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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 12-16

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Senghor in Context

Pathé Diagne

Without resorting to emotional hagiography, the image of Léopold Sédar Senghor that will be retained will be that of an intellectual and a politician of character and quality. Senghor forged for himself the personality of a man of determination and decision, and he saw himself as a man who was faithful to his ideas, to his friends, and to his own choices. The average Senegalese said of him, "Lu Mu Matt Mu Dog," that is, "He never yielded, once he had made up his mind and made a decision." A man of calculation and vision, of dialogue and dexterity, with a synthesizing outlook, a leader and a convener, he always knew how to turn affairs to his own advantage, and always with great tact. His character and his temperament made him a true leader and a Head of State who was concerned with method and the law, but also with formal legalism.

Senghor was a continuator and a forerunner in cultural or intellectual domains as well as in political or ideological fields. Those who challenged him most strongly have often been, in this regard, those who, without ever acknowledging so, have reworked the very fields he plowed. Senghor the theoretician of autonomy for the colonies is, moreover—and we must not forget this—heir to a whole host of Senegalese politicians of international stature who made a mark on their era alongside Durant Valentin, François Carpot, Blaise Diagne, Ngalandou Diouf, and Lamine Guèye, Senghor's mentor. Between 1848 and 1948, these predecessors gave shape to the Senegalese communal, civilian, democratic, secular tradition inherited by Senghor and his generation. They challenged assimilation and the Napoleonic Code; adapted customary law; adopted a Sharia that respected the physical and spiritual integrity of the individual; invented the multilingual school for speakers of African languages, Arabic, and French; and led a permanent struggle for civil rights.

Co-opted by the drafters of the French Constitution after the war, the deputy-poet, veteran fighter and prisoner was—at the time of the Congresses of Manchester (1945), Bamako (1947), and Bandung (1956), which he did not attend, and during the harsh period of the wars of liberation and independence—the contemporary of such eminent personalities as Haile Selassie, Namdi Azikwe, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Habib Bourguiba, Houphouët-Boigny, Mohammed V, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Lumumba, and Kasawubu, as well as Nelson Mandela, whom he received in Dakar, and Amilcar Cabral, to cite only those. Within the context of those independences that were, as he wrote, bestowed, and under the control of France, at the time of the Cold War, he succeeded, through his choices, in emerging among his peers as the administrator of the authoritarian-state party, Gaullist in character and marked by neocolonial influence. The generations that fought strongly against him for a policy that survived in an often mediocre manner understand him, without nevertheless siding with him on the essential stakes of the battle. Senghor was able to achieve things and knew better than anyone else how to administer. [End Page 12] For his opponents, through the polemics and adversity he cultivated, he constituted a challenge and a permanent defiance in which the nature of the debate was rarely without a loftiness in the argument. "At least he listened to us" in the polemic he cultivated and in the adversity he cultivated, was a favorite saying of Emile Ologoudou, my friend and colleague at the University of Dakar and the Bureau de l'Union Générale des Etudiants d'Afrique Occidentale, whose president was Doctor Daouda Sow, a militant who came out of the BDS. The deputy-poet who became the president-poet was to remain a formidable polemicist. Abdoulaye Ly, like him a veteran of World War Two but even "higher ranked than the bespectacled older conscript," later said of Senghor, not without humor and affection, that he became an advocate of "dagge" and, with age, naturally loved to be right—"Leo bëggul lu moy...


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