San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Political and Economic History of Senegal

Coming of Islam
& Confederation
Léopold Senghor
Economic System

Geographic Setting

Land Types of Senegal
Land TypeLocation
in Senegal
Cape Verde
MassifsEastern and

Climate Types of Senegal
Climate ZonesLocation
in Senegal
SahelianNorth of Thies
SudaneseSouth of Thies

Land Use in Senegal
Land Use
or Type
or Rangeland


The ethnic groups of Senegal are the remnants of the past empires that existed in the region. Humans have lived in the West Africa region from time immemorial and artifacts from cerca 2000 BCE have been found. The early societies of that time were economically based upon agriculture but there was a primitive technology based upon the smelting of iron. Later trade routes through the Sahara desert developed. This trade dealt in gold, silver, salt, ivory and slaves.

Slavery existed from the time that humans stopped summarily killing their captives from rival tribes and putting them to work. Until the agricultural revolution humans could not produce much in excess of what they needed for their own survival. Therefore until the agricultural revolution there was no economic incentive for members of one tribe allowing members of other tribes to survive. Slavery, as terrible as it was, was a step up from the situation that preceded it.

The first empire to have developed in the region was the Ghana Empire. (The nation of Ghana was named after this empire but the Ghana Empire was not centered in what is now Ghana.) The foundation of the Ghana Empire developed in the fifth century AD and it reached its glory in the period betweed the 8th and 11th centuries. Islam came to the area after the 7th century and the Ghana Empire became Islamic but that did not stop Islamisized Berbers, the Almoravids, from what is now Morocco and Mauritania from destroying it.

Another empire developed among the Tukulor people who lived in the lower valley of the Senegal River in what is now southern Mauritania and northern Senegal. This Tukrur Empire became an ally of the Almoravids in their conquest of the Ghana Empire and reached its pinnacle of power in the period of the 9th and 10th centuries.

The next empire to develop in the region was the Mali Empire. The Mali Empire developed in the 13th century in the region to the east of the Ghana Empire and came to control a territory stretching on the east from what is now Nigeria to the coastal area of Senegal on the west. After a period of great power in the 14th century the Mali Empire began its decline in the 15th century with rise of the Songhai Empire and the Jolof Empire. Two kingdoms of the Serer people were created to the south of the Gambia River during this same period. These kingdoms, the Siné and Saloum, remained survived until they were conquered by the French in the 19th century.

The Jolof Empire which depended upon the trans-Sahara trade began to decline in the 16th century when the coastal tribes rose in power as a result of their contact with the ships of the European traders. In the 16th century the Tukrur Empire was destroyed by the invasion of the Fulani people.

The seven major ethnic groups of Senegal, in order of relative size, are (with alternate names and proportions in parentheses):

The coming of Islam to Senegal

(To be continued.)

Léopold Senghor

Léopold Senghor

Léopold Senghor was born in 1906 in what is now Senegal but then was French West Africa. His father was a successful trader belonging to the Serer tribe. He grew up in a small village and attended a Catholic mission school. He was at first inspired to become a priest who would teach. At 20 he decided that he did not want to become a priest but he still aspired to become a teacher and he attended a secondary school (highschool) in Dakar, the principle city of French West Africa. In 1928 at age 22 he went to Paris to continue his education. He attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Sorbonne.

In Europe he found the modern artists were utilizing elements of African art. This made him very proud and convinced him that Africa was contributing to world civilization. He formulated his concept of negritude that was a central element of his thinking the rest of his life.

Senghor was quite successful in mastering a French education. He became the first African to be certified as qualified to teach French students in the French school system. He taught at a school in Tours for two years and then transferred to a school near Paris. After teaching there for two years he was drafted into the French Army at the beginning of World War II. In 1940 he was captured by the Germans and held prisoner for two years. By that time France (Vichy) was no longer a combatant in the war and Senghor was released along with the other French soldiers. At this time Senghor became well known as a poet.

After the war France formally incorporated the French African colonies as part of France with entitlement to representation in the French national legislature. Senghor was elected as a member of the Socialist Party in 1946 to the National Assembly. In 1948 he founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc.

