Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Life of a French African

The life of Léopold Sédar Senghor spanned a century of change in Africa, a century during which the colonial occupation of the continent reached it’s zenith, began to topple and ultimately fell. An award winning poet, decorated scholar, pioneer of negro cultural autonomy and liberation icon, Senghor was, as he remains, one of the towering figures of the African liberation struggle. His voice, and the very phases of his life, marked the key navigation points of the black journey towards self-determination. His influence embraced not only the political kingdoms of Africa, but perhaps more importantly the intellectual, artistic and spiritual kingdoms so long submerged under the weight of foreign cultures.

Although Senghor was not at his core a political animal, he lead independent Senegal for twenty years, doing so less as a technocrat than as a figurehead – perhaps even as a monarch, or a prince, as many historians have suggested. He was shrewd and ambitious, and although aloof and unsullied by the blood of the political trenches, he was sufficiently Machiavellian to ensure his own long term survival in the turbulent political waters of Africa, and ultimately to name his own successor. His death in 2001 punctuated the end of a century that had seen Africa evolve from utter foreign domination to full majority rule. In this context he was among the first black Africans to rule a nation state, a transition from metropolitan rule that was undertaken in Senegal without overt internal violence and with the fundamentals of democracy and rational government remaining intact throughout.

Senegal and the French Imperial System

To understand Senghor is necessary first to understand the stage upon which the main acts of his drama unfold. Senegal is not a naturally gifted country, which, some would say, was its main developmental asset. No great and easily accessible mineral wealth has been unearthed to fuel civil war, leaving an agriculture and commercial fishing dependent economy no choice but to build and retain sufficient stability for the erratic seasons to yield. Geographically the northern reaches of the nation, the immediate hinterland of the Senegal River, offers some fertility, in particular in relation to the ebb and flow of floods and alluvial deposits, but for the remainder the country is composed of semi arid savannah, with a verdant fringe touching the south as the region tilts towards the tropical reaches of the Gulf of Guinea.

Much of the long term stability of Senegal can be attributed to the importance of the territory within the structure of French colonialism in the region, and the length of time that the internal political systems enjoyed to evolve away from traditional government and towards the more standardized and democratic systems employed in Europe. The individuals who inherited power in Senegal at the point of independence, Senghor himself being key among them,  were heirs to an extraordinarily generous system of education and assimilation offered by the French to a select few. This was a philosophy not commonly applied elsewhere in Africa, and certainly not something that the British, the other major colonial power in Africa, attempted on any meaningful level at all.

The modern nation state of Senegal occupies a point at the westernmost extremity of Africa. Historically it was ideally situated to serve as a strategic staging point for early Portuguese mariners as they began to probe down the west coast of Africa during the 15th century. The mouth of the Senegal River marks one of the earliest points of European landfall in West Africa. For centuries it remained a staging point for rest and resupply before the journey south into the less hospitable expanses of Gulf of Guinea. Later, in the 17th Century, the region fell under substantive French control, and also, briefly, under British control. The first permanent settlement to be established was the Port of Saint-Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River itself. Saint-Louis in due course became the most developed and most climatically suitable French settlement in the region, a platform from which much of the onward march of French territorial expansion in Africa took place. French sub-Saharan African eventually expanded to include two vast federated blocks, these being French West Africa (Est. 1895), which comprised the territories of Senegal, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, French Sudan (later Mali), Mauritania, Niger, Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso) and Benin, and French Equatorial Africa (Est. 1910), comprising French Congo (Congo Brazzaville) and Gabon, Oubangui-Chari (Later Central African Republic), Chad and French Cameroon (after World War I). Each was governed from Paris through two Governors General, one based in Dakar and another in Brazzaville, with deputies, or Lieutenants Governor located in each territorial capital.

By the turn of the 19th century, and in the years prior to the outbreak of WWI, European domination of Africa had grown to be almost absolute. A system of ports ringed the continent, falling under the territorial control of the key European nations, with road and rail transport infrastructure, working telegraphic communications and established territorial administrations and judiciaries in place. Territorial legislatures, and executives in many cases oversaw local government, frequently yielding only matters of foreign and defense policy to their metropolitan governments. Africa had for all intents an purposes entered the modern world under the guidance of an ostensibly responsible and caring imperial structure.

It is important to note here that this philanthropic overtone of empire was the philosophy that tended to underscore much of the credo of modern imperialism – Cecil Rhodes coined the memorable term ‘philanthropy plus five percent‘. This was, however, in reality, very selectively applied, and this for many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious reason was the fact that imperial policy often did not translate into territorial practice. Theorizing politicians in the Métropole seldom saw eye to eye with colonial administrators sweating in fly blown outposts, attempting to interpret European civilization among naked savages emerging slowly from the cataclysm of the Slave Trade […a stereotype for its descriptive value please take note]. And while governors and cabinet members might have rotated among the colonies, bureaucratic staff tended to remain in position, and it was they that most often configured the practical application of metropolitan colonial policy. It also tended to be in-situ European bureaucrats who where the most racist in mindset, and therefore most resistant to black advancement through the system

The most fertile  ground for individual black African advancement during this period tended to be found in those territories with large European expatriate populations.  These were usually key administrative centers. The principal French West African administrative center at the turn of the 20th century was Dakar, capital of Senegal, where a significant European expatriate community and developed, with all the associated infrastructure of schools and churches for native education, and of course well established local bureaucracies, police forces and military formations which all tended to absorb large numbers of literate African functionaries and service/militiamen at the lower and middle level.

