Module Twenty Three, Activity Two

History of Senegal

A map of Senegal in the eighth, or 11th century would look very little like it does today. This is because Senegal, the Gambia, and most other African countries were not divided into the states they are today. The region was comprised of autonomous and semi autonomous kingdoms and more decentralized societies similar to political arrangement in other African regions. It was not until the 18th century that Senegal, as we see on the map, existed in its contemporary form. What has traditionally been called the Senegambia before colonization is a perfect example of the regional rather than state groupings. The Senegambia as a region encompassed Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau and parts of Mali, Mauritania, and Guinea.

Senegal Area Map

Early Kingdoms
Archaeological findings throughout the area indicate that Senegal was inhabited in prehistoric times by hunter-gatherer societies. Stone tools were found that date human habitation in the area of Senegambia from 10,000 years ago. Cheikh Anta Diop, one of Senegal’s most famous intellectuals, argued that Senegalese populations shared similar heritage with ancient Egypt. He claimed that the ancestors of contemporary Senegalese originally came from the Nile River valley having migrated westwards into the Senegambia. However, this theory of origin is hotly debated among scholars.

Refer back to Unit Two: Module 7A; Activity Three for a map of the West African kingdoms.

It is important to know that despite the appearance of these empires and kingdoms on the map simultaneously, they did not temporally coincide.
Over the past two thousand years the West African region experienced significant change and diversity. Most history books begin their coverage of history in the Senegambia starting approximately in the 4th century CE culminating at the end of the colonial era (1960) or immediate post-colonial period.

Various language groups are found across a large area of West Africa that were formed as the large scale migrations that were caused by conflicts and pursuit of land, trade, and exchange. The current ethnic diversities in Senegal can be attributed to these movements and can be traced through linguistic analysis, the study of material culture (tools, implements, weapons) and oral traditions.

The Tekrur Kingdom (Fourth century to in between the Twelfth and Fourteenth centuries CE)
The fourth century most likely gave rise to the first centralized state in Senegambia, the Tekrur kingdom, located in the Senegal River Valley in Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania in the area known as Futa Toro. This river valley became the point of immigration as well as the site of emigration from whence kingdoms and populations spread into the southern areas of Senegambia. This era witnessed the rise of inter-regional commerce taking place on a larger scale along what became known as the as the Trans-Saharan trade route. Some historians believe that this route facilitated the spread of iron-smelting into West Africa.

The Tekrur had contact with several groups including the Zenaga Berbers from North Africa. The Tekrur king, War Jaabi, converted to Islam in the eleventh century making the area one of the oldest Islamic states in West Africa. The Tekrur and Ghana kingdoms were constantly in conflict with each other.
The Ghana Empire

The Ghana Empire (Fourth century – Thirteenth century CE)

Follow link to Module Seven A: Early African History, After 16th Century CE:

The oldest known state group in West Africa was the Ghana empire founded in the 8th century CE by the Soninke ethnic group. As you can see on the map above, the empire stretched from the north-western tip of the Niger river to the Senegal River Valley. Its political and economic power was based on its ability to control the Trans-Saharan trade. However, by the 11th century Ghana was taken over by the Almoravides. The Almoravid dynasty hailed from the Berber area of Morocco in the north from where in expanded to as far south as the Senegal River Valley. Their presence near the Senegal River led to the introduction of Islam and the subsequent Islamic conversion of the majority of people in the region by around 1100 CE.

Salt and Gold Trade Map

The Mali Empire (11th to 15th century)
This empire developed into one of the largest empires in the history of Africa and, was in the 14th century, one of the largest empires in the world. It stretched from the Atlantic Ocean encircling Senegal in the west all the way to Lake Chad to the south-east, a distance of some 1,800 miles. In the mid 12th century the Ghana Empire crumbled and it and the Tekrur kingdom were taken over by the Mali Empire. The empire was controlled by the Mandika speaking people, who are part of the largest ethnic group in West Africa, the Mande. Due to the empire’s size, it established an extensive trading network from the Niger River to the Gambia River, consequently connecting the Sahel to the Atlantic. By the mid-fourteenth century, however, the influence of Mali decreased due to its weakened state after a crisis. This political decline facilitated the creation of the Jolof Confederation which brought together all of the previously independent Wolof states of the region.

