Senegal's Leopold Sedar Senghor, African statesman
and poet dead at 95

Special to USAfricaonline.com
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DAKAR, Senegal - Leopold Sedar Senghor, an African statesman and poet who led Senegal to independence in 1960 and became the West African nation's first president, died at his home in France on Thursday, December 20, 2001. He was 95. President Abdoulaye Wade announced the death in Senegal's capital, Dakar. He did not give the cause of death. Senghor reportedly suffered from heart trouble and spent three days in a hospital last week. Senghor often said he wanted to be remembered as a poet rather than a statesman. But his mild, unassuming manner concealed an iron will.

When he was elected president in 1960, he pledged to govern honestly and with justice, but added: ``A country cannot be governed without prison walls.'' On a continent where heads of state are frequently ousted in military coups or cling to power for life, Senghor resigned from office voluntarily in 1980. He denounced what he saw as the arrogance displayed by younger leaders of some other African countries. Though his impassioned African nationalism emerged in his poetry and his politics, he refused to reject the European culture brought to Africa by colonial powers.

His poems were written in French and his native Serere dialect. He frequently advocated a ``cultural merger'' and was a pillar of the Francophone movement to unite the world's wholly or partly French-speaking peoples. "Poetry has lost a master,'' French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday of Senghor. "Senegal has lost a statesman, Africa a visionary, and France a friend.''

Some militant Africans regarded Senghor as a neo-colonialist and a puppet of France, the country that colonized Senegal. He shrugged off their attacks, pointing to Senegal's stability, progress and peace. Opposition leader Moustapha Niasse, who headed Senghor's presidential staff for nine years, described him as ``a man of great spirit, a head of state who had a vision.'' Niasse also praised Senghor's success in peacefully leading a country where 90 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim. Senghor is a Roman Catholic. Senghor was born in the coastal region of Joal, south of Dakar, on Oct. 9, 1906.

His father, a prosperous trader, was a Serere, one of the smaller groups in the tribal patchwork of Senegal. His roots, without links to major groups competing for power, helped Senghor keep the peace after French colonial rule ended. He studied in a convent school in Senegal and won a scholarship to the Louis-Le-Grand college in Paris. A classmate and lifelong friend, Georges Pompidou, was to become president of France.

Another friend was Claude Cahour, the daughter of a French country doctor whom Senghor introduced to Pompidou. She became Pompidou's wife. Senghor's studies centered on classical languages and literature. He was professor of French in several French cities from 1935 to 1948.

He took French citizenship during World War II and volunteered to join the French army. He was taken prisoner and spent 18 months in a German prison camp, but turned the time into a triumph, writing some of his most poignant poems.

Senghor tried to awaken African consciousness and dispel feelings of inferiority. He coined the word ``negritude'' as a proud slogan of African cultural tradition, and conceived the first World Festival of Negro Arts in his capital, Dakar.

``Chants d'ombres'' (Songs of Shadows), his first volume of poetry, was published in 1948. One poem describes his desire to ``rip down all the Banania posters from the walls of France.'' Banania was a breakfast drink whose symbol was a laughing caricature of an African. His poetry often displayed what he called ``this double feeling of love and hate'' regarding the ``white'' world. In one poem he wrote: ``I will not emerge, oh Lord, from my reserve of hatred, ``For these diplomats who show their canine teeth and who tomorrow will trade black flesh.

``Yet my heart melts like snow on the roofs of Paris in your gentle sun, ``It is sweet to my enemies, to my brothers whose hands are white without snow.'' While in France, Senghor became involved with the French branch of the Socialist International. On his return to Africa, he formed his own Senegalese Democratic Bloc, the start of his attempt to create African social democracy.

When the constitution of the French Fourth Republic was approved after the war, allowing for African representation in parliament, Senghor was elected deputy from Senegal. He served from 1946 until 1958. Senegal achieved independence from France in April 1960, and Senghor was elected later that year without opposition as his country's first president.

After crushing an attempted coup by his prime minister, Mamadou Dia, in 1962, Senghor tolerated no overt challenge to his otherwise moderate, pro-Western policies. Senghor spent much of the last several years of his life at his second home in the chilly northern French region of Normandy.

He held honorary doctorates for his contribution to literature from Paris, Oxford and a dozen other leading universities. In 1968, he received the West German Peace Prize for his ``lifelong dedication to friendship and peace among nations, races and religions.''

He divorced his first wife and later married a Frenchwoman, Colette Hubert. They had one son, Philippe.
By ALEXIS BIES/AP



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