Senegalese Analogies

Senegalese Analogies:
Parallels in Chinese and French Interaction with a West African Nation

Senegal sits at the farthest western edge of the Old World, as far from China as any country in Africa. Unlike other nations in West Africa, Senegal has also consistently maintained close and amicable ties with its former colonizer, France, since it gained independence in 1960. Therefore it should come as no surprise that this relatively small and resource-poor country would generally gain little notice in studies of Sino-African relations. Nonetheless, Chinese nationals living in the Senegalese capital of Dakar have brought attention to China’s influence in the region, in part due to local resentment of the burgeoning Chinese population and their trade activities, as well as the novelty of African “Chinatowns” portrayed in a variety of media outlets. This paper begins at this point of interest by exploring the nature of these migrants’ experiences, as well as Senegalese reactions, comparing them to those of other foreign groups, the French and Lebanese communities of Dakar in particular, that have been present since the colonial era.

From there, however, the comparative picture of Sino- and Franco-Senegalese relations must broaden to include analyses of economic diversity, trade, and governmental ties. Using these criteria, parallels as well as contrasts between French and Chinese activities in Senegal become apparent, and comparison with the former colonial actor enables the scholar to assess whether China’s actions in Senegal constitute neo-colonialism. To a great extent, this finding rests on the observer’s conceptions of neo-colonialism and the global economic system itself, topics far beyond the scope of this study. Nevertheless, it may definitively be concluded that analogies made between present Chinese activity and European imperialism amount to little more than ahistorical sensationalism. Senegal’s future promises to bring new international actors, trends, and bright new potential to its people, unprecedented events in which France and China will only serve as supporting actors – not direct the play.

Foreign Presences and Social Reactions

While little permanent colonial settlement occurred in Senegal during its time as a French possession, the presence of foreign minorities has significantly influenced the development of Senegalese history. The Senegalese have repeatedly responded and adapted to the environments created by these groups, continually forging new societal structures. Until the mid-19th century, the peoples and political entities of West Africa’s Senegambian region remained unconquered by Europeans, despite having been profoundly affected in the previous three centuries by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the continuance of European commerce that followed its abolition. To this time, the French maintained only two island trading posts – Gorée and Saint-Louis – and did not begin assert military control over the mainland until 1854, which over the succeeding decades ended in full conquest and imperial rule by the 1890s. The imposition of colonial domination was in some ways revolutionary, particularly in its toppling of previous systems of governance and nominally leveling distinctions of slavery, caste and nobility. Nonetheless, social change did not come instantaneously, appearing in surprising ways such as in the sustained spread of Islam through the country, a movement linked with resistance to the colonizer.

During this period and through the First World War, the trading companies from Bordeaux that dominated French interests in Senegal first hired French and then Lebanese agents, gradually resulting in severely restricted commercial opportunities for natives. Through the interwar period, French and Lebanese also came to monopolize shopkeeping in Dakar and other commercial centers, effectively inhibiting the development of an African capitalist class. So too were the trained positions of nascent industry closed to the Senegalese in the later colonial era as working-class immigrants from France “almost automatically” became overseers and foremen, and those with even the most limited of qualifications might become managers by virtue of their origin. Urban Senegalese made do through petty trade and the low-level unskilled labor that was essentially reserved for them. Overall, the large population of French expatriates living in Dakar during the colonial period and afterward remained relatively segregated from Africans; their life in Dakar required little cultural accommodation with the Senegalese, and the points of personal reference for most all in the community remained entirely French. Most of the Europeans in Dakar left for France upon retirement, and even by the 1950s the previous colonial characteristics of the minority community were rapidly disappearing, vanishing almost completely by the 1970s.

Following Senegal’s independence, even as its civil service and bureaucracy became Africanized, Lebanese investors retained a great deal of economic sway. Though Lebanese immigration was restricted in 1964, it had already been in decline due to state takeover of peanut marketing. The remaining community, however, continued to prosper, dominating connections between the large, primarily French firms and the indigenous petty traders. On the whole, the investment of wealthy Lebanese industrialists provided only marginal benefits for local economic development, sending a great deal of their assets overseas. Entrepreneurs depended on their own families and community networks for employees. Even today, with generations of Lebanese having been born in Africa, the community remains chiefly endogamous, despite having integrated into Senegalese society in many ways. Young Lebanese may speak Wolof as well as they speak French or Arabic, but they possess an enduring connection to their homeland and a distinct sense of identity.

