Senegal - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Senegal: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Senegal, republic in the westernmost part of Africa, along the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal was once a French colony within French West Africa. It became an independent country in 1960 but has maintained close ties with France, and French remains its official language. Islam is the major religion. Senegal has had an elected government since gaining independence. Although poor, it is considered one of the most stable countries in Africa.

Senegal’s landscapes range from desert in the north to dense tropical forest in the south. Most of the country is a low plain. The Sénégal River, which gives the country its name, forms Senegal’s northern border with Mauritania. Senegal is bounded on the east by Mali, on the south by Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The Gambia, a small, narrow country, forms an enclave in southern Senegal, extending inland along the Gambia River. The republic’s total area is 196,722 sq km (75,955 sq mi), which makes it about the size of the state of South Dakota. Dakar is the capital and largest city.


Most of Senegal is a rolling plain lying below 100 m (330 ft) in elevation. The country’s elevation rises above 500 m (1,600 ft) only in the extreme southeast in the foothills of the Fouta Djallon (Futa Jallon). Much of the country lies within the savanna region of West Africa; open plain is covered with savanna grasses and studded with trees. Northern Senegal is part of the Sahel, a semidesert zone that lies between the Sahara to the north and wetter, tropical regions to the south.

Senegal’s main rivers are the Sénégal, which forms the northern boundary, and the Saloum, Gambia, and Casamance. Although these rivers are subject to seasonal variations in their flow, all are navigable on their lower courses.

The Atlantic coastline of Senegal extends for 531 km (330 mi). The coast is smooth and sandy from the mouth of the Sénégal south to Cap Vert, a rocky peninsula that extends into the Atlantic and is the westernmost tip of Africa. Dakar is situated on Cap Vert, and small islands lie off the coast of the peninsula. Dakar’s harbor is one of the largest and best protected on the African continent.

Climate in Senegal

Most of Senegal has a very warm to hot, dry climate. The desert zone in the north is much drier than the tropical zone in the south. A short rainy season lasts from July to October in the north, where rainfall averages 380 mm (15 in). In the south the rainy season lasts from June to October, with annual rainfall of 1,400 mm (55 in). During the long dry season a hot, dry wind called the harmattan blows steadily from the northeast. The average temperature on the coast is 22°C (72°F) in January and 28°C (82°F) in July. Temperatures are generally higher in the interior than on the coast.

Plant and Animal Life in Senegal

Plant life in the semidesert Sahel region of Senegal consists largely of savanna grass with scattered clumps of trees and spiny shrubs. Farther south, in the region of the Gambia River, trees become more common. In the extreme south are mangrove swamps and dense forests of oil palm, mahogany, teak, and bamboo.

Wildlife is diverse in Senegal. However, larger mammals, such as elephants, lions, cheetahs, and antelopes, are rare and largely confined to the less populated eastern half of the country. The Niokolo Koba National Park is a large wildlife reserve on the Gambia River in eastern Senegal, and a bird sanctuary is located on the Sénégal River delta. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles are found in the rivers. Among Senegal’s numerous varieties of snakes are the cobra and boa constrictor.

Mineral Resources in Senegal

Senegal has a small mineral industry. Phosphates, mined near Thiès, are Senegal’s principal exploited mineral resource. Gold and zircon are also mined. Reserves of petroleum and natural gas were discovered offshore in the late 1970s. Large deposits of iron ore exist in the country but have not been exploited because of their remoteness.

Environmental Issues in Senegal

Population pressures in Senegal have led to the clearing of forests for additional farmland and fuelwood, as well as to increased livestock grazing on fragile rangelands. Deforestation and overgrazing, combined with drought conditions, have caused desertification in large areas of the country. Senegal exports exotic birds, and there is much poaching of other animals.

The government of Senegal has initiated reforestation programs to combat desertification and preserve the country’s forests. The Niokolo Koba National Park in southeastern Senegal, consisting of 9,000 sq km (3,000 sq mi) of forests and savanna, protects a diverse range of animal species. The park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1981. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to biodiversity, global warming, desertification, endangered species, hazardous wastes, law of the sea (see Maritime Law), marine life conservation, ozone layer protection, ship pollution, wetlands, and whaling.


The population of Senegal is 13,711,597 (2009 estimate). The overall population density is 71 persons per sq km (185 per sq mi), but the people are unevenly distributed. Most Senegalese people live near the coast, especially in the region of Dakar, the capital, while the eastern part of the country is thinly settled.

