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Emerging peri-urban voices in Africa: Bamako through the lens of land conflicts in online media

Monique Bertrand


Since Bamako has doubled its urbanised area in the last two decades, what interest do Malian public opinions have in the urban peripheries? At the same time, new online media platforms have been able to address sensitive topics with a growing audience thanks to connected mobile phones. This abundant material confirms the hypothesis that the peri-urban environment, although widely ignored by national policies and categories, is gaining importance. Most of these articles point to socio-economic tensions. Land issues, in particular, generate many local troubles and are related to state governance, which has become unsecured and widely criticised over the period. Narratives are on a discursive continuum with the claims and denunciations raised by these conflicts, following diversified political subjectivities. This paper deals with the statistical textual analysis implemented with the ALCESTE tool based on the proximity of words to each other. It measures the lexical classes resulting from four online platforms. Using geographical categories for assessing the last set of articles, it compares the ongoing urban sprawl with the power interplay more specific to the already constituted city and those currently inflaming the rural communities.

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1Although the peri-urban area hardly exists in the administrative, census and fiscal categories of Sub-Saharan Africa, no one can doubt its territorial development and demographic weight today despite one of the most significant infrastructure gaps in the world. The continent’s urban growth has been remarkably high and expansive in recent decades. With a threefold increase in population since the 1990s (Moriconi-Ebrard et al. 2016, OECD et al. 2022), it spotlights differentiated landscapes between urban cores, old suburbs and new metropolitan outskirts (Mabin et al. 2013, Todes 2014, Bloch 2015, Meth et al. 2021). In a continent where land commodification and market have progressed everywhere (Bertrand & Bon 2022), the growing academic literature focuses on land use and ownership changes in these areas (Tati 2016, Andreasen et al. 2017, Meyer 2018).

2This metropolitan fabric is undoubtedly different from what was previously demonstrated by central cities within their administrative boundaries. With three million inhabitants in 2009, a third of whom settled beyond the District of Bamako, the capital of Mali has risen in density. As often in Africa, it has also experienced twofold liberalisation since the 1990s: de-administering the national economy and putting urban production into the market, on the one hand, and political consequences of the 1991 democratic transition, on the other hand. Whether driven by decentralisation, which transferred the competence of housing parcelling and eviction to the local governments, by the informal occupation of public spaces or large development projects, often tinkered, this change has made urban governance more complex (Lindell 2008).

3This paper deals with how this extended urbanisation also increases the “voices of the poor” that the World Bank considered representing in its interventions for the New Millenium, including urban development projects (Narayan et al. 2000). Contrary to the official and experts’ language, we use endogenous discourses collected from the end of the same decade. Thanks to processing textual data, we analyse them as images of a large city whose backdrop is poor planning and chaotic sprawl.

Exploring African urban land grabs from below: citizens’ views in the Internet age

4Following other analyses of the urban sprawl drivers, the originality of this paper lies in its exploratory approach to an online source, far from the normative registers of urban policies, offering abundant opinion material on the conflicts experienced in Mali.

  • 1 By 2020, Internet penetration had reached 47% of African households, with the same proportion of mo (...)

5The choice may come as a surprise in a country marked by multilingualism, where French, the official language renamed “working language” in 2023, is little used orally and little mastered in writing. However, it is appropriate given a body of work with no equivalent in vernacular spoken languages that widely occupy the country’s radio landscape. Moreover, it reflects the changing context brought about by urbanisation, particularly the marked enthusiasm of African populations for mobile phones and the Internet connection services they offer. It makes it possible to adapt conflict analysis to the continent’s sharp rise in digital usage1.

  • 2 The national daily L’essor continues to carry the official discourse but has not escaped the digita (...)

6Malian media have also greatly benefited from this boom by multiplying their titles, while newspapers had limited print runs after the 1990s political transitions. The use of hyperlinks also makes more visible, on private or associative digital accounts, the content of articles that would hardly find readers in print form. Far from excluding other audio and video content expressed in the Bamanan language, also widely distributed digitally, the articles distributed on new consultation and comment platforms accompany them on the contrary: on the websites dedicated to online media since the end of the 2000s and more recently on their own Facebook channels. This journalism has developed considerably over the last twenty years, distancing itself from the state authorities2.

7Lastly, these writings in a language considered the language of power bring much evidence of visibility strategies of populations rooted in their oral culture, who are not fluent in French but rely on their social connection to papers authors to write on their behalf. Therefore, the narratives considered here are not those of the public policy-making process (Zittoun 2013). They are more a reflection of common sense and people’s feelings having few means of expression elsewhere. This source, as such, is convenient for exploring the frustrations and resentments arising from land issues and these people’s lack of inclusion in urban planning practices. It suits our aim of a narrative approach to conflicts in line with the analytical research avenue mentioned by Dietz & Engels (2020). Indeed, while global comparisons generally focus on the land institutions and actors’ agency, i.e. two components of conflicts already widely addressed in Africa, the third one, of actors’ meaning-making, is less discussed.

8By quantitatively processing these opinions and emotions, we also advocate the contribution of a West African case study to the global approach of land conflicts despite the many troubles affecting it today: weak state, national insecurity, installation of jihadist movements on its territory, and power instability.

9In similar or less troubled contexts, academic literature already mentions the ‘discursive dynamics’ experienced by African cities (Bertelsen et al. 2014); the echoes that land competitions generate in local and national political arenas also give examples of the lexical change (Bertrand 2014, Körling & Moussa Ibrahima 2019). However, these findings are mainly ethnographic, based on a few urban spots and particular moments. They are interviews that add translations from African to the academic languages, to those induced by the circulation of planning models and their recycling in terms of reference for urban policies. Our study aim was not to translate a few Bamanan words drawn from the discussion threads online, with no sampling strategy. We have preferred to exploit the complete textual materials delivered by the Malian authors of articles on a sensitive subject.

