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Dec 13, 2016 | 09:33 GMT

9 mins read

The Secret to Senegal's Success

The Secret to Senegal's Success
(FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Senegal's location and relative political stability will ensure that outside powers such as France and the United States work to maintain their influence in the country.
  • Senegal will keep cooperating with foreign partners to boost its international significance and enhance its economy.
  • Casamance's relative isolation from the rest of Senegal, combined with Dakar's inability to devote resources to the region, will continue to fuel separatist movements there.

Senegal has long been an entry point into Africa. Situated at the far west end of the continent on the Atlantic coast, the country has drawn foreign powers — from Arab traders to European empires — to its shores for centuries. More recently, Senegal has maintained a quiet influence in West Africa and in the Francophone world, despite its relative lack of natural resources, economic development and population size. The secret to its enduring importance lies in its geography and relative political stability.

Natural Advantages

For centuries, Senegal's location and wealth of inland waterways have attracted the attention and influence of external actors. As part of the western Trans-Saharan trade route, the country's namesake Senegal River forged ties to the Arab world and facilitated the spread of Islam, which remains Senegal's dominant religion a millennium later. In 1659, France established a colony in what is now the city of St. Louis. From there, it projected its power farther inland, transforming the small colony into the capital of French West Africa in the 19th century. With the passing decades, however, population centers began to spring up along the coast, and in 1902, France moved its capital south to Dakar, a bustling port city on the Cap-Vert peninsula.

In addition to its position on the Atlantic Ocean and its penetrating waterways, Senegal's population size has also contributed to its influence in West Africa. Though small relative to other countries in the world, Senegal's population — estimated at 14 million people — dwarfs those of most nearby nations. Mauritania, for instance, has a population of just under 4 million people, while Gambia and Guinea-Bissau each have fewer than 2 million citizens. (Mali's population is slightly larger than Senegal's at 15 million people, but its territory is more than six times bigger.) Furthermore, more than 3 million people live in Dakar and its suburbs, making the capital city a cultural and economic hub in West Africa, second only to Abidjan in Ivory Coast.

A Pain in Senegal's Middle

Despite the advantages that Senegal's location has afforded it, the country's geography has also proved troublesome at times, as its unusual shape attests. Before laying claim to Senegal, France was embroiled in a fierce competition with the United Kingdom for power and territory in the region. The United Kingdom eventually colonized the land on either side of the Gambia River, driving a wedge between France's holdings around the Senegal River to the north and the Casamance River to the south. Centuries later, after Senegal gained its independence from France in 1960, the country's southernmost Casamance region — whose ethnic and religious makeup differs from the rest of Senegal — sought greater autonomy. Many groups in the region could trace their heritage to ancestors who had fought against the Arab and European slave trades, lending credence to the narrative that they were separate peoples from those clustered around Dakar and in the north.

Dakar rejected these claims of autonomy, however, and discontent in Casamance grew, eventually erupting in a full-fledged independence movement in 1982. For decades, a conflict has simmered in the area between the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance — allegedly with help from Gambia and Guinea-Bissau — and the Senegalese state. Nonetheless, Dakar has kept control over the restive region by militarily engaging rebels, arresting separatist leaders and signing fragile peace agreements. Though the latest truce, struck in 2014, has held up so far, it has not resolved the rebels' long-standing grievances. Since Casamance is fairly isolated from the rest of the country, and since Dakar lacks the means to devote significant resources to the region's development, the separatist movement is sure to continue for years to come.

A Tested Democracy

But apart from its troubles in Casamance, Senegal has established a stable and democratic political system over the decades — at least relative to the rest of the region. Senegal has been free of coups, military rule and civil war since its independence, unlike its neighbors in West Africa. The country's elections, moreover, have been consistently credible.