Senegal has a large rural population, although recent decades have seen an exodus from rural areas to the cities, especially among young people. An estimated 49 percent of the people live in rural areas. The country’s population grew rapidly in the last quarter of the 20th century, doubling from 4.5 million to 10 million people. Senegal has an annual growth rate of 2.7 percent (2009).

Senegal’s population encompasses diverse ethnic groups. The Wolof constitute the largest group. Other significant groups are the Fulani and Tukulor, Serer, Diola, and Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinke).

Principal Cities of Senegal

Dakar (population, 2003, 2,167,000) is the capital and principal port and commercial center of Senegal. It also serves as the seaport for its neighbor Mali; the Dakar-Niger railway transports goods between the two capitals. Other major urban centers are Thiès (228,017), Kaolack (199,023), and Saint-Louis (132,425), all of which are in western Senegal.

Language and Religion in Senegal

French is the official language of Senegal, although it is used primarily by the educated elite. All the people speak an African language, as well. Wolof is the most widely understood of the many African languages. Wolof is taught as a written language in schools.

Sunni Islam is the religion of the vast majority of the Senegalese people. A small minority of Senegalese are Christian or follow traditional beliefs.

Education and Culture of Senegal

Primary education is compulsory in Senegal. The percentage of students enrolled in secondary school is considerably lower than the percentage attending primary school. Institutions of higher learning include the Cheikh Anta Diop University (also known as the University of Dakar), which has a noted research institute for African studies. It draws students from other French-speaking countries of West Africa.

The principal art, history, and maritime museums of Senegal are in Dakar. Gorée Island, near Dakar, played a major role in the West African slave trade; the Slave House, a warehouse where enslaved Africans were held in captivity, is a reminder of the island’s history. Gorée Island was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1978.

During the 1930s and 1940s a group of Senegalese intellectuals reacted against assimilation and promoted the concept of négritude, which emphasized the distinctively black African world outlook and contribution to civilization. Senegalese author Alioune Diop founded the journal Présence Africaine in 1947 to showcase black culture in Africa. Among the best-known figures of this movement are Senegalese poet Léopold Séder Senghor, who later became Senegal’s president, and Senegalese poet, novelist, and motion-picture director Ousmane Sembène.


Although most of the population works in agriculture, Senegal has a growing industrial sector, one of the largest in West Africa. In the 2000s the country undertook an economic development program designed to modernize its agriculture and develop its food processing and textile industries as well as its tourism and telecommunications industries. Important technical and economic assistance has been provided by France and other countries of the European Union, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), and the International Monetary Fund. In 2007 Senegal’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $11.2 billion, or $899.60 a person. Unemployment has been a chronic problem and has led many Senegalese to leave the country for jobs in Europe.

Agriculture of Senegal

Agriculture continues to employ a large percentage of the economically active population. Senegal is among the world’s largest producers of peanuts, which are grown in many areas, especially the northwest. Peanuts and peanut oil provide a significant share of yearly export earnings. The country’s other important cash crop is cotton. Attempts are being made to diversify agriculture, including the expansion of rice and tomato cultivation, to achieve self-sufficiency in food. Other crops include maize, rice, and sugarcane.

A series of droughts has plagued the agricultural sector in recent decades and revealed its vulnerability to climate and desertification. As more of the Sahel is transformed into arid desert, the land available for farming or grazing livestock dwindles. Desertification has especially hurt peanut farming. A lack of modern farm equipment has hampered agricultural diversification.

Fishing in Senegal

Senegal’s coastal waters are rich in fish, and the country has a modern fishing fleet. Seafood is an important export.

Mining and Manufacturing in Senegal

Phosphates are the leading mineral product of Senegal. Foreign companies are exploring for oil in Senegal’s offshore waters. Petroleum products are refined primarily from imported oil. The country’s manufactures include food products, such as peanut oil, refined sugar, canned tuna, and flour; textiles; cement and other construction materials; chemicals; and consumer goods.

Currency and Foreign Trade in Senegal

The currency is the CFA franc, consisting of 100 centimes (479 CFA francs equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Central banking functions are exercised by the Central Bank of the West African States. The port of Dakar plays an important role in international trade. The country’s major exports include fish, peanuts and peanut oil, phosphates, petroleum products, and cotton. Main imports are crude petroleum, basic manufactured goods, and grain.