10Based on national media, this analysis has the inconvenience of being empirically limited instead of deductive; it raises only a few questions generally for African cities. However, this is also the advantage of narrative materials: setting meanings beyond general categories – post-colonial, global south – that local actors barely use and which offer little finesse for addressing their dilemmas.

11Land tenure problems, indeed, raise many contradictions between demands for protection from the state and the discrediting of its representatives. The abundant literature on the subject in Sub-Saharan Africa has brought much evidence of this over the years about the state allocation of land for cultivation and the formalisation of unregistered custodian rights. However, claims from the capital of Mali differentiate from these rural perceptions mentioned about land tenure regimes, on the one hand (migrants coping with neo-customary landowners and their autochthony legitimacy), and agricultural dispossession, on the one hand (the state’s law arguments about its eminent domain).

12By focusing on discourses raised by urbanisation, we report more on a mix of customary and modern governance practices and on frustrations that, despite their growing number in Africa, rural conflicts and the global debate on the capital-driven land grab can not account for. Following Steel et al. (2017), we support the observation that land grabbing has become an urban issue, at stake in particular on the outskirts of cities (Bertrand 2021). Therefore, studying a national source gives the opportunity and challenge of further mapping the problems posed by this urban expansion. While many local studies illustrate the hybridisation of formal and informal practices at work in access to housing, the competition and accumulation strategies pursued by national elites deserve a broader understanding.

13In so doing, the case of Bamako helps to articulate general urban issues in Africa and their specific agency in Sahelian contexts. On the one hand, it will show itself emblematic of the problems raised by unregulated land commodification and the role played by peri-urban areas in domestic land grabbing. On the other hand, it will address the more intimate logic of subjectivisation in the face of failing urban governance (van Overbeeka & Tamás 2020) when it does not involve inhabitants in their living environment management.

14This context considers two original features. The first is legal. Following the decentralisation reforms led by Mali, the Land Code, revised in 2000, has given legal status to customary rights alongside property rights inherited from the colonial positive law. The concession or precarious rights, later renamed as provisional, were established on the state’s domain for residential, business or agricultural uses, with the condition of evolving towards full property rights. Once definitively registered, these private rights are deemed “unassailable” and “irrevocable”. Since the 1990s, however, the craze for land titles in and around cities has exacerbated the asymmetry of judicial treatment between all these rights and made untitled properties insecure. It has led the customary owners to divide and sell their land rather than have it requisitioned by the state representatives in their communities and communes.

15Politically, Mali also sums up other governance troubles in the generation following the 1990s West African democratic transitions. Since 2012, the country has experienced two presidential overthrows and three military coups. The first one opened the country’s north to Islamist terrorism before being quickly constrained by the Economic Community of West African States’ embargo. As for the second junta, it has suspended the return of politicians to public affairs for a more extended time since August 2020 and May 2021, without succeeding in rebuilding national governance or containing a war that has slipped into the centre of the country. While the last civil authorities were alarmed by the inflamed social networks in the previous decades, particularly the political interlude 2013-2020, with few legal proceedings, freedom of expression is now obviously restricted.

Common sense and insurgent denunciations under political uncertainty

16Below these national characteristics, however, media give growing attention to the urban peripheries, even though their unprecedented land conflicts contrast with the considerable need for more official sources of information. “Spoliation of the poor”, “victims of the urban land grabbers”: cohabitation between old and new landowners looks tense. Online media contributes to a negative image of the African city, identified with maladministration, speculation and “predators”. Urban positive influences are hardly noticeable in these reductive representations, which almost forget the most vulnerable city dwellers confined in disqualifying rental conditions due to their lack of means to access land or better accommodation in the city outskirts (Adam 2020).

Land complaints and grievances

17In the Malian case, words of protest and victimisation originate increasingly from the territory surrounding the District of Bamako, in inverse proportion to the data likely to inform the economic, social and physical forms the urban expansion is taking. The administrative Cercle of Kati, which belongs to the surrounding Koulikoro Region, has been hosting the sprawl of the Malian capital since the 2000s. It mainly concerns a dozen rural communes bordering the District and beyond those served by the national roads up to forty kilometres from the city centre. However, the urban/rural dichotomy is still alive among administrative authorities and in terms of legal pluralism. The formers do not recognise any third place likely to go beyond the nominative duality of the communes: all are “rural” in a Cercle categorised as rural, except for the chief town, as the six communes of Bamako are urban. However, local government regulations do not vary according to whether they are rural or urban. The decentralisation reforms implemented in the 1990s have settled nearly 700 rural communes and added them to the handful of urban communes established since Mali’s independence.

18With the notable evolution in the customary land rights claimed by villagers caught up by urbanisation in the 2000s, the peri-urban environment enters the urban planning debates in the light of emotions and anger more than through an accurate assessment of public or private investment capacities. In this context, single local observations are too limited for analysing the actors’ interplay (Becker 2013). Other sources of information are necessary at this level of conflictuality. Their considerable progress online makes them more appropriate during the period under consideration.

19To match the extent of urban sprawl, we collected a corpus of articles published as web pages on four media platforms developed since the end of the 2000s. At the same time, the problems posed by insufficient housing, land preparation and property securing were multiplying in these urban peripheries. The digital medium made it possible to retain only those papers under the heading “Plots/Houses” (Parcelles/Habitations) or with at least one occurrence of the word foncier (“land” in French). We carried the complete reading of these articles to re-index them according to the places they deal with and to eliminate irrelevant articles or those double-published online.

