As explained in the previous article, Senegal’s political class was unable or unwilling to settle their differences within the legal framework. Back then, in December 1962, the country was still ruled by emergency laws stemming from the collapse of the Mali Federation in 1960. In a winner-take-all struglle for power, two rival camps faced each other. On one side stood the president of the republic, Leopold Sedar Senghor, backed by the president of the National Assembly, Lamine Guèye. The rival camp was headed by the Prime minister, Mamadou Dia. He lost his case and was arrested. Accused of plotting a coup d’état, he stood trial—along with his four co-defendants— before the High Court of Justice in May 1963. This paper continues the series of three articles published by Victor Du Bois, who attended the hearing.
Tierno S. Bah
Victor D. Du Bois
The Trial of Mamadou Dia. Part II: The Proceedings in Court, May 7, 1963.
American Universities Field Staff Reports.
West Africa Series, Vol. VI No. 7 (Senegal), pp. 1-13
Dakar, July 1963
At nine o’clock in the morning on May 7, 1963, the trial of the former Senegalese prime minister, Mamadou Dia, got under way. The defendants were Dia and Ibrahima Sarr, Valdiodio N’Diaye, Joseph M’Baye, and Alioune Tall, former Ministers of Development, Finance, Commerce, and Information respectively in the Dia government.
A command barked out by a sergeant at arms called the soldiers in the courtroom to attention. The audience stood as the judges of the High Court entered the chamber.
Of the seven men sitting as judges only one, Ousmane Goundiam, a member of the Senegalese Supreme Court, who presided, was a magistrate. The others were deputies designated by the National Assembly to serve as judges in the present trial.
The state’s case was argued by a specially appointed procureur général, Ousmane Camara. Dia and the other accused were defended by French attorneys, who flew in from Paris, and by three Senegalese, among them, Abdoulaye Wade, the brilliant head of legal studies at the University of Dakar.
The Case for the Prosecution
The charges against Mamadou Dia were seven:
- That he had ordered the expulsion of the deputies from the National Assembly Building
- That he had ordered the arrest of four deputies without legitimate cause or warrant
- That he had had the telephone lines to the President’s palace cut to prevent the President’s fulfilling his constitutional functions
- That he had ordered an attack on the President’s palace
- That he had sought to raise an armed band
- That he had assumed unauthorized command of the armed forces against legitimate authority and in disregard of a requisition order signed by the President under Article 24 of the Senegalese Constitution 1 and
- That he had perpetrated acts against the liberty of individual citizens.
Two separate but related issues, crucial to the substance of the charges, occupied the attention of the prosecution during the trial. The first concerned Mamadou Dia’s violation of the Constitution; the second, the thorny issue of party-government relations. Ultimately, the latter reduced itself to the basic question: “Which was the higher authority in the land—the party or the Constitution ?”
The prosecution’s position on the first issue, namely Mamadou Dia’s violation of the Constitution, was quite clear. In ordering the expulsion of the deputies from the Assembly, arresting four of their members, and cutting off telephone communication with the President’s palace, Dia had exceeded the limits of his constitutional authority and had trampled on the rights of parliament. His isolation of the palace clearly impeded President Léopold Senghor‘s exercise of his constitutional functions.
To the prosecution, Dia’s countermanding of President Senghor’s order requisitioning the nation’s armed forces and his issuance of another requisition order, placing the nation’s armed forces under his own command, constituted usurpation of presidential prerogative and illegal assumption of military authority. Furthermore, Dia’s continued exercise of command over the gendarmerie and the Dakar police force, even after his government had been officially overthrown by the Assembly’s vote of censure, amounted to raising an armed band against legitimate state authority (i.e., the President).
The charge of perpetrating arbitrary acts against the liberty of individual citizens was based on Dia’s arrest of the four deputies and the detention by his followers of the head of the central telephone exchange, an action taken to facilitate isolation of the President’s palace.