Tourism of Senegal

The government of Senegal has encouraged tourism, and tourist facilities have greatly expanded since the 1970s. Today, tourism contributes significantly to Senegal’s economy. Among the country’s attractions are its fine beaches and national parks, which include a wild game reserve and a bird sanctuary.


Senegal is a democratic republic, governed under a constitution promulgated in 2001. The 2001 constitution replaced the country’s first constitution, which dated from 1963.

Executive of Senegal

Executive power is vested in a president, who is popularly elected to a five-year term. The president appoints the prime minister, who, in consultation with the president, appoints a cabinet, called the Council of Ministers.

Legislature of Senegal

Senegal’s legislative body is the unicameral (single-chamber) National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected to five-year terms.

Judiciary in Senegal

In addition to lower courts and tribunals that cover civil and criminal cases, the Senegal judicial system consists of three higher courts: the Constitutional Council, the Council of State, and the Court of Cassation (also known as the Court of Final Appeal). The Constitutional Council reviews international agreements and legislation to verify their accordance with the constitution; decides disputes between the executive and legislative branches; and determines the jurisdictions of the Council of State and the Court of Cassation. The Council of State hears cases against the executive branch, such as complaints of abuse of power, and resolves electoral disputes. The Court of Cassation is the highest court of appeal, and it supervises lower courts and tribunals.

Local Government of Senegal

For the purpose of local administration, Senegal is divided into ten regions, each with a governor appointed by the president and an elected local assembly.

Political Parties of Senegal

After elections in 2001 and 2007, the largest political bloc by far in the National Assembly was the Sopi (Wolof for “change”), an alliance of former opposition parties that formed around the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS; Senegalese Democratic Party). Numerous smaller parties held at least one seat in the assembly. The Parti Socialiste (PS; Socialist Party) was the ruling party of Senegal from the time of independence in 1960 until the presidential election of 2000, when PDS candidate Abdoulaye Wade was voted in.


Remains of Paleolithic and Neolithic civilizations have been discovered by archaeologists in the region now occupied by Senegal. About AD 500 Wolof and Serer peoples arrived from the northeast. In the 9th century Tukulor settled in the Sénégal River valley. They established the powerful Tekrur state, which dominated both sides of the river from the 11th to the 14th century. Some of the Tukulor were converted to Islam by Berbers from the north, who took refuge on an island in the lower Sénégal in the 10th century. In the 14th century the Mali Empire, under the Islamized Keita dynasty, expanded west at the expense of Tekrur.

By the 15th century a pattern of Wolof and Serer states was well established in the region. In the mid-15th century the Wolof threw off Tukulor rule and consolidated the lands between the Sénégal and Cap Vert into the Wolof, or Jolof, empire. Rivalries between the Wolof’s component states, especially over European trade, weakened the empire, and Wolof disunity invited attacks from Moorish emirates (see Moors) north of Senegal. However, until far into the 18th century the decentralized Wolof empire retained nominal rule over the other Wolof states, including those of Baol, Wale, and Cayor.

European Rivalry

European penetration of the coastal area began when the Portuguese reached the mouth of the Sénégal River and Cap Vert in 1444 and 1445. The Portuguese established trading posts along the coast and exchanged cloth and metal goods for gold dust, gum arabic, and ivory. A major port for the slave trade was established on the nearby island of Gorée.

Shortly after 1600 the Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch and then by the French. By 1700 the French dominated commerce along the coast, although the British and the French competed for control of the region through the late 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, the French sought to extend their influence from Saint-Louis, on the coast, along the Sénégal River. Most of the trade was handled by African middlemen, who brought slaves and goods to the French settlements at the coast.

Much of the trade was in gum arabic, a sticky substance from acacia trees that Europeans used in printing and textile manufacturer, and in medicines. The increase in the Atlantic slave trade during the 18th century intensified the Anglo-French rivalry. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) the British captured the French trading stations; they were returned later in the century. European influence in Africa at this time was economic rather than political.

French efforts to expand their activity in Senegal were also challenged during the 18th and early 19th centuries by the growth of Fouta Toro, a state that occupied the territory of Tukulor along the lower Sénégal River. The Fulani, who had primarily been nomadic herders, gained political control in Fouta Toro and elsewhere and set about establishing Islamic theocracies. They sponsored jihads to bring other West African states into line with Islamic law, and they resisted French expansion.