Table 1. Textual materials submitted to the statistical analysis

Media plateform

Keywords for selecting the articles relatetively to land matters

Corpus period

Number of articles collected

Number of articles, cleaned corpus

Number of words for the TSA


foncier (at least once) in the web page




56 000


foncier (at least once) in the web page




180 000


Heading Parcelles/Habitations




428 000


foncier (at least once) in the web page:


7 710

- in the articles’ headline


1 168

730 400

- in the articles’ content


1 799

836 400


3 042

out of processing

20All platforms taken together, the annual average of publications was 400 articles about land in the country. Processing this abundant material poses a triple methodological problem.

21The first one is about the flow of media web pages. Articles on land issues show rises and falls: the dip in 2020 corresponds to the political tensions that followed the re-election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2018, and that will lead to the new coup. The corpus, however, picks up strongly from 2021 onwards after military came to power. Articles, as such, are not subject to a censorship regime. Their number likely varies according to the most resounding “affairs” in the presidential entourage or on a hot spot of eviction like the airport zone of Bamako. Indignations caused by urban speculation and its political complicity raise a growing rejection of the multiparty system established in 1991, which a part of the urban population now considers responsible for the state’s weakness. Among the unemployed people, in particular, the “land bomb” is the main argument for discrediting democracy when equated with exclusion and the corruption of political elites.

22The second methodological challenge is distancing from value judgements made or relayed online. Malian-style journalism is sewn up with personal opinions, more than professionally prepared for proper investigations. Its content is of low editorial quality and often close to invectives. Many articles are ordered and paid for by self-proclaimed victims or at the invitation of groups waiting for a partisan echo of their cause.

23This online expression conveniently echoes social relations based on oral culture. Its understanding of things according to personal and moral considerations enlightens the meaning-making at work from below. In this vein, it was impossible to include in processing the reactions posted by some readers, comments of bloggers and discussion threads that have flourished on many Facebook accounts and YouTube channels. These materials are complex to deal with due to responses nested within each other, their coarse language, uncertain syntax even for Internet users seeking to express themselves in French, typos in addition to spelling mistakes, the relay of expression taken by smileys and punctuation, Bamanan words poorly transcribed language, and parasitic comments. As the time devoted to preparing the corpus of articles was long, we only explored these grassroots reactions in a few websites.

24The newspaper headline we used for analysing the corpus was not conclusive as an appropriate variable. Among the more than one hundred sources, only one or two newspapers showed a genuine intention of neutrality, mainly when relaying official interventions on land matters. As for the others, a dozen irregular-issued newspapers account for half of the corpus. Their authors frequently edit quasi-duplicated articles, a few words being enough to change the headline and allow two remunerations. The practice becomes caricatured when the same journalist describes different localities on opposite sides of Bamako, using word for word the same dramatic content after years.

25The proximity of the language of the articles’ writers to the parties involved, easy reading on mobile phones that are now frequently connected, and collective discussion on break times and rest periods: all these characteristics stimulated our exploratory prospect. The excerpts selected here in French hide the names of quoted people. We have translated only single words out of their discursive context.

CitizensOpinions through Textual Statistical Analysis (TSA)

  • 3 1) Vocabulary analysis and lemmatisation; 2) Definition of elementary context units and classificat (...)

26The third challenge is, therefore, quantitative due to the number of articles to be processed. It is also the condition for a critical distance from emotional insights. The statistical analysis allows to objectify this content in its narrative context, as implemented in four stages3 with the Alceste software: “Analysis of Cooccurring Lexemes in a Set of Segments of the Studied Text” (Bart 2011).

27As such, TSA not only counts words according to their grammatical function. It also observes their proximity at two levels of the textual materials: the indexed articles as initial contextual units and their phrases and paragraphs as elementary contextual units. Highlighting the lexical classes underlying the journalists’ narrative constitutes the centrepiece of the statistical progression. Hierarchical ascending classifications complete the more specific measure of vocabulary by Chi-square and make it possible to identify topics and discursive registers making sense around the barycentric word of each class.

28Processing lastly provides various graphs illustrating the overall and by-class results in the form of word clouds and networks. It also delivers the dictionaries of words used or absent in each class and the most significant context units of these classes. It stated our analysis was robust. It notably helped select the verbatim that will illustrate the second part of this study.

29The corpus preparation is the most time-consuming stage of the study, with no gain for comparison with other West African materials. First, we had to correct typos (missing or inverted letters) that could make words invisible to dictionaries and the lemmatisation process. Preliminary reading also consisted of indexing the articles according to their source, author, date and number of reactions posted by Internet users. However, none of these variables demonstrated any editorial specificity. Lastly, the preparation stage has built the index of the various places addressed by the articles: villages or urban neighbourhoods in the District of Bamako, the Cercle of Kati or other administrative regions. These categories proved more relevant for the processing.

30The five article sets presented above have demonstrated a “high” to “very high” level of relevance since their resulting lexical classes account for at least three-quarters and up to 96% of the textual units. The TSA proved profitable by sharing the corpus into various discursive polarities, more or less gentle versus indignant, different ways of problematising the land trouble according to institutional or personal, national or local, moral or judicial dimensions.

31The aBamako corpus, in particular, identifies three distinct lexical classes relevant to specific land issues and geographies in Mali, as shown in Figure 1. The classification dendrogram distinguishes the first class as agricultural stakes related to rural contexts. Class 3 represents urban challenges arising from property documents and disputes over plots in court. Class 2 focuses on unsecured third places in peri-urban municipalities. This Greater Bamako lacks institutional recognition despite several attempts to reshape the boundaries and governance of the Malian capital. With poor infrastructure and services and harsh frustrations among the inhabitants of the new suburbs, this urban/rural interface shows original features in Mali.