This was the case throughout Africa. One of few avenues of advancement open to blacks at that time were military and bureaucratic, both of which tended to limit black promotion to a blue collar or senior NCO level, which, of course, required a specifically tailored system of native education. Notwithstanding the limitations implicit in this, this was the first avenue of personal advancement open to blacks, and many took it. The result was the emergence of a fragile but growing black middle class in the main cities and towns of imperial Africa. Some colonial powers were more sympathetic and encouraging of this than others. It is also important to note that during this early phase of black/white cohabitation in Africa, European attitudes on the whole tended to be far more liberal towards native development than they would later become. Assimilation was a word used across the board in Africa to describe the ideal future relationship between black and white . This, it must be born in mind, was before the vast majority of native Africans were in any position at all to challenge white rule on the continent, which, of course, tended to render white policy planners and administrators more nurturing of the seeds of black development, before blacks became organized, educated and militant.

The French on whole approached the concept of empire with a more focused policy of Assimilation than any other imperial power on the continent. In practice it was the Portuguese that were most socially restrictive on a policy level in the colonies, but in practice far more assimilationist than any other foreign power. The British remained highly paternal and always very aloof from the native, while the French genuinely embraced the Romanesque view that metropolitan citizenship be afforded to those most deserving, through whom a genuine cross-pollination of cultures would take place that would one day fuse France and her colonies together as an unbreakable whole.

Senegal, by dint of seniority, position and climate, was the most focused area of French Africa for moral and material investment, and there were many unique aspects to the French/Senegalese relationship that were not replicated anywhere else. Th Communes for example, was one of these.

The four communes of Senegal were the main urban settlements. These centers of culture and industry enjoyed a higher emphasis on racial assimilation and integration than any other French possession in the region, possibly with the exception of Côte d’Ivoire, which also happened to be home to a large European population, but which at the same time tended to be climatically more rigorous than Senegal, and so was not a universally favored posting for French expatriates at the time.

Another interesting feature of French colonial race policy at this time was the division of rights between those blacks born in the communes, who in theory, and very often in practice, enjoyed full French citizenship, while those born outside the communes were regarded as French subjects, or French protected persons, but not qualifying for the rights associated with French citizenship. Within the communes, however, there were also divisions, but not specifically race divisions. Originaires were blacks who had been born into the communes, but who also retained substantive links to traditional life, or to animist/Islamic religious ideals, and who were severely limited access to the franchise, and certainly to French citizenship. These privileges were reserved for a very small number of high achievers in the communes who were regarded as the Évolués, or advanced, from which caste, although rarely easily, a black man could advance to very high position under the French system.

The World of Léopold Sédar Senghor

Léopold Sédar Senghor was among the majority of Senegalese born outside the communes. He therefore began life as a French subject, that which under the British system would be a British Protected Person. He was born into a wealthy indigenous urban bourgeois merchant family in the coast town of Joal. His status within the family was relatively low, being that he was the son of a junior wife, with whom he lived in the bucolic rural setting of Djilor, situated some thirty miles east of Joal. This was the home of his mother, a Muslim Fulani, who preferred to remain distant from the nominally Christian heart of the family in Joal.

Senghor’s biographical record tends to paint a picture of a weak but earnest child who displayed an early interest in both language and culture, being initially quite remote from the French expression of both that tended to dominate the communes, only later, when entering school, finding himself forced to embrace the French language, and to begin the long emersion in French society and culture that would eventually dominate his life.

This began, as it did for black youth all over Africa, in a Christian mission school, his education initially configured to better understand and disseminate the Gospels. The Catholic mission school at Ngazobil, located four miles north of Joal, offered the first opportunity for Senghor to express his unusual intelligence, and to absorb the foundations of what in due course would become a deep and enduring faith. Both of these attracted the attention of the Catholic Fathers, leading to discussion that in due course became de facto. Senghor would enter the church. This was a career somewhat above the usual fare of military and civil service, and seemed to suit the constitution and sensibilities of the now teenage Senghor.

At age seventeen Senghor entered the recently opened Libermann Seminary in Dakar, alongside fifteen other boys, mostly white. This was perhaps a serendipitous moment for a young black man to be emerging into educated culture in Africa. The year was 1918, and Europe was emerging from the horrors of WWI with many of the established institutions shaken, and a more ideologically liberal youth emerging to redefine the role of empire in a utopian future. The nurturing of black aspiration formed some part of this, corresponding with a rise in general expectations among subject peoples worldwide.

The war itself had not affected Senegal directly, although large numbers of Senegalese and other native troops from across the Empire had been recruited to the defense of France, and had been used in a variety of theaters. These soldiers saw much, and returned home with much food for thought. The net result was an increased interest in education on the part of blacks, and an increased interest in educating blacks on the part of a new generation of European colonial administrators arriving in country.

One of these was Dutch born soldier and diplomat Joost van Vollenhoven. His initial deployment to West Africa had been in 1907 as acting-Governor to both Guinea and Senegal, but in the midst of the deciding phases of WWI, he was briefly pulled off the front line, at age forty, and in the midst of a spectacular military career, in order to serve a short term as Governor-General of French West Africa.

During what amounted to less than a year at the helm of the Federation – he was returned to the Western Front within a year and killed in Battle of Reims (15 July – 6 August 1918) –  van Vollenhoven was able to enact a number of practical reforms in Senegal, both political and economic, but it was his philosophical position that defined the most radical change. He had come to believe, as had many of his generation, that the concept of assimilation – the absorption of native peoples into the French system as reconstituted Frenchmen – was fundamentally impractical. The word assimilation was replaced with association. This offered the philosophical principal that assimilation was not only impossible, but also undesirable. The slow rejection in French academic circles of assimilation as a practical policy had much to do with the development of psychology as a science, which tended to debunk the notion that all men are born with equal gifts. A corollary of this was a general loosening of the expectation among the French that blacks must abandon every aspect of their own culture in order to become French. Cultures could associate, with the best of each creating a third kind of whole, without being forced to make a choice between one or the other.

