Senegal History

Senegal (country, Africa)

Senegal (sĕnĬgôl´, sĕn´Ĭgôl), officially Republic of Senegal, republic (2015 est. pop. 13,975,000), 76,124 sq mi (197,161 sq km), W Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, by Mauritania in the north, by Mali in the east, and by Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in the south. The Republic of The Gambia is an enclave in the southwest. The capital and largest city of Senegal is Dakar.


Most of the country is low-lying, with a maximum altitude of c.200 ft (60 m). However, the southeast, which forms a small part of the Fouta Djallon region, rises to c.1,400 ft (430 m). Senegal's coast (c.250 mi/400 km long) is sandy from Saint-Louis to Dakar, situated near the tip of the Cape Verde peninsula, and is swampy or muddy south of Dakar. The country is mostly covered with savanna, which becomes semidesert in the Sahel region of the north and northeast; the southwest is forested. The chief rivers of the country are the Senegal (which forms the boundary with Mauritania), the Falémé, the Gambia (Fr. Gambie), and the Casamance. Lake Guiers is located in the north. In addition to Dakar, other cities include Diourbel, Kaolack, Louga, M'Bour, Rufisque, Saint-Louis, Thiès, Touba, and Ziguinchor.


The chief ethnic groups are the Wolof, Fulani, Serer, Diola, Malinke, Soninke, and Tukolor. There are small numbers of Berbers, Europeans (mostly French), and Lebanese. French is the country's official language, and each ethnic group speaks its own language. More than 90% of the people are Muslim, belonging to one of four Sufi brotherhoods. The rest are either Christian or followers of traditional religious beliefs.


Senegal is primarily an agricultural country, but industry in the cities, especially Dakar, is growing. The principal food crops are millet, corn, sorghum, rice, and vegetables. Peanuts are the chief cash crop and the country's main agricultural export; they are grown primarily on small farms in the region between the Siné and Saloum rivers near Kaolack and Diourbel. Cotton is also grown and there is a sizable coastal fishing industry. Large numbers of cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep, and goats are raised, although intermittent drought conditions can reduce their population. The principal minerals extracted are phosphate rock, high-grade iron ore, limestone, and gold. Offshore petroleum deposits are being explored.

Industries include peanut and fish processing, fertilizer production, petroleum refining, and ship construction and repair. Tourism and information technology are growing sectors of the economy. The west-central part of Senegal, which includes Saint-Louis, Louga, Dakar, Thiès, and Kaolack, is well served by railroads and major highways; a rail line runs from Dakar to Mali. Dakar is the country's leading port and also has an international airport. The chief imports are foodstuffs (especially rice), machinery, transportation equipment, and crude petroleum; the main exports (in addition to peanuts and peanut products) are processed fish, petroleum products, calcium phosphate, and cotton. France is by far Senegal's leading trade partner; Mali, India, and Nigeria also carry on a considerable trade with the country.


Senegal is governed under the constitution of 2001 as amended. The president, who is the head of state, is directly elected to a seven-year term (five-year from 2019) and is eligible for a second term. The prime minister, who is the head of government, is appointed by the president. The unicameral parliament consists of the 150-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected for five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into eleven regions.


Early History

The Tukolor settled in the Senegal River valley in the 9th cent., and during the period from the 10th to 14th cent. their strong state of Tekrur dominated the valley. The Tukolor were converted to Islam and in the mid-11th cent. a group of them participated in establishing the Almoravid state, centered in Morocco. In the 14th cent. the Mali empire expanded westward from the region of the upper Niger River and conquered Tekrur. In the 15th cent. the Wolof established the Jolof empire in the region between the Senegal and the Siné rivers. Jolof was made up of a number of states (including Wolof, Cayor, Baol, and Walo); internal rivalries led to its breakup in the 17th cent.


In 1444–45, Portuguese explorers reached the mouth of the Senegal River; it and the Gambia River were used as routes to the interior. Trading stations were established at the mouths of the Senegal and Casamance rivers and on Gorée Island and at Rufisque, both located near present-day Dakar. In the 17th cent. the Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch and the French.