Figure 1. Word networks with class barycenters in the aBamako corpus

Figure 1. Word networks with class barycenters in the aBamako corpus

32The other platforms display more explicitly the anger aroused by speculation and corruption. One of the seven classes in the Maliweb corpus relates how the judicial institution was “handed the hot potato” in the 2000s since former mediations provided by local governments were no longer sufficient to resolve the land conflicts. This solution, however, has become a source of problems as anyone sees magistrates’ judgement as unjust and biased. What another class confirms by describing protagonists of the land grabbing in the same peri-urban area. With its specific vocabulary (dividing up, owner, property title, sale, business, mayor), the most extensive of the four classes in the Malijet corpus details these plotting operations carried out at a large scale.

33Therefore, many land chronicles have reported the urban sprawl between the 2012 and 2021 military coups. These peripheral hot spots are part of the loss of social cohesion and political tensions widely discussed about Mali. They give rise to an abundant lexicon of dangerous “brûlots” (incendiaries), “poudrières” (powder kegs) ready to explode, “time” or “cluster bombs” the inhabitants of Bamako would be ordinary victims of, albeit at a distance from the war of terrorism that has taken hold in the country.

Le foncier ? N’en parlons pas car c’est une bombe sociale à retardement. Une mafia adossée à de hauts placés du défunt régime ne faisait qu’exproprier des Maliens de leurs terres qu’ils occupaient ou exploitaient depuis parfois plus de 50 ans. (aBamako – Aujourd’hui, 2020)

Textual Statistical Analysis in support of urban analysis

34Although leaving aside left aside the voluminous corpus online on the Bamada.Net platform, Table 2 confirms this spectacular urban expansion and leads to focus on Bamako and its surroundings.

Table 2. Geographical distribution of the articles in Maliweb, Malijet and aBamako

Located articles

Total number


Urban neighbourhoods and District of Bamako (DB)



Cercle of Kati (CK)


District of Bamako and Cercle of Kati


Mali in general



Regions other than Bamako








Mixed locations



35This second stage of the TSA processing discusses land troubles there, excluding other Malian regions. The spillover of problems away from the district of Bamako is evident everywhere, despite minor variations between the platforms. The year of publication becomes significant in distinguishing Kati Cercle and its more recent troubles from the city's typical conflicts. Articles spotlight a territory of more than 500 km² today, the urbanised surface of which has doubled in less than twenty years.

36The main result, however, is that land troubles scatter throughout so-called rural communes where city dwellers settle beside old settlements (Photo 1). The mapping exercise does not validate a model of land grabbing driven by international capital and concentrated on a few large infrastructures and private-led urban projects. In that way, the case of Bamako brings evidence to a large spectrum of actors and scales in African land commodification (Van Noorloos et al. 2018, Bon 2021).

Photo 1/2. Periurban landscapes: self-building in the commune of Kalabancoro / social housing programme in the commune of Kambila

Photo 1/2. Periurban landscapes: self-building in the commune of Kalabancoro / social housing programme in the commune of Kambila

© Author

37The new statistical analysis mainly stresses the inflammation of land matters in the Cercle de Kati compared to other troubles in the already urbanised areas. Many local communities illuminate the interplay of actors addressed to the ruling authorities. Above all, victims blame the legal supremacy of definitive land titles for having disruptive effects on other sources of legitimacy. Many “land offices” instituted in local governments since 2000 have raised a growing competition between elected representatives and civil servants in allocating provisional rights on the State Domain, a Gordian knot for the delivery of property documents. Famous examples of impunity or, on the contrary, determination to right wrongs go viral online. “Dirt manoeuvres” and “mafias” give faces to the urban “mess”. Repetitive formulas such as “any piece of land is to sell” or “betrayals scenario” overplay the idea of crisis against a backdrop of land conversion.

A quelques kilomètres de Bamako sur la route de Ségou, des habitants de Tièkènina se dressent contre un certain XXX qui posséderait le titre foncier n°75185 sur leurs concessions. L’huissier muni d’un acte de justice, d’un bulldozer et de policiers pour sa sécurité a réveillé deux familles de Tièkènina. Leurs effets ont été jetés dehors et une première maison a été cassée. La tension est aussitôt montée. (L’Indicateur du Renouveau, 2017)

38Unlike the critical consequences of unresolved conflicts of access to natural resources, specific to Sahelian areas, these peri-urban challenges largely echo other African situations. However, it takes particular forms in the Malian context to which our textual data relates. In this respect, they describe the narrative component of land conflicts and the involved institutions and actors’ agencies quoted by Dietz & Engels (2020) for comparing “times of global crises”. The increasing violence experienced in local communities, ambiguous cadastral plans, lack of social housing programmes, and uncertain legal prospects – concretised in the Land Law n°2021-056, 7 October 2021 – are, therefore, of primary interest to the case of Bamako. However, the claims of its inhabitants go far beyond this institutional deal. The image of urban and peri-urban dwellers disillusioned by their land setbacks and dissonant advocacies raised by their disputes are more evident in such cases of informal urban management and deregulated land registration procedures.

The future of Bamako under tension: fragments of an urban discourse

39As such, media online and the last TSA (736 articles) draw the uncertain future of Bamako and its periphery through five critical stakes (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Classification dendrogram, specific vocabulary and indexed words of textual units in the articles addressing the District of Bamako and Cercle of Kati

Figure 2. Classification dendrogram, specific vocabulary and indexed words of textual units in the articles addressing the District of Bamako and Cercle of Kati

40Each of the five resulting lexical classes, with its statistical weight (number of context units represented, words’ presence/absence and Chi-square) and order in the classification dendrogram, composes part of the urban narrative. Housing (Class 1), justice (2), social mobilisations (3), young people defending their neighbourhoods (4), and sensitive parcelling operations in rural communes (5) are the main topics where changes in property use and ownership have aroused emotion, complain and political subjectivity. Using the articles’ year of publication and indexed spatial categories, let us follow the citizens’ expectations by moving from the city centre to the urban peripheries.