There was a dark side to this. There were those who abandoned the concept of assimilation thanks to a recognition of fundamentally incompatible cultural differences between the races. This conformed to a widespread belief in the intellectual inferiority of the black man, which imposed on the French, not a duty of amalgamation, but a duty to aid and protect the native, which also broadly precluded any real possibility of intellectual or political equality. It also somewhat liberated the French from the inconvenience of assimilation, justifying political domination as an alternative.

Whatever the underlying philosophy, the practical change in French attitude made it necessary to cultivate a local black elite with sufficient cultural investment in France to ultimately lead the masses in a manner loyal to France. In the words of van Vollenhoven himself: ‘[This elite] must evolve more and more in our environment.’

More personally to Senghor, van Vollenhoven had taken a personal interest in the education and development of a close relative of his, his sister-in-law Hélène Senghor, some five years older than Sédar, who had also been recognized as a gifted student, but who had been unable, despite the personal intervention of van Vollenhoven in the matter, to overcome resistance within the family to study abroad in Paris. It is incidental, perhaps, but Sédar spend his formative years under the roof of Hélène and his brother René Senghor, and enjoyed significant support and encouragement from the older woman in his ultimate objective to study in France.

This was useful when Senghor ran into trouble at Libermann, over, his biographers tend to agree, matters of personal disagreement with the school authorities. This seemed to suggest wilfulness, which boded ill for the supplicant life of the priesthood, leading to a rejection of his application to continue his theological education ion France.

This effectively closed the door to this first vocation, but this in fact worked in the long term to his advantage. There had certainly been a flavor of racism in the decision of the school board – the just deserts of an uppity nigger – but individual administrators could not speak for the whole, and as Dakar settled into its role as the capital city of the French African Empire, new schools, new opportunities for just that type of nigger were opening up.

In July 1922 Senghor the aptly named van Vollenhoven Lycée in Dakar, graduating six years later having won every academic prize on offer. The local school director observed that Senghor had reached, and indeed exceeded, the academic standards necessary to study in France. Obviously Senghor would go. Resistance to this opportunity did not come from within the system, however, but from within his family. And again, as had been the case with Hélène Senghor, it was a French patron, local School Director Aristide Prat, who lobbied for the award of a scholarship for Senghor to study in Paris, and then was instrumental, alongside Hélène Senghor, in overcoming resistance within the family. In due course the patriarch was persuaded, and in 1928, at aged twenty-one,  Léopold Sédar Senghor set off for Paris. Towards a new chapter in his own life, but perhaps more importantly to forge a new chapter in the life of France, of French Africa, of Africa as a whole and of the blacks races of the diaspora.

Senghor in Paris

Senghor’s arrival in Paris in 1928 could hardly have been better timed. This was the Paris of the Jazz Age, of Josephine Baker, of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, of Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, a society weighed down by growing European militancy, but also energised by a renewed philosophical and artistic vigour, of race integration, of social and sexual libertarianism and wide ranging challenges to many of the established social doctrines of the pre-war period. The perceived colour blindness of Parisian society attracted thousands of African and African American intellectuals, and of course blacks from French colonies as diverse as Madagascar, Martinique, Guyana, French Guiana and the French Caribbean.

This freedom of racial integration tended to eclipse a less obvious undercurrent of integration, the merging and intermingling of blacks from different parts of the diaspora. Many of these, like Senghor, were arriving in Paris from the colonies, taking advantage of scholarships, entering schools and universities, utilising the time and space available, and the multiple avenues of artistic expression, to begin the process of forging a specific black identity, the power of which is hard at this point in history to imagine.

Senghor’s was the first generation of black Africans to step out of the shadow of European domination, the first generation who could absorb and understand the nuances of modern life, and moreover to find in it a substance malleable enough to adapt to their specifics. By 1928 a renaissance had begun, and the rising of the black African phoenix from the embers of slavery and oppression was to sweep Senghor along on an almost predestined path, into a time and place the energy of which would burn hot and fast, arguably never again reaching the intensity that it did in those vital years prior to WWII.

Much of this elemental energy was, of course, not immediately obvious to Senghor as he arrived in Paris in the cold winter of 1928. In some personal isolation he began to attend lectures at the Sorbonne before entering the Louis le Grand Lycée, widely regarded as one of the most rigorous and celebrated secondary schools in France. He was slow to integrate, but in due course he began to make friends, and connections, among them Blaise Diagne. Diagne was by then a 56-year old veteran of French politics, having sat in the French Chamber of Deputies as the member for Senegal since 1914, and by that a highly respected establishment figure in Paris.

Diagne was the Mayor of Dakar and first black man to be elected to the French Chamber of Deputies. In this regard he was an extremely important figure in pre-independence African politics. He was a staunch advocate of assimilation, being afforded, and enjoying, the respect and financial reward that might be expected of any Frenchman in his position. It could be argued that he had become too integrated, too enamoured with life in Paris, and the benefits of his French identity. He was in fact described rather disparagingly by African American academic and writer WEB du Boise as a Frenchman who was accidentally black, and by the French establishment, more affectionately, as our blackest deputy. Diagne was in fact, if any such thing was needed, living proof of the success of the French assimilation policy. A well documented comment ascribed to Diagne states: ‘We French natives wish to remain French, since France has given us every liberty and since she has unreservedly accepted us on the same basis as her European children. None of us want to see French Africa given over exclusively to Africans.’

There may certainly have been a handful of French Africans who could claim this degree of acceptance in French society, but only a handful, and certain the We French natives hardly spoke for the masses, but among the privileged few was now to be found the young Léopold Sédar Senghor, by then deeply impressed with, and possibly even seduced by the potential of France.


By the time Senghor had graduated from Louis-le-grand, and returned to the Sorbonne to read literature in preparation for a career as a teacher, the 1920s had waned, giving way to the Great Depression of the 1930s. This trimmed away much of the superfluous gaiety of Paris, removing many of the tourists and avant-garde adventurers, but retaining many of the authentic black cultural pioneers who had been at work in metropolitan capital during the decade prior. It was these men and women, as frivolity of the 1920s evaporated, and the pink dawn of liberation began to colour the far African horizons, who found themselves increasingly concerned with the meaning of being black in the modern world.

