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Léopold Sedar Senghor – A Leader, A Poet, A Civil Rights Advocate
Léopold Sedar Senghor – A Leader, A Poet, A Civil Rights Advocate

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 23-01-2020

Léopold Senghor was born on Oct. 9, 1906 in the small coastal town of Joal, Senegal, French West Africa [now in Senegal]. He was the son of a wealthy Christian Serer planter and trader. His father, Basile Diogoye Senghor (pronounced: Basile Jogoy Senghor) owned thousands of cattle and vast lands, some of which were given to him by his cousin, the king of Sine. Léopold Sédar Senghor’s mother was the third wife of his father and she was a Muslim with Fula origin who belonged to the Tabor tribe. She had six children, which included two sons. Senghor was however, one of the youngest of about two dozen children of Basile Digoye Senghor. He was baptized as “Léopold” on 9 August 1906, two months before his birth. His Serer middle name Sédar was culled out from the Serer language, meaning “one that shall not be humiliated” or “the one you cannot humiliate”.

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The Early Life of Léopold Senghor
At the age of eight, Senghor began his studies in Senegal at the age of eight in the Ngasobil boarding school of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit, a boarding school, which was controlled by French missionaries. before he proceeded to a nearby Catholic mission and seminary in Dakar to fulfill his long admired ambition, which was to become a teacher-priest in 1922. At the missionary school, Senghor was indoctrinated with the French colonial policy of “assimilation.” This policy afforded the smartest Senegalese to be taught the French language and culture and they were urged to also support French political interests. He later realized that the priesthood was not his calling at the age of 20, as he was told the religious life was not for him because he verbally attacked the director of the mission for calling Africans “savages.” He decided to get a transfer to the lycée (secondary school) in the capital city of Dakar.

Senghor went to Paris in 1928 on a partial scholarship to continue his studies at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the Sorbonne. During these periods, he discovered the impeccable influence of African art on modern painting, sculpture and music, which affirmed his belief that Africa can contribute to the modern culture. Later in 1935, Senghor became the first African agrégé, which was the highest rank of a qualified teacher in the French school system, which gave him the opportunity to teach at both the lycée and university levels. He first taught French in Tours, but later ended up as a professor of African languages and civilization at the École Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer.

Senghor, together with other intellectuals of the African diaspora who had come to study in the colonial capital, birthed the notion of “négritude”, which was a clap back to racism, which was still prevalent in France. The racial slur, nègre was turned into a positive connotation as a celebration of African culture and character. This idea of negritude became a firm base for Senghor’s criticism and works, and also a backdrop for his political ideology.

Senghor’s Military Sojourn
Senghor was enrolled in 1939 as a French army enlisted man (2e Classe) with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division despite his level of education and acquisition of the French Citizenship in 1932. He was later taken prisoner by the Germans in la Charité-sur-Loire, a year later in 1940, when the Germans invaded France. He was sent to different camps, including Front Stalag 230, in Poitiers, which was a camp meant for colonial troops captured during the war. He was almost executed alongside others by the German soldiers on the same day they were captured, but they escaped this fate by yelling Vive la France, vive l’Afrique noire! (“Long live France, long live Black Africa!”) A courageous French officer told the soldiers that executing the African prisoners would bring to the Aryan race and the German Army. Senghor spent two years in different prison camps, where he wrote most of his poems. He was later released for medical reasons in 1942.

After his release, he resumed his teaching career but remained involved in the resistance during the Nazi occupation. When the war was over, Senghor was picked as Dean of the Linguistics Department with the École nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer, a position he would later hold until the independence of Senegal in 1960. On a research trip for his poetry, he met Lamine Guèye, the local socialist leader, who suggested that Senghor run for election as a member of the Assemblée nationale française. Senghor accepted this new challenge and became député for the riding of Sénégal-Mauritanie; at this period, colonies were granted the right to be represented by elected individuals. The two men however took different positions when the train conductors on the line Dakar-Niger went on strike. Guèye was against the strike, arguing that the movement would affect the colony, but Senghor supported the workers, which earned him popularity among Senegalese.

Senghor’s Journey into Politics
Senghor left the African Division of the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), which had given huge financial support to the social movement in 1947. He later founded the Bloc démocratique sénégalais with Mamadou Dia in 1948. They both won the legislative elections of 1951, while Guèye lost his seat. In 1951, he was re-elected deputy as an independent overseas member. Senghor later got appointment as the state secretary to the Council’s president in Edgar Faure’s government from 1 March 1955 to 1 February 1956 and subsequently became the mayor of the city of Thiès, Senegal in November 1956; from 23 July 1959 to 19 May 1961, he was made an advisory minister in the Michel Debré’s government. As a result of is huge influence and large followership, he was made a member of the commission responsible for drafting the Fifth Republic’s constitution, general councillor for Senegal, member of the Grand Conseil de l’Afrique Occidentale Francaise and member for the parliamentary assembly of the European Council.

Senghor published the first volume of a series of five, titled Liberté in 1964, a book that contained a variety of speeches, essays and prefaces. Senghor advocated federalism for newly independent African states, which was a type of “French Commonwealth”, while retaining a degree of French involvement. However, federalism was not favoured by the African countries; he alongside Modibo Keita decided to form the Mali Federation with former French Sudan (present-day Mali). He was the president of the Federal Assembly until its collapse in 1960. Later on, Senghor became the first President of the Republic of Senegal, elected on 5 September 1960 and he authored the Senegalese national anthem. While Senghor was in charge of foreign relations, the prime minister, Mamadou Dia, was in charge of executing Senegal’s long-term development plan. However, disagreement came in between the two men and in December 1962, Mamadou Dia was arrested under suspicion of fomenting a coup d’état. He was later held in prison for 12 years. Senghor decided to create a presidential regime following these events.

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On 22 March 1967, Senghor survived an assassination attempt as the suspect, Moustapha Lô, pointed his pistol towards him after he had participated in the sermon of Tabaski, but the gun did not fire. Lô was later sentenced to death for treason and executed on 15 June 1967, even though it remained unclear if he had intentions of killing Senghor. Senghor stepped down from his position at the end of the year, before the end of his fifth term, following an announcement at the beginning of December 1980. Abdou Diouf replaced him as the head of the country. He spent the later part of his years in life with his wife in Verson, near the city of Caen in Normandy, where he later died on 20 December 2001. His funeral was held in Dakar on 29 December 2001.

Despite the complexity of Senghor’s life, he remains one of the Africa’s foremost poets and advocate of civil rights while believing strongly in the ideals of the African culture.

On 9 October 2006, Passerelle Solférino, a footbridge over the River Seine in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, which is served by the Metro station Assemblée Nationale, was renamed after Léopold Sédar Senghor on the centenary of his birth. His legacy of maintaining close ties with the western world has helped improved the political stability of Senegal and he remains an emblem of sustainable leadership.

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