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5 September 2009

On this day in history: First President of Senegal elected, 1960

Born in October 1906 at the coastal city of Joal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, started his formal education at a religious boarding school aged eight. In 1922 he entered a seminary in Dakar to become a clergyman, but it became clear that a religious career was not for him. He then completed his baccalaureate at a secular institution and received a scholarship to study literature in France.

In 1928 Senghor sailed for France. He studied at various institutions in Paris finally passed the Agrégation in French Grammar in 1935. Following graduation he became a schoolteacher in Tours and then on the outskirts of Paris. In 1939, Senghor enrolled as an officer in the French army but was captured by the Germans a year later, narrowly avoiding the death sentence meted out to other African prisoners.

He spent two years in prison camps, occupying himself writing poetry (for which he would later receive international acclaim), before the Germans released him on medical grounds. He resumed his teaching career and became involved with the resistance. After the war he became dean of the École Nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer, an institution for instructing colonial administrators.

Around this time Senghor became involved in politics. He was elected to the National Assembly as a deputy for Senegal-Mauritanie. In 1948, the radical socialist Mamadou Dia and the more moderate Senghor co-founded the Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais, which merged with other socialist parties to form the Bloc Populaire Sénégalais during the mid-50s.

In January 1959, Senegal and the French Sudan merged to form the ill-fated Mali Federation, which became fully independent from France in April 1960. Senghor was president of the Federation but he powerless to prevent it breaking up within months, due to political infighting. The French Sudan became the Republic of Mali, and the Republic of Senegal was formed.

On 5th August 1960, the Senegalese people went to the polls to elect their first President. The charismatic Senghor won the election, with Dia becoming Prime Minister. Two years later, Senghor sacked Dia for allegedly plotting to seize power in a coup, a charge he was found guilty of leading to his imprisonment for twelve years.

A rewritten constitution placed more power in the hands of the President, a position which Senghor held until 1980. In 1983, he became the first African to become a member of l'Académie française. Senghor died in December 2001, at Verson in Normandy where he spent his last years.

The University of Florida website includes a page with a short biography of Senghor and a collection of excerpts from his poetry.

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