On April 4, 2020, Radio France Internationale broadcast literature professor and critic Boniface Mongo Mboussa’s portrait of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president (1960-1980). The event was Senegal’s 60th anniversary of independence and the message was clear: “Senghor ruled his country as a teacher, with method and organizational spirit. During the school season, he was president in Senegal; in summer, he was a poet in Normandy.” In short, Mboussa explains that Senghor’s policy and poetry were inseparable because, “poet-president, [he] was not one without the other.”
This narrative is dangerous because it implicitly praises “he whose pen mattered more than his sword.” 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.
Born in Joal in 1906, Senghor left Senegal for the first time at the age of 22. While in Paris in the late 1920s, he started frequenting black literary circles. In the columns of the journal L’Étudiant Noir, alongside writers like Aimé Césaire and Léon-Gontran Damas, he expressed his desire to carry “a cultural movement whose goal is the black man, whose research instruments are Western reason and the Negro soul; because it takes reason and intuition.” Senghor continued his studies as the Négritude movement developed, becoming professor of classical studies in 1935. According to his former collaborator Roland Colin, his own négritude was more of an ideal than a reality. Senghor’s identity had been confiscated from an early age at a mission school, and he sought, for the remainder of his life, to reclaim it. Colin explains:
From the age of seven until the end of his life, Senghor was a man struggling with contradictions, with intimate sensitivities which led him to projects that he could not afford to implement in his personal life to the extent of his aspirations.
At the end of the Second World War, Senghor joined the Monnerville Commission, responsible for ensuring the new representation in the French Constituent Assembly of territories under colonial occupation. The following year, he joined the ranks of the French Section of the Workers’ International sitting, alongside Lamine Guèye, as representative of Senegal and Mauritania. In 1948, with Mamadou Dia and Ibrahima Seydou N’daw, Senghor participated in the creation of the Senegalese Democratic Bloc, the precursor of the UPS.
However, Senghor never fully positioned himself outside of the colonial framework. Aimé Césaire said of him that he “knew the French would leave one day; he just took his time. At heart, he loved them.” Honoring the hundreds of innocent African soldiers killed by the French army at the Thiaroye military camp on December 1, 1944, Senghor expresses his regret of a France “forgetful of its mission of yesterday” in his poem “Tyaroye.” African literature professor and literary critic Lilyan Kesteloot argues that, through these lines, he “admits that [France] still represents for him an ideal of justice, honor, and loyalty to its commitment.” In that same poetry collection Hosties Noires (1948), Senghor indeed reaffirms his attachment to the French Republic by passionately praising Charles de Gaulle and Félix Éboué, two figures who helped lead resistance to German occupation.
When de Gaulle became France’s President, Senghor was torn. The new institutional framework he advocated for was set to implement relative autonomy to colonies in Africa while maintaining them under French rule in community. Seeking a common position, several African political platforms met in Cotonou in July 1958. The UPS sent a delegation and agreed on voting “no” to the upcoming referendum on maintaining French rule. It was a matter of time, however, before Senghor expressed his reservations, after a promise he had made to the French government. “Yes, independence, of course, nobody can give that up, but let’s take some time,” he argued. “How long?” his comrade Dia asked, surprised at his sudden change of position. “Twenty years!” Senghor retorted before the two agreed on a four-year timeline.
The agreements for the “transfer of powers” from France to the Mali Federation were signed on April 4, 1960, and implemented on June 20. Two months in, internal divisions shattered the union. Senegal established a two-headed parliamentary system. While Senghor enjoyed the prestige of being the first President of the newly independent Republic, Dia presided over the Council of Ministers and was responsible for implementing national policies. Quickly, tension grew between the two.