The Mali Empire struggled into the 15th century due to competition from smaller neighboring states for control of the profitable salt and gold commercial routes. The weakened Mali Empire was eventually integrated into the Songhay Empire, demonstrating the interchanging of power that occurred in the region over many years. Each new empire gained control of the previous empire’s trade routes.

For more information refer back to Module Seven A: Early African History, After 16th Century CE:

The Songhay Empire (Fifteenth – Sixteenth Century)
The Songhay Empire, after assimilating the Mali Empire, dominated the region for a relatively short period during the 16th century. This was the last of the great Sudanese empires and was said to be one of the largest empires in African history. However, in the beginning of the 16th century due to the conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and European states there was increased trans-Atlantic navigation as these European states (particularly the Portuguese and Spanish) sought new routes to Asia that were not controlled by the Ottomans. This historical process would bring Europe into direct contact with West Africa—and the Songhay Empire in the 16th century.

Concurrently, conflicts in North Africa pushed Moroccan leaders to aggressively pursue control of gold and salt mines to the disadvantage of Songhay. It was from Moroccan influence that the empire was dismantled. By the end of the century the Songhay Empire was split into smaller kingdoms. These kingdoms were more based on ethnic groups that were increasingly resistant to the spread of Islam; in fact they often embraced local indigenous religions. This is most likely the explanation for the diverse ethnic groups in Senegal in the immediate pre-colonial period.

The Rise of the Wolof Kingdoms (Twelfth – Fifteenth century CE)
The legendary founder of the Wolof kingdom was Njaajaan Njaay, who according to some accounts, was the son of a Muslim cleric. Although the accounts vary, a central theme tells the story of a brave young man who solved a serious dispute. Consequently he was then revered as the leader of the Empire. When his father died, Njaajaan’s mother was tricked into marrying a former slave. Because of this marriage the young Njaajaan was shamed by his peers and adults in the community. As a consequence of his shame he weighted himself with weapons and threw himself into a river. However, he survived and lived in the water for several years. He later emerged to settle a dispute between some fishermen who considered him a water spirit. After his humanity was proven all the Wolof and Sereer rulers recognized him as their leader, and the empire was thus formed. Njaajaan was from Waalo, but he moved to Jolof to rule his new state.

The Waalo-Waalo (people of Waalo) were influenced by Njaajaan’s wise nature and patient way of regarding the world. The Jolof Empire spanned from the Gambia north to the Senegal River Valley. Parts of the legend also explain the expansion of the Wolof language and culture throughout Senegal with the exception of the Casamance region.

It is important to mention the region of the Casamance, the southern part of Senegal, located below the Gambia, which has historically been autonomous and minimally affected by aristocratic, and then, colonial rule. During the different empires, this region remained mostly untouched by outside control. This historical isolation helps explain the region’s disputes with contemporary Senegal. On many maps, there is an abrupt end to the Jolof Empire starting at the border of the Gambia and the Casamance region.

The states of the Jolof Empire split beginning around 1520, and by the mid-sixteenth century the empire had completely collapsed. The buurba Jolof (the leader of Jolof), however, did remain a key political figure until the late nineteenth century. After the fall of the Jolof Empire, Kajoor rose to be the most powerful state of the Wolof primarily due to its favorable trade location along the Atlantic coast. The empire regrouped as a Wolof state located from the southern Senegal to the Dakar region and the Seerers in the region of Saluum. Much of the fragmentation of the empire occurred due to changing economic reliance on Atlantic trade.

Wolof Kingdoms 18th Century

Map courtesy of David Robinson

It’s your turn! Match the kingdoms (and their numbers) with two characteristics (and their letters) given that are particular to the specified kingdom (i.e. dates, types of trade).