Figure 3. Places mentioned in the quoted articles: The Bamako/Kati territorial contact under overlapping municipal authorities

Figure 3. Places mentioned in the quoted articles: The Bamako/Kati territorial contact under overlapping municipal authorities

Echoes of an opaque city management

41With more than 60 neighbourhoods built up long ago, the District of Bamako gives many examples of the frustrations caused by increasingly selective access to housing and the imperfect securing of public places and green spaces (Class 4). While these economic limits have been the subject of abundant literature on the Global South, few studies follow the feelings they arouse beyond a few survey spots and a particular political moment in the urban trajectories concerned. Our data makes this possible by tracking, from the 2000s onwards, the complaints expressed by the inhabitants of Bamako about the lack of facilities announced in the sites and services schemes or new housing programmes (Class 1). Due to this structural shortage, people have used unbuilt places as sports grounds and gathering places to celebrate their family and social events. But increasingly, they have been requisitioned for private interests, clientelistic subdivisions and unregulated conversions.

Si une affaire fait couler beaucoup de salive à Medina-coura c’est bien les démêlés qui opposent une frange de la population au député élu. L’histoire gravite autour du terrain de sport contigu au centre d’état civil de ce vieux quartier. L’espace jouit d’une grande importance pour l’école publique car c’est là où les élèves pratiquent les séances de l’éducation physique. […] Le député richissime opérateur économique non moins 2e vice-président actuel de l’Assemblée Nationale du Mali a lancé son dévolu sur ce bout de terre. Pour arriver à ses fins, accompagné d’un notable de surcroit conseiller du chef de quartier et d’un géomètre, [ils] ont débarqué sur les lieux en vue de délimiter la surface. (La Sirène, 2016)

42Another trend of the period is that threats of demolition and eviction no longer affect the poor only, whose informal settlements, on the contrary, have been the subject of large-scale land regularisations. Court decisions (Class 2) also concern investments valued in millions of CFA francs, which have marked the real estate renewal of the Malian capital since the 1990s. Opening the national economy to the market led to the conversion of the District’s remaining land reserves.

Le collectif des riverains de l’Avenue de l’Armée de Sotuba ACI est monté au créneau, le vendredi dernier, après sa réunion. Selon les responsables du collectif, pas question de démolir leurs immeubles et maisons jusqu’à l’aboutissement du processus d’indemnisation prévu par la loi. (L’Indépendant, 2012)

43Finally, the advent of political pluralism in 1992 has increased clientelist practices, power interplay and game of personal influences and led to blam mainly municipal authorities nowadays. The control of local elected officials over residual pockets of unbuilt land is alarming in the six communes of Bamako due to the electoral competition; protests of all kinds (Class 3) relayed by online publications proving incapable of leading to institutional prevention and regulation. Comparing Bamako to a sick body contributes to seeing speculation as the more deplorable “plague” of urban life, with particularly disastrous social effects:

A Sotuba, le fils du chef de village procède à un lotissement hors norme, mobilise la police à travers le maire de la Commune I, pour créer le désordre et noyer la colère des populations déjà meurtries par la pauvreté. A Bacodjicoroni ACI, des fonctionnaires de l’État, des opérateurs économiques des milieux proches de la Présidence se transforment en déguerpis, pourchassent d’autres citoyens et cassent leurs maisons sous prétexte qu’ils se sont installés sans aucun paiement de droits. (L’Indépendant, 2007)

44While the minister in charge of housing programmes is encouraging Bamako’s employees to move up to 40 kilometres from the city centre, forgetting to mention the lack of an accompanying infrastructure and transport policy, the same categories of workers are claiming against the Agence de cession immobilière (ACI). Although this agency has promoted since 1992 the World Bank’s recommendations for abandoning the state monopoly on land subdivision and opening the housing market to the private sector, it has also demonstrated a great deal of malpractice:

Et surtout, le contrat de bail opaque signé entre l’ACI et un opérateur économique de la place sur le Centre commercial au Grand marché. Selon les travailleurs, ce contrat draine environ 1 milliard de F.CFA au titre des impayés de loyer. (Aujourd’hui-Mali, 2021)

45All this explains why, over the last decade, populist arguments have taken precedence over the corporatist arguments mobilised thirty years earlier in the name of political transition. The category of “youth” (Class 4) is emphasised and carries criticism of their elders in urban management. They are unemployed people standing up in the streets against corruption, subaltern citizens taking up against speculators, and cadets sociaux ready to fight for their neighbourhoods. By referring to their elders as “stateless” instead of respecting them, they turn urban conflicts into lessons to learn about a weak state or a vitiated democracy. Opposed to the bad youth abandoning work for land subdivision without any skills, these young mobilised citizens open up a field of discursive opportunities:

Lors de l’assemblée générale constitutive tenue dimanche dernier, ils ont loué les qualités du jeune maire qui a résisté aux menaces et tentatives de corruption pour avoir refusé 200 millions de F.CFA en contrepartie de l’abandon des dénonciations des cas de fraudes sur le foncier. En tout cas, cette nouvelle plateforme est en train de gagner du terrain avec l’adhésion de nombreux jeunes qui commencent à croire que lutter contre ces fléaux, c’est bien possible. (Aujourd’hui, 2017)

46Remarkably, this way of giving sense to the land conflicts has shifted from Bamako to the neighbouring localities. Since 2020, unskilled citizens expressing anger at land grabbers and naming them as non-grata in their living places have become one of the best supports for the military regime.

