The false consciousness of Senegalese democracy


“I told you that I wanted to make you my successor and that is why there is this article 35.” This is what Léopold Sédar Sénghor told Abdou Diouf when he amended the Senegalese Constitution in 1976. To understand the unfolding crisis in Senegal, one has to go back to Sénghor.

Senegal is often cited as a model of democracy where the state exists both within and outside the sphere of religion. However, the country is currently facing recurring challenges because of President Macky Sall’s unwavering attempts to weaken the opposition ahead of the parliamentary elections, scheduled for 31st July. A weak opposition in parliament can increase Sall’s attempts to seek a third term.

But Macky Sall is not the first Senegalese president to tamper with the Constitution for his interests. In fact, his tactics are spooned from the playbook used by Leopold Sédar Sénghor (1960-1980), Abdoulaye Wade (2000-2012), and to a lesser degree, Abdou Diouf (1981-2001).


The democracy that Senegal is lauded for, in fact, offers the metaphor of false consciousness. To argue that a country’s democracy is built on false consciousness is to argue that the citizens of this said country are made to believe that they actually have a democracy and that such a democracy is working for them, but in reality, the democratic pillars in this country are weak and institutions are emblematically subservient to the ruling elites.

Sénghor, Senegal’s first president from 1960 to 1981, was a poet-president whose poetic influence overshadowed his repressive rule. In the West, he was known as an astute poet-president whose literary engenuity was unmatched by any African intellectual of his time. At home, Sénghor was known for imprisoning his rivals and crushing leftist student movements and syndicalists. In 1962, he ordered General Jean Alfred Diallo to arrest his Prime Minister, Mamadou Dia, who was the head of the cabinet at the time. Dia was thrown into jail alongside his colleagues in the cabinet, Valdiodio Ndiaye, Ibrahima Sarr, Alioune Tall, and Joseph Mbaye.

Consequently, a year later, Sénghor removed the post of the Prime Minister from the Constitution, arguing 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.”

This constitutional coup helped Sénghor  neutralize his rivals (Dia and his camp) in the government. After the rivalry was neutralized, he reintroduced the post of Prime Minister in 1976 which was given to Abdou Diouf, his chosen heir. He 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 afterward.” Sénghor resigned in 1981 and returned to France, the country which confiscated his identity at an early age.

During Sénghor’s era, notably from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s, Senegal was engulfed in street fighting between students and unions on the one hand, and government forces on the other. In the wake of this epoch, Ousmane Sèmbene released his anti-imperial and anti-colonial movie, the Ceddo, in 1977. However, Sénghor banned the movie, arguing that it should be spelt Cedo.

This decision, though laughed at by many for its linguistic amusement, was nothing but a demonstration of Sénghor’s repressiveness and unwillingness to upset the colonial powers – something that earned him the name ‘valet of French imperialism’ amongst students at the Dakar University. 

From Sénghor to Diouf and Wade to Sall, the Senegalese Constitution has seen a meandering trail for good and for bad. Under Diouf, Senegal started its journey as a multiparty system, encumbered by political gladiators. Diouf picked up from where Senghor left off: He inherited an ideologically fragmented political system and a country with a vengeful youthful population that resorted to graffiti and painting the walls of Dakar with political messages and Cold War vigor.

Amid this, Diouf initiated various constitutional amendments to tame Abdoulaye Wade and the rest of the opposition parties that had been responsible for a series of unrests in Senegal throughout the 1980s. The new code on the distribution of voting cards was criticized as it favored Diouf.

Whereas Diouf can be credited and discredited for taming a simmering political landscape and for paving the way for a multiparty democracy in Senegal, his successor, Wade, went to bed with the Senegalese Constitution: He extended the presidential term from five to seven, proposed 25% instead of 50% to avoid runoff, proposed the vice president be elected and run on the same ticket as the president (the latter resembles the American way), and he sought a third term, arguing that the 2001 Constitution should not be applied retrospectively. This latter proposal received the support and blessing of the Constitutional Council. Wade had to run for a third-term and only to lose to Macky Sall in 2012.

From Sénghor to Sall, the struggle for power has been negotiated and renegotiated between and among the circle of elites. The challenge the Senegalese society faces today is symptomatic of a decayed system that was initially built and has been sustained over time to benefit a small number of elites at the expense of the broader society. Thus, the false consciousness of Senegalese democracy.