Kingdom and Characteristic Matching

 Arrival of Europeans 
Senegal is geographically in a transition zone between the Sahara, the savanna and the forest belt; therefore, inland trading routes, such as rivers and caravan routes, were the main arteries of trade in the region. Kingdoms that were able to control the trade routes between these geographic zones gained political power and influence in the region. However, the importance of this eco-political arrangement changed with the arrival of Europeans from the west, via the Atlantic Ocean, who brought with them huge trading potential for the coastal groups with whom they came into contact. By the late 19th century the trans-savanna – trans-Sahara trade routes had lost some if not most if their importance. A new eco-political system that focused on the Atlantic coast and trade with Europeans gradually replaced the traditional interior trade routes.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive and settle at the mouth of the Senegal River in the 15th century. They created a trade monopoly with the Wolof peoples by the mid-sixteenth century. The disintegration of the Jolof Empire became complete under the pressure of Portuguese trade due to a significant shift in the balance of power to the coastal Wolof kingdoms.  With heightened European presence in West Africa Senegambia began a new involvement in Atlantic oriented economics that became the basis of the decline of the Jolof Empire. The Portuguese constructed a chapel on the “ile de Palma,” more recently known as Goree Island. It was renamed when the Dutch took over the island in 1617. This small island off the coast of Dakar became the infamous holding place for many slaves who were forcibly shipped to the Americas in the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Dutch occupied Goree Island, the Portuguese controlled trade access at the mouth of the Cassamance River in Ziguinchor, and the French claimed St. Louis in the north. The Atlantic coast along Senegambia became a battle-ground between the competing European powers for control of commerce and trade.

The Portuguese controlled the coast until the early17th century when the Dutch challenged their monopoly. They were followed by the English, and finally the French towards the end of the 18th century. The French established a slave holding forts in St. Louis and Goree Island while the English developed their own at the mouth of the Gambia River in what they would later cordon off as a colony– The Gambia. For further review on The Atlantic Slave Trade go back to Module 7B: African History, the Era of Global Encroachment, Activity One.

In Senegal, in response to the slave trade, a local movement was initiated by marabouts (Muslim religious leaders) who sought to reunite the states of the Senegal River valley and fight against the rich and powerful ethnic groups who benefited and the Europeans who controlled the slave trade. Several Islamic movements turned into holy wars—jihads–and a revolution with the aim to recapture local legitimate (non-slave) trade, territorial control, and unifying the Muslim community.

France originally abolished the slave trade in 1794 but then reinstated it in 1805 until Napoleon once again outlawed the practice in 1815 (Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807). There did exist however, an underground slave trade from Goree that continued until the end of the 1840’s when France decided to end slavery in all of its colonial territories.

Towards the end of the 1800’s, Al Hajj Umar Tal a follower of the Tijaaniyyia brotherhood, and other leaders waged a holy war against the aristocrats and colonial leaders. He began by taking the kingdom of Tamba near the Gambia River. From there he continued with his army to confront the French, the aristocrats, several noble groups, at his birthplace of the Futa Tooro in the North of Senegal. With his conquest he gained control of a large area of northern Senegal for several years at the end of the 19th century.

Internal conflict between different states in Senegambia led to the Wolof states’ demise between 1885 and 1895 and to the beginning of French control and the establishment of the Federation of French West Africa at the end of the decade. The Federation of French West Africa comprised much of West Africa. The Federation was headed by a governor-general whose administration was located in Senegal; making Senegal and especially Dakar and Goree Island the significant axis of French colonial power in West Africa. The rivalry over control of the Gambia ended with Britain as the colonial ruler and Senegal being controlled by France.

Francophone West Africa

French West Africa Map

Up to and during the colonial period there were some important and often tense religious developments in the country. After Umar Tal’s holy wars and subsequent attempts by his followers to take on the French, there was a wide-spread shift to Sufi brotherhoods that focused not on waging war but rather on the development and maintenance of healthy and stable communities influenced by a more self reflective practice of Islam. Sufism is known as the mystical Islam, meaning, to many, the internalization of the faith, or turning their heart and spiritual mind to Islam. Sufi faith and practice can be found in both the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam and within the Sufi order there also exists several branches. This is the case in Senegal.

Sufi Orders
There are three main Sufi orders in Senegal, each with interesting and influential roles in the country and regions’ history. The Qadiriyyah order is one of the oldest orders in Senegal and the Islamic world. It is also present in south East Asia, Turkey, East and West Africa, and had its origins in Baghdad. Mactar-al-Kabir Kunta brought the order to Senegal from Timbuktu in Mali and one of his disciples settled in Kajoor in the north of Senegal. Subsequently, several rival branches settled in different areas such as Thies and Louga and developed their own communities with their respective marabouts and saints. Later they began moving from these previously established areas to Dakar and the Casamance region below the Gambia. It remains the smallest brotherhood branch in Senegal, however, boasting ties between Senegal and its middle eastern roots.