Much more complex was the second issue, whether the party or the Constitution was the higher authority in the land. Yet this issue had to be raised by the prosecution, for the defense’s entire case rested on the claim that Dia’s actions were both legitimate and understandable in the light of the doctrine of party supremacy supposedly in force at that time in Senegal.
The prosecutor challenged the validity of this doctrine. He did not hesitate to point out that the Senegalese Constitution nowhere spoke of the party, much less accorded it the supremacy now imputed to it. What was more, the rules of the UPS themselves did not claim for the party a position superior to that of the nation’s Constitution. “How can you claim that any law or doctrine can be put above the Constitution, the source of all legality in the country?” he asked the defense. The point was difficult to refute.
The prosecutor emphasized that although deputies are in theory agents of the party, inasmuch as it is the party which names their candidacy, they also as deputies have obligations to the Constitution. “The question,” he said, “adds up to this: ‘Does one have the right to violate the Constitution if one has permission from the party?’ Or, looked at another way: ‘Can deputies respect the Constitution without the express permission from the UPS ?‘” “If the party is really supreme,” he inquired, “why is it that it did not change the Constitution and specifically make the state and the party a single entity? Since it did not change the Constitution, the party should now respect it.” Insistently, the prosecutor contended that the Senegalese Constitution could not be changed at will to suit the particular circumstances of the moment. It must be accorded a genuine inviolability.
The Defense’s Reply
The defense’s reply to the prosecution’s charges rested mainly on the assertion that Mamadou Dia had not attempted a coup d’état. His actions had been warranted by the political tensions at the time. They were “conservation measures” (“mesures conservatoires”) aimed solely at preserving the status quo until the party’s National Council should have an opportunity to express its judgment at the Rufisque meeting scheduled for December 20, 1962. Mamadou Dia emphasized that it was he, not Senghor, who had asked for the meeting of the National Council.
“Had the Council backed the deputies who wanted to present the censure motion,” he said, “I would immediately have tendered the resignation of my government.” On such a crucial question, he insisted, the party had a right to express its view; and the deputies, as its agents, had an obligation to respect it. But the deputies were unwilling to wait for the Rufisque meeting. They refused to withdraw their censure motion even after the party’s Political Bureau had asked them to do so. lt was this obstinate refusal on their part to acknowledge the primacy of the party and submit to its discipline that prompted him (Dia) to have the deputies expelled from the Assembly. His only intention was to prevent them from filing a motion of censure until the party had had a chance to discuss the matter.
The defense further contended that the deputies had no legal right to file a censure motion because Senegal technically was still in a state of emergency and governed by emergency laws in force at the time, under which no motion of censure of the existing government could be proposed. Under the same emergency laws, the defense continued, the Prime Minister had the legal authority to arrest anyone suspected of subversion against the state, even deputies and other officers of the national government. And Mamadou Dia’s testimony before the court indicated that subversion was what he saw in the deputies’ censure motion:
Yes, I took certain measures once I was informed of the development of the political situation. When I heard that the censure motion was about to be taken in abnormal conditions, I found myself confronted with a plot directed against the government. It appeared to some persons to be absolutely necessary to change this regime. The plot was directed more against our institutions than against our government. This plot was aimed at destroying the party. It was organized subversion.
Dia declared that once it had become clear to him that President Senghor would side with the deputies on the question of the propriety of the censure motion during a state of emergency, he had requested the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of this motion. But the President refused to refer the matter to the Court, even though the Senegalese Constitution specifically provided for such arbitration in cases of conflict between the government and the Assembly 2. According to Dia, Senghor preferred instead to have the party’s National Council decide the question at the Rufisque meeting. Thus, it was the President and not he who had violated the Constitution.
The defense insisted, moreover, that the testimony of the witnesses indicated that President Senghor had requisitioned the paratroopers from Rufisque before 10:00 a.m. on December 17, that is, before the deputies had even been expelled from the Assembly. Under the Constitution then in force, it was the Prime Minister as chief executive who was responsible for the armed forces, especially since Mr. Dia was also acting Minister of Defense at the time. Again, therefore, it was Senghor who had overstepped the limits of his authority.
