Interview with Cheik Sidya Diombana, Secrétaire- Général, and Boubacar Diallo of the Association des Cheminots Retraités, Section de Bamako (Bamako, April 16, 1992)

Notes © 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

Go to Table of Contents Read Disclaimer

I conducted this interview on Thursday, April 16, 1992, during my third visit to the meeting hall of the Retired Railwaymen's Association. I spoke with Cheik Sidya Diombana, Secrétaire Général of the Association des Cheminots Retraités, Section de Bamako, and Boubacar Diallo, an officer of the Association. We met in the Association office at 11:00am.

The tape malfunctioned in several ways, but I was able to record the most important material, including a lot of detail about the cheminots' role at independence. They supported Senghor, but agreed to support Modibo Keita and the breakup of the Federation in exchange for the promise of new jobs in the Republic of Mali.

During the interview, Diombana referred to Fily Dabo Sissoko's telegram in February 1948. By that time, the strike had gone on for a long time and people were hurting badly, so when Fily Dabo Sissoko offered to get involved and find a way to end it, he was supported by the cheminots. However, when he failed, he was too ashamed to admit his failure, so he sent a telegram announcing that he had succeeded and that the cheminots should return to work. However, only two men returned to work.

The tape recording begins as Diombana tells the story of Fily Dabo Sissoko's telegram to the striking cheminots in early 1948, just after the workers on the Chemin de Fer Abidgan- Niger returned to work...

Jones: ...the 5th of February? Okay. And Fily Dabo was ashamed... ?

Diombana: Yes.

NOTE: Fily Dabo's telegram was sent in November, and the actual date for the return to work was February 2, 1948.


Jones: Did the cheminots support the US-RDA after that?

Diombana: Politically, some cheminots supported each of the parties. But after the election of Fily Dabo, the cheminots all supported the USRDA.

Jones: At independence, the USRDA won. Did the cheminots play a role?

Diombana: Certainly. Konaté helped the cheminots (during the strike), so it was normal for the cheminots to help the USRDA. Even in Senegal, we'd supported Senghor. He'd been a bit "cold" and taken no position during the strike, but the workers supported him. That's how he defeated Lamine Gueye later.


Jones: The breakup of the Mali Federation must have been tough for the cheminots.

Diombana: Before the breakup, we supported Senghor, even the cheminots who were in Senegal. The political situation offered sufficient latitude that we could support Konaté and still support Senghor.

Shortly before the breakup, when Konaté died, Modibo Keita took over and created (with Senghor and others) the Fédération du Mali. Ivory Coast and Upper Volta chose not to join, so Senegal and Mali created the Federation, but the choice of a leader created discord. When the disagreement occurred, Modibo was there (in Senegal) as president of the Federation and he refused to give it up (Diombana used the expression "cherchez le błte" to describe his obstinance). So the Federation broke up.

We (cheminots) had to to return home. There were almost no resources in Mali. We were roughly 2,000 cheminots; there weren't enough jobs for all of us and there weren't any jobs elsewhere in the country. Modibo met with us (cheminots) in Dakar and asked us to return to Mali to show our solidarity with the country.

I told him that personally, I was prepared to return to Mali (but that he couldn't speak for the cheminots who would be unemployed). Modibo assured me that if I returned, I would be guaranteed a job. But I couldn't accept it because I knew that the depot at Thiès was the biggest in AOF and that in addition, just the 3rd Section (Traction) had more people than there were railroad jobs in all of Mali. So I knew that the majority of cheminots would lose their jobs. I told Modibo that he could either have the government pay half salaries until the RCM got organized, or else find jobs for the cheminots in other branches of the government.

He said "OK" so we all returned. Me, I had my house in Thiès. It was much nicer than the one I found here. When we arrived, the population "fait le tom-tom, la codisation" (took up a collection). But even with the collection, thanks to the USRDA, no cheminot had any sense of security.

