May 1968 in Senegal
An interview with Omar Guèye, Professor at the Department of History, Université Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, conducted by journalist Odile Jolys. First published in the March 2018 edition of Participatory Democracy, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
On May 27, 1968, Dakar University students went on strike and blocked the campus. They were protesting against the government's decision to reduce the scholarship amount and the number of monthly payments. In addition, they severely denounced President Léopold Sédar Senghor's policy and called for the Africanization of the university. President Senghor's response was swift. On May 29, the security forces stormed the campus. The student protests were violently suppressed and the poor neighbourhoods in the vicinity of the university were immediately set ablaze, and the only existing workers' union called for a full-scale strike. For three days Senegal was engulfed in riots and scenes of plundering. May 1968 in Dakar was a defining moment in the political history of Senegal. In his book, "May 1968 in Senegal. Senghor in the face of the students and labour movement", published by Karthala in 2017, historian Omar Guèye revisits this event and shows how it fits into the overall movement of the students’ revolt in the spring of 1968 and assuredly into the political and social history of Senegal.
What was the University of Dakar like in 1968?
Established in 1957, the University of Dakar continued to be a French university eight years after independence (1960) by way of its personnel, its teaching and, to a large extent, its students. The degrees awarded by the university had the same value as French degrees. For example, the Faculty of Medicine was attached to the one in Bordeaux. The student/faculty ratio was better than in France. Thus, up to 1967, the French students in this Faculty outnumbered the Senegalese students. In 1968, it was probably the only university in the world where foreign students outnumbered nationals. In addition to French students, it had both Anglophone and Francophone African students as well as Chinese students from Formosa. It represented a multicultural space where young Francophone Africans came for training.
Who attended University in Senegal in 1968?
At that time the Senegalese students formed a small minority perceived as an elite and comprised young people belonging to families from various origins. Most of them came from the regions. Admission to the university represented a promise of a radiant future and of being among the decision-makers of the newly independent country. The scholarships they received at the time were referred to as an 'intellectual salary'. They were high and were equivalent to a minimum wage.
Receiving the scholarship thus meant enjoying student status with its privileges and promise. The campus, as narrated by witnesses, was an Eldorado: one was suitably housed and well fed. Students lived comfortably with their scholarships and were even able to assist their families living in the village.
Issues relating to the scholarship were therefore symbolically and financially important, and thus triggered the protest movement. The Senegalese students' strike was supported by their fellow African students, who were more committed than the French students.
What was the mood on campus and what were the students discussing?
The campus was very lively. Several cultural and sporting activities were organised with, for example, a movie theatre and a basketball court. And intellectual life was extremely rich.
The slogans chanted by the students in Dakar celebrated African unity, objected to neo-colonialism and referred to the situation in Vietnam and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The students were very familiar with what was going on around the world. The campus was a much politicised space, a laboratory in which students nourished their ideas. Marxist ideas and its various trends were discussed. There was intensive intellectual activity.
The University of Dakar generated a space where all Francophone students intermingled and shared the same ideals. The situation has been the same even before independence in 1960. At that time they were highly militant and extremely committed to the nationalist struggle. This generation inherited those who experienced the colonisation and the indigent status. These “children of colonisation” went through the colonial school and witnessed the nationalist struggles of some of their elders who, during the referendum organised by French President General De Gaulle in 1958, rejected the proposed Franco-African Community. The students had a tradition of struggle: they fought for independence and naturally, after independence, they fought neo-colonialism which, in their eyes, was personified in President Senghor and this French university in which they studied and lived.
Why did the students consider Senghor as the face of neo-colonialism?
To these youths, neo-colonialism not only related to the university but also to the continuing strong presence of France in society and the economy. The lecturers, doctors, engineers, etc. were French. Broadly speaking, they denounced French technical assistance. And then the long-established violent practices persisted. Take the case where DDT (a chemical intended to kill mosquitos), was "sprinkled" over farmers who, because of bad harvests, could not repay their loans. Jean Collin, a French national who had chosen to live in Senegal, and was a powerful Minister of Finance at the time, was accused of being the instigator of this practice.
The students generally blamed Senghor for being a Francophile and challenged his construction of negritude. They referred to ideas that were much more radical like those of Frantz Fanon and the Black Panthers, for example, and they defended these progressive theories referred to as Marxist ideas at the time. In 1966, when the President of Ghana, Kwamé Nkrumah, was overthrown by a coup d'etat, the campus was closed for the first time. The students wanted to organise demonstrations in front of the Embassies of the United States and Great Britain, considered as “imperialist countries”, and suspected of being behind the coup.
