Senegal was part of the Ghana Empire in the 8th century and the Djolof kingdom, in the area between the Senegal River and modern-day Dakar, during the 13th and 14th centuries. In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders made contact with coastal kingdoms, and became the first in a long line of ‘interested’ foreigners: the British, French and Dutch soon followed, jostling for control of strategic points where slaves bound for the Americas could be collected. Saint-Louis was secured by the French in 1659, and the whole of Senegal by the end of the 19th century. Dakar was built as the administrative centre, and as early as 1848 Senegal had a (French) deputy in the French parliament. It wasn’t until 1914 that the first African deputy, Blaise Diagne, was elected.
In the run-up to independence in 1960, Senegal joined French Sudan to form the Federation of Mali. The federation lasted all of two months, and Senegal subsequently became a republic under the presidency of Léopold Sédar Senghor, a socialist and poet of international stature who commanded respect domestically and abroad. His economic management, however, didn’t match his way with words. At the end of 1980, he voluntarily stepped down and was replaced by Abdou Diouf, who soon faced a string of mounting crises.
The early 1980s saw the start of an ongoing separatist rebellion in the southern region of Casamance. Seven years later a minor incident on the Mauritanian border led to riots and deportations in both countries, the three-year suspension of diplomatic relations, and hundreds of casualties.
In 1993 more violence, in Casamance and elsewhere, followed Diouf’s election to a third term. Negotiations with rebel separatists resulted in a ceasefire in July that collapsed three years later. Tensions mounted in other parts of the country as a result of austerity measures introduced by the government, such as utilities privatisations and the halving of the value of the CFA franc, designed to put an end to the long-term shrinking of the economy. In February 1994 the government, made increasingly paranoid by civil unrest, arrested opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade on charges of sedition; however, it could barely contain the reaction to his incarceration and he was released three months later.
In the presidential elections of March 2000, Abdoulaye Wade, after 25 years as opposition leader, was finally given his chance in a free and fair election, having gathered large parts of the population behind his hope-giving sopi (change) campaign. Diouf respected the will of the people and peacefully relinquished power. Senegalese democracy was further strengthened the following year, when a new constitution was approved, allowing the formation of opposition parties and consolidating the prime minister’s role.
In 2002 the country was shaken by a huge tragedy when the MS Joola, the ferry connecting Dakar and the Casamance capital Ziguinchor, capsized due to dangerous overloading, leaving almost 2000 people dead.
Despite Wade’s efforts in stabilising the economy, and his (so far) successful appeasement of the Casamance rebellion through a 2004 peace deal, most people’s lives haven’t particularly improved. Wade’s controversial decision to arrest former prime minister Idrissa Seck in 2005 on accusations of undermining state security and embezzling funds sent the country into a flurry of political debate. In February 2006 Seck was released and all charges were dropped, but the political debates have remained heated ever since. For the vast majority of Senegalese, life is still a struggle, and though there’s a feeling that the current government has failed its people, there seem few real alternatives.