To disprove the prosecution’s charge that Dia really intended to overthrow the government, the defense pointed out that Dia sympathizers had control of the radio stations at Saint-Louis and Ziguinchor but did not use them to incite the people to rebellion. No attempt was made to raise an armed band against the President. Although numerous messages of sympathy from various parts of the interior reached Dia, none were broadcast over the national airwaves, even on December 17 and 18, 1962, when the Dia forces had effective control of radio facilities in Dakar. Dia said:
« I had a majority of the armed forces on my side, but I did not use them because I wanted at all costs to avoid a direct confrontation of force. It was to keep Senghor from so doing (i.e., ordering such a confrontation) that I had the telephone lines to the palace cut. What I asked, what I begged of God that day, was that Senegalese blood not be spilled. My prayer must have been heard for no Senegalese blood did flow. »
Speaking not so much for himself as on behalf of the four ministers who were being tried as his accomplices in the alleged coup d’état, Dia insisted that they were merely obeying the orders of their Prime Minister, and therefore should not be held at fault at all:
« I am not going to plead. I am going to explain. For six months we have heard only one version of the facts in the press, the radio, etc.—that of the accusers.
I am not a plotter . Consequently I have no accomplices. The friends who are around me are men who were faithful to their Prime Minister. They are men who are faithful to an ideal, a program we entered into with others…
When one undertakes a coup d’état, one does not let the chief of staff go off on a tour of inspection 3. One does not take three days to discuss the political situation with the party. One does not undertake to speak with the nation’s chief magistrate in an effort to find a peaceful solution to political problems…»
Dia spoke at length of the harmony which heretofore had existed between the party and the government because the primacy of the former had always been tacitly accepted. He said:
« If it were to be done over again, I would do the same thing to protect the party, the nation’s institutions, and the country. »
Then a murmur ran through the courtroom as Dia, looking directly at the judges, said:
« You do not have the real plotters before you.… »
The Prosecution’s Closing Statement
The prosecutor’s summation before the Court was brief. He recapitulated the events of December 14-18. Next, he conceded that the evidence brought out at the trial did not warrant retaining the charge against Dia that he had ordered an attack on the President’s palace. Accordingly, that particular charge against the defendant would be dropped.
Further, evidence of direct, overt complicity on the part of Ibrahima Sarr in the attempted coup d’état was so insubstantial that the prosecution was willing to withdraw all charges against this defendant.
Even so, an attempt against the security of the state had still been made. In expelling the deputies from the National Assembly and ordering the arrest of four of them, Mamadou Dia had flagrantly violated the Constitution. Yet the prosecutor recognized an element of innocence in Dia’s actions:
« I do not doubt that the former Prime Minister acted completely in good faith even when he committed the crimes against the Constitution for which he is being tried here today. At the time, he thought he was doing the right thing. But between what he thought was right and the law there was a gap, and what he did constituted a grave crime. »
Citing the words of Lamennais that “the holiest of causes becomes impious when one resorts to crime to make it triumph,” the prosecutor nevertheless felt that the High Court should consider extenuating circumstances in judging the former prime minister :
« During a certain time it seems that by a curious combination of factors due to his own personality, and the influence of those around him, the accused thought that the party, the nation, and Mamadou Dia enjoyed such intimate communion that one could not touch one without disturbing the others. In his soul and in his conscience he must have thought, “How can one be a good Senegalese when one is against Mamadou Dia?”