The Tijaniyya order was formed in Algeria in Northern Africa by Ahmed-al Tijani. It was the largest order during the 9th and 10th centuries, and remains the majority of the Sufi community in Senegal. Similar to the Qadiriyyah branch, Tijaanis encouraged their leaders to develop education centers and places of worship to establish a greater influence in the country. The Wolof Tijaan in the Kajoor and Jolof regions in the north was founded by Al Hajj Malik Sy (1855-1922). He was known for his intellect and accumulated many followers who were interested in learning from his knowledge and wisdom. He was also well traveled. His influence was mostly in Saint-Louis although he later moved to a town in Kajoor to promote education and agriculture. Tivaoune became the worshiping place of the Wolof Tijaan and Sy then founded a zawiya or religious center. Although they are a majority in Senegal, the Tijaniyya have faced internal conflicts due to opposing political positions of the sons of Malik Sy, which have arguably prevented healthy internal organization. There is also a branch of the Niass family in Kaolack that was politically active in opposition to Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of the republic.

It is important to reiterate that Islamic leaders in Senegal are extremely politically active and influential. Although the country has a well established democratic system, with democratically elected officials, the Muslim Sufi orders and their leaders have a powerful voice among candidates and current political parties.


The third order is that of the Murid tradition. It is the only homegrown order in Senegal and is the most well known outside of the country due to its economic and organizational dominance and international trade and migration. The brotherhood was founded by Amadou Bamba Mbacke, a Senegalese, in 1883. In Activity Three we will learn more about the Murid brotherhood and Amadou Bamba.

Your Turn:

For a demonstration of the different interactions of these Sufi orders as well as the Catholic population in Senegal, the town of Saint-Louis provides a good example. For a better idea, go to this website, explore, and answer a few questions. Also refer back to Unit Three: Module Fourteen; Activity Three to refresh your memory about the Religions of Africa and the spread of Islam in particular.

– Questions from the Unit

  1. How is Saint-Louis important to the history of Senegal?
  2. What are your impressions of the city of Saint-Louis?
  3. What religions and branches of religions can be found there?
  4. How did the Tijaniyya group influence the city?
  5. How does the city’s religious pluralism contribute to the city?

The Colonial Period
The period of colonization saw many conflicts, shifts in power, and a changing economy as well as developments in educational systems, language practices, as well as in other areas. The Islamic brotherhoods, along with a portion of the small Catholic minority, were constantly involved in political, administrative, and religious conflicts with the French administration. Conflicts mostly involved the subject of land, trade rights, and religion. The French managed to form alliances with certain religious leaders from each brotherhood willing to work with them as intermediaries to their disciples most of whom were small-scale farmers.

From the late 1800’s and into the mid 1900’s, France spread its control further into the heart of Senegalese society. Importantly colonialism brought the introduction of new agriculture crops, the propagation of the French language and educational structure, and the spreading of French bureaucratic and political practices. As was the case in many of the other French West African countries, the French colonial mission was to assimilate mostly urban Senegalese because they were more accessible to French influence than the rural population and the French had no desire to live in difficult areas such as the countryside. In their minds and policies, the Senegalese could become “French” if they learned the language and adopted French characteristics, thus acting more like European civilized peoples. This assimilation project aimed to civilize Africans, but in the end, even those who did abide by the new French imposed rules of behavior were never accepted by the colonialists as truly being French.

By the beginning of the 20th century France developed two separate systems of political administration in Senegal; one involved in the interior of the country and the second for the coastal region– the Four Communes. The Four Communes were an effort to civilize the encircled coastal populations of Saint Louis, Dakar, Rufisque and Goree (reference back to the maps at the beginning of the unit). Invisible lines were drawn, separating the rural inhabitants from their fellow Senegalese who lived in the four communes. The latter were given the rights of French citizenship within the communes. This unique approach granted African commune inhabitants, also known as originaires, with the same rights as French citizens. Although Senegalese living in the communes were by official policy granted access to these rights, the attainment of these rights were at times not realized.