In the rhetoric used at the time, Senghor was classified among the African leaders accused of being “reactionaries”. On the other hand, the “revolutionary” figures were considered as the heroes of the Third World: Che Guevara, the champion of the Cuban revolution; Guinean President Sékou Touré, who rejected the Franco-African Community at the 1958 referendum; Ghanaian President Nkrumah; and Chinese revolutionist Mao whose red book was circulated on campus, especially in 1969, or the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, whose Diên Biên Phu victory against France in 1954 was celebrated in the leftist circles in Dakar.
What was the political context in which the student revolt took place?
At international level, the world was at the height of the cold war and the African news was punctuated by numerous coups d'etat and the civil war in Biafra, Nigeria.
In 1968, Senghor reigned supreme in Senegal. He imposed a de facto single party system which he referred to as a "unified party" The opposition parties were banned, dissolved or went into hiding. The African Party for Independence (PAI), founded on Marxist-Leninist traditions, was dissolved in 1960. Mamadou Dia, who was Senghor's strongest rival, and his partisans were imprisoned after the 1962 crisis. In 1966, the African Regroupment Party (PRA) was absorbed by the Senegalese Progressist Union (UPS), led by Senghor.
Those opposed to Senghor no longer had a legal framework within which to operate. But the PAI, for example, pursued its activities in hiding and would later take advantage of the students’ dispute to make its voice heard. Most of those leading the students' movement were PAI youths, regrouped within the MEPAI to form a very active organisation. The campus had thus become a field for political expression, which was going to fill the vacuum left by the democratic deficit. So, the May 68 movement served as a framework of expression for all the political sensitivities and opposition to what was referred to as President Senghor's “personal regime”.
The students were therefore engaged in a struggle by proxy that combined youthful energy and political opposition. At the beginning, the movement was very factual and related to the scholarships. In 1967, the Fouchet reform in France, which was later introduced in Senegal, abolished the first part of the baccalaureate, which was a sort of filter. Consequently the number of high school graduates and students grew substantially. The concern was how to ensure that every student was awarded a scholarship. The government decided to split the grant amount and reduce the monthly payments from 12 to 10.
That was the spark that lit the fire and led to a political protest that had been simmering all along. The students were thus the trigger of a long-lasting crisis which hit the country anew... a country that has constantly been shaken since independence by various other tensions. These included the collapse of the Federation of Mali in the summer of 1960, followed by the institutional crisis in 1962, with the resulting installation of a presidential regime by Senghor, and the imprisonment of the President of the Council, Mamadou Dia, and his friends. In 1963, the country was racked by post-electoral violence that was severely repressed. Many people were killed during “the massacre of the allée du centenaire”. The year 1967 was marked by political assassinations: Senghor escaped an assassination attempt on Tabaski day. Demba Diop, MP for Mbour, was assassinated following the political tensions within the ruling party, UPS.
Nevertheless, Senghor always seemed to emerge victorious from these crises, up until 1968.
How did the students' strike movement set the country ablaze so quickly?
The attack on the campus by the security forces was extremely violent. There was bloodshed. A student, Salmon Khoury, was killed while other students were arrested and detained in military camps around the city. Likewise, many who were not students but happened to be on campus at the time, in particular school children and idlers, were arrested but later released. Because of the emotional bond between the students and inhabitants of the neighbourhood, in which the students had relatives, the violent attack gave rise to expressions of deep shock, referred to as the “shock of the campus”. There was upheaval in the neighbourhood of Medina, for example, the very next day, 30 May.
Those in the regions heard that there was an attack in Dakar and it was rumoured that several people had been killed. Officially, the only victim on campus was a young disabled person of Lebanese origin from Ziguinchor, who was hit with a grenade during the attack. While parents thought that their children were quietly studying, one heard that the army was out, that there was bloodshed and that students were arrested. As a result, the population spontaneously took to the streets in support of the students, and the riots in Dakar lasted three days.
The workers' union reacted quickly. The National Union of Senegalese Workers (UNTS), a single confederation present in all the regions, called for an indefinite strike in support of the students and also made their own claims. The UNTS membership included former members of dissolved political parties, still upset by the domestication of the labour movement under President Senghor's control.
On 30 May Dakar was ablaze followed by Pikine, Rufisque and other cities like Saint-Louis, Thiès and Kaolack. All these cities had big high schools. School children, who already envisaged themselves as future students, subscribed to the opinions of their elders and gave greater impetus to the strike movement.