We arrived during the dry season (JJ: late October). The government sent men to the places where cheminots gathered to tell us to go plant crops...

Jones: Farming in the dry season? (sarcasm)

Diombana: ...or we'll kill you (On va te tuer) There was a meeting with an officer of the union, Mamadou Sidibé, Secrétaire Général de Syndicat du Soudan, other members of the UNTM (Union des Travailleurs de Transport Maliens) and members of the Bureau Politique. They told us that the cheminots were refusing to work "faire l'agriculture, faire l'elevage..."

Jones: ...gather wood... (Note: These are all examples of extremely low-status work.)

Diombana: ...gather wood. I replied that we couldn't do that. We were trained for something different and we're not going to turn into farmers overnight, especially in the dry season. We are all peasants' children and we'll farm during the rainy season - that's normal, we did that even while we worked for the railroad - but not now. Now, it's up to the government to take care of us because "un sac vide ne peut se tenir debout" (An empty sack can't remain standing.) When I said that, they grabbed me and threw me into prison.

Jones: How long?

Diombana: Two months and 20 days. However, when they put me in prison, the cheminots organized. They took up a collection that raised 250,000 CFA. And during the time that I was in prison, every Sunday I received 200 kilos of fruit - bananas, mangos, oranges, and other fruit. The government was afraid.

Jones: They saw this as a concrete manifestation of cheminot solidarity.

Diombana: From Koulikoro to (unintelligible - sounds like Djibouti but that makes no sense), the cheminots gave money and fruit. They came here (Bamako) to demand my release. On Sundays, you couldn't enter the prison because there were so many cheminots. They had to set up a special entrance for us. After that, they were afraid, so they released me.


Jones: After that, I imagine that the relationship between the USRDA and the cheminots deteriorated.

Diombana: Sure. The USRDA was no longer our friend. That was finished. The cheminots became the first to "défiler" (to desert the government). That's why I wrote an article in La Roue n°28 about rehabilitating Moussa Traoré (Interjection by Diallo "Modibo Keita." The article was about Moussa Traoré, but he referred to these events to explain why Modibo Keita could not be rehabilitated either.) He threatened the population. He killed Fily Dabo and his companions. He destroyed the village of Sakoïba near Segou.

Jones: Sakoïba?

Diombana: Sakoïba. There was a commissaire who mistreated the population with respect ot taxes, so they seized him and beat him nearly to death.

Jones: Modibo was angry?

Diombana: Modibo was angry, so he brought in Caterpillars (bulldozers) and leveled the village. (Interruption while someone entered the office on business) So you see, that's what happened.

Jones: Okay. I see why you opposed his rehabilitation.

Diombana: Now there's the RDGT, the old supporters of Keita who back Haidara (in the 1992 presidential election). The moderates who once backed Konaté are supporting his son (Tieoule Mamadou Konaté). The candidate in second place is the son of Konaté. We supported the UDPM because Modibo did all of that (the previously mentioned atrocities).

When he wanted to get rid of the unions, we (cheminots) said no. We don't want to belong to a single national union. After we created our own national union, the Association Général des Travailleurs (AGT), Modibo suppressed it.

Jones: ...because they were afraid...

Diallo: (something about the ambassador to Ivory Coast. Unintelligible)

Diombana: Anyway, now we had problems with the Direction du Chemin de Fer. They tried to fire me. I was a union leader, so first they tried to transfer me from the railroad. They tried to send me to the SEMA (Société d'Équipments Maliens) because I was a mechanic. They said that if I didn't accept the transfer, I was fired. I said I wouldn't, so they took me to the Police Speciale. I said that I had 25 years of service at the railroad. They were in the process of installing the workshops at Korofina and I was involved. I was busy removing obstacles to the track right-of- way. There was work to be done and I knew that the railroad adinistration needed me. But they suspended me. They put police in front of my office to prevent me from entering.

Jones: What year was this?

