Senegal was part of several West African empires, including the Empire of Ghana (8th century), and the Djolof kingdom, in the area between the Senegal River and Dakar (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: soon the British, French and Dutch jostled for control of strategic points for the trade in slaves and goods. In 1659 the French built a trading station at Saint-Louis; the town later became the capital of French West Africa.

Dakar, home to tiny fishing villages, was chosen as capital of the Senegalese territory, and as early as 1848 Senegal had a deputy in the French parliament.

Independence

In the run-up to independence in 1960, Senegal joined French Sudan (present-day Mali) to form the Mali Federation. It lasted all of two months, and in August 1960, Senegal became a republic. Its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a socialist and poet of international stature, commanded respect in Senegal 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, as well as a three-year suspension of diplomatic relations and hundreds of casualties. Tensions mounted in other parts of the country as a result of austerity measures.

The arrest of opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade in February 1994 only increased his huge popularity. In March 2000, Wade won in a free and fair presidential election, thanks to his hope-giving sopi (change) campaign. Diouf peacefully relinquished power. The following year, a new constitution was approved, allowing the formation of opposition parties and consolidating the prime minister's role.

Wade went on to serve two terms as president (from 2000 to 2012). A tragic event that shook the country happened in 2002, during his first term: the MS Joola, a ferry connecting Dakar and the Casamance capital, Ziguinchor, capsized due to dangerous overloading, causing the deaths of almost 2000 people.

Though initially popular, Wade’s government wasn’t able to lead the country out of crisis. The steadily rising cost of living, increasing power cuts and widening gap between rich and poor provoked anger and despair among the population. The Constitutional Council allowed Wade to run for a highly controversial third term (when already in his mid-80s, no less), but voters rejected him in favor of the younger, dynamic Macky Sall, who had previously served as prime minister under Wade (from 2004 to 2007).

Macky Sall became president in early 2012, and quickly set about tackling corruption (establishing the National Anti-Corruption Office and curtailing ministerial perks, among other things). He also renewed diplomatic ties with other African countries (including The Gambia, Morocco and Mauritania) and made ambitious plans for new investment in infrastructure, healthcare, agriculture and tourism.