Within the last decade, the establishment of over two hundred Chinese shops has entirely transformed one of Dakar’s main roads, Boulevard du Général de Gaulle. Young new arrivals – who have almost entirely been from the People’s Republic and not the Republic of China (Taiwan) – cite less competitive markets and greater opportunities to make money as their primary motivators for coming to Africa. Some arrive on their own initiative, possibly following family members or stories of opportunity, but others state that they came with funding from Chinese authorities. All is not ideal for the newcomers and their business, however, as custom fees for bringing in shipping containers of goods have increased exponentially, and Chinese may pay above-market prices for renting their shops and homes while informal Senegalese traders hawk their wares daily on the street directly in front of them. Filmmaker Brent Huffman believes the Chinese have kept themselves removed from high levels of integration with Senegalese society, and their communication with local Senegalese has been extremely limited. The result is a great deal of suspicion, uneasiness, and even resentment.

According to Senegalese in the Centenaire neighborhood, which has become Dakar’s so-called Chinatown, the area has been radically changed over the last ten years while other market spaces have been drained of customers. Many locals express bitterness because of the merchants’ perceived trading practices, accusing them with importing low quality goods, bribery, tax evasion, and undermining the welfare of the Senegalese. Around 2000, as new waves of Chinese arrived in Dakar, Senegalese business associations organized to oppose the new immigration to no avail. In 2004, the influential Senegalese Union of Traders and Industrialists (UNACOIS) planned a protest march against the Chinese merchant presence in Dakar, but subsequently changed its tactics and lobbied for the Senegalese government to obtain “reciprocity” – arrangements for Senegalese traders in China equivalent to those attained by the Chinese in Dakar.

At the same time, however, the Association of Consumers in Senegal (ASCOSEN) organized a counter-protest, claiming that Senegalese merchants cheat customers with grossly inflated prices, and that the cheapness of consumer goods provided by the Chinese has increased the Senegalese standard of living. Five years later in February of 2009, a Chinese businessman was murdered in his home in Dakar, provoking a response from the Chinese community of a three-day closing of their businesses, the group strengthening their solidarity in the process. Clearly a variety of interest groups have found a voice with which to express themselves on issues surrounding the Chinese diaspora and its place in Senegal, just as the Senegalese continue to actively assemble and protest other problems, such as in 2007, when Dakar saw widespread riots fueled by heavy public discontent over high food prices and high unemployment. These facts align with Sheldon Gellar’s intensive study of Senegalese civil society, which demonstrates that the Senegalese population possesses an intense propensity for public participation at the grassroots level and beyond.

In all likelihood, these features of Senegalese civil society hold the key to diffusing tension and solving conflicts that may come with increasing immigration into Dakar and the rest of the country. Worth putting into perspective is that the highest estimates of Chinese in Dakar reach 2,000 people. The French community in the capital reached its peak in the 1960s at 30,000, and today’s Lebanese population of Senegal likely exceeds that same number. The Chinese in Dakar differ greatly from these groups with origins in the colonial era because they have come to Senegal without the blessing of mercantile monopolies or the advantages of imperial discrimination. Today, Senegal’s own sovereign government holds the ability to regulate migrant presences – not a foreign power – and openly apparent is that all interested groups, from UNACOIS to ASCOSEN to the Chinese themselves, will readily act to have their voice represented. This interaction, dialogue, and show of commitment to the issues at hand lends to the Senegalese government the social capital and input it needs to seek a solution for all. Even more importantly, these trends hold great potential for advancements in Chinese immigrants’ integration, which would signal the greatest break from comparisons with the colonial past.

Trade and Economic Dependence

While the power of Senegalese civic interaction may hold promise for relations with Chinese nationals on African soil, African civil society organizations have little to no influence within China itself. This holds important implications on a macroeconomic scale, as trade between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Senegal has increased rapidly and consistently since 2005, when Senegal regranted diplomatic recognition to the PRC. In global markets and against the economic might of China, one might indeed suppose that Senegal could find itself in a position of subordination not so unlike that seen in colonial trade patterns. Thus, comparisons with the past and present of Françafrique again provide a useful meter of evaluation. Drawing this analogy and investigating the facts of the present, it becomes apparent that Senegal faces a host of economic challenges with roots its past as well as current global systems. Nevertheless, neither France nor China represents the ultimate root of these difficulties, and Senegal may well utilize these partners in its development. Historical perspective and information on Senegal’s present state of economic affairs indicate that while prosperity is not imminent or inevitable, it certainly is possible.