Senghor at this point made a number of key social connections. Perhaps the most important of these was with Aimé Césaire, a gifted black student from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and Léon- Damas, also a student, but originating from French Guiana. In Senghor both men were meeting their first authentic African black man who was their intellectual equal – and through these two Senghor was introduced into the diverse black communities of Paris, in particular the West Indian community, influential among whom were the Nardal Sisters, Jane, Paulette and Andreé, each wealthy, well connected, artistic and black.

It was through these new social connections that Senghor not only heard about the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement underway in the United States, but through the Nardal sisters he also began to meet and mingle with influential African Americans. At this time the first journal of black expression in Paris to find a wide audience, the short lived La revue du Monde Noir (The Review of the Black World), appeared in circulation. This publication, through the underlying theme that all blacks, no matter what their cultural origins, experienced a common interest, hoped to generate a worldwide black consciousness. Senghor was deeply affected by Alain Locke’s 1925 New Negro anthology, which in 1932 he read in the French translation, and which added to the compulsion he was himself feeling at that time to write. Alain Locke, incidentally, a Harvard Graduate and the first ever black Oxford Rhodes Scholar, was recognized as the unofficial Dean of the Harlem Renaissance, giving the movement an academic profile that perhaps was not as reflective of the grassroots emergence of black cultural autonomy as it was of the work of the movement’s intellectual luminaries.

The emergence of the Harlem Renaissance had much to do with the emergence of Harlem in New York as a focal point of black emigration away from the centers of oppression, creating a fertile environment for the emergence of a hybrid black identity, which in turn gave rise to higher levels of thought and action, of education, arts, literature and culture, all with the a unique, black flavor distinct from anything that had gone before. Such also was the gravitation to Paris in the 1930s, and explosion of intellectual fertility that gave rise to the parallel concept of Negritude.

Senghor himself was a slow starter, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the emergence of a black cultural movement in Paris was less in the intellectual gravitas that he personally had to offer – he did not then, and nor would he ever, bear close comparison to the likes of Alain Locke – but he was an authentic African, and as such he was rooted more in the source of blackness, or Negritude, than most others within the circle, the majority of whom could claim no close kinship to Africa other than through the color of their skin.

Senghor also carefully avoided militancy, conscious as he was of the fact that his situation in Paris remained dependent on the goodwill of the colonial authorities in Senegal, and the strict terms of his scholarship. It is also true that he was not congenitally militant. He was a determined middle-of-the-roader, besides which his own view of his twin worlds of French and African was not as tilted towards the African as would have been needed to gain full acceptance into the hard core of the black movement in Paris, and nor, in all likelihood, would he have been comfortable there.

Senghor the Poet and the War Years

At the outbreak of WWII Senghor was teaching at a French secondary school in Tours in the southwest of France. As a French subject born outside the communes his acquisition of French citizenship had been difficult, and dependent on his academic achievements. It was also expected that as a French citizen he would enter the French armed forces and fight for his country. It was also during this time that Senghor began to seriously direct himself towards writing poetry.

In 1939 he enlisted as a private in the 59th Colonial Infantry division, and was captured soon after the launch of the invasion, spending a total of two years in various prison camps within France. Much of his time as a POW was spent writing poetry, the bulk of which would inform his first published volume, Chants d’ombre, or the Shadow Songs, published in 1945. He was released in 1942 on medical grounds, after which he resumed teaching, and although popular mythology places him on the frontline of the resistance movement, in fact this was not so. Senghor in fact passed the remainder of the War reasonably quietly while the momentous events that would shape both his, and the future of French Africa, played out much closer to Senegal that Tours.

De Gaulle, the Free French and the Forth Republic

France is not alone! She is not alone! She has a great empire behind her!General Charles de Gaulle

In order to place the next phase of Senghor’s life in context it is necessary to examine what took place during World War II in France and the French Empire.

The French defeat in the summer of 1940 has been exhaustively covered in countless chronicles, likewise the division thereafter of France into two parts – an occupied and a free zone. The latter was administered from Vichy by a collaborationist government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain, and which was allowed a certain amount of token autonomy by the Germans. This survived until the German defeat in North Africa, at which point Germany fortified the French Mediterranean coast in expectation of an Allied invasion from the south.

Key to this story, however, was the emergence of the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped to Britain ahead of the invasion, from where he exhorted the French to establish a resistance. Initial French response to de Gaulle’s calls for unity against the Germans was mixed. The expectation in France at that time was that Britain itself was doomed, so very little credibility was granted to the ability of Churchill or his cabinet to advance de Gaulle’s Free French agenda.

Notwithstanding this, the colonies of sub-Saharan Africa suddenly became extremely important. Those colonies of French Equatorial Africa mainly declared for de Gaule, while those of French West Africa remained substantively Vichy. Senegal did not waver in this regard, not withstanding the large numbers of Senegalese Tirailleurs who fought with the Free French in various theatres. In September 1940 an Allied naval assault was launched against Dakar in an effort to bring it across to de Gaule, which failed, and Senegal remained hostile to the Free French Forces until the tide of the War changed and an Axis defeat became inevitable.

The most important and interesting aspect of all of this was psychological. The French had been defeated and effectively occupied by Germany. Notwithstanding the fact that large numbers of French remained either supine or actively in collaboration with the Nazis, recognition was given to de Gaulle and the Free French for maintaining French national integrity in the face of the occupation, and it was recognised that French Africa in general had provided a platform for the Free French movement to exist. France had remained whole thanks to Africa, and moreover, if France was to remain a major global power in the post-War, Cold War reality, the Empire was of even greater significance.