French Rule

Under Captain Louis Faidherbe, and his successors after the mid-19th century, the French extended and consolidated their control of the Wolof, Serer, and Tukulor states by force. In 1895 Senegal officially was made a French colony, administered from Saint-Louis. In 1902 government headquarters was shifted to Dakar, which was also the capital of French West Africa. The French developed Senegal’s economy around the cultivation of peanuts for export.

While the vast majority of Senegal’s African population were French subjects without rights, the native-born residents of Saint-Louis and Gorée, which had the status of communes (administrative districts), were the objects of French “assimilation” policy. Along with French residents, they elected a deputy to the French National Assembly during the period from 1848 to 1852 and again after 1871, when they were joined by the inhabitants of Dakar and Rufisque. In 1914 Blaise Diagne became the first black African to be elected to the French Parliament; he served until 1934.

An elected general council was established for the Senegal communes in 1879. It was expanded in 1920 to include chiefs from the interior and renamed the general council. Although often subservient to the French administration, the council was an important training ground for Senegalese politicians between the two world wars.

In 1946, after World War II, Senegal became a French overseas territory, with its own territorial assembly. The right to vote for members of the French parliament was extended to all citizens of the territory. Local politics were dominated by Lamine Guèye and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the deputies to the French parliament. With the extension of the franchise, Senghor turned to the rural areas and organized a new political party, which (under various names) dominated Senegalese politics from 1951 onward. Guèye’s strength, which was in the communes, grew weaker.


As France moved toward granting independence to its African colonies, Senghor feared that the breakup of French West Africa would weaken the individual African territories economically and politically. In 1958 Senegal voted, on Senghor’s advice, to accept autonomous (self-governing) status within a new French community, while leftist leaders had called for a “no” vote and immediate independence from France. Early in 1959 Senegal joined with the former French Sudan to form the Mali Federation, which in June 1960 became fully independent. However, on August 20, 1960, Senegal withdrew from the federation and was recognized as a separate republic.

Senghor was elected the first president of Senegal in 1960. He was reelected four times and served through 1980. Following an alleged coup d’état attempt in 1962 by Prime Minister Mamadou Dia, the powers of the president were greatly increased in a new constitution that went into effect in 1963. Under Senghor’s regime the country made progress in diversifying its economy, but income from exports of peanuts remained crucial. At times, notably in 1968 and 1973, students and workers staged large demonstrations to protest the concentration of power in Senghor’s hands. A multiparty system was established by constitutional amendment in 1976, and at the beginning of 1981 Senghor stepped down and named Abdou Diouf, who had been prime minister since 1970, as his successor. After adopting a popular anticorruption program, Diouf won the 1983 presidential election by a wide margin.

Regional Issues

In 1982 Senegal joined with its neighbor, The Gambia, to form the confederation of Senegambia, headed by Diouf. Although the confederation collapsed in 1989, the two nations later signed treaties of friendship and cooperation. Agreements between them have sought to foster trade and reduce smuggling and illegal immigration.

The late 1980s were marked by border tensions with Mauritania, sparked by a dispute over grazing rights. More than 400 people, mostly Senegalese, were killed in border clashes, and war was barely averted. Also in the 1980s, an armed separatist movement arose in the Casamance region (the part of Senegal south of The Gambia). This movement, which claimed that Casamance was a historically distinct region from the rest of Senegal, staged periodic attacks on military posts and governmental offices in Casamance. Senegal’s government signed a peace treaty with the Casamance rebels in 2004.

Political Developments

The popularity Diouf enjoyed in his first years as president began to fade in the mid-1980s, as the economy faltered and many opposition groups protested the ruling Socialist Party’s grip on political power. Rioting broke out in Dakar after Diouf and his party won the 1988 presidential and legislative elections by a large majority, and the opposition accused the ruling party of electoral fraud. Protests of fraud again followed his 1993 reelection. In 1998 the National Assembly voted to abolish the two-term limit on the presidency. The controversial vote was boycotted by all opposition legislators but one.

The 40-year dominance of the Socialist Party in Senegal—and Diouf’s 19-year reign—came to a peaceful end following presidential elections in 2000. Diouf was defeated by Abdoulaye Wade, leader of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS; Senegalese Democratic Party). A new constitution, approved by public referendum in January 2001, reduced the presidential term to five years and dissolved the Senate, the upper house of the legislature. A PDS-dominated coalition won an overwhelming majority of the seats in the National Assembly in 2001 legislative elections. Wade easily won a second term in the 2007 presidential election.

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