The current political turbulence in France’s former colonies in Africa can perhaps be understood as the continuation of an unfinished project of decolonization. In France’s colonial territories -- Sudan, Chad, Mali, Senegal – the post-World II project of independence was compromised by both the greed of France, who wanted Africa for its resources, and by the colonial mindset of many African leaders, who loved France for being French. The greed of France made possible such institutions as the CFA Franc, the monetary system that, as Senegalese economist Ndongo Samba Sylla’s work on French monetary imperialism has demonstrated, continues to serve as a coldly rapacious and clinically extractive instrument of neocolonialism. The African colonial mindset meant that “independence” was not a break with France, but the establishment of deeper, more intimate bonds through “community” with France.
To understand this latter problem – of so-called independence and the African colonial mindset – we need look no further than the work of the great Léopold Sédar Senghor. Poet, theorist, and the first President of “independent” Senegal, and the first African elected as a member of the Academie Francaise. As one of the inventors of Négritude, Senghor is lauded as an intellectual giant of the Black world. What is less understood, especially in the Anglophone dominions where his literary interventions are perhaps better known than his political actions, is that his militant poetics glossed over a reformist politics. Like the other big men of his generation, he was enthralled by the French language, by French culture, and by French political authority (and, for good measure, he second wife was a white French).
Senghor’s vision of independent Senegal is outlined in an essay titled “West Africa in Evolution,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1961. In the essay, he argues against Senegalese federation with France on the basis that Senegal and other colonies in West Africa have not yet reached the level of political and economic “evolution” to join France as equals. Senghor instead advocates for West Africa to join the French Community (La Communauté) as junior members who will eventually grow into political maturity and, one day attain comparability with France.
Senghor’s grandchildren have rejected this gradualist and neocolonial path – claiming revolution, instead of evolution, and, with it, they have finally rejected France. It is impossible to say what new formations this radical break with colonial history will lead to, but to understand the origins of the present, it is worth revisiting Senghor’s essay. We reprint it below.
West Africa in Evolution
Léopold Sédar Senghor
The French Community, created by General de Gaulle in full agreement with Africa's true representatives, is one of the greatest achievements of our time. Besides being a masterly concept to which I and with me the majority of the leaders of Senegal are deeply committed, it also is one of those ideas capable of catching the imagination of the masses. Sweeping away the contradictions of the colonial system, it enables the former mother country and its erstwhile colonies to form a friendly cultural and economic union and thus forge a lasting link between Western Europe and Africa.
But if the Community was to evolve properly it could not remain frozen in juridical forms. Therefore paragraph of the French Constitution which defined the framework of the Community made the necessary provisions for a smooth and harmonious evolution.
Let me say right away that in my opinion the Community could not have been federal. History has many examples - among them the United States, the Soviet Union and Germany - to prove that a federation is really possible only between states that are at equal economic levels and have equal political maturity. A federation has a natural tendency to build up federal power at the expense of the member states. If one state dominates the others the federation becomes simply a screen to hide that domination. This is the view which I upheld in 1958 in the Consultative Constitutional Committee created by General de Gaulle.
The Constitution of the Community stressed the principle of equality among the member states; in legal terms this means that equality between France and the other states will be achieved as the Community evolves. Had this equality been incorporated in a federal framework, France obviously would have had to relinquish some of her prerogatives of sovereignty. Can one conceive of this being possible in view of the fact that France is economically 20 times as strong as all other members of the Community combined? However, this situation did not point necessarily to the extreme solutions advocated by some people who were more concerned with verbiage than with people's happiness. If federation was impossible, the alternative was not the breakup of the Community but its evolution in conformity with the spirit and letter of the Constitution.
In spirit, the Constitution is liberal and egalitarian; in letter, it allows for a legal evolution to keep pace with political reality. Thus under special agreements between the French Republic and the states which have become independent, various functions have been transferred to the latter, notably diplomatic representation, a function vital to the development of relations between the states of the Community and the rest of the world. These transfers within the constitutional framework have given the new states - de facto and de jure - all the prerogatives of sovereignty. In other words they have achieved independence, with all its mystical value - yesterday rejected and now ardently demanded by so many.
As the peoples of French cultural background and language evolve in this manner, the Community will become the same fruitful means of cooperation that the Commonwealth became among the states which are the descendants of the British Empire. The new bridges between Africa and Europe will be built without mental reservations on one side about colonial domination and without fears in Europe that she is about to be colonized in turn by her former colonies. Thus the economic and social development of Africa and Western economic expansion will both be advanced.
Two years after the foundation of the Community by the referendum of September 28, 1958, the Mali Federation, on April 4, 1960, deliberately chose independence within the Community, thus stating its desire to attain independence without a rupture with France and the other member states.