However, the general post-War dynamic of the world was tending towards decolonisation, and the French, embarking on the blueprint for the Fourth Republic, recognised that what had been relevant before the War, in regard to the colonies, was no longer so. A broad revision of the relationship between the Métropole and the French overseas territories would be necessary, a fact which was reflected in the new constitution of the Fourth Republic in a number of key areas.

A reorganisation of the status of the French Empire in general saw a virtue being made out of a necessity in regard to the colonies of Indo-China, which were already in rebellion, by linking them as semi-autonomous nations with the French republic in a wider federal association to be known as the French Union. Metropolitan France was to be represented by the mainland itself, Algeria, and the smaller entities of, Réunion, French West Indies and Guiana, with the overseas territories, or France Outre-Mer, comprising, in essence, French West and Central Africa and Madagascar. Black African deputies from each of these territories would sit as full and equal members of the French Assembly. These would represent territories considered as integral parts of an indivisible republic. And perhaps more significant even than this was the creation of an elected assembly in each of the territories. It is true that the powers of these assemblies were initially only consultative, and that substantive power remained in the hands of the governors, but the importance lay less in their practical powers of the local assemblies than in the fact that, for the first time, popular elections for full local representation could take place in black Africa. This, many have argued, marked the point at which the fifteen year journey towards independence began. It is also a significant point that no other 20th century colonial power attempted to do this, or matched it on any level in spirit or kind. Notwithstanding much cynicism in its application, and many petty restrictions enacted on a local level to frustrate the spirit of the constitution, this act by France, extraordinarily generous for the times, had the effect of generating a broadly positive sentiment throughout the African colonies that aided France in its efforts to remain active and relevant in Africa long after the pillars of empire had crumbled.

The granting of several tiers of elective power to the masses of the colonies certainly was an act of generosity on the part of the French, who had good reason to feel gratitude towards the black African colonies in the aftermath of WWII. It had been the two great federal entities of French West and French Equatorial Africa (mainly the latter) that had sustained the substance of Free France during the dark days of the occupation. And moreover, France was able to emerge from the ignominy of occupation, and retake her place as one of the world’s great nations, thanks largely to her retention of her status as an imperial power. And under a union of Francophone countries such as emerged under the Fourth Republic, she really was, or ought to have been, in a stronger position than Britain, already fighting the first of her wars of disengagement in Malaya, Cypress and Kenya.

Another fact that needs to be recognised is that the granting of broad electoral rights in her African colonies was only as successful as it was because a core black political elite was in a position to accept the responsibility of government. Other colonising nations, Britain in particular, realising by the 1950s that black rule in Africa was inevitable, attempted to rush blacks through a political education, and establish black political institutions, far too late for the policy to have any positive effect. Most transitions of power in British Africa were accompanied by some level of violence and civil unrest, which in the French territories of sub-Saharan African did not happen. And certainly in Senegal this was not the case. France had nurtured the development of gifted blacks for generations, and so when the time came to hand over power, men such as Léopold Sédar Senghor were ready to receive it.

Senghor in Elected Office

The liberation found Senghor still in France, forty years old, and emerging from his long academic gestation, ready to lend his influence to the new face of France as the Fourth Republic began to emerge out of the ashes of Vichy. By then he was a published poet, his work yielding universally positive reviews. His name was known and his voice increasingly being heard. By then he had become extremely streamlined in French society. He was moderate, intellectual and highly literate – he would be the official French grammarian for the new French National Assembly – and so he was a natural choice to be a consultative presence during the drafting of the constitution of the Fourth Republic.

It is worth noting here that Senghor represented perhaps the best that the colonial system had to offer. He had naturally experienced the common pinpricks of racism throughout his years in France, but unlike many of the fiercely nationalistic, often Marxist, and always intellectually aggressive liberation leaders that were springing up all over Africa, Senghor had never been imprisoned, never proscribed, never restricted, and probably only ever disrespected at the lowest levels of French society. He bore no animosity to France, had nothing to rebel against, and would have had everything to lose by an estrangement from the Métropole.

His first political post was as a member of the Monnerville Commission, chaired by a black Guianese lawyer Gaston Monnerville, and which was mandated to look into the future status of the French colonies as a precursor to the drawing up of the constitution of the Forth Republic.

Meanwhile, while Leopold Senghor may have been the most high profile Senegalese native in France at the time, but he was not by any means the most senior. This status belonged to fifty four-year old Lamine Guèye, a highly respected and extremely popular Senegalese lawyer. Guèye was also founder and leader of the Senegalese Socialist Party, which was the dominant political force in Senegal at that time, and of which Senghor himself was a senior member.

It was obvious then that Guèye would be appointed to stand as the main socialist candidate for the first of the two seats available to Senegal in the new French National Assembly. These were for both the communes and the subject areas, and since Senghor had been born a subject, he was also something of an obvious choice to be nominated as the socialist candidate for the second seat. The election of October 1945 produced the expected result, and the Guèye/Senghor partnership was duly consummated with a clean sweep.

Senghor claimed before an afterwards to have been very reluctant to leave academia and enter politics, which is perhaps understandable. He was on the edge of an outstanding career. He was also, incidentally, a little bit concerned as to how the fact that he was within a relationship with a white Frenchwoman would be received. In the event it did not appear to matter much. He and Guèye run on a platform surprisingly free of revolutionary verbiage, and very  assimilationist in tone, being simply: one sole category of Frenchman having the same rights inasmuch as all are subject to the same duties.

Senghor the National Leader

The Fourth Republic did not stem the forward momentum of the independence agenda in Africa, and across the continent colonial regimes were under pressure, and the British certainly were rapidly preparing their colonies for independence. To Guèye was left the diplomatic pleasures of Paris. Senghor began immediately to fret over the practical fate of West Africa in the event of a French withdrawal. He worried that the collapse of the current West African Federation into disassociated individual states would balkanize west Africa and undermine the security and viability of the whole. He pressed the idea of an expanded, federal amalgamation of the Francophone African states, forming part of a greater France. He was not, fundamentally, in favour of independence.

