The Wad Nun Network

By the early twentieth century, what Ghislaine calls the Wad Nun network had evolved into, “an expansive operation with agents in key western African markets…” ranging from Timbuktu to Dakar to Conakry. It should be noted that this truly was a network of people working together, rather than a homogenous ethic group working and trading amongst their own people, rather the network included the Tikna, the Awlad Bu al-Siba, and Jews from Guelmim13. Bonded together by the Maliki Doctrine and a cultural affinity for one another, the Wad Nun network monopolized the trans-Saharan trade in key markets such as green tea but also traded in gum arabic, ivory, slaves, and gold.

Contrary to Prange’s previous claim, the Wad Nun trade network looks very much like something that could be described as a trans-Saharan corporation. While the routes or corridors, were not themselves monopolized, the trade in certain goods was. Muslims worked closely with Jews who they respected as “people of the book.” Long distance trading relationships were built along with mutual trust that was backed up by credit and loan systems.

The existence of the Wad Nun network disputes the concept that West Africans were never able to overcome collective action problems regarding not just logistics, but also trust between participants, to create a large system of trade that could arguably be described as approaching a corporation structure.

The Wad Nun network was not without its limitations, however. While large scale trade was prevalent, the extent to which this early form of corporation could function were limited by Islamic inheritance traditions which were not always placed in a manner to deal with members of the network dying and passing their business obligations on to others. When a trade partner passed away, it could lead to the collapse of an entire node in the trans-Saharan trade network, forcing the system to adapt and re-route itself around the broken segment14. While the Wad Nun network continued to function all the way up until the early twentieth century, it was a very fragile construct. Later, the network was simply co-opted by French colonists into their own economy.