The Defense’s Final Word
The measured, dispassionate tones of the prosecutor’s presentation were brought into relief when the attorneys for the defense entered their final plea. In tones ranging from the theatrical gravity of Me. Badinter, Valdiodio N’Diaye’s lawyer, to the quivering Zola-like tones of Me. Baudet, Dia’s attorney, the defense attempted alternately to deny that a coup d’état had been attempted, and to justify the attempt on the rather untenable ground that “it was all a tragic mistake.” Coming on the heels of a hard-hitting, give-and-take debate with the prosecutor during four days of testimony, the lofty words of the French attorneys
defending Mamadou Dia and the four other accused had a hollow
The defendants themselves were of little help in the final battle. Valdiodio N’Diaye seemed to be the only one genuinely concerned with saving himself from conviction. The other defendants, Dia, Sarr, M’Baye, and Tall, all seemed solely concerned with justifying their actions for posterity. Sarr, apparently disappointed that the prosecutor was willing to withdraw charges against him, in stentorian voice called upon the Court to consider him as the equal, in innocence or guilt, of Mr. Dia. Just to make sure he was driving his point home, he launched into a diatribe against the Senghor government, calling it a police state; but to his chagrin he was cut short by the presiding judge, Joseph M’Baye, when his turn came to speak before the bar, shouted at the judges that he was proud to be at the side of Mamadou Dia during this crisis. Alioune Tall remained as inconspicuous in the final plea as he had throughout most of the trial.
When Mamadou Dia came before the bar he said simply:
« I have only to await calmly the judgment of the High Court. I consider that the charges which have been made against me are unjustified . However I affirm that if my condemnation will serve my country in that it prevents it from falling into ridicule, then I am ready to accept this condemnation now. But I hope that at least my friends will be spared. »
The Court’s Verdict
After an hour and a half of deliberation, the seven judges filed back into the courtroom. In precise tones, Ousmane Goundiam, President of the High Court, read to each of the accused the various charges which had been retained by the Court against him. After each charge, he read the Court’s decision 4.
Mamadou Dia was found guilty on five counts:
- Ordering the expulsion of the deputies from the National Assembly
- Ordering the arrest of four deputies without warrant
- Cutting the telephone lines to the President1s palace
- Usurping and illegally retaining military authority
- Perpetrating arbitrary acts against several citizens in violation of the Constitution
Ibrahima Sarr was found guilty of complicity on all counts accepted against Mr. Dia.
Joseph M’Baye was found guilty of complicity in the cutting of the telephone lines to the President’s palace.
Valdiodio N’Diaye was found guilty of complicity in the usurpation and illegal retention of military authority.
Alioune Tall was found guilty of complicity in ordering arbitrary acts against several citizens in violation of the Constitution.
Mamadou Dia was condemned to life imprisonment in a military fortress.
Ibrahima Sarr, Joseph M’Baye, and Valdiodio N’Diaye were
each sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Alioune Tall was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and the loss of civil rights for ten years .
Reflections on the Dia Trial
The trial of Mamadou Dia was a difficult experience for the young state of Senegal. It would perhaps have been better if it had never taken place at all; that way the nation might have been spared the agony which this trial inflicted on everyone, and Senegal would not have lost the services of one of its ablest men. But the train of events on December 17, 1962, was such that in the end the trial was the only logical conclusion to a series of actions which had gained a momentum of its own. Once Mamadou Dia took the drastic steps of expelling the deputies from the National Assembly, arresting four of them, and then barricading himself in the Administration Building, he could not retreat. And once Senghor ordered the arrest of Dia and his ministers, the only thing left was to bring them to trial. Thus the two men precipitated a chain reaction which, once started, neither could stop. Yet one cannot help pondering the “ifs” of this case. What might have happened if Mamadou Dia had allowed his government to be voted out of office and then had gone before the National Council at Rufisque on December 20 to present his case to the party; or what the situation would have been if Senghor had agreed with his Prime Minister that a motion of censure was unreceivable during the existing state of emergency.
To a foreigner witnessing this trial there were certain disturbing elements. The quality of justice, embodied in the presiding magistrate’s concern for proper respect for procedure, declined sharply after the first day. Defendants and witnesses were allowed to argue interminably with one another, with but scant attention to the Court to whom they were supposed to address all their remarks. On numerous occasions during the trial, attorneys for the defense interrupted the prosecutor’s discourse, not to express an objection to a point raised, but to deliver orations of their own. Rarely were they called to order or even given so much as a slight reprimand from the hench. At such moments one became sorely aware of the judge’s lack of a gavel.
