Je re-publie ici l’article “L’Afrique reste le continent de la pauvreté” par Béchir Ben Yahmed. De la part de ce pionnier et vénérable journaliste, c’est un constat réaliste et amer. C’est surtout un témoignage de valeur qui résume quelque soixante-dix ans d’indépendance africaine — la Tunisie cessa d’être un protectorat français et obtint sa souveraineté en 1956.
Après son départ du gouvernement de Habib Bourguiba, premier président de la Tunise, Béchir ben Yahmed fonda le magazine Afrique Action en 1960. L’année suivante, la publication devint Jeune Afrique. Je me souviens vaguement avoir été témoin de la présence et d’une conversation de Béchir ben Yahmed à Conakry, au milieu des années 1960. C’était au dancing La Paillotte, dont le décor et l’ambiance était rehaussée en l’occurrence par François Luambo Makiadi (Franco) et le Tout-Puissant OK Jazz.
Pour mémoire, La Paillote devint le bercail de feu maître Kélétigui Traoré et ses Tambourinis. Un autre orchestre congolais — le nom n’échappe — avait élu domicile et jouait régulièrement au dancing Jardin de Guinée. Après le départ des Congolais, le night-club accueillit en permanence feu maître Balla Onivogui et ses Balladins. C’était quatre ans environs avant la création du Bembeya Jazz de Beyla, avec le soutien d’Emile Condé, gouverneur de la région.
Béchir ben Yahmed avait donc rompu avec le despote de sa Tunisie natale. De même, il devint tout aussi indésirable dans la Guinée, qui pâlissait graduellement la dictature d’Ahmed Sékou Touré. La brouille était prévisible et inévitable entre celui-ci et un Béchir attaché aux principes de la démocratie, dont celui de la liberté de la presse.
Pour autant, Béchir ben Yahmed ne renonça, ni ne délaissa la Guinée à son sort dans les mains sanguinaires de Sékou Touré. Au contraire, il embaucha feu Siradiou Diallo —mon propre neveu— dans sa rédaction. Mieux, il récompensa le talent du jeune Guinéen en l’intégrant progressivement à la direction de l’hebdomadaire, et cela jusque dans des fonctions de décision au sommet. Ben Yahmed, Siradiou Diallo, et toute l’équipe de Jeune Afrique, s’attelèrent méthodiquement à l’accomplissment de leur délicate mission. Guidé par une politique éditoriale lucide, ils livrèrent à l’Afrique et au monde des reportages clés. Et des révélations implacables sur les dictatures du continent. Jeune Afrique devint une plateforme nouvelle, solide et fiable de diffusion des nouvelles du continent : bonnes ou mauvaises, encourageantes ou déprimantes.… Autant les interdictions frappaient la revue, autant les exemplaires —et les articles — de ses numéros étaient fièvreusement attendus et, souvent, secrètement partagés.
En particulier, les Guinéens doivent une fière chandelle à Jeune Afrique. En effet, durant deux décennies, la revue publia des informations rares, vitales, au moment où le terrorisme d’Etat et la peur paralysaient le pays. Imaginaires ou/et rééls, les complots furent exposés de manière précise, professionnelle.
Autant de raisons pour lire et méditer sur le papier de Béchir ben Yahmed. C’est un rappel bref et alarmant du rayonnement continu des “soleils des indépendances”.
La démocratie, la vraie, est-elle en train de progresser en Afrique ? La pauvreté y est-elle en régression ? À ces deux questions, les plus importantes qu’on puisse et doive se poser, la réponse est, hélas, négative.
Malgré certaines apparences, la démocratie africaine, au lieu de progresser, s