However, the Mali Federation was not able to resist the separatist tendencies which endanger any federation of states not of equal weight. Many centrifugal tendencies existed. The Soudan is much more heavily populated and much less rich than Senegal; the proportion of children in school there is much smaller; and its political leaders though not themselves Communists have been indoctrinated in the schools of the French Communist Party. For these reasons the Soudanese developed a sort of revengeful complex against the Senegalese. They schemed month by month to gain an upper hand over the Senegalese section of the African Federation Party, to put functionaries of their way of thinking into key positions and, in contradiction with the Federal constitution, to make Mali over into a unitary state dominated by them. Faced with Senegalese resistance, Modibo Keita, head of the Federal Government, resorted at last to the desperate expedient of a coup d'état. The reply was instantaneous. On the initiative of the Senegal Government the Legislative Assembly voted that Senegal should quit the Federation and proclaim its independence as a sovereign state. Since August 20, 1960, then, the Republic of Senegal has been an independent state. In its new role it will exemplify not so much a pan-African as an interAfrican policy.
Senegal with its European (60,000), Berber, Arab and Negro populations, stands on the frontier of the white and black races. We are a true example of coexistence among several races and I would say also among several religions; for even though the majority of our population is Moslem, there are also Catholics, Protestants and Animists.
Senegal occupies a privileged geographical position since the city of Dakar is the gate to the South Atlantic. Its political position is also special. Unfortunately, the majority of the independent African states have not yet recovered from the effects of colonialism. Now that they have obtained their own independence, most of them start exuding the imperialism of their former colonizers and want in turn to colonize other African nations. So it was that the Soudan tried to use methods borrowed from the totalitarian regimes to "colonize" Senegal - and thus blew up the Mali Federation. In comparison, Senegal's attitude toward such matters is constructive. Several peoples belonging to the same races as we and speaking the same languages find themselves outside our borders. There are Senegalese living on the right bank of the Senegal River. The Gambians are racially the same as ourselves and speak the same languages. Despite this, we accept the frontiers of African states the way they are; and in any case we refuse to use violence to change them.
This is an extremely important fact today in view of the way in which the concept of African unity is being worked out. I am confident that the independent Republic of Senegal will be an example not only of peaceful coexistence but also of peaceful cooperation with the other African states and with other countries of the world. Guinea serves as an instance. In all my statements I have shown myself friendly towards Guinea. We Senegalese were the first ones to fight for Guinea to be recognized by France. Recently I repeated my offer to normalize our relations with Guinea and that offer has been accepted. As a result, Senegal and Guinea will exchange diplomatic representatives and negotiate commercial and cultural treaties.
We are glad that the member states of the Council of the Entente have changed their course recently. Like the countries of what used to be French Equatorial Africa, they have decided to follow the road of independence if not of socialism. They want to build an African Community - so as not to call it a federation - with us.
Senegal believes firmly in the renovated Community, the contractual Community. We are maintaining, with some changes, the vertical solidarity which throughout our history has tied us to France. At the same time, we shall maintain, with some changes, the horizontal solidarity which ties us to the French speaking African states and, so far as possible, to the other states of Africa as well. In a word, there must be a new extension of our relationships vertically to Europe and to America, the child of Europe, and horizontally to the whole of Africa, even to Asia. This will be our positive contribution to the building of a universal civilization.
But let us turn first to Africa where our lot has been cast and where the population is mainly African-Negro and Arab-Berber. Here we come face to face with the problem of a United States of Africa. I shall not dodge it any more than the other problems, but examine it objectively, which means without succumbing to the lure of empty words. Like President Bourguiba, I believe that a United States of Africa is not something to be achieved overnight. I feel free to say this since I was one of the first to talk about it. Some ten years ago when Ousmane Socé and I were at the Consultative Assembly of the European Council we signed a draft of a resolution envisaging the creation of a United States of Africa. But let me emphasize again, it is not something to be brought into being overnight.
There are several reasons against it. The first is that continentalism is actually a form of autarchy. Like all autarchies, it denies the interdependence of peoples and in consequence collaboration between them; thus it makes for impoverishment. Africa cannot do without the other continents, especially Europe and America, except at the price of increasing its relative backwardness. At the last Pan-African Conference at Tunis there was talk about an African Common Market. Have the difficulties in the way of such an undertaking been adequately weighed? Actually, the African economies are more competitive than complementary. We spend our time appealing to the idea of solidarity between the developed and the underdeveloped countries, between the rich and the poor. Are not such appeals in contradiction to the tendency toward autarchy? The second difficulty in the way of achieving Pan-Africanism is our lack of realism, our wordiness. Resolutions are voted which are not followed by actions. If the resolutions were more realistic we could perhaps begin to apply them. The third reason is that the actual deeds of the independent African governments contradict their Pan-African statements.