Diombana: '67 ... ah, '63. '63. They suspended me. For five months, I was out of work. My children got sick, but the Director had given orders that they couldn't be treated at the clinic. Docteur infirmièr d'état M. Keita was obliged to go to the pharmacy himself and buy medicine with his own money in order to treat my children.

Jones: So he helped you despite the government's orders?

Diombana: He was a cheminot. He did it. After two months, Modiba Keita summoned me. I met him at Koulouba and he asked me why I refused to go to SEMA. I said that it was an arbitrary order dictated by my political opposition, so I couldn't follow it. If I agreed to go to SEMA, he'd send me to Gao.

Jones: Right. You'd wind up at a customs post near Tessalit...

Diombana: He said he'd give me some time to think about it, but if I didn't go to SEMA, I'd be fired. I said he could make his decision right then and there, because I wouldn't go to SEMA. He sent me away and I went home.

One month later, he summoned me again. He told me that he'd decided not to send me to SEMA. I was happy. He paused for a moment, then added that I wouldn't be at the Chemin de Fer either. He said that I had to learn not to challenge authority ("ne pas tirer à la pouvoir"). I asked what post he had in mind and he said I'd be part of the Mission Malien à Thiès (liasion group for the railroad)

Jones: Did that please you?

Diombana: I had my house at Thiès, but my family was in Kayes. I was more interested in staying here than going to Senegal. But given the fact that I was unemployed and living in a strange place, I accepted. He asked if I accepted without bad feelings ("rencul") and I said no. I accepted, but with "rencul." He asked why. I said that I understood that the leaders of my country didn't like me, and I didn't like them.

Jones: Back to prison?

Diombana: He told me that I couldn't speak that way to a chef d'état. He added that the chef d'état was only a man, and that a man could make a mistake. People could give him bad information. That's what had happened. I (Keita) was misinformed about your case and now we know the truth. That's why I didn't want to fire you. If you accept the appointment in Thiès, I'll make sure you get good conditions.

He arranged for me to leave for Thiès on the 29th of November. On the 19th, I was to meet the Minister in Bamako and prepare my departure. Unfortunately, the 19th of November, we had a coup d'état. (Note: This occurred in 1968, so it contradicts the year he gave in the interview). He told me to go to the Mairie (city hall) and look for the Minister and I'd get all of the papers necessary to go to Kayes (Thiès?). But unfortunately, on the 19th of November when I got to the Mairie, we'd already had the coup d'état. After the military government took over, they returned me to my job at the railroad.

Jones: You won, but what a way to win!

Diombana: Exactly. When I returned, the cheminots elected me secretary general of the union. I stayed there, and after my retirement, the cheminots elected me secretary general of the Association des cheminots Retraités.

Jones: What year did you retire?

Diombana: 1978.

Diallo: 1978, the same year as me. We retired together.

Jones: Therefore, the history of railroad unionism in Mali involves a lot of courage and patience (laughter).


Diallo: There were two categories of cheminots. One group came from Senegal; we were called "les refoulés." They were better qualified and came back to Mali expecting to take over the existing jobs. The non- refoulés thought that the refoulés considered themselves better than the rest (... this is difficult to translate intelligently, but Diombana describes competition between the two groups and says that the Malian cheminots thought the refoulés were going to take over their jobs.) Me, I finished up in Senegal as part of the Mission Malien au Thiès de Chemin de Fer after 1965. We did the work there in Thiès that we couldn't do here. After we finished down there, we kept a group to maintain relations ("des relations techniques") between the RCM and the RCFS. We handled the arrival of rolling stock from Europe.

(Note: After a lengthy introduction, I asked them to comment on one of my ideas about the railroad as a force for national unity in Mali.)

Jones: Is it reasonable to say that the union had so much trouble with the government because the union cut across various power hierarchies by uniting people from various villages, groups, etc?

Diombana: No. The union didn't alter the life in the village.