The French Union survived only as long as the French Fourth Republic, from 1946 to 1958, and on the whole it achieved very little in terms of practical political development in Africa, and this for a variety of reasons. Much of the initial magnanimity felt by metropolitan France towards the African colonies in the aftermath of WWII quickly began to fade, and with a hardening of attitudes in France generally, there came a deeper entrenchment of the colonial administrations and a general state of political deadlock within the colonies. Senghor was party to efforts during this period to form a pan-West African political movement in recognition of the fact that territorial divisions across the region made it easier for the French to dominate, and more difficult for Africans to federate and organise among themselves.

Senghor’s fear of the balkanisation of West Africa was real, forcing him to direct much effort towards forging some level of enduring political cohesion within the region. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, he still lacked somewhat the personal prestige, and certainly a lot of the belly fire, that would have been necessary to transcend from the localised leadership of the Assembly to a more general regional leadership, which would have been necessary to forge the unity he thought so necessary.

Also interested in this idea, but not necessarily friendly to Senghor’s efforts or interests, and in fact generally obstructive to them, was Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Houphouët-Boigny was another black French protégé, another leader in waiting, but a man, although less gifted than Senghor, nonetheless considerably more aggressive and assertive. Félix Houphouët-Boigny had powerful leadership ambitions, and his territory, the populous and influential Côte d’Ivoire, carried as much weight, if not more, among the French territories of West Africa.

Throughout West Africa, as was the case across the colonial spectrum, as the 1950s dawned, the mood on the continent began to change. Large numbers of young and educated blacks were emerging from the school systems and universities, merging with a great many men who had served abroad during WWII, and in general finding little or nothing on their return of the airs of liberty and freedom that had underwritten the great global struggle against fascism. In many of the British territories – Kenya, Rhodesia, Nyasaland and South Africa – generous land grants were being offered to white ex-servicemen immigrating to the colonies, with nothing of the sort offered to blacks. A famous quote to emerge from Kenya during this period states that: When the white man returned from war he was given a farm. When the black man returned from war he was given a bicycle.

The late 1940s and early 1950s was a period of black political organisation, unionisation, strikes, civil unrest and violence across Africa.

Senghor was aware of this movement, he had, after all, been one of the architects of the black African awakening. Although he was subject to the turbulence, he was never personally motivated by radicalism. His had not been an experience of oppression, and so his was not a policy of confrontation. Both he and Lamine Guèye had come as close to assimilation as was biologically possible at the time, and neither man was particularly fired by the muses of revolution, and certainly neither identified with the radicals and Marxist/Leninist revolutionaries popping up all over the continent.

Senghor was junior to Lamine Guèye, but he was more concerned with organisation and the active politicking, and so it was he that in due course emerged as the more recognisable, accessible and more personally charismatic of the two men. That he claimed no natural political ambition also tended to be revealed for what it was at this time, for even if he might have been a reluctant politician, he was proving himself very adoit, and extremely focused in amassing personal influence and authority on the ground in Senegal where it counted.

In due course, as was perhaps inevitable, a rift began to emerge between Guèye and Senghor, the cassus belli of which was the question of African subservience in the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO). This was a metropolitan socialist political party to which Senghor and Guèye both belonged. Senghor, however, bridled at the African block’s subordination to the party’s metropolitan hierarchy. The breach was well managed, with no overt ruptures, but clearly by the dawn of the 1950s Senghor was emerging as his own man, and the more influencial of the two. In 1948 Senghor broke from Guèye, and likewise the SFIO, to form a breakaway political front named Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais (BDS), choosing as his aide-de-camp his colleague Mamadou Dia. Senghor also established, and quickly dominated the Indépendants outré-mer (IOM), a grouping of influential individuals among the African deputies.

The speed and effectiveness of BDS organisation in Senegal gave fairly clear testimony to the fact that Senghor was now driving forward with his own political ambitions, having by then clearly shed all of his early inhibitions, and no doubt by then in recognition of the inevitable conclusion to the general political trajectory in Senegal, as elsewhere in Africa. The stated platform of the BDS remained commitment to the interests of Senegal, and West Africa, within the French Union, but it also presented an increasingly socialist and democratic facet, which did not preclude nationalism, or the growth of nationalism and an associated independence agenda.

The first test of the BDS came with the 1951 parliamentary elections, during which Senegal had the opportunity to elect two deputies to the French National Assembly. With a massive increase in eligibility to vote throughout Senegal the emphasis had tended to shift from the communes to the countryside, and it was here that Senghor came into his own. The BDS took both seats, later sweeping 41 out of 50 seats for the local territorial assembly. Even Lamine Guèye lost his socialist seat to the BDS.

With this success behind him Senghor began immediately to respond the mood of his constituency by injecting into his rhetoric small but increasing doses of greater autonomy for Senegal, and occasionally even independence – always being careful to retain a moderate tone, and always declaring unshakable loyalty to France. ‘To assimilate, not be assimilated’ became his political mantra at this time, implying, obviously, that, while the black man might welcome the best of the French, it was not to be to the exclusion of himself.

 These would be the terms of Senegal’s journey towards independence, terms defined, unequivocally, by Senghor.

In the meanwhile, Senghor was finally in a position to square up to the Goliath of the emerging block of indigenous West African power-brokers – Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast. Out of this grew a strong political rivalry that would wage back and forth for the next three decades.

Initially the disagreements between the two men took place against the wider backdrop of a continent wide move towards independence. A temporary status was established with the implementation of the French Union, but beneath the surface the general debate centred on the long term future of Africa. For the French, while it was accepted that independence on some level had become an inevitable reality, the insistence that it remain within the French context gave clear notice of French interest in remaining relevant and influential in Africa. The extent of autonomy, and the rate of devolution, were the central themes of debate throughout the crucial 1950s.