Depuis des années, les habitants de pas mal de villages dans le cercle de Kati vivent l’enfer à cause de la spéculation foncière qui y règne. Sirakoro-Niaré et N’Toubana ne font pas exception à ces villages dont les terres sont vendues illégalement et qui ont du mal à être mis dans leurs droits. Déterminés pour l’annulation des titres fonciers attribués à certaines agences immobilières sur leurs terres de manière illégale, les jeunes de 45 villages du cercle de Kati ont marché ce jeudi à Kati ville pour interpeller les autorités à s’impliquer pour que leurs parcelles leur soient restituées. (Le Pays, 2017)

Narratives of the land imbroglio: overlapping, encroachments, superimpositions

47African cities’ overflow in their rural hinterland causes serious territorial and institutional unrest (Simon et al. 2004, Bartels 2019, Nuhu S. 2019). As in many cases (Kihato et al. 2013, Tahir 2022), sales upset neo-customary land legitimacies after decentralisation in Mali had already revised the allocation rules on the State private domain through the 2000 Land Code.

En effet, il est reproché au maire et son 2e adjoint, sans délibération du conseil communal, d’avoir morcelé un espace à Sirakoro Méguétana, sous la décision N°0320/M-CVI-DB et avec des notifications [pour l’attribution de parcelles] établies au compte de la commune. Un espace privé qui ne relève pas de la compétence juridique de Bamako, mais plutôt de celle de Kati. (La Preuve, 2019)

48The first component of the confusion stems from unclear or insufficiently appropriate boundaries after establishing new communes, stated as rural, on the edge of the District of Bamako (Class 5). Encompassed by an administrative dismemberment of the region of Koulikoro, the capital city-region had been previously organised into six communes and a governorate in the late 1970s before finally taking on a rigid outline on the map (Figure 3). As for other Malian Cercles, the chief town of Kati represents the state authority over the villages within a radius of about forty kilometres from the city centre. Two decades later, the new municipal governments came in addition to these administrative boundaries between different deconcentrated authorities. Their elected representatives have their own supervisory in the Malian territorial administration. They are linked directly to the state through the national directorate devolved to them, and their prerogatives are no different from those of the urban communes previously established since independence. According to their electoral timetable, municipal leaders will soon abuse their responsibilities in land subdivisions.

49In addition to these grey areas, marking the extent of villages by written boundaries within rural communes is proving an impossible undertaking. While landscape markers and mental maps were once declared sufficient to identify community rights, the lack of an updated map of customary domains is now cruelly felt. For “traditional authorities” who claim their land legitimacy, this lack of written references is a refusal to freeze the power relationships piled up in pre-colonial and colonial histories on paper. Attaching the villages to the new communes and their chief towns has even reactivated the search for local hegemony. Each village seeks to prove its anteriority over the neighbours by invoking the past. As such, it resists the control or encroachment of others over its land. Some confirm the protection of the more ancient lineages; others are part of a reversal of alliance or a quest for customary emancipation.

50Many local “offices”, either deconcentrated or decentralised, now compete to allocate building plots in these areas of confusion between urban influences and rural narratives. From “central mayors” to their delegates, i.e. municipal councillors representing their villages within the commune, from the governor of the region to the prefect of Cercle and sub-prefects, all would have taken advantage of uncertain boundaries to issue “bulletins” serving as property documents and provisional titles and collect fees on so-called allotments led without any development.

Est-ce le travail d’un gang organisé de prédateurs fonciers prêts à tout pour déposséder de pauvres citoyens de leurs titres de propriété délivrés par le préfet de Kati depuis 2007 ? Ont-ils eu le soutien de personnes extérieures au niveau du cercle de Kati ? Comment ont-ils pu avoir le jugement No. 118 du 1er mars 2019 du tribunal administratif qui a annulé les permis d’occuper des habitants de la parcelle No. 37, sachant bien que les titres fonciers No. 14556, 14557 et 29785 sont bel et bien sur la parcelle No. 39 et vérifiable sur le plan de la zone ? (Le Républicain, 2020)

51However, overlapping prerogatives have flourished mainly due to the inconsistent application of the Land Code and regulatory norms. Administrative authorities have compounded the territorial imbroglio by still serving as references for many villages, especially those feeling aggrieved by the chief municipal town. Prefects’ charge is often longer than electoral mandates; their brokers in villages bypass the municipal authority and encourage autochthonous lineages to divide their customary rights, then sell their share of the land and request services of surveyors in a subdivision plan. All this led the state representatives in Kati to keep allocating housing plots and issue documents on them long after they had no more this competence transferred to the only mayors. According to the Code, in 2000, the delivery of rural concessions dedicated to agricultural uses remained the sole responsibility of state representatives. Nevertheless, the dismissal of the Kati prefect in 2012 and a new summons before the judicial authorities ten years later did not end these practices. As for municipal parcelling operations, they hardly consider regulatory prerequisites such as land registration and prior servicing.

52Superimposed subdivisions are, therefore, commonplace on the outskirts of the capital. The reform of these “guilty” land offices is too recent, in the terms ratified in 2021 by the new land law, for us to assess their performance in resolving the disputes they have generated and preventing new conflicts over legitimacy. Following more political objectives, this new reform mainly aims to remove the municipalities from the land game in favour of the central state alone.

