Revisiting Senghor-Era Senegal

At Africa Is A Country, Florian Bobin has two new pieces about Senegal during the era of its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001, in office 1960-1980). The pieces are adapted from Bobin’s articles in Research on African Political Economy.

In the first piece, Bobin discusses Senghor himself, arguing that the image of Senghor as a men of letters has drawn a veil over the harshness of his rule:

Although Senegal did not experience the same political crises as its neighbors, the mythification of “poet-president” Senghor has blurred our understanding of his political actions. Under the single-party rule of Senghor’s Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), authorities resorted to brutal methods; intimidating, arresting, imprisoning, torturing and killing dissidents. Recalling he was both a poet and a president is a matter of fact, but associating both, while refusing to recognize the authoritarianism he displayed, is historical nonsense.

The second piece discusses the intellectual and activist Omar Blondin Diop (1946-1973), Bobin connects Diop’s presumed assassination to the wider theme of Senghor’s authoritarianism:

The assassination of Omar Blondin Diop cannot be understood as an isolated incident, but as one tragic episode in a long series of tenacious acts of state-led repression in Senegal. Decolonization in Africa has often been the story of the birth of newly independent states in the 1960s. However, the persistence of foreign interests backed by national governments became a common sight in former French colonies. Well into nominal political independence, burgeoning autocracies largely stifled revolutionary prospects of emancipation from capitalism and imperialism. We don’t often hear of resistance movements in Senegal during Léopold Sédar Senghor’s rule (1960-1980) because his regime successfully marketed the country as “Africa’s democratic success story.” Yet, under the single-party rule of the Progressive Senegalese Union, authorities resorted to brutal methods; intimidating, arresting, imprisoning, torturing and killing dissidents. Omar Blondin Diop was one of them.

I’ve never really dug into the Senghor period. By the time I started doing research in Senegal in 2006, both he and even his successor Abdou Diouf were long out of power, and most of my friends and interlocutors were relatively young people with few or no memories of the Senghor period. He was often held up to me in a sort of one-dimensional way as an example of Senegalese interreligious tolerance, as the Catholic president of a Muslim-majority society. I think what Bobin is doing in these pieces is very useful – as Bobin acknowledges, Senegal’s history is different from many of its West African peers, but that doesn’t mean Senghor’s record can’t be examined critically.

Out of curiosity, I flipped back to my go-to reference on Senegal, Leonardo Villalón’s Islamic Society and State Power, to see how he characterized Senghor. Among other passages on Senghor, Villalòn makes a really interesting point in one endnote (7):

I have not read these works on Senghor. But perhaps Bobin’s work fits into a tradition of sorts – a greater willingness to criticize Senghor in Anglophone, versus Francophone, scholarly literature.

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