The French established a post at the mouth of the Senegal in 1638 and in 1659 founded Saint-Louis on an island there. In 1677, the French captured Gorée from the Dutch, and it was for a time the main French naval base in W Africa. André Brüe, who was director of the Royal Company of Senegal from 1697 to 1720, extended French influence far into the interior, increased the export of slaves, ivory, and gum arabic, and encouraged with little success the cultivation of cotton and cacao. Later the French companies active in Senegal had competition from Fulani and Mande merchants.

During the Seven Years War (1756–63), Great Britain captured all the French posts in Senegal, returning only Gorée in 1763, and joined them with its holdings along the Gambia River to form the short-lived colony of Senegambia, Britain's first colony in Africa. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), France regained its posts but surrendered Gorée to Britain under the Treaty of Paris (1783). During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain again captured France's holdings in Senegal, but they were returned in 1815. At this time, the French presence was limited to Saint-Louis, Gorée, and Rufisque, and during the first half of the 19th cent. there was little contact with the interior, whose trade was oriented to the north and east. As part of a French policy of assimilation, inhabitants of Saint-Louis and Gorée elected a deputy to the national assembly in Paris from 1848 to 1852 and (joined by the inhabitants of Rufisque and Dakar) from 1871 to independence in 1960.

During the period from 1854 to 1865 (except for 1862), Capt. Louis Faidherbe was governor of Senegal, and he extended French influence up the Senegal and along the Casamance and conquered Walo and Cayor. Faidherbe established schools for the Africans and halted the westward expansion of al-Hajj Umar, the Tukolor leader of the Tijaniyya brotherhood, who waged a large-scale holy war from a base in what is now Guinea beginning in the early 1850s. In 1895, Senegal was made a French colony, with its capital at Saint-Louis; it was part of French West Africa, headquartered from 1902 at Dakar.

Under the French, Senegal's trade was reoriented toward the coast, its output of peanuts increased dramatically, and railroads were built. During World War II, Senegal was aligned with the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1942 but then joined the Free French. In 1946, Senegal, together with the rest of French West Africa, became part of the French Union, and French citizenship was extended to all Senegalese. Politics in Senegal were led by its two deputies in the French national assembly, Lamine Gueye, whose base was in the coastal cities, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, whose political strength was derived from the rural areas of the interior. In 1948, Senghor founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc, which dominated politics in Senegal in the 1950s. In 1956, a national assembly was set up in Senegal.

Independence and Modern Senegal

In late 1958, after Charles de Gaulle had come to power in France, Senegal became an autonomous republic within the French Community. In Jan., 1959, Senegal joined with the Sudanese Republic (the former French Sudan, now Mali) to form the Mali Federation, which became independent in June, 1960. On Aug. 20, 1960, Senegal withdrew from the federation, becoming an independent state within the French Community. At the time of independence, power was fairly evenly divided between the country's president, Léopold Senghor, and its prime minister, Mamadou Dia. In Dec., 1962, Dia staged an unsuccessful coup; he was arrested, and early in 1963 a new constitution was promulgated giving the president much additional power.

In 1966 the Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), headed by Senghor, became the country's only political party, and he was reelected overwhelmingly in 1968 and 1973. From the mid-1960s, however, there was considerable unrest in the country, caused by dissatisfaction with the growing concentration of power in Senghor's hands and by a declining economic situation resulting from lower world prices for peanuts and reduced aid from France. The economic situation was worsened by a long-term drought in the Sahel region of N Senegal that lasted from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s. Major demonstrations and strikes became an almost annual occurrence and were particularly disruptive in 1968, 1971, and 1973.

Senghor was a leading force in establishing (1974) the West African Economic Community, which linked six former French territories. Throughout the 1970s, Senghor continued to consolidate power in the presidency and strengthened relations with the country's Muslim leadership. In 1978, the government mandated a three-party system based on official ideological categories; a fourth party was legalized in 1979. Despite the institution of a system that effectively banned Senghor's opponents from the political process, opposition from unofficial political organizations grew steadily.

In 1981, Senghor, who remained head of the Socialist party (SP), yielded the presidency to Abdou Diouf. After a successful Senegalese intervention in a coup attempt in The Gambia, both countries officially proclaimed their union in a Senegambian confederation. Each nation was to maintain its sovereignty while consolidating their defense, economies, and foreign relations.