Originaires were at once co-workers with European administrators and competitors for positions. The intentions to civilize were inherently judgmental and racist towards what the French saw as an “uncivilized” population, but as should be pointed out, these notions of being civilized or not, are cultural biases that have no factual evidence or merit. The central goals were to civilize, convert Muslims to Catholicism, and control trade, commerce and local production.

The development of the Four Communes began with the occupation of Saint-Louis, the previous capital, and Goree Island, the major slave trade port as early as 1840 in what was called the General Council. At the same time as the clandestine slave trade was ending in 1848, France instated a law bestowing French citizenship. Sixty years later, the French accepted a Senegalese representative from the communes to serve in the French National Assembly. Blaise Diagne, a well-remembered originaire, served as the first Senegalese representative in 1914. This position was similar to that of a senator in the United States congress representing the local commune in Paris the capital of the French global empire. Later, in 1880 Rufisque, now a suburb of Dakar, was granted commune status and equal rights for its population. Dakar gained similar rights in 1887, and was named the capital of Senegal in 1902, transferring administrative departments from Saint-Louis.

The special status of the Four Communes was unlike any other African colonial context. The originaires were educated under the French system and were a central component of a strong assimilatory mission, or mission civilisatrice francaise, that promised recognized administrative/civil service positions to individual Senegalese upon mastery of French language and customs. These policies distinguished a very sharp contrast between the Senegalese of the interior (and indeed, Africans in any of the other French colonies) and of the communes. This helps explain why even up until today while one can hear impeccably spoken French throughout Dakar, in the interior of Senegal, the French language is sparsely spoken. In contrast to the Communes, in the interior no attempt was made at encouraging assimilation; the French colonial regime governed the interior, indirectly through intermediaries such as local aristocrats or marabouts. Controversially, the marabout intermediaries became the landlords of much of the rural land and shared the produced profits with the French. The French were extremely reluctant themselves to go into the rural areas and used the marabouts as intermediaries to enforce colonial policy on the majority of the population. Thus, began a long history of political, territorial, and national influence by marabouts.

Your Turn:

Looking back at the Unit on Colonialism and Unit Two: Studying Africa Through the Social Studies, Module 7B: African History, the Era of Global Encroachment, Activity Two: Colonial Exploration and Conquest in Africa-Explore what kind of rule do you think the French constructed in Senegal: Economic Companies; Direct Rule; Indirect Rule; Settler Rule? Write down in your journal what your thoughts are about this particular type of colonial rule. Give examples from the French colonial situation in Senegal that support your choice. Do you think it helped or hurt the Senegalese population?

Peanut and Sorghum Production Map

The peanut (arachide) and sorghum (gomme) production in the Senegal-Mauritanian zone. Map courtesy of David Robinson

The resistance to French colonial policy created some of Senegal’s most revered national heroes, such as Lat Dior Diop (in Wolof, Lat Joor Joop) and Albury Penda Njeme. Lat Dior, the dammel (or king) of Kajoor and groups of non-Muslims (ceddo) continuously tried to regain control of the region of Kajoor from the French. He became Muslim in 1861 and spent his life leading rebellions to French control. Dior also protested the construction of a railroad from Dakar to Saint Louis. The promoters of the railroad felt it would benefit French imperialism by profiting from the peanut production that lay close to the railroad line. Both these men are considered as national heroes to the Senegalese for their efforts and bravery in the cause of Senegalese freedom and resistance to colonialism, even though they were not successful in stemming French control in the 19th century. In 1885 the railroad line was officially opened and Lat Dior Diop was killed, symbolizing the beginning of French colonialism in the interior.

Colonialism initiated significant social, economic and political change in Senegal. Certain Senegalese communities were granted French citizenship by adopting French bureaucratic, cultural, and political practices, others would remain outsiders. French African citizens became a part of French military operations during conflicts in Morocco and ultimately in both World War I and World War II. In fact, Africans (from throughout West Africa) made up more than half of the French army by the end of World War II. The Tirailleurs Senegalais, as they were known (Senegalese soldiers), comprised mostly of Senegalese French citizens as well as other African groups were an important aspect of the French army force during World War I and II. France became increasingly desperate for able-bodied soldiers to fight for their army and therefore heavily recruited in West Africa, and in some ways bribed Senegalese and other French West African subjects to support the French cause. Here is a chronological look at the Tirailleurs involvement.

