2024

Created by a decree of the 16th of June 1895, one year after the establishment of the Ministry for the Colonies, French West Africa (AOF), a federation of colonies, is an entity for coordinating French presence in West Africa.

At its inauguration, it consists of four colonies : Senegal, Sudan, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. It is placed under the authority of a Governor General resident in Saint-Louis in Senegal, then in Dakar, with subordinate Lieutenant Governors. These titles will change, the Governor General becoming the High Commissioner and the Lieutenant Governors becoming Governors. The frontiers of each of these colonies are negotiated with colonial powers in the neighbourhood through conventions or defined by administrative decisions in the cases of French colonies adjacent to one another. As French colonization progresses, administrative units are established, large territories and subdivisions within them.

Dahomey, Niger and Mauritania are successively incorporated into the AOF. In 1921, a part of Sudan becomes Upper Volta, which will be dissolved in 1932 and reconstituted in 1947.

In 1946, the French Union passes an electoral law permitting African populations to appoint members of parliament and senators to the French parliament.

In 1951, territorial assemblies elected through universal suffrage are organized on the basis of a double electorate. A regional council of 40 members, 5 from each territory, assist the High Commissioner.

The blueprint law of 1956 endows each territory with a governing council presided over by the Governor of the colony whose ministers are appointed by the territorial assembly elected through universal suffrage by a single electorate.

In 1958, adhesion to the French community is approved by all the territories except Guinea.

In the two years that follow, all the territories are granted independence and are admitted to the United Nations Organization. The offices of High Commissioners and Governors are closed.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

French presence - with a few brief intervals of absence - lasted three centuries. It begins in 1659, the date of the foundation of Saint-Louis. Until the arrival of Faidherbe in 1852, these settlements remain confined to the coast and to trading posts along the river Senegal, under the permanent threat of being invaded by Moorish looters.

Faidherbe pacifies the land, conquers its interior with slender means: a few troops of marine infantry and, above all, "Senegalese soldiers" for whom he creates regiments in 1857. That same year, he founds Dakar. Commerce triples between 1854 and 1869. In 1872, France confers the statute of "Fully functioning French district" on Saint-Louis, Gorée and Dakar and, in 1880, on the town of Rufisque. From this time onwards, the inhabitants of these four districts are French citizens with all rights and duties, with representatives in the parliamentary assemblies of France.

The surface area of Senegal is half that of France. The capital of the territory is moved in 1958 from Saint-Louis to Dakar which was already the capital of the Federation of the AOF. Within the French Union, Senegal becomes part of a federation with Sudan in 1959 and this federation is called Mali. This is an ephemeral union which is dissolved on the 28th of September 1960, three months after Independence. Senegal assumes its former name.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

Bamako is the capital of Sudan and the railway line Kayes-Niger, terminated in 1904, is connected to the Dakar-Kayes line in 1924. In 1921, a part of the territory of Sudan is separated and becomes Upper Volta. The new Sudan is still twice as large as France.

In 1932, Upper Volta is divided between Sudan, Niger and the Ivory Coast. Its North-Western territory remains a part of Sudan until 1947.

Within the French Union, Sudan becomes part of a federation with Senegal in 1959 and this federation is called Mali. This is an ephemeral union which is dissolved on the 28th of September 1960, three months after Independence. Sudan retains the name of Mali.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

Its capital is Conakry, founded on an island where the French establish a large trading post in 1887. A railway line, constructed in 1900, traverses the country, connecting the capital to Kankan.

With a surface area about half that of France, Guinea acquires Independence on the 2nd of October 1958, following a referendum. The new state, whose mineral wealth is considerable and whose agriculture presages well, will be led firmly for 35 years by A.S. Touré. In 1992, Guinea is classed by the United Nations as the country in the world that is at the lowest level with respect to life expectancy, education and the income of the inhabitants.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

The Ivory Coast is completely colonized rather late. Until the the expeditions of Binger, Crozat and Marchand (1887-1899) the forest zone is unknown and the North will be occupied only after the defeat of Samory by Gouraud in 1898. Pacification ends only in 1915.

