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Senegal’s First President Dead at 95

December 20, 2001

PARIS (AP) _ Leopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal’s first president after the West African country’s independence, died at his home in France on Thursday, a presidential spokesman said in Senegal. He was 95.

Senghor had been living in Normandy for a number of years. The presidential spokesman, Cherif Seye, did not announce a cause of death, but Senghor was known to have had heart trouble.

Senghor often told audiences outside his homeland that he’d prefer to be remembered as a poet rather than a statesman.

When he was elected president after Senegal’s independence from France in 1960, he pledged to govern honestly and with justice, but added: ``A country cannot be governed without prison walls.″

He decried what he saw as the arrogance displayed by younger leaders of some other African countries. Though his impassioned African nationalism emerged in all his poetry and his political action, he refused to reject the European culture brought to Africa by colonial powers.

Senghor’s poems were written both 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.

Some militant Africans regarded him as a neo-colonialist and a puppet of French interests. He shrugged off their attacks, pointing to Senegal’s stability, progress and peace in a region wracked by coups and tribal conflict.

Long before he became active in politics _ eventually becoming a member of the French parliament, a French government minister, and later president of Senegal, 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.

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 in 1959.

A Roman Catholic in a mainly Muslim country, he studied in a convent school in Senegal and won a scholarship to the prestigious Louis-Le-Grand college in Paris. One of his classmates, Georges Pompidou, was to become president of France and a lifelong friend.

Another was Claude Cahour, the daughter of a French country doctor whom Senghor introduced to Pompidou. She became the future French president’s wife.

Senghor’s studies concentrated 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 joined the French army as a volunteer. However, he was taken prisoner and spent much of the war in a German prison camp where he wrote some of his most poignant poems.

``Chants d’ombres″ (Songs of Shadows), his first volume of poetry, was published in 1948. One early poem describes his desire to ``rip down all the Banania posters from the walls of France.″ Banania was a brand of breakfast drink whose symbol was a laughing caricature of an African.

While in France, he 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.

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