1857 General Faidherbe founds the Tirailleurs
1857-1905 Tirailleurs army consisted of slaves bought from African masters
1910 Charles Mangin a Frenchman, wrote a book La Force Noire which contributed to France’s desire to recruit more Africans for duty. He recounted that Africans were less able to feel pain and that their culture made them ideal for military service.
1912 France institutes a draft (obligatory service for selected men)
1914 There is major drought and famine all across French West Africa and 14,000 Tirailleurs Senegalais
1915 30,000 African troops in Europe, all men of 18+ were asked to serve and volunteers were rewarded monetarily
1916 51,000 more soldiers
1917 120,000 African troops fighting for the French
1918 Tirailleurs troops fought with the American troops in France. France promised health and family benefits to volunteers
1940 Many Tirailleurs troops were killed in Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Germany
1944 Tirailleurs held in a post POW camp called Thiaroye in Senegal, protested French mistreatment and refusal to pay dues, turned bloody and many lives were lost

Troops Troops 2

The Casamance
The Casamance region, particularly the Ziguinchor district, of Senegal, home to the Jola ethnic group, provides an example of a territory, and a people, who were never fully integrated into the colonial state leaving a potentially dangerous legacy to the post-independence Senegalese state. The Jola, and its various sub-ethnic groups, had a very different colonial experience due primarily to its geographical location, being separated from northern Senegal by the Gambia. This geographic isolation resulted in the region being marginalized by French during the colonial era, and the Senegalese political elite after independence. The region resisted the French occupation for a longer period than other regions in Senegal. In fact, it was not until the late 1880’s when rubber found in the Casamance that the area became of interest to the French who became more persistent in their colonization efforts in the region.

Jola groups were able to mobilize against occupation of the region until the beginning of World War I, decades after the beginning of French colonial control in the north. This ethnic group is unlike the caste structured groups in the north such as the Wolof and Pulaar, instead they are fragmented into smaller groups that are often hostile to one another but are often unified for the common goal of a “Jola Independence” from outside influence and control.

Jola people have historically resisted Islam and Christianity, and although there are some who have converted to Islam, it is practiced with an infusion of local traditional religious beliefs and practices. Rice cultivation is the main food crop produced along with various vegetable crops in the region. Migration has played a large part in dispersion of Jola populations as well as close relations to Mandika groups in neighboring countries. Mandinka migration, which originated in contemporary Guinea , through the Casamance either subsumed much of Jola culture, or forced them to different locations. Due to several factors, since the colonial period, the Jola and its political party, Mouvements des Forces Democratiques de la Casamance (MFDC), created to oppose colonial rule, has occasionally spurred violent attacks on the colonial, and now Senegalese, administrations. There are differing controversial opinions to the nature and goals of these conflicts.

Your turn:

The Jola and Casamance conflicts plays an important and yet ambiguous role in Senegalese history and current politics. There are such diverse opinions and theories about the politics of the conflicts and the nature of the Jola desire for independence from the Republic of Senegal that it is crucial to consider all sides of the debate. Your task is to read a few articles about the conflicts and form your own educated opinion. This is an exercise in trying to see all sides of an argument, which is imperative to a better understanding of Africa and its position in the world today.

Here are a few selected websites from diverse sources with varying opinions. Look through at least three and answer the following questions.

Violence and the war of words: ethnicity v. nationalism in the Casamance

Since 1982 the Mouvement des forces democratique casamancais has been fighting for the independence of the Casamance region of Senegal. In 1989, when the Mouvement initiated a sustained military campaign, Senegal’s official and independent press began to provide intensive coverage of its activities and objectives. This article documents the arguments for and against Casamancais independence as documented by Senegal’s press in the year following the resurgence of this conflict. The Mouvement’s leadership has consistently maintained that its efforts to win independence for the Casamance are legitimate because France created the Casamance. The French, it argues, never intended the Casamance to be administratively incorporated into Senegal. Conversely, those opposed to the Mouvement have attempted to delegitimise its activities by claiming that it represents the interests of the Jola, just one of the Casamance’s many ethnic groups. It is argued that the Senegalese government and other opponents of the Mouvement have attempted to label the independence movement an ethnic movement because of a distinction in African political ideology between nationalism and ethnicity. According to this ideology, nationalism, and other legitimate forms of political mobilization, should represent a plural constituency. Those that represent the narrow interests of a single ethnic group are not considered legitimate.