Since independence, Dia had been calling for decentralizing public administration and empowering peasant communities. A faction within the UPS composed of sympathizers to Senghor decided to table a vote of no confidence against Dia’s government, whose policy was deemed too radical. Provided that it was the only recognized political authority at the time, every decision went through the ruling party. Dia, therefore, opposed a motion he deemed illegitimate. Senghor accused him of “attempting a coup” and sharply ordered his arrest in December 1962 alongside ministers Valdiodio N’diaye, Ibrahima Sarr, Alioune Tall and Joseph Mbaye. Just two weeks after the events, Senghor argued that “in an underdeveloped country, it is best to have, if not a single party, at least a unified party, a dominant party, where reality’s contradictions are confronted within the dominant party, given that the party decides.” Dia gave into Senghor’s arguments and revoked a vote of no confidence which members of the UPS had brought forward without giving room for any internal discussions. But Senghor seized this opportunity to repeal Dia’s post of President of the Council and strengthen presidential powers.
Discontent towards Senghor’s administration escalated with time. In 1968, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements threatened governments around the world and the University of Dakar concentrated frustration in Senegal. Their country was a “neo-colony,” students argued, and Senghor a “valet of French imperialism.” Army raids on the campus resulted in at least one death and hundreds of wounded. Alongside trade unionists, many students were arrested and deported to military camps. Not only did Senghor call upon French troops for support in crushing the rebellion, he also regularly corresponded with the French ambassador to Senegal on the situation’s developments. At the height of the crisis, the president even suggested that the head of Senegal’s army, General Jean-Alfred Diallo, take power if he wished.
By February 1971, Senghor’s embrace of France seemed to reach its peak with the state visit of French President Georges Pompidou, a close friend and former classmate. A few weeks prior, a group of young radical activists set fire to the French cultural center in Dakar. To them, Senegal’s reception of the French President was an open provocation, emblematic of the enduring remnants of colonialism. During the visit, they attempted to charge the presidential motorcade but were arrested.
Upon learning about his brothers’ implication in the failed attack, Senegalese activist and artist Omar Blondin Diop embarked on military training. Months of traveling led him to Syria, Algeria, and Guinea before authorities in Mali arrested him in November 1971. Imprisoned on Gorée island for “being a threat to national security,” Blondin Diop was reported dead on May 11, 1973, aged 26. The State of Senegal claimed he committed suicide, but several testimonies, including that of the case’s investigating judge, attest to a cover-up. Then interior minister Jean Collin, who vigorously maintained the myth of political prisoners’ “humane conditions of detention,” was the president’s nephew-in-law. Two years later, activists from the anti-imperialist front And Jëf (To Act Together) were arrested and severely tortured—hung upside down with their skin burned and electric shocks applied to their genitals.
President Senghor announced his resignation on December 31, 1980. After reinstating the post of Prime Minister (formerly President of the Council) in 1970, he amended Senegal’s Constitution in 1976 to ensure his heir apparent Abdou Diouf could take over after his resignation. “I told you that I wanted to make you my successor and that is why there is this article 35,” Senghor told Diouf in 1977. “I will be standing for election in February 1978 and, if I am elected, I intend to leave […]. At that moment, you will continue, assert yourself and be elected afterwards.” Shortly after, Senghor left Senegal to settle in France, where he spent the rest of his life. The transition of his chosen heir was seamless.
By the end of his presidency, the time is long past when, in his poem “Prière de Paix” (1948), Senghor praised the masses “who face […] the powerful and the torturers.” He was now the embodiment of the powerful, whose rule was the source of Senegal’s neocolonial governance. While Senghor claimed in 1963 that “opposition is a necessity, […] the dialectic of life, of history,” political parties were only legalized in Senegal in 1981, after a period of limited multi-partyism. Until then, they were either dissolved or absorbed by the ruling party.
Senegal’s independence is neither a coincidence of history, nor a generous gift granted by France. It is an ideal for which successive generations fought for, from Lamine Arfang Senghor to Valdiodio N’diaye. Independence for many meant the full emancipation from the conquest of profit through lands, bodies, and spirits, which does not dwindle with time. If indeed, as Boniface Mongo Mboussa indicates, “rigor and dignity” are the values that best characterize Léopold Sédar Senghor, then we must refuse complacency in how we remember his time in power. We must continue to uncover the buried secrets and explore the repression culture of Senegal’s history, as it continues to labor under the gaze of Western “partners.”
The hand that wrote poetry to empower was also responsible for acts of great injustice.