In fact, it is paradoxical that at the very time some of the newly independent African states pretend to champion African unity they quarrel about their frontiers and claim pieces of neighboring territories, support émigrés and phantom governments at great expense, see Fifth Columns everywhere. Of course, there is no law against hoping that certain frontier rectifications may become possible before long with the consent of the people concerned. But in the moment of achieving independence this is hardly an essential problem.
What we must do first of all is analyze our situation as it presents itself at this point in time. We shall have to evaluate the various components which make up our mixed civilization and disentangle the skein of the component parts as we go along. Each element, be it European or African-Negro, will be historically analyzed, traced back to its exact place of birth, given the time and circumstances of its development. Only in this way shall we be able, if it is a European element, to adapt it to our African personality, or, if it is African-Negro, to adapt it to the twentieth century. For let us not forget that what we are aiming at here in Senegal, outpost of West Africa, is to create a modern nation: an African-Negro civilization, certainly, but one that meets the requirements of the present day.
The responsible government and party politicians of Senegal have recognized this for more than ten years. They have begun to trace out the African road to socialism based on the seminal cultural values of both Africa and Europe. I emphasize cultural values for they are the leaven of all civilization. Our recognition of this has determined the social and economic evaluations on which we are basing our development plans for Senegal; and when various choices have to be made as we go along, we shall make our decisions on the same humanistic grounds.
To build a nation, to erect a new civilization which can lay claim to existence because it is humane, we shall try to employ not only enlightened reason but also dynamic imagination. In the first place, we shall go back to the sources of African-Negro and European civilization in order to grasp what is essential in both - their spirit, their ferment. Thus inspired, we shall seek to create new forms and institutions - cultural, political, social and economic - suited to our present situation. Once we have put forth our full effort of heart and spirit and intellect, once we have achieved this inner revolution, the rest will be given to us in addition - that is to say, the capital, the technicians and the techniques. France has already offered to supply them.
Above anything else, however, the future of our nation depends on our own efforts on our collective and individual efforts and the sacrifices we are willing to make. As I have often warned, independence in its first stage is solitude. It is a people's coming of age. As the African-Negro proverb says: “It is no good calling on God for help before you have tilled your field.” The Senegalese nation will be our own handiwork or it will not exist at all.
Senegal's independence will cost two billion CF.A. francs francs extra at the start, and this sum will increase from year to year. Our first task is to find an equivalent amount from new resources. There can be no question of increasing the burden of taxes, nor of cutting salaries and wages as some of the independent African states have done, and there also will be no question of slowing the rate of investment to any important extent. Thus in order to increase the national revenue we shall be obliged to reduce the country's standard of living. There are limitations to what we can do, however, if the public services are to function properly. Civil servants will therefore have to change their habits in the direction of greater precision, greater discipline and a rationalization of their working methods. They will do so because they are aware of the revolutionary fact that they are no longer working for somebody else, for a colonial administration, but for themselves, for a national state in which they are, after all, privileged members.
But thrift and greater efficiency in the public services will still not be enough. The whole national economy must be restudied. The market economy will have to be abolished and replaced by a rationally planned economy. Hence, an inventory is being made of resources, deficiencies and potentialities. Already the guidelines of local and national planning are becoming clear. Without waiting for the plans to be put in final form, our government, at the initiative and under the supervision of the African Federation Party, is starting to construct the new national economy. It must press forward without yielding to either the blackmailing power of money or the demagoguery of self-seeking individuals or opponents. It is not our plan to set up a so-called "popular" democracy or a liberal laissez-faire régime. We aim to hold firmly to a middle-of-the-road socialism which is liberal and undoctrinaire - one which socializes all that should be socialized, beginning with the rural economy, but no more than that.
As I said at the Youth Seminar of the African Federation Party, Senegal must stand as an exemplary African state in the concert of nations. In spite of destroying our traditional institutions and most of our works of art, France has left us with a positive asset: a cultural, political, social and economic infra-structure. And with ideas. So far, these are but means to an end. Luckily, although African-Negro values are emaciated they are not uprooted. As we accumulate what means exist, as we adapt them to our needs rather than trying to create them whole, as we give them life and set them in proper order, and all this in a spirit of humanity and mutual tolerance, we shall reestablish our civilization, or rather - as is my hope - create a new one. Senegal ought to be a research laboratory, a vast workshop, where new creations take form, the product of a new spirit, a new effort of heart, mind, will and imagination. Thus, along with real independence we shall have acquired the right to speak as a sovereign nation; thus, and only thus, shall we make a positive contribution to peace, to world civilization.
About $8,ooo,ooo. The franc of the Communauté Française d'Atlantique is equivalent to the old West African franc. Hence one new French franc equals 50 CF.A. francs. -Ed.
Léopold Sédar Senghor, “West Africa in Evolution,” Foreign Affairs, January 1961.