More disturbing still were the several anomalies arising from the trial itself. With the exception of the presiding magistrate, all of the men who sat in judgment on Mamadou Dia had voted to depose the Dia government; one of them, Théophile James, was himself the author of the censure motion against Dia. Of the 39 deputies who had not participated in the censure vote, not one had been named to serve as a judge. Attempts by counsel for the defense to effect a change in the make-up of the High Court were rejected—by the High Court itself.
Thus good reasons exist for doubting the impartiality of the Court.
Then, too, there was the severity of the sentences — sentences pronounced in spite of the prosecutor’s own moderate closing statement asking the High Court to drop all charges against Sarr and to consider extenuating circumstances in judging Dia and the other defendants. Evidently the Court wanted to make absolutely sure that Dia, Sarr, Valdiodio N’Diaye, and the others would be removed permanently from the Senegalese political scene. Had the death penalty still been in force in Senegal, there is little doubt that an even harsher fate would have been meted out to Dia and perhaps to one or two of the ether defendants.
In view of these facts, it is not surprising that many who were present asked themselves, “Was this a real trial whose object was to search for the truth and then to deal justly with that truth? Or was it a bogus trial—another show trial designed for the gallery and for the foreign press— intended to prove to the world that Senegal was a free and liberal democracy? Was it simply an attempt to discredit Mamadou Dia and throw a mantle of legitimacy over malodorous political acts perpetrated by men who, afraid of Dia, wanted him out of the way at all costs? Men who, certain in advance of the outcome, were willing to stage a public trial to gain their ends ?”
These questions, in all fairness, cannot be answered by a simple “Yes” or “No.” Certainly there were disturbing aspects of this case which would have aroused the doubts of any thinking person about the quality of the justice administered. But there were also other aspects that spoke highly for the Senegalese. No one who attended the trial could fail to be impressed by the openness and conscientiousness with which such basic questions as the validity of the doctrine of party supremacy and the relations between party and government we re discussed. The defense was given every opportunity to express its point of view, frankly and without hindrance, on every pertinent issue and to cross-examine all witnesses. And it availed itself fully of this right—indeed, so much so, that at one point during the defense’s closing plea, one of the attorneys, Omar Diop, used the occasion not so much to defend his client as to deliver a slashing attack against the Senghor administration. Moreover, much to the credit of all of the Senegalese parties concerned, colonialism—the favorite whipping boy in African political trials—was never once so much as mentioned during the five days of the Dia trial.
In a part of the world where passions are easily aroused, where a trial of this sort ran the very real risk of setting off strife between different segments of the nation’s ethnic and religious communities, and where at any given moment anti-government demonstrations might have been inspired, the decision even to hold a trial took a great deal of courage on the part of President Senghor. For those of us foreigners who witnessed it, the trial of Mamadou Dia may not have fulfilled our own private notions of what constitutes justice. Nor, as far as the Senegalese themselves are concerned, may it necessarily have established the right of constitutional law over the doctrine of party supremacy. But one very important thing did emerge from this trial: a principle that even the highest personalities of a nation may be called to answer for their actions before a court of law. For an African country, groping to find its way toward a genuinely liberal democracy, this is a step ahead—a stumbling step perhaps, but also a brave and hopeful one.
1. Article 24 of the Senegalese Constitution stipulates, among other things, that “The President of the Republic is the Chief of the Armed Forces” (paragraph 7).
2. Article 48, paragraph 2, of the Senegalese Constitution, in force at the time, reads: “In the case of disagreement between the Government and the Assembly, the Supreme Court, at the request of one or the other, gives a ruling within eight days.”
3. The reference here was to General Fall, who had been away on an inspection of military posts in the interior a week before December 17.
4. The High Court’s decisions were in all cases taken by the vote of an absolute majority of its members, determined by secret ballot. The exact vote count on the various charges retained by the High Court against each of the defendants was never made public.
Next, The Trial of Mamadou Dia. Part III: Aftermath of the Trial