53As a result, delimitation of properties, whether customary, precarious or titled, displays a new set of confusion. Numerous disputes are related to encroachments on neighbouring parcels or the public space. They testify to the state’s embarrassment regarding the rights it is supposed to guarantee and protect: on the one hand, its repeated incantations in favour of a performant Cadastre; on the other hand, civil servants and urban elites acting not to give the best and necessary for that (Bertrand 2019). Presenting the land register and digital plans as a panacea that could “refound social relations”, ensure tax revenues, and help justice to “solve all problems” occupies a substantial part of the articles addressing official discourses. In this respect, the case of Mali is similar to other African examples, showing the many hopes and limits of land governance by tools (Lavigne Delville & Schlimmer 2020). In the case of Mali, such promises were not enough to put the urban middle classes back on the path of political trust, as already palpable in other papers and edifying conflicts reported on the web:

Plusieurs personnes, dont des notables de Kabala et Kouralé, la chefferie traditionnelle et le gardien engagé par la défunte il y a plusieurs années, ont tous confirmé l’information selon laquelle ces Messieurs se sont trompés de parcelle ou font semblant car la parcelle No. 39, dont ils disposent des copies de titres foncier, est aussi habité par plusieurs familles et a fait l’objet de conflit judiciaire. (Le Républicain, 2020)

54Finally, superimposed rights on the same parcels best demonstrate the complexity of the problems (Class 2). This third source of imbroglio stems from competing allocations. They place the beneficiaries of plots in infernal battles about the anteriority of their achievements, their investment’s value, and their titles’ supremacy. From local jurisdictions to the Supreme Court, the winners are not at the end of their trouble. Once they have borne the court procedures, it remains to consider the cost of enforcing decisions and demolitions.

Les anciens maires de 1999 à 2009 et de 2009 à 2016 avaient fait des lettres d’attribution pour des bénéficiaires sur plus de 3 000 hectares. Les lettres d’attribution étant des titres précaires, de nouveaux acquéreurs pour les mêmes sites se sont présentés ; cette fois-ci, avec des titres fonciers sur les zones déjà attribuées. Tous les jours, se succèdent des descentes d’équipes de la police et de la gendarmerie sur Baguinéda pour intervenir dans des conflits meurtriers qui opposaient des multiples prétendants aux mêmes parcelles. On retrouvait quatre à cinq propriétaires pour une même parcelle. (Le Wagadu, 2919)

55“Customary authorities” also commonly carry sales of the same plots to multiple buyers. Whether they claim to belong to a traditional lineage or a rival clan in matters of succession to the local chieftaincy, the villagers come to the sale decision in dispersed order. Most community-based heritages are fragmented today. Each custodian of the customary leg claims to conduct its sales without concern for others.

56Other rural buyers try to react to the deception in which municipal and prefectural authorities and private operators have gotten hold of their land. Since surveyors are commissioned in the field and paid by the latter in shares of the marked plots, they give these villagers back a limited quota of the lots to sell or occupy. Double sales then draw a lesson from how these big men (puissants, nantis, or richissimes) maximise land revenue. In turn, they illustrate the “arts of doing” of the weak (de Certeau 1990), tricks deployed by subaltern actors to get ahead. In so doing, the villagers scatter the conflict risks to small plots and their buyers, who hardly complain about being cheated in transactions concluded in this market segment. Many “forget about it”, “give up”, or exhaust themselves from “negotiating with their fellow sufferers” to save the cost of uncertain legal proceedings.

The urban/rural interface in the turmoil of land parcelling

57Beyond the formal/informal dichotomy often addressed about African cities and despite the prevalence of the latter, regularly and globally deplored in the discourse of urban planners about effectiveness in land tools and management (Konyango et al. 2021) or land use efficiency (Chakraborty et al. 2022), changes of land ownership in the outskirts of Bamako demonstrate many hybrid practices and the porosity of formalisation to negotiations and shortcuts procedure.

58The urban sprawl even accentuates trends that the recent initiators of the city parcel-based cartography said had been eradicated: the bureaucracy in charge of land registration fails to escape market pressures and informal contamination; power games generate double circuits of access to titles and bank mortgages. Many applicants and interplays deviate from the administrative way requiring the publicity of registration; personal influences weaken the investment clauses, the obligation to have them written in the Land Register, or the conditions for approving subdivision plans. All this gives wealthy buyers or investors in a hurry the opportunities for informal manoeuvres that can not be considered a monopoly of the poor. Like the rural inhabitants seeking surveyors based in the prefecture for discrete parcelling operations, many “schemes” and “petty arrangements between friends” involve civil servants in the Land administration.

Les spéculateurs fonciers nichés à Bamako ont décidé de se dresser inexplicablement contre la volonté souveraine des populations de Safo. Très riches, ils se donnent les moyens officiels et officieux pour faire pencher la balance en leur faveur devant toutes les instances. (Waati 2011)

59The titles definitively registered in Kati and subdivision plans approved by the regional planning services in Koulikoro give much evidence of the unbridled nature of plotting operations. However, their first goal is not to supply immediately transferable plots to buyers used to self-promoting their housing on them. It is even less to produce turnkey houses that so-called real estate operators do not have the resources to build. The challenge is better to secure the establishment of large titles by marking them as “mother properties”. By later subdividing them for generating “plot titles”, it is mainly a matter of initiating a land portfolio strategy, requesting substantial bank loans, and waiting for the best price increase relative to other business and financial needs.

Comme si nous étions dans une comédie, pendant que l’agence XXX attendait le délibéré de la Cour suprême, une autre agence immobilière se pointe et réclame le même espace, au nom d’un titre foncier n°17808 qui s’avère faux. Si [la première agence] se dit être soutenue par le chef de village de Kognini, l’autre dit agir sous l’ordre d’un chef de famille. (Le pays, 2018)

60As driven by urban interests, the conversion and financialisation of rural land is part of the accumulation practices of Malian elites. They are few connected to international capital at first glance. However, their commercial basis, particularly from import-export companies, does place land investments in large exchange circuits. This process has brutalised society and public affairs, as many articles express it when comparing speculation to an “incurable gangrene” and linking in an unprecedented way the poor land management in the capital to the poor political governance of the country. According to their authors, increasing invective name-calling and physical violence demonstrate the most disruptive aspects of commodifying former community lands.