Hard evidence supports the claim that little economic modernization occurred in Senegal during French colonial rule, and that which did take place largely served to intensify Senegalese economic dependencies. In the first decades following decolonization, economic dependence on France continued, particularly in finance, where French banking institutions held quasi-monopolistic access to the granting of medium and large-scale credit in Senegal, and the country’s Ministry of Finance was substantially staffed with French personnel. Strongly argued as Senegal’s most important colonial legacy of economic dependence, however, is its monocrop export economy. Senegal entered international commerce through the production of peanuts; in 1830s, farmers along the West African coast adopted the plant for European trade, and as early as 1847 the French pointed to the crop, then desired for peanut oil’s use as an industrial lubricant, as the commodity that would “save” the potential colony. As late as the 1970s, peanuts made up the Senegalese state’s most important tax base, the country’s peanut-producing region became seriously overpopulated, and the industry itself constituted a bloated and government-controlled behemoth of risk.

From the 1980s onward, the Senegalese peanut diminished in importance, overtaken by profits from phosphates, fishing and tourism. Agricultural endeavors are still vital to the country, however, and peanuts continue to represent the primary cash crop and income source for the majority of Senegalese farmers. This means that the country’s economy remains heavily vulnerable to changes in rainfall and commodity prices, and three recent years readily demonstrate the peanut trade’s volatility: Despite a production decrease of 28% from the 2006-2007 to the 2007-2008 season due to poor rainfall, output then rose 66% for 2008-2009. In 2008, China imported 7,000 tons of peanut oil, a fact highlighted by Chinese officials as an effort on their part to increase Senegalese exports to the country.

Though less well known than the groundnuts desired since before the colonial era, it is in fact fishing that represents Senegal’s leading export sector today. Senegalese tuna sold in France, however, has lost some market share to Asian competitors – Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, which received import quotas of low-tariff canned tuna from the European Union following a ruling from the World Trade Organization. Senegal has not seen such competitive challenges for its large and developing phosphate industry, which has grown in cooperation with businesses from India; in 2008, a consortium led by the Indian Farmers’ Fertiliser Cooperative decided to invest $200 million to revive the phosphoric acid producer Industries Chimiques du Sénégal. Indeed, India constitutes Senegal’s second largest export market, consuming Senegalese iron scrap as well as the phosphates it desperately needs for the advancement of Indian agriculture.

Statistics on Senegalese trade demonstrate that the country has become commercially linked with a plethora of nations, developed and developing alike, and it has the potential to gain even more global markets. Though China has rapidly become a major exporter to Senegal, creating a large trade surplus, the Asian giant holds no preponderant influence in Senegalese networks, at least in terms of total trade. For comparison, the Netherlands exported $446 million worth of goods to Senegal in 2008, while in the same year, exports from China were $401 million. American trade is smaller in size, but Senegal has had a large trade deficit with the United States every year since 1992 save one, and over the past decade that deficit has grown significantly, demonstrating that China is in no way alone to gain commercial capital from Senegal. Indeed, the value of exports from the U.K. and France to the country far exceeds that of China, bringing even heavier Senegalese deficits. Nevertheless, Senegal does produce significant exports of its own, maintaining significant surpluses with its neighbors Gambia and Mali, as well as with India. After off and on oil exploration for over half a century, Senegal has also become within the last decade “ready to become the next African oil and gas success story.” It already possessed important and well-developed refining capacities, being one of the only four oil-refining countries in West Africa.

Perhaps the most important question for the Sino-Senegalese economic relationship is what opportunities China presents for Senegalese business and economic development. Several reports present evidence that itinerant Senegalese merchants have profited greatly from the availability of cheap goods, buying items at Chinese shops and moving door-to-door reselling them. Important to note is that Senegal has one of the largest official unemployment rates in the world, at 48%, and the informal sector has grown immensely since the 1970s. Senegalese economist Mamdou Diop claims that the Chinese presence has created many jobs, especially for young kids who would otherwise be unemployed. Additionally, Sijh Diagne conducted surveys indicating a high correlation between rising standards of living and purchases from Chinese shops. In particular, the President of ASCOSEN has mentioned the case of air conditioners, previously available only to the rich, which after the arrival of Chinese merchants sold for a sixth of the former price, making a basic product of material comfort affordable for many more Senegalese. The overall result is that Chinese goods’ price advantages provide convenience for the lives of many Africans, and that the alleged low quality of these goods stems not just from manufacturing practices in China, but demand from African merchants.