Diombana: There were twelve national unions here - the cheminots are the 13th. Until (unintelligible) congress, we were asked to disband and join the National Union. (Diombana and Diallo showed some confusion about the actual year this happened.) "C'etait le temp de Moussa Traoré; c'etait 1969 parce que mon rapport etait preparé en 1969" (It was during the period when moussa Traoré was in power. It was in 1969 because that is the year I wrote my report.)

At the time, there were 12 unions. We said that we would not remain in the "Syndicat des Transports." They replied that all unions of transporters had to belong to the national union. We replied that we didn't want unity for the sake of unity, especially an imposed unity.

I told them why we didn't want to stay in the national union. It was composed of certain services who had "aucun notion syndicat" (no sense of union solidarity). There was the Service de la Navigation at Koulikoro who worked only 4 months per year, so they weren't organized for group action. There was the CMTR, truck drivers who carried hydrocarbures (petroleum-based fuel). They had trucks that were gifts from Czechoslovakia ... Krupp...

Jones: Krupp was German. Tatra was the Czechoslovakian truck company. (NOTE: From other sources, I know that these trucks were given to Mali right after independence, but Krupp was out of business by 1969.)

Diombana: This society (CMTR) was so badly managed that I expected it to go out of business any day. There was Air Mali, composed of young technicians who had no sense of union behavior because they had plenty of advantages and didn't need to have a union, at least according to them.

As a result, union activity by the cheminots was retarded by the rest. That's why we wanted to break away. They understood what we wanted and tried to stop us. That's why they imposed the national union on us. When they did that, I offered my resignation. (He showed me a copy of his letter of resignation.)

Jones: (reading letter) ... 1973 (date of the letter). OK.

Diallo: I've got to leave. (Bote: Before he left, I got his vital statistics. Boubacar Diallo, retired 1978, born in Toukoto.)

(tape stops for interruption, then resumes)


Diombana: (Responding to a general question about the impact of the railroad on the Middle Niger Valley.) Before the penetration of the railroad into the zone Bamako-Kayes, people were employed in agriculture and herding. After the railroad, we began to live in a modern way; that is, the organization of life and the organization of the population. In addition, there was interpenetration of the population between the two zones - Senegal and Soudan. When the railroad reached Koulikoro ...

Jones: ... December 1904 ...

Diombana: December 1904. I think it was Blum who planned to build a dorsal line, the Transafricaine, to connect the colonies and eventually Algeria. We believed up until independence that this would be built - a line crossing the Niger at Koulikoro to Segou, Mopti, Tombouctou, Bobo and the Ivory Coast. For the cheminots, it was our dream. It would have allowed our country to develop. But we realize that this won't happen.


Diombana: Presently, as far as development is concerned, we are regressing.

Jones: Ever since independence?

Diombana: Right. In addition, Europe has contributed to our regression. We are subject to interest rates that are deplorable, excessive, from the IMF and the World Bank. Now we figure our task is to organize ourselves to have new factories and better infrastructure, and to extend the railroad beyond Koulikoro, but in fact, even the maintainance on the former Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger has become problematic.

The conditions of life and work, as you already know, are deplorable. Under such conditions, you can't work. Despite everything we've already done, we are obliged to accept these impossible conditiuons.

Jones: So to talk about extending the railroad ...

Diombana: Ah, that's bad enough, but first we want our administrators to improve the conditions of credit to Africa. The way things are now, there is no hope.


Jones: (Trying to get back to my original, general question) Thus, for people in the east and north of Mali, if they were affected by the railroad, it was because of imported goods or because they grow peanuts or cotton for export?

Diombana: Peanuts and cotton for example - that's around Mopti, Segou, Sikasso, but above Mopti, it was other things. Up there, we might be able to count on minerals (for export) but we have to give people a reason to live there. In that desert, it's difficult.

Jones: That's true. Have you been as far as Tombouctou?

Diombana: I've been to Tombouctou, to Gao, to Ansongo ...