How did President Senghor regain control of the situation?
Senghor declared a state of emergency, and on 31 May, the army was ordered to shoot to quell the uprising, but fortunately it never did. The university was closed indefinitely and 353 Senegalese students were interned in military camps. Foreign African students were expelled. The French army, under cooperation agreements, was also in the streets and occupied strategic points such as the airport, the radio, the palace and the Belair power station. This was ammunition to those who denounced neo-colonialism on the one hand and on the other hand, caused gnashing of teeth in the army.
Senghor rapidly took steps to defuse the crisis by reshuffling his government and opening tripartite negotiations between the government, the unions and the employers. On 12 June, the unions’ demands were discussed first and Senghor decided on a set of measures, among which were the increase of wages blocked since 1960 and the reduction of State spending, in particular, that of the National Assembly. Various changes were made at the head of some ministries, notably those of National Education and the Interior, involved in the crisis. The Ministry of Armed Forces was abolished, giving the president direct control over the army.
Senghor received little support from his party, with many activists remaining neutral. He faced the front and appealed to the peasant world. The latter, dominated by the marabouts and notables of the UPS, sent peasant militias to Dakar to support Senghor.
The president could also count on the support of religious leaders of the Muslim Brotherhoods who spoke in his favour. In the mosques after the evening prayer, the strike was discussed. Senghor's propaganda, aimed primarily at parents, was simple. They were roughly told: "Your children are following a young German named Con Bandit”. The use of the figure of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, whose name was distorted on purpose, in the Senghor propaganda, sought to touch the sensitivities of the students’ parents, some of whom fought in the world war. Nevertheless, much solidarity was expressed in favour of the strikers. Some mothers, in particular, were anxious to see their children dissociate themselves from their peers. They supported the strikers, without really knowing what they were asking for, but these were their children.
Finally, an event calmed the ardour of everyone. The death of National Assembly President, Lamine Guèye, on 10 June. He was a great political figure and involved in the election of Blaise Diagne to the French National Assembly in 1914. There was a lull following the announcement of his death and a great funeral was organized. The Khalif general of the Tidjaniyya Brotherhood, Abdoul Aziz Sy, made a speech that left its mark on peoples’ minds. At a symbolic level, it was as if the nation had come together at the funeral. The Khalif's humbling speech brought earthly things back to their true measure. It remains, to date, a speech always broadcast whenever the country experiences moments of crisis.
The funeral was held on 10 June. On 12 June, negotiations were opened with the unions, and on 13 June, the end of the strike was declared. Students were released, but the question of scholarships and the future of the university remained unresolved.
What was the outcome of the crisis?
The association of German booksellers announced that it had decided to award its famous Peace Prize to President Senghor. The ceremony was scheduled for 23 September in Frankfurt on Maine.
In my view, Senghor could not leave his country in crisis, without decisively settling the students’ issue and the future of the university. Senghor highly valued international prestige. Besides, people, especially those in his own party, were getting tired of the situation. He then called for negotiations with the students, during which he capitulated completely. An agreement was signed on 14 September. Scholarships were left unchanged, solutions were found for expelled foreign students and the University of Dakar was reopened.
Senghor went to Frankfurt with peace of mind. All the German elite were present at the award ceremony, including President Lübke and Chancellor Kiesinger. But the German socialist students, led by Daniel Cohn Bendit, protested against the awarding of the prize to Senghor. They accused him of violently repressing the student strike in Dakar and demanded that the peace prize be given to a real hero of the Third World.
A diplomatic incident was averted and a public apology was made by Foreign Affairs Minister Willy Brandt. Senghor responded with humour and invited German students to see for themselves what was going on in Senegal. Cohn-Bendit and a few other students were arrested.
May 68 in Dakar had repercussions beyond its borders!
What does the Senegalese student movement have in common with the others in May 1968 around the world?
The causes of the strike were specific and national. But the junction with the May 68 movement around the world was obvious, because of the global context of youth unrest. Indeed, Senegalese students, supported by workers and school children, shared the same ideals, such as being left-wing, challenging neo-colonialism and imperialism, like their counterparts around the world. In Dakar, where we also read Marcuse or Rosa Luxemburg, for example, all Marxist currents were present: Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, Castro, Guevarist, Trotskyist, etc. Dakar students were au fait with what was going on around the world. The campus was international and there were French newspapers like Le Monde. Even though Senegal did not have a plural press and radio, the information was disseminated. This was why Senghor denounced the "foreign hand" at the beginning of the strike, spoke of a coordinated movement from Paris and accused Senegalese students of "aping" French students.