The wave broke with the implantation is 1957 of the Loi-cadre, or the Reform Act, a French legal reform that in essence transferred a critical load of authority from central jurisdiction to the colonies, a major step into what would succeed the French Union – the French Community, comparable to the British Commonwealth – which would map a blueprint for the relationship that would exist between France and her overseas territories upon the grant of independence.

The devolution of power, however, was not to the capital of the existing French West African Federation, as Senghor would have preferred. His reasoning in this regard was twofold: firstly to avoid the balkanisation of West Africa, and secondly to protect the place of Dakar as the capital of the current federation.

Much of the impetus for the introduction of the Loi-cadre, and the apparent willingness to cede to black demands of independence in Africa, had its roots in the French defeat in Indochina at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the outbreak of violence in Algeria that followed, which were circumstances that unsettled the leadership of the Forth Republic that then went to great length to avoid any similar repetitions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The drafting of the Loi-cadre might have been a landmark on the journey of Francophone Africa to independence, but it was perhaps more importantly a landmark victory for Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

Senghor and Houphouët-Boigny had wrestled over one key point, this was the issue of an inter-territorial party to represent French West African interests in general, a corollary of which would be a tighter regional union, perhaps even a federation of French West African states to avoid what Senghor feared most, the balkanization of West Africa. In the event neither man could reach consensus, after which each pioneered and led his own federal bloc in the French Assembly – Houphouët-Boigny the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), and Senghor the Indépendants outré-mer (IOM) – neither a constituted political party, and neither an effective tool for federation, and in the end probably no more than extended personal platforms configured for an ultimate showdown.

This showdown took place on the battlefield of the French legislative assembly elections, which took place in 1956, and from which Houphouët-Boigny and his RDA block emerged the clear winner. For Senghor and the IOM, defeat was abject. Only six allied sitting deputies were returned. For Houphouët-Boigny the laurels of victory included a  cabinet position in France as a minister without portfolio, and a seat on the drafting committee of the Loi-cadre, giving Houphouët the latitude to influence the design of a future West Africa, essentially excluding Senghor from the process.

On May 13 1958 the French Army in Algeria staged a revolt against the parliamentary government. For a while France itself hovered on the brink of coup d’état. The Fourth republic collapsed, de Gaulle was recalled to power, and once again it was time to devise a new constitution.

As a cabinet minister Houphouët was present during the working session to draft the constitution of the Fifth Republic, while Senghor, who had refused a cabinet position in the Debré Government, was able to contribute only as one of three African members of the constitutional consultative committee, with the result the Houphouët again outmanoeuvred the federalists, Senghor key among them, pressing his preferred confederal structure with no intermediate authority between the individual territories and France.

The net result was a continuation of the devolution of powers to the individual states, further undermining the two federations of French West and French Equatorial Africa – this on the stated logic that with the removal of direct French control the federations would be weak and unsustainable, and would very likely collapse into mutually antagonistic entities. No doubt part of the logic was also that smaller, disunited territories would be easier for France to manage and control indirectly through the distribution of aid and military support.

Thus was born the short lived French Community, based on almost absolute autonomy with metropolitan control exercised through a common President, the President of France, who would retain substantial powers over such matters as unified defense, external affairs, currency, economic policy and strategic minerals, and a handful of other lesser but generally strategic concerns – the whole blueprint only superficially different from that of the Loi-cadre.

The ratification of the new constitution would be through a referendum held in each territory. De Gaulle adopted an uncompromising attitude on the matter acceptance. It would be either yes or no. It was made clear to the individual states that a yes vote would be a vote of a continuity, of a supportive relationship with France, and a no vote would effectively be an invitation for a complete severance of all relations with France, governmental, civic and military. The offending state would effectively be disinherited by France and would be completely on its own.

When asked by Senghor what the consequences of a no vote would be, de Gaulle replied: ‘…that territory will have seceded and would be from then on be considered foreign. France will know how to draw all the consequences from that choice.’

On the day of the referendum, 28 September 1958, Senghor led Senegal to an overwhelmingly yes vote. There was a great deal of disquiet in the community at the stark terms of the referendum, and varying degrees of anger and disappointment at the French attitude, but none, other than French Guinea under firebrand leader Ahmed Sékou Touré, voted no – and for this the consequences for Guinea were immediate.

Under the high minded slogan ‘We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery’ Guinea broke with France, and was immediately made an example of by an absolute and total removal of French money, materiel, investment and aid. Guinea was abruptly left high and dry, and notwithstanding a quiet plea by Sékou Touré for forgiveness and inclusion, Guinea was removed from the family of French nations in Africa.

For his part Senghor remained deeply disappointed in the lack of provision in the constitution for any kind of federal amalgamation in West Africa. He did not, however, abandon his quest, and was successful to a degree in uniting the territory of Senegal with modern day Mali, then known as French Sudan, into a federation briefly called the Mali Federation. Other territories had refused to join, largely in respect of Houphouët-Boigny’s opposition to it.

The Mali Federation limped along for the two year life of the French Community, but essentially died from disunity soon afterwards. Senghor quietly led Senegal out of the union in acceptance of the fact that federation in West Africa as a concept was doomed. The Mali Federation did, however, help catalyse the final phase of French disengagement from Africa with a demand in September 1959 for independence from France. This was granted with limited conditions, left typically vague by de Gaulle, but which in principal prompted a rush of similar claims across the region.

In 1960 general independence was granted across French Africa under almost no political terms, and under formulas individually devised to achieve the optimum balance of full political autonomy with ongoing French interest. On Sept 6, 1960, Senghor was elected to the highest office in Senegal, its first independent President.

