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Senegal Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Senegal, officially the Republic of Senegal, is located in West Africa and is bordered by Mauritania to the north, Mali to the east, Guinea and Guinea Bissau to the south, and off the coast of the Atlantic it completely surrounds the nation of Gambia. A nation of 15 million people it has a wide variety of ethnic groups and linguistic communities in the country with the Wolof, Fula, and Serer people bieng the largest ethnic group. The official language of Senegal is French, and the national languages include Wolof, Arabic, Balanta, Hassaniya Arabic, Jola-Fonyi, Mandinka, Mandjak, Mankanya, Noon, Pulaar, Serer and Soninke.

Early history of Senegal

There is archaeological evidence that suggest modern-day Senegal has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era, about 10,000 B.C. Evidence of hunting and fishing activities are well preserved and documented through the Neolithic era and stone tools like hand axes and cleavers found in several locations indicate that Senegal has had continuous inhabitants.

According to information and data derived from archaeological excavations and documents written by ancient geographers and explorers, the region currently called Senegal was first populated by migrants from Northern and Eastern Africa such as the Fulani, Wolof and Serer. The earliest of these inhabitants were probably groups like the Kasanga, Bainunk, and Beafada and later joined by Mande-speaking groups and the Serer people.

The Ghana Empire, which was one of the earliest empires in the Saharan region, dominated the territories between the valleys of river Senegal and the river Niger. Futa Toro, a semi-desert region located along the border between Senegal and Mauritania and concentrated around the middle-run of river Senegal, was a territory of the empire of Ghana called Tekur as of the 9th century. The kingdom of Tekur was among the first to convert to Islam sometime before 1040; this was due to the various trading interactions they had with the Arabs on the trans-Saharan trade route.

Between the 13th and 14th century the Mali and Jolof empires were formed, and the Mali empire expanded and compassed almost every part of the present-day Senegal. The Casamance, a region of Senegal located towards south of Gambia, consisted of different migrant tribes such as the Mandingo, Mayaques, Bainounks and Diola who occupied the coastal and mainland areas of Senegal.

Arrival of the Europeans in Senegal

According to ancient scripts, French mariners from Dieppe, Northern France were the first Europeans to build settlements in Senegal in the 14th century. By the mid-fifteenth century other European traders, like the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English arrived in the region settling along the coast and on the islands of the various rivers. They established their forts and trading posts and traded pepper, wheat, ivory, and slaves.

By 1444 the Portuguese navigated from the Senegal river down to Cape Verde, Casamance and other kingdoms, building trading post and chapels in their wake. The Dutch West Indian company also built trading posts in the Island of Goree and settled there for almost 500 years, trading in wax, gold, amber, ivory, and slaves until their final dislodgement by other European nations.

In the 17th century when slave trading was at its peak, the French and English would compete fiercely over the islands of Goree and Saint Louis. The global rivalry between the French and English ushered in the Seven-Years War (1756 - 1763) which was later reconciled by the Treaty of Paris. The squabbles over the different islands and trading regions in Africa were resolved and slave trading would soon become the chief trade of the European in Africa, and the long-contested island of Goree became a slave trade departure point.

Colonization of Senegal

The Treaty of Paris gave France a firm hold over the territories of Senegal, and by the 1850s France began to expand into the hinterlands of the Senegalese native kingdoms. They established four communes (towns) in the region; Saint Louis, Dakar, Goree and Rufisque, and extended all rights of native French citizenship to the local inhabitants of the towns. A few of the natives were privileged to pursue western education and were nominally granted full French citizenship.

In 1848, France passed a law that empowered the Four Quarters, as the four communes were called, to elect a deputy to the French Parliament. A privilege that was abolished and reinstated several times, starting from the era of Napoleon II in 1852 to 1940.

Blaise Diagne was the first African deputy from the four communes to be elected to the French National Assembly in 1914. Subsequently, the deputies of the four communes were Africans; a development which strengthened the decolonization struggle for Senegal.

Independence of Senegal

In 1959 Senegal and French Sudan joined forming the Mali Federation and signed a transfer of power agreement with France in April of 1960. Following internal political disparities, the Mali federation was later split into Senegal and the Republic of Mali, with both proclaiming independence on August 20, 1960.

The internationally renowned poet and statesman, Leopold Senghor became the first president of Senegal in August 1960. Senghor was one of the nationalists that upheld the Negritude movement, a group formed in protest of the French policy of assimilation and rejection of African values and culture.

Meanwhile, between 1960 and early 1970s, the Portuguese kept violating the borders of Senegal from their military base in Guinea which at that time was a colony of Portugal. It took Senegal several petitions to the United Nations Security Council to bring an end to the invasion.

Under a parliamentary system, President Senghor ran the government together with the prime minister, Mamadou Dia. The rivalry between them led to Dia attempting a coup which failed. This event prompted a new constitution which consolidated the president's power. In 1976 the formation of opposition parties was permitted by the mono-political government of Senghor.

In 1982 separatist factions arose from the Casamance region, leading to one of the longest-running civil conflict in West Africa. It ended in 2004 when a peace treaty was made between the factions and Senegalese government.

Economy of Senegal

Before Senegal’s independence from France in 1960, the economy was largely in the hands of private French companies who traded peanuts, after independence the government took over the peanut industry and it would become the main source of revenue for the government. Senegal would later diversify its economy and eventually return farming into private ownership while seeing GDP grow to 25 billion-dollars.


Agriculture is a large portion of the economy at 16% of GDP while employing 32% of the workforce even though only 16% of land is arable. The main crops include peanuts, black-eyed peas, cassava, watermelon, millet, rice, corn, and fishing.


The industrial sector accounts for 26% of GDP and employs 14% of the workforce. The sector mostly involves the processing of fertilizer and peanuts and mining operations. Senegal is rich in minerals especially phosphates, iron ore, zirconium, titanium, marble, gold, and other precious metals.


The service sector accounts for 50% of GDP and employs 55% of the workforce. The telecommunications industry is the driving force behind the sector. Tourism has recently been growing is expected to become a larger part of the sector.

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