However, we must avoid transposing here what we did elsewhere, even if the slogans of May 68 around the world were appropriated by Dakar. Dakar had a Parisian flair: there were clubs, a Latin Quarter, cafes, etc. So there was a certain francophile side to students, who all went to French school. But at the same time, highly committed students sought authenticity and challenged the Western and neo-colonial model. If at that time, the Beatles made the world dance and Johnny Hallyday France, in Dakar a counter-culture movement sought to promote the culture of the Third World and especially Africa. The reference in terms of both clothing and music was Guinea. Dakar also looked to the Black Panthers, activists of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Fashion was ‘afro’ in terms of hairstyles as well as the girls’ clothing: they wore pants and developed the fashion of the "tom boy". It was a very revolutionary era when young people sought to change the world and advocated for societal change. According to the testimony of young people who were there at the time, some of them had their first beer on campus. This was a sign of a generational conflict in a still conservative society and a desire to break away from moral shackles. But this trend was limited to a restricted environment and characterised an elite movement.
What is the legacy of May 68 for Senegal?
The actors of that era, to whom I spoke, reminisced about the spirit of May 1968, one of challenge, justice and openness to the world. They were very proud to have experienced this movement and to have taken over the torch of the anti-colonial struggle from their elders. A struggle that evolved into a new fight against neo-colonialism incarnated, in their eyes, by Senghor and his regime.
The May 68 generation was massively engaged in political parties. On the one hand the Left and, on the other hand, in the pan-Africanist historian Cheikh Anta Diop who, for a long time, incarnated opposition to Senghor. After the liberalisation of political parties, everyone followed its own path and its own political offer to the public; resulting in the emergence of many parties. The May 68 elders joined the unions, especially those of National Education, to which they brought their fighting spirit… this spirit has still not faded.
May 1968 in Senegal was also a crucial moment in the discussion on the Africanization of the university. Starting with reforms undertaken in 1968, the flow of students increasingly turned towards new destinations. French students too were gradually returning to France, while the strong presence of African students was decreasing. The University of Dakar was no longer the exclusive destination it once was. Little by little, technical assistance, as the French cooperation was called, was withdrawn.
Africanization made sense but was not without its problems. It meant, for example, the end of the validity of Dakar degrees in France, which the students wanted to maintain. But one cannot Africanize the university and want French degrees. Similarly, the reforms had an impact on the future of some schools and sectors. For example, the Department of Sociology, considered too subversive, was removed. In addition, the French staff left and, much to the chagrin of those involved, the wages became African. The reforms also affected French cooperation scholarships, which were higher than the national scholarships, and from which many students benefitted. All in all, Africanization marked the transition from French to African universities.
Academic institutions were created throughout Africa. But African students, formerly expelled twice from Senegal, in 1966 and in 1968, and who returned strongly politicised, were of concern to their countries of origin. Former Dakar University students were also involved in the overthrow of the regime in Dahomey, Benin, in 1969.
In terms of relations between students and Senghor, May 68 was the advent of a period of cyclical crises. The regime capitulated, the students learned that fighting pays and that Senghor was not invincible. However, through a shrewd manoeuvre, Senghor eased things just sufficiently to quell the unrest until the following year. In 1969, the student strike failed. In 1971, student protesters were sent to the army to do their military service. The reprieve was over. Some students even met at the front in Guinea Bissau during the decolonisation war against the Portuguese.
The significance of May 1968, which is also very factual, should not be exaggerated. The campus was not so homogeneous: the youth of the ruling party were against the strike, and French and African students also had a different view of the events.
Each generation of students has its own debates and disputes. But the question of scholarships is recurrent. Today, students are fighting for the regularity of their payments and the access to scholarships of everybody. Without them, students cannot survive. The population’s sympathy towards the students is as intense today as it was before, even though people are really tired with the incessant disputes. But young people say that the government only works when challenged.
In May 1968, ideological debates were held on campus. Today, religious movements coordinate the discussions on campus where prayers and religious songs are heard. I am part of the generation of 1988, "the unhealthy generation" like President Abdou Diouf.
The ideological debates are no longer as intense as they were, and the entry of religion on campus has inhibited transforming the space into a field of expression for all, in the image of society with all its variants. Every generation of students’ lives with their time.
As we conclude this interview, the intervention of the gendarmerie at the campus of Gaston Berger University of Saint-Louis and the killing of one of the students who demanded a scholarship, provoked a movement of support in all regions and a widespread crisis in the country ... just as in May 1968, to the day some 50 years later.