Senghor in Office

Senghor’s ascension to the highest office in an independent Senegal was a not only a personal triumph, but also a triumph of French policy in the country for the century or more that had preceded this moment. It is natural that the institution of colonialism in Africa in general should be disapprobated, and there has been much to question about French colonisation in general, but the fact is that Senegal as a territory, for reasons already described, attracted special conditions.

The status of the communes, although not perfectly non-racial by any means, offered unique opportunities for men like Senghor, Blaise Diagne and Lamine Guèye to educate themselves, and to merge as much as was possible with the highest political and academic strata of the Métropole. This not only allowed these men themselves, and others like them, to reach their full potential, but it offered the opportunity that was wholly lacking in many other regions of Africa for a class of black political elite to develop early in order to be poised to assume power when that moment came. It meant a more educated and erudite political class, deeply rooted political institutions and a sense of personal investment in the stability and rationale of African independence.

This contrasts steeply with British, Portuguese and Belgian colonial practice, which tended to restrict black development, and was generally hostile during the vital years of the 1940s through to the 1960s to the emerging black intellectual class. The result of this was, until the last moment, that the moderates were marginalised, sidelined, often imprisoned or exiled, leaving political space open only to the radicals, and offering only the meanest standards of racial integration when the time came to hand over power. The effect, very often, was instability based on inexperience, coupled with a rapid lapse into misrule, corruption, violence and one party dictatorship. In many cases military coups quickly followed hastily formed black governments, leading to the emergence of kleptocratic leadership cliques, often supported by one or other super-power, and generally critically damaging to the economic viability of nations themselves, but also to standards of human rights and individual liberty.

Notwithstanding a handful of exceptions – the Central African Republic under Jean Bedel Bokassa being perhaps the most dramatic – this experience was not widely felt in Francophone Africa, and certainly the comparative moderation of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s twenty year rule was a model of successful post-independence governance in Africa.

This is not to imply that Senegal transitioned into a perfectly utopian democratic state. That had not been the experience of the territory prior to independence, and it certainly was not the experience post independence. Senghor, it must be said, found himself in power in Senegal in 1960 thanks to his being the most educated, high profile and feted black Senegalese available at the time. His political style tended to follow closely his academic and literary development, leaning on the philosophical principals of negritude, black cultural autonomy and an almost slavish determination to retain the friendship and support of France.

There was no radicalism in Senghor. Not a note of nationalistic anger aimed at the French was ever heard in his rhetoric. He concerned himself with the lofty principals of democracy, and the finer points of the Franco/Senegalese relationships, while the application of policy and practice was left to his deputy and Prime Minister, the highly technocratic, somewhat doctrinaire and personally ascetic Mamadou Dia. There was a strong socialistic flavour to Dia’s policies that favoured collectivism in agriculture, among other policies, which, although highly popular and successful at the grassroots level, alienated the central business elite, which also tended to comprise the political elite, and it certainly did not favour the entrenched French business interests that Senghor went out of his way to cultivate.

Senghor himself, lapsing somewhat into the behaviour that he had criticised  in Blaise Diagne and Lamine Guèye, that of indulging himself in the abstract pleasures of high political office while ignoring, or at least avoiding, the blunt practicalities of rule. This ought not to serve to imply that he was detached. Far from it. The displeasure felt in the local parliament at Dia’s political social experimentation naturally reached a head, and in 1962 a political crisis unfolded in the country upon the introduction of a motion of censure against Dia for retaining a state of emergency in the country for the purpose, presumably, of allowing him to rule more or less by decree. Dia at this time, among other portfolios, held the office of Minister of Defence. This resulted in a highly complex power play between he and Senghor that briefly appeared likely to end in a military coup, but in the end was less than that, and which ultimately ended in Mamadou Dia’s arrest, trial and eventual imprisonment for life – although in the end only 12 years was served under relatively liberal conditions.

This proved, if such proof was needed, that when push came to shove Senghor did possess the type of Machiavellian instincts to out manoeuvre, and ultimately remove from the picture, ex-allies who had become obstructive to his rule. These were African political waters, and a certain capacity to manoeuvre could be considered a basic prerequisite to survival, and Senghor did survive.

His rule, however, continued to be abstruse, academic in tone, and perhaps a little too esoteric for the consumption of the masses. His continued involvement with the French, the continued power of the French in Senegal, and his growing, and perhaps inevitable detachment, all tended to suggest that he was losing touch.

In recognition of this, however, and in perhaps a very African manoeuvre, Senghor adjusted the constitution to allow him to retire in favour of a deputy, at which point he began to groom his successor. This he found in the person of a young Abdou Diouf, similar in many respects to Mamadou Dia, a technocrat and loyal functionary, to whom the newly reinstated position of Prime Minister was given. On 1 January, 1981, Senghor resigned in favour of Diouf, who became then president of Senegal. Two years later Diouf won a presidential election, and assumed power in his own right.

Senghor the Elder Statesman

This marked yet another significant moment for independent Africa. Senghor was the first African leader to relinquish power voluntarily, and although his legitimacy had been eroded, and the time to abdicate was right, there were many others of his generation who likewise reached that point and attempted through the imposition of one party states or other devises of dictatorship, to remain in power. Diouf, in his turn did likewise twenty years later, reinforcing the point that the institutions of democracy in Senegal had been well founded, were deeply rooted and not to be overturned easily.

Senghor was at last able to return to his first love, the arts and academia, and his own living embodiment of negritude as a working, breathing philosophy. The crowning achievement of his life was his induction as a member of l’Académie française on 2 June 1983, where he succeeded Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix, a French historian, novelist and essayist. Senghor was the first African to sit at the Académie.

He spent the last years of his life with his wife in Verson, near the city of Caen in Normandy, where he died on 20 December 2001. His funeral was held on 29 December 2001 in Dakar.