In response to mounting criticism of his regime, Diouf abolished government limits on the number of political parties. Deteriorating economic conditions led the government to adopt unpopular austerity measures, causing unrest in both rural and urban areas. The government subsequently strengthened the police force and restored some restrictions on political activity.

The elections of 1988, in which Diouf was reelected amid charges of fraud, took a violent turn, leading the regime to ban all public meetings. Two diplomatic crises arose in 1989: a maritime border dispute with Guinea-Bissau (later resolved by the International Court of Justice in favor of Senegal) and a violent dispute with Mauritania that evolved from a conflict over grazing rights in S Mauritania. Some 40,000 Senegalese workers and some 65,000 black Mauritanians were driven or fled from Mauritania for Senegal. In the same year, the confederation with The Gambia was dissolved.

Diouf was again elected in 1993. Legislative elections held in 1998 were won by the SP, as were elections for the newly created senate in 1999. Opposition parties boycotted the senate election. In the presidential elections in early 2000, however, Abdoulaye Wade of the Senegalese Democratic party defeated Diouf after a runoff; Wade's election ended nearly 40 years of Socialist rule in Senegal. In Jan., 2001, a new constitution was adopted, establishing a unicameral parliament and reducing the president's term to five years.

Casamance, an undeveloped region south of Gambia and centered on the Casamance River, has been the scene of a violent separatist movement since the 1980s. An agreement with the rebels there was signed in Mar., 2001, but the accord failed to end the fighting. In April, a coalition supporting President Wade won a majority in the national assembly. In Dec., 2004, a new cease-fire accord was signed with the Casamance rebels, but not all rebel factions supported the pact. The fighting there continued; in Aug., 2006, the government launched a significant new offensive against the rebels who had not signed the peace pact.

Wade was reelected in Feb., 2007, in an election African observers termed free and fair, but opposition parties accused the government of fraud. Wade's coalition won an overwhelming majority in the national assembly elections in June, 2007; the opposition largely boycotted that vote and the August one for senate seats. A proposed constitutional amendment to create a vice presidency, which many believed was designed to enable Wade's son to succeed him, led to violent protests in June, 2011, and it was not adopted. Wade's bid for a third presidential term also alienated former supporters, and in Mar., 2012, he lost the presidential runoff to Macky Sall, his former prime minister and the Alliance for the Republic candidate.

In July, 2012, Sall's United in Hope coalition won an overwhelming majority in the assembly elections. In August, following severer than normal flooding during the rainy season, Sall called for the country's largely appointed Senate to be abolished and for the money saved to be used toward aiding flood victims and preventing future flooding. The move was criticized as an attempt to weaken the opposition (most senators supported Sall's predecessor), but the change was approved in September. A 2016 referendum approved shortening the presidential term from seven to five years, as it had originally been under the 2001 constitution. In the July, 2017, parliamentary elections the president's coalition easily won a majority of the seats.


See L. C. Behrman, Muslim Brotherhoods and Politics in Senegal (1970); G. W. Johnson, The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal: The Struggle for Power in the Four Communes, 1900–1920 (1971); D. B. C. O'Brien, The Mourides of Senegal (1971); W. A. Skurnik, The Foreign Policy of Senegal (1972); L. G. Colvin, Historical Dictionary of Senegal (1981); R. Fatton, Jr., The Making of a Liberal Democracy: Senegal's Passive Revolution, 1975–1985 (1987); C. L. Delgado et al., The Political Economy of Senegal under Structural Adjustment (1991).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Senegal History: Selected full-text books and articles

Five Elections in Africa By W. J. M. Mackenzie; Kenneth Robinson Clarendon Press, 1960
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "Senegal: The Elections to theTerritorial Assembly, March 1957"
Democracy in Translation: Understanding Politics in an Unfamiliar Culture By Frederic C. Schaffer Cornell University Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Democracy and Demokaraasi in Senegal"
Double Impact: France and Africa in the Age of Imperialism By G. Wesley Johnson Greenwood Press, 1985
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "African Influence on French Colonial Railroads in Senegal"
The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530-1880 By William B. Cohen Indiana University Press, 1980
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Three Patterns of Interaction: West Indies, France, and Senegal"
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