Still, Senegal has had its share of upheaval. In 1962, for instance, Prime Minister Mamadou Dia attempted to overthrow President Leopold Sedar Senghor, with whom he was locked in a power struggle. After the uprising, Senghor drafted a new constitution to strengthen his authority. But the leader — a renowned poet and proponent of decolonization — eventually permitted the development of a multiparty democracy in the mid-1970s, bucking the prevailing trend across Africa of consolidating power and quashing emerging parties for fear of social unrest. In the years since, Senegal has made a name for itself as a secular society known for its tolerance and moderation. Though well over 90 percent of the country's population is Muslim, Islam plays little role in Senegalese politics. (Senghor himself was Roman Catholic.) Senegal's reputation, along with the support that it continued to receive from France after independence, boosted the country's appeal to Western powers and increased its influence in West Africa. Then in 2000, Senghor's chosen successor, Abdou Diouf, conceded defeat in an election after 19 years in office and turned the presidency over to his challenger, Abdoulaye Wade. The peaceful transition of power — the first real test of the country's political system — further consolidated Senegal's democratic gains.

The country's example stands in sharp contrast to that of Ivory Coast, even though the two have similar political histories. Like Senghor, Ivory Coast's founding president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, also ruled —with heavy backing from France — for decades before naming his successor, Henri Konan Bedie. On taking over the presidency, however, Bedie lacked the legitimacy, political cunning and ample French support of his predecessor, and he could not maintain the complex system of patronage that Houphouet-Boigny had put into place. In time, Bedie's rule became increasingly contested before a coup unseated him in 1999. Just over a decade later, Ivory Coast's first attempt at a democratic power transition likewise faltered when President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede the presidency to Alassane Ouattara in 2010-11. The resulting deadlock precipitated a wave of violence and unrest in the country, prompting the French military to intervene.

At around the same time, Senegal's political system underwent another test. Wade made the controversial decision to change the Senegalese Constitution to enable him to seek a third term in office in 2012, a feat several other African leaders have attempted in recent years. Although the amendment passed, it provoked such backlash around the country that Wade conceded defeat to his onetime ally, Macky Sall, in the first round of the presidential vote before heading into exile. The episode, however violent, only reaffirmed the robustness of Senegal's democracy. 

Building Partnerships

Much as it has kept up a fairly stable political system, Senegal has maintained a steady foreign policy. The country, for instance, has kept close ties to France. In fact, Senghor, a former deputy in France's Parliament, initially argued against Senegal's independence, advocating that the country instead become an autonomous member in a transcontinental French federation. When the idea lost traction amid the wave of independence movements that swept the African continent in the 1960s, Senghor nevertheless opted to preserve his country's relationship to its former colonial master.

To this day, French is still the official language of Senegal. The country also plays an important role in the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), a group of 57 Francophone countries that promotes French language and culture through collaborative development, education and training programs. (After leaving Senegal's presidency, Diouf became the head of the OIF in 2003, a position he held for 11 years.) France maintains a permanent military presence in Senegal, which today comprises about 250-350 soldiers, along with tanks, transport planes and an intelligence center. Moreover, given its historical significance as France's West African seaboard hub, Senegal has become an important place for French presidents to declare the evolution of their country's ties to its former colonies. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, have both made high-profile speeches in Dakar to underscore their departure from the "Francafrique" system

Notwithstanding its historical and cultural ties to France, though, Senegal understands the importance of cultivating new international partnerships to enhance its economic development. To that end, Senegal has forged closer ties with the United States. Since U.S. President Bill Clinton first traveled to the country in 1998, each succeeding president has also made a trip there, making Senegal one of the African nations most often visited by U.S. leaders. The country owes this honor — especially rare for a French-speaking African nation — in part to its location, which makes it a convenient refueling stop on trans-Atlantic voyages. Senegal's tradition of democracy has also helped to keep Dakar free of the controversies that can color Washington's relations with African nations, and its people have consistently ranked among the world's most pro-American populations. Considering the instability and Islamic terrorism prevalent in the surrounding Sahel region, Senegal is an important ally for the United States, which has worked to establish deeper military ties with Dakar. In May, for example, the two countries signed a new defense agreement that allows the U.S. military greater access to Senegalese facilities and encourages more joint training exercises.

Even without natural resources or a highly developed economy to attract foreign partners, Senegal has risen to regional and international prominence. The country's advantageous geographical position, relative demographic development and stable, secular political system have served Senegal well and will continue to do so for years to come.

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