  • What do you think created the conflicts between the MFDC and the French and later Senegalese administration?
  • What are some of the differences in accounts of the Casamance history and beginnings of tensions between the Casamance region and French and Senegalese administrations?
  • Do you feel each party is justified in both its demands and actions? Explain.
  • How do you think these conflicts affect the country today?

The Road to Independence 
After World War II nationalist political groups were formed began gaining influence in Senegal. Within the four communes, Lamine Gueye a politician, first the mayor of Saint-Louis in 1920, was elected, along with Leopold Sédar Senghor, to the French National Assembly in 1945. In 1946 Gueye proposed a bill which if enacted would require France to give all Senegalese the same rights as French citizens to vote for their French National Assembly representative as well as for all political positions in Senegal. The Bill was adopted. He also established the SFIO (Section Francaise de l’Internationale Ouvriere) political party that was in competition with Senghor and Mamadou Dia’s BDS party (Bloc Democratique Senegalais) which represented the rural peripheries.

The population of the four communes voted for the SFIO and those in the outlining rural areas voted for BDS, which had used religious leaders and a rural foucused campaign. This political battle went on for a decade, between 1948-1958. On the eve of independence, which would take place in 1960, the two parties joined forces and constituted the new socialist party. Together they also formed the Mali Federation as a working collaboration with Mali to initiate a strong West African group, however the Federation crumbled shortly thereafter. As a result of this broken union, Senegal and Mali became separate independent states. Senegal’s independence from France was April 4th, 1960., Senghor became the first president of the independent republic and would remain the country’s democratically elected leader for twenty years. Lamine Gueye became the president of the National Assembly and Mamadou Dia was appointed as the First Prime Minister.

Leopold Sedar Senghor and Mamadou Dia

Leopold Sedar Senghor and Mamadou Dia in front of the National Assembly in Dakar – April 4th 1960

Not a great deal changed during the years after independence under Senghor. Economic dependence on France as well as standard political practices reflected that of the colonial era. Senghor’s long history with France demonstrated a desire to at once distance Senegal from France while at the same time maintain a good working relationship. In 1962 Senghor and Dia were caught up in an intense conflict that ended with Dia’s forced resignation due to allegations that he was planning to remove Senghor from the presidency. Dia was imprisoned until 1974. History is always controversial, however, many observers question whether Dia actually planned an attack on the presidency or whether Senghor simply wanted him out of the way.

Dia, in many Senegalese’s eyes, was the real socialist of the time. His policies intended to free rural peasants from the control of marabout landlords who the French administration had favored during colonization—a relationship with the state that was continued by Senghor who also benefited from their political support. Dia was accused of wanting to turn the secular state into an Islamic state. Even after his release from prison in 1974, he continued to write about religious expression and meaning, as well as critique politicians for leading the country into deeper poverty.

Although many Senegalese were not happy with Senghor’s policies and politics, he was revered, then as now, as a promoter of the arts and black unification. He was also championed as teaching many Senegalese to have a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness. In 1966 under his guidance as well as that of Alioune Diop, the World Festival of Black Arts was first presented in Dakar. This festival still celebrates the art of the African Diaspora as well as the music, dance, paintings, sculptures of Africa has become a national treasure, and is always opened with a speech from the Senegalese President.

Some issues that arose during Senghor’s time in office included student strikes and some violent protests in response to economic stagnation. In 1968 students at Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar went on strike, followed by trade unions demonstrating solidarity with the students. They were striking against the administration of Senghor, in opposition to its close dealings with France and a perceived abuse of state power. Police became involved and one student was killed and 900 were arrested in what was a negative mark on an otherwise peaceful nation. These events and other criticisms of harsh state control, along with Senghor’s long history with the former colonial power France, have complicated his legacy a poet and father of African identity. In 1970 Abdou Diouf became Senghor’s first prime minister after the ousting of Mamadou Dia in 1962. During the next two decades there was also increasing unrest around environmental issues in the countryside leading farmers and agriculturalists to express displeasure with the government.