Its frontiers are established in 1904. From 1932 to 1947, a large area of Upper Volta is united with it. After the Second World War, its development is rapid, so much so that one speaks of the "Ivorian miracle", based on agriculture (coffee, cocoa, bananas, pineapples) and the exploitation of the forest, followed by petrol. The country became independent in 1960.

The capital is Abidjan until 1983, when the National Assembly decides to transfer it to Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of the man who has led the country since Independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a former student of the Dakar Medical School, who died in 1993.

The surface area of the country is two-thirds that of France.

DAHOMEY (now Bénin)

Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

In 1892, King Béhanzin denounces the treaty concerning the Trading Post in Cotonou and drives the French away.

Colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds lands on the 28th of May 1892 in Cotonou at the head of an expeditionary regiment, proclaims the dethronement of Béhanzin and declares the kingdom a protectorate of France.

Religious missions and very active secular education raise the literacy level considerably so that, when the colony is integrated into the AOF in 1904, many citizens of Dahomey enter public service in all the territories of the federation. This diaspora of people from Dahomey will often be rejected by the other ex-colonies after Independence.

The Republic is proclaimed in December 1958 and Independence granted on the 1st August 1960. Military coups d’état follow, interspersed with returns to civilian rule. One of these power take-overs, more radical, changes the name of the country to Benin in 1972.

The residence of the President is in Cotonou but the official capital and the seat of legislation is Porto Novo. The surface area of the country is one-fifth that of France.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

The frontiers of Niger, which remained a military zone until 1922, are traced within the vast AOF-AEF territories reunited by the Monteil, Gentil and Foureau-Lamy missions. With a surface area double that of France, it has a small population as most of the land is a desert.

After the submission of warring Tuareg tribes, Niger becomes a French colony and Niamey becomes its capital in 1926, taking the place of Zinder.

The country declares itself the Republic of Niger on the 18th of December 1958 and becomes independent in 1960.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

The colonial penetration of Mauritania is motivated by strategic concerns: to secure territorial continuity between North and West Africa. At first undertaken pacifically by Coppolani, the conquest proves to be difficult because the tribal warriors in the centre and the north of the Sahara resist valiantly. Definitive pacification is attained only in 1939, when trans-Saharan roads are established and the borders secured.

The greater part of the territory, twice as large as France, is a desert. The capital is Nouakchott, a new city created in 1957.

In the 1950s, the Independence of Morocco, the Algerian rebellion, France’s politics in the Sahara, the beginnings of decolonisation, the rebellion of the Réguibats and the emergence of a Sarhaoui people makes the country a subject of topical interest. It becomes independent in 1960. French presence has lasted a very short time.

Because of the desert climate and the low population density, most endemics are unknown here, except in the south.


Historical account from 1890 to 1970.

In 1895, a treaty is signed that confides France with the protectorate of the western region called Sénégambie-Niger, then in 1904 the region called Haut-Sénégal-Niger. This territory is placed under civil administration in 1904. Pacification is long and difficult and certain zones remain administered by the army until the 1930s. In 1921, a part of the territory is separated from the rest and named Upper Volta which, from the time of its creation, enters the federation of the AOF.

Highly populated, it provides many soldiers called "tirailleurs sénégalais" and, after the 1914 war, workers for the Ivory Coast and the Office of Niger which is in the course of being established, so much so that the colonial administration divides the country, integrating the North East to Sudan, the East to Niger and the South to the Ivory Coast.

In 1947, forced labour being abolished, Upper Volta is reconstituted.

With a surface area half that of France, its capital is established in Ouagadougou.

The Republic of Upper Volta is proclaimed on the 11th December 1958 and Independence follows in 1960.

After some military coups d’état, Upper Volta is named Burkina Faso in 1983, changes its flag, its national anthem, administrative terminology...