The novelty of this dynamic market environment in modern Senegal, with the advantages of foreign trade funneled through multiple levels of formal and informal interaction, indicates that the current economic conditions of Senegalese life are a far cry from being colonially or neo-colonially structured. In fact, examining only colonial legacies and current economic and industrial features in Senegal ignores the essential time of transformation and disruption that occurred in the country through the 1970s and 1980s, spurred by agricultural disaster, shifts in Senegalese social and political elements, volatility in the world economy and many other factors. Senegal has experienced rapid transitions in the last thirty years, which led to the decline of previous economic norms and even the dismantling of large swaths of industry and commerce, leading to the rise in the informal economy. The role of China in Senegal’s continually changing economic future remains somewhat ambiguous, but clearly it represents only a single source of commerce, compared with similar exporters to Senegal from Thailand to the United Kingdom. France maintains its place as Senegal’s leading partner, but in an environment stripped of previous one-sidedness and filled with a growing number of competitors. Senegal possesses intellectual, human and natural resources to take advantage of these trends, and in an independent way develop new opportunities upon the ruins of past monoliths.

Domestic and Global Implications

Senegalese social and economic concerns hold great bearing on its political patterns, and Senegal’s political interaction with actors such as France and China opens a window on the place of African states in today’s international relations. Senegal has demonstrated great willingness to expand its global horizons, reaching farther in its diplomacy than one might expect of a small West African nation. Though often cited as one of Africa’s leading multi-party democracies, Senegal possesses a governmental history far more complex than such slogans, even within its fifty years of independence; foreign relations have largely brought benefits to the Senegalese government, but the translation of aid and influence into tangible progress has long oscillated with Senegal’s path of political evolution.

Following the denouement of French domination, Léopold Sédar Senghor rose to become the father of Senegalese independence, overseeing as its first president two decades of Senegal’s interaction with the world as a newly decolonized state. Senghor warned in 1960 against the zeal of Pan-Africanism creating a kind of “continentalism” that would reject collaboration with the rest of the world, as this would lead to impoverishment of Africans. Senghor considered realistic policies of openness essential to development – “a matter of uniting Africa gradually, by making it a continent open to other continents.” Indeed, during Senghor’s tenure, Senegal not only retained significant ties with France, but opened itself to interaction with a great diversity of other actors as well. Senegal recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1971, though it did not support the U.N. resolution calling for the expulsion from that body of the Republic of China (Taiwan). It also engaged in trade and broad relations with Soviet Union, receiving in 1964 the USSR’s first aid agreement with a nonrevolutionary regime in West Africa and becoming a vital link in air routes between the Eastern Block and Latin America. Nevertheless, Senegal actively sought France’s continued support and attention, with Senghor even provocatively accusing the former colonizer in 1974 of “losing interest in Africa.”

Senghor ruled through one-party rule, non-violently but iron-handedly eliminating political opponents. By 1981, the President had produced a sizable technocratic class of civil servants through his intense, top-down pursuit of development, and he retired voluntarily to be replaced by a handpicked successor, Abdou Diouf. Among other significant political changes, Diouf oversaw an increase in multiparty dynamics as well as Senegal’s recognition of the Republic of China in 1996, leading to a retaliatory withdrawal of relations by the PRC in accordance with its One China Policy. According to Adama Gaye, this action was taken with tacit support from other political parties and longtime opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade as a reaction to early waves of immigration from Mainland China. The Taiwanese, however, largely failed to make inroads into Senegal similar to those of the PRC, and their diplomatic success remained unconsolidated.

In 2000, Wade was elected President, and in 2005 he reestablished ties with the PRC, writing to the President of Taiwan, “States have no friends; they only have interests.” In a 2007 interview, President Wade acknowledged China’s increasing role in Africa as a great power, and its successful creation of a vision for Sino-African cooperation. However, he also emphasized Senegal’s contact with France for “three centuries” and the enduring “intellectual formations” shared by the two countries. As recently as the 14th of this month, Wade praised the relationship between China and Senegal in meetings with important Chinese officials, noting that while the countries may possess greatly differing levels of economic and political significance, Senegalese can be proud of the importance China places on bilateral relations with their country.