Les habitants de Siracoro Niaré ont tiré à balles réelles sur les habitants de N’Teguedo Niaré. Finalement, nous a confié un militaire, les habitants de N’Teguedo Niaré se sont défendus. Le bilan du sanglant affrontement est plus d’une dizaine de blessés de part et d’autre. (Le Républicain, 2021)

61In the minds of the victims, land issues have also become a “devil matter”. It has trivialised not only constant calls for God’s help but a political distinction now flourishing on the web, in the online media not less than in social networks: on the one hand, those whose speculative manoeuvres have “betrayed” country children and are therefore called “stateless”, on the other hand, those who, by denouncing the latter, side with the “patriots” and probe they “do not lack love for Mali”. Therefore, getting out of the multidimensional political and moral crisis is a common need for the country and its capital, as neither the regulatory route nor confidence in the judicial institution looks available to regulate markets and arbitrate conflicts.

62Far from neglecting other oral reactions, these written materials show how the protagonists in the conflicts highlight them through the journalists’ mediation. As such, they seek to push a political voice in an institutional interplay that scarcely recognises their place but no longer contains these windows of expression.


63The exploratory approach adopted has taken advantage of land narratives different from the rural register of agricultural dispossession and stories about formal versus informal, as when Bamako had not reached its district limits.

64And yet, African land debates have significantly shifted towards cities and complaints about their development conditions, which remain poor despite the promises of liberalised land and property markets. Above all, urban sprawl has renewed the meaning given to transactions increasingly conducted by individuals on land parcels, resulting from the fragmentation of neo-customary rights.

65The new sensitivities emerging in the online media remain in Mali at the stage of alarms, protests and grievances unresolved by the country’s institutions and justice system. However, they play their part in changing common sense and crystallising political subjectivities through discursive mediations in the language of power. Indeed, the online articles on the Malian capital draw a narrative continuum with opinions expressed orally in various discussion groups and social networks. In this way, our study source confirms its status as a discursive third party between ordinary citizens, eager to speak and hear about the new urban margins, and the country’s authorities, who ignore them.

66Despite its rapid spread, the peri-urban environment has remained an unaddressed element of national policies. This unplanned urban future has led citizens to critical discourses over the last decades. Their frustrations with land at the urban/rural interface add to the many political ills from which Malian governance suffers. The triptych of land grabbing-spoliation-speculation amplifies opinions about corruption and impunity that several “transitions” promised to put an end to get rid of the political crisis and ensure that “the state is back”. 

67The statistical textual analysis tackles this voluminous corpus based on the proximity of words to each other. It takes advantage of the success of these web productions commented through connected mobile phones. Their general content and specific lexicons are matters of discussion better than in the meetings and programmes of the parties born after the 1991 political transition. However, their lack of critical distance from unbridled understandings and ruling powers requires further comments and contextualisation. While the latter’s priorities are shifting towards new scenes of territorial insecurity in the North and the Centre of Mali, online articles give voice to inhabitants who do not fit into the country’s administrative and legal categories.

68Our survey on the four platforms has first echoed the “voices of the poor”, lacking public investments and serviced housing estates, to finally highlight interplays and transactions dominated by urban “predators”, whose merchant capital competes with the administrative elites to capture the land value chains. The origin of their covetousnesses goes back to the advent of the Third Republic when Mali opened up to a market economy and political pluralism. Although they have less financial influence than international investors elsewhere, their social impact is highly resounding.

69From this research avenue, the narrative component of urban conflicts counts, with local and national stakes. Contrary to the experts’ vision of poor people and the stereotypes of transnational activists, its insurgent charges, between moral references and resonances with populism and authoritarianism, show much ambivalence. Peri-urban identity finally emerges from an expanded confrontation between the “greed” of the haves and the “suffering” of the have-nots. These narrative categories are far from fitting with those of “urban” versus “rural”. Nor do they verify the dichotomy of “authority” (planning norms) versus “people” (self-building) often applied to the fabric of African cities. However, they provide relevant keys to understanding the loss of social cohesion many local communities have been experiencing in and around Bamako.

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1 By 2020, Internet penetration had reached 47% of African households, with the same proportion of mobile phone subscriptions. Despite lagging, the continent has shown the highest growth since 2000. Between oral cultures and simplified written uses in the official languages, these polyvalent new technologies appeal to Malian users (12,500,000 internet users in late 2021, i.e. 59% of the population, 11% of Facebook users) no less than in neighbouring countries (

2 The national daily L’essor continues to carry the official discourse but has not escaped the digital transition. From the late 2010s, institutional communication has also largely migrated from Malian administrative sites to Facebook accounts open to online reactions.

3 1) Vocabulary analysis and lemmatisation; 2) Definition of elementary context units and classification; 3) Definition of classes and factorial correspondence analysis; 4) Additional calculations (significant context units, repeated segments, hierarchical ascending classification.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Word networks with class barycenters in the aBamako corpus
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Title Photo 1/2. Periurban landscapes: self-building in the commune of Kalabancoro / social housing programme in the commune of Kambila
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Title Figure 2. Classification dendrogram, specific vocabulary and indexed words of textual units in the articles addressing the District of Bamako and Cercle of Kati
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Title Figure 3. Places mentioned in the quoted articles: The Bamako/Kati territorial contact under overlapping municipal authorities
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Electronic reference

Monique Bertrand, Emerging peri-urban voices in Africa: Bamako through the lens of land conflicts in online mediaArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 24 | 2024, Online since 04 April 2024, connection on 24 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Monique Bertrand

Institute of Research for Development, Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes africains, américains et asiatiques (UMR 245 – Cessma), University of Paris-Cité.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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