In 1951 Senghor was reelected to the French National Assembly as the candidate of the Senegalise Democratic Bloc. He was again reelected to the Assembly in 1956 but by that time he was also the mayor of Thies, a major Senegalese city just east of Dakar.

When in 1956 France started granting autonomy to the former French colonies, Senghor was at first opposed to this policy. He favored a regional government. After France granted independence to Senegal and other nations of West Africa Senghor tried to create larger federations of these nations. In 1959 he led Senegal to participate in a confederation with the nations which ultimately became Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso. This confederation soon broke up and Senegal became an independent nation with Senghor made president with overwhelming popular support even though he was a Christian member of a lesser tribe in a nation that was over ninety percent Muslim.

In 1962 the prime minister of Senegal, Mamadou Dia, attmpted to carry out a coup d'etat. The attempt was unsuccessful and Dia was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Senghor promoted what he deemed African socialism. He also tried to create a one party political system by bringing into his party, the Socialist Party, the moderate opposition. Both policies were wrong for Senegal but the high respect Senghor commanded enabled him to carry them out.

Senghor was elected president of Senegal five times. He however retired during his fifth term and was succeeded by Abdou Diouf.

The Economy of Senegal

The economy of Senegal is primarily agricultural in that about 77.5 percent of the labor force is engaged in agriculture. The agricultural crop of most importance is peanuts (groundnuts) and the extraction of peanut oil is one of the main industries of Senegal. The other 22.5 percent are in industry and services. There is a problem in the distribution of compensation in that the measure of value of the production, Gross Domestic Product (GNP), is 66 percent in services, primarily government services, 21 percent in industry and only 13 percent in agriculture. The picture that emerges from that distribution is of the economic value of the product of the farmers and industry being syphoned off by government bureaucrats who supposedly are providing services, but the services if any are of far less value than their cost of production. There are economic valid services in the private sector but they make up only a small portion of the total attributed to services. The official unemployment rate is 48 percent so there is a desperate effort to provide jobs in the public sector even when this employment is unproductive and hence really just unemployment under a different name. As it is there is a high proportion of the population of the 13 million (2008) which are living in poverty. Half of the population is less than 19 years of age so only about 39 percent of the population is in the labor force.

The fishing industry of Senegal is of major and growing importance. Senegal, like other West African nations, has phosphate deposits but it suffers from a lack of capital to develop these deposits. To lessen the dependence upon peanuts as a crop the government has encouraged the development of cotton production.

The GDP of Senegal was estimated to be $21 billion in 2007 when converted into U.S. dollar at the purchasing power exchange rate. At the market exchange rate of the Communaute Financiere Africaine franc (XOF), the currency of the former French colonies of West Africa, to the U.S. dollar the GDP is $11 billion. This is a percapita GDP of about $1700 per year.

The birth rate in Senegal is an extremely high 37 births per thousand population. The death rate is relatively high 11 per thousand population but not so high as the birth rate so the rate of population growth is 2.65 percent per year. At this population growth rate the size of the population doubles in about 26.5 years; i.e., every generation. The picture is of a state failing economically with a population growth out of control. The Senegal state is subsidized by almost $500 million in economic aid from international donors. The external debt as of the beginning of 2008 was $2 billion. This is not high relative to the GDP but it is high relative to the financial resources available to the government.

International Trade

The exports of Senegal in 2007 were $1.725 billion (F.O.B.) but the imports were $3.673 billion and thus there was a current account trade deficit of $1.085 billion. The economic system of Senegal is in serious trouble.

The International Trading Partners of Senegal
Major Source of ImportsMajor Destination of Exports
China5%The Gambia5%

The Economic System of Senegal

Leaders of the African nations at the time of independence from European rule were from tribal and feudal backgrounds. They therefore chose as the economic system for their countries the system that was closest to tribalism and feudalism; i.e., socialism. One notable exception was Felix Houphet-Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire who said, "Do not make the mistake of thinking that socialism will feed the people." Most of the other African leader, aspiring as they were to political power, wanted totalitarian power which only offered by socialism.

Léopold Senghor, extraordinary figure though he was, made the same mistake as most of the other early leaders of African independence. He started Senegal off on the path of socialism and at least forty years of failures from which it has yet to emerge.

(To be continued.)

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