The real motives behind Senegal’s abandonment of the PRC in 1996 and its return to recognizing the power nine years later remain murky. While Taiwan certainly extended aid to Senegal during its time as an ally, however, China has done even more, possibly having courted Senegal with offers before its 2005 switch. The PRC has created medical research programs in Senegal and actively worked towards increased agricultural training, helping Senegalese rice production increase 50% from 2006-2009. Through the first half of 2009, China pledged a US$11.5 billion aid package to Senegal “for sports, cultural and sanitation projects,” and in February 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Senegal, signing aid and loan deals for the renovation of public buses and the creation of a secure government communications system.

President Wade has actively sought to widen Senegal’s ties with the world while maintaining a strong relationship with France. Wade even worked with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, stirring controversy in 2010 with the construction of the African Renaissance Monument, built through a North Korean company in commemoration of Senegal’s fifty years of independence. France kept a low profile on the issue, and declining his invitation to attend the monument’s unveiling, President Sarkozy sent a message of congratulations for the anniversary celebration while making no mention of the project. Not only did Senegalese criticize the cost and style of the statue, as well as the lack of transparency surrounding its construction, but Wade also claimed intellectual property rights to the landmark, entitling him to 35% of visit revenue.

President Wade’s activities in other areas have been cause for even more consternation as well as serious alarm: Freedom House observed in 2009 that Wade “continued to consolidate power … announcing his intention to stand for a third term as president in 2012” and “demonstrating a willingness to persecute those who threatened his authority.” Nevertheless, despite numerous additional areas of concern in Senegal’s current political situation, no evidence points to foreign influence having any hand in Wade’s increased megalomania and corruption. Instead, it will take an activation of Senegalese popular power to challenge erosion of its democratic principles. If this can be achieved, building a national administration better able to pursue Senegalese interests and articulate a plan of development among its increasing number of partners – an objective central to Senegal’s future – should become an easy task.

An Optimistic Outlook

This paper has endeavored to shed light on aspects of Senegal’s past, present and future through three analogies: The first compared the Chinese community of Dakar with historic French and Lebanese presences, and the second matched the colonial economy against the Senegalese commerce of today. Lastly, the plentiful and evolving bilateral ties of independent Senegal with the rest of world were examined – a stark contrast to complete colonial domination. Although useful for introducing Sino-Senegalese relations in a unique historical and comparative fashion, each of these analogies has come up short. Chinese immigrants have none of the same resources and advantages at their disposal possessed by the French and Lebanese in Senegal, and have had few of the same motives and experiences. Senegal’s interaction with a multitude of trade partners demonstrates that China constitutes only a single, albeit large actor, which holds no semblance of monopolistic sway over any aspect of the Senegalese economy, as did the preponderant influence held by the French during the colonial era and subsequent decades. Though Senegalese domestic politics has become increasingly volatile, especially as the 2012 presidential elections loom, the country’s diplomatic outreach shows positive signs of increased ability to garner support from the international community, including both France and China.

Charges of neo-colonialism summon ideas of exploitation and dependency. Though the research detailed here did not include serious investigations of dependency theory or rebuttals of claims that China is a neo-colonial power, it nevertheless showed that the Senegalese are nothing if not independent. Just as their predecessors resisted and adjusted to French colonialism, the Senegalese today make do at home, even with half the population lacking formal employment, just as they make do in the international marketplace through a number of growing industries. Global opportunities are riper than ever for the Senegalese to express their independence, and in crossing the river of development, France and China can serve as helpful stones.

[Note: I don't feel like taking the time or trouble to get my footnotes, bibliography and appendix onto the blog, and it seems like Blogger doesn't provide any convenient means for doing that anyway. If you really care to see them, leave a comment and I can provide.]


  1. A very interesting article! You seem to have an impresse knowledge on this subject. I'm very much interested in particular in the Taiwan-Senegal relations. Do you have any bibliography you can recommend (French or English)?

  2. Thanks! here is a good article I used.
    There was also another one called “Development or Dependence? The China Factor in Senegal” by Sijh Diagne, but the link I had for it is broken and I can't find it anywhere else. It was in Northwestern Interdisciplinary Law Review. I also used a book by Jeremy Johnson called Political directions in former French (West) African colonies. I can put up my entire bibliography, which is pretty long, but I think those are the main sources I used on Taiwan, along with some news sources like this from the BBC.

  3. Ok now I've put my entire bibliography up here. I hope you find what you're looking for regarding Taiwan-Senegal relations. It's a very interesting back-and-forth that took place between those two countries, especially in the decade ('96-'05) that Senegal gave Taiwan recognition. I really don't know much about it, other than what I wrote in the paper.


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