Discussion: The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal

In The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal, G. Wesley Johnson examines the existence of democratic institutions within the colony. While some Senegalese had access to these institutions, the democracy in Senegal was always of a limited form, and many subgroups within Senegal itself engaged in power struggles to preserve their own privileges. The ability of the Senegalese to participate in democratic forms of government was predicated on concepts of French citizenship, which were bound up in the notion, fundamental to the French colonial project, of the assimilation of French 'civilization' by indigenous groups. These issues and the tensions they raised would continue to be raised as the debate over democratic institutions in Senegal continued.

France had a significant presence in Senegal since the mid-seventeenth century; the French used the coasts of Senegal as a trading post. However, during the nineteenth century, Senegal became a colony, composed of the urban Communes and a Protectorate. The communes of Saint-Louis, Gorée, Rufisque, and Dakar were the centers of local political activity; while the protectorates were subject to French rule, the urban communes were granted institutions of self-government. The urban dwellers had a representative in Paris as well as Administrative and Colonial Councils. "In the areas of direct administration most Africans eventually gained political rights, but in the Protectorate they remained sujets français and were subject to arbitrary justice at the hands of French administrators and military officers" (31). Though those in the cities were afforded political rights, those living in the countryside of Senegal were treated as colonial subjects. While the presence of democratic institutions in the urban centers of Senegal was a step in the right direction, it must be remembered that these institutions were not extended to the entire population of Senegal.

In addition to the geographic limits that were imposed on democratic institutions, other limits on the political power of indigenous groups were imposed by various oligarchies, in practice if not in theory. The white and Creole populations of the cities both exercised substantial powers, and were able to dominate the political arena despite the fact that they were outnumbered by the cities' black populations. White Frenchmen were able to maintain control over the chambers of commerce, allowing them to push their own economic interests. They also held a majority of the political power within the colonies. Creoles were also able to gain a significant amount of power; they controlled the advisory Administrative Council. Elite groups such as the Carpot and Devès families were also able to make a political impact, allowing them to restrict political access. Though black Africans made up the majority of the electorate, these groups were denied political impact. Often they were looked down upon as "objects to be bought - or, more precisely, to be rented for elections" (102). Blacks who were placed on the lists for political election were 'yes men' who the powerful minorities could control.

Eventually, however, blacks in Senegal were able to slowly unite as a political force. With organizations such as the growing Islamic brotherhoods and the creation of newspapers such as La Démocratie which supported the cause of blacks, blacks were able to gain a greater sense of political solidarity. The windfall came in the elections of 1914, when Diagne was able to win the deputyship of Senegal, becoming the first black man to be elected to the post. Diagne made the voting rights of the black population into a major campaign issue. "Where other candidates paid ambiguous lip service to this ideal or opposed it, Diagne made it the central point in his campaign: 'They say you and I aren't French. I tell you that we are, that we have the same rights!'" (168) By rallying the black vote, Diagne was able to politicize them as never before.

While democratic rights were granted to an unusual degree in Senegal, they could also be limited on the basis of geography or racial or ethnic identity. Significantly, the granting or denial of political rights were fundamentally grounded in notions of assimilation and citizenship. Those who the French saw as approximating 'civility' or 'Frenchness' were given democratic rights, while those who they did not see as meeting that ideal were denied them. French citizenship, and the political rights that went with it, could only be given to those who had assimilated French culture and who could thus be trusted to govern themselves. Those who lived in the metropole and those who were seen as 'whiter' and 'more French' could thus enjoy the privileges of self-government. In French eyes, democracy and democratic rights were inevitably tied up with notions of 'Frenchness'.

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