In 1980, after twenty years of presidency, Mr. Senghor stepped down by his own will into retirement. His example was one of the first, and rare occasions, of voluntarily leaving the presidency among African presidents. Senghor’s protégé Abdou Diouf took over until being officially elected as president in his own right in 1983. In the interim period Diouf undertook some restructuring of the political system, most importantly reinstating the multiparty system, allowing several parties to re-form and represent their constituencies. The election was held and Diouf won over both Mamadou Dia, now out of prison, and Abdoulaye Wade, who would become the third president of Senegal in 2000.

Abdou Diouf

Abdou Diouf

Diouf, born in 1935 is of the majority Wolof ethnicity and of Muslim faith. Much like Senghor he believed in solving problems through inter-faith discussions, including both Christians and Muslims. Here are some of the events of Diouf’s presidency:

      • 1981-1982 Formed a confederation, Senegambia to increase collaboration with the Gambia
      • 1986 Diouf began a campaign against HIV-AIDS involving schools and religious leaders to promote safe-sex marriages and also required prostitutes to become registered and get AIDS, and other disease, testing regularly. This proactive policy resulted in Senegal developing a rate of HIV-AIDS infection of lower than two percent, much lower than most other African countries which were greatly affected by the disease
      • 1985-1986 Served as chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in which he addressed economic issues in Africa; Diouf was also named president of the Permanent Inter-State Committee on Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) that took place in Geneva, Switzerland
      • Increasing drought and desertification in the rural areas and mass rural migrations to the cities. Dakar, the capital city, doubled in size over the next decade
      • 1989 A small war between Senegal and neighboring Mauritania; and the dismantling of the Senegambia confederation; the set-setal movement begins with an aim to not only clean up trash and cityscapes but also political corruption and greed. Senegal begins a long and damaging relationship with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Program receiving $30 million in international loans to boost the economy. Diouf was criticized, and still is, for indebting Senegal to the international community by accepting these loans without enough deliberation or thought.
      • 2000 Abdou Diouf was defeated by Abdoulaye Wade and concedes the presidency.

Upon retirement, Diouf returned to the duties of a civil servant much like his earlier years as a young politician. He has served as Secretary General of La Francophonie that represents French-speaking peoples all over the world. As part of his civic engagement activities, Diouf is a member of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation, celebrating the life and message of peace through dialogue of the assassinated under-secretary general of the United Nations who was killed in Baghdad during the early stages of the Iraq war.

Abdoulaye Wade

Abdoulaye Wade

In 2000 Abdoulaye Wade, part of the PDS (Parti Démocratique Sénégalais), defeated Abdou Diouf after their third meeting of elections and Wade’s fifth run for presidency. Later in 2001 Wade appointed Mame Madior Boye as Senegal’s first female prime minister. Before his presidency Wade was schooled in France in economics and law. He was the dean of economics and law at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar. One year after his election in 2001 Wade changed the presidential term limit to two terms of four years each. This has been controversial because although his presidency was only a year old when he changed the law, many insist that he is only granted two terms, not three as he advocates. He was re-elected in 2007.

In 2008, Wade changed back to the previous system of seven -year terms. During his presidency he met much criticism for failing to initiate substantive policies to deal with increasing poverty, economic instability, and for what many call “brain-drain” (the migration of educated Senegalese to France or other countries). He was unfavorably viewed by Senegalese and was seen as preoccupied with the image of Senegal rather than the reality of its population. Although Wade opposed France’s immigration laws favoring what the French president Nicolas Sarkozy calls “selective immigration” which calls for mostly doctors and professionals, many were unsure if he was in fact against it. Many of Wade’s opponents and strong critics feel that he spent more of his time acting as an international diplomat than working on issues in Senegal.

Wade was strongly involved in the African Union, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), and similar organizations dealing with Pan-African (Africans worldwide) issues. He improved many of the transportation routes in the capital.

Macky Sall was elected as the fourth President of Senegal in April, 2012.

It’s Your Turn!

Look back over the political leaders in Senegal. All of them have had a great deal of celebrated successes as well as perceived failures. They are both praised and critiqued for some of their policies and ideologies. What are two events for which Senghor, Dia, Diouf, and Wade are praised, and two events for which they are criticized?

If you would like to see what the news looks like in Senegal visit the site below. It will provide several newspapers in French and English. Take a look!

Go on to Activity Three or select from one of the other activities in this module