Jones: Ok, you know the area.

Diombana: I've been as far as the waterfall at Labbezanga (the border between Mali and Niger)


Jones: Ah, OK. Here's the last part of the question (about the railroad's impact on the Middle Niger Valley). Are there people from Mopti, from Sikasso, who worked for the railroad and became cheminots?

Diombana: There's a funny saying from the 1930s. The people of Kayes, at the birth of a child, wish that it will grow up to be the "chef de gare."

Jones: Because the cheminot is king?

Diombana: Because the cheminot was the only job in the region. There was a bit of commerce, the dispensary, a few small government offices (services), but the most important "service" was the railroad.

Presently, you find people from Mopti and even Gao who work as cheminots. Some graduated from the Lycée de Terrasson. Others stayed for a long time in Bamako or other centers.


Jones: You wrote (in a handwritten series of questions and answers that he gave me to copy) that people who graduated from William Ponty or Pinet-Laprade could enter the cadres of the railroad. I need to look up the records to see who entered those schools.

Diombana: They came from the Lycée de Terrasson and the regional écoles. Those are people who reached a certain level in primary school. They had a CEP ("Certificat d'Etudes Primaire") They had a choice to go on to [l'École] William Ponty, or (unintelligible). There is also a Centre d'Apprentissage.

Jones: At Toukoto?

Diombana: No, it's no longer at Toukoto. At Terrasson. There used to be the "Atelier Centrale du Chemin de Fer" at Toukoto. Anyway, now they do three years as apprentices for telegraphy, work in the stations as messengers or in the machine shop or carpentry shop.

Most of all, with the war of `39-45, they perfected the Écoles and Centre d'Apprentissage, and enabled the students to get some good training. I was part of the work to set technical standards - that is, at the Bureau Technique - "faire le dessin, faire l'information." This means that people who were promoted during 139-45 were better than the others. Afterwards, they had the chance to go to the École Technique Supérieure for further studies. Once they finished, they were hired immediately, either in Senegal, Bamako or at Markala.

Jones: At the dam?

Diombana: Right. But those who went to Markala weren't happy, because up there, it was the "régime militaire." (JJ: The next part is unintelligible, but sounds like "J'etait le chef de service de travaux.") The military engineers were up there. The workers didn't have a lot of liberty ...

Jones: To go out at night, to marry ...?

Diombana: Exactly. They were subject to a much more rigorous discipline, Those who went to Senegal were a lot happier. On the other hand, they had to leave their country.

Jones: OK. That's good. You've given me a lot of leads that I need to follow up.


Diombana: The relations between whites and blacks - maybe you were afraid to bring it up - there were some whites who helped us a lot. Cailloux (JJ: pronounced Ky-o)) the founder of the école Technique Supèrieur. Also (unintelligible). You couldn't call them racists. They treated black men like any other men. They were ahead of their time. I feel obligated to report that they honored France.

Jones: Are there monuments to any of these men?

Diombana: There were monuments to Des Bordes, Archinard and Gallieni (French military officers during the conquest of the region), but they took them away after independence. Modibo did that. I disagree. Even if they were part of a bad political system, it's necessary to confront it. I'd rather that our children saw those statues so they could ask questions. To understand the present, it is necessary to know the route taken.

Jones: We can't understand Modibo without knowing what came first.

Diombana: Exactly. Colonization did a lot of damage, but also helped us.

Jones: That's a balanced opinion.

Diombana: It allowed us to understand things that we would never have understood if it wasn't for coloniztion. But we reached independence a little too early ... in my opinion. It would have been better if we waited until 1990 when the Loi Cadre and the organizational plans had a chance to mature and protect us a bit better. Africans allowed themselves to be flattered (into thinking they were ready for independence.)

Jones: Maybe that was the fault of Nkrumah and Sekou Touré?

Diombana: No matter. We lost the path that we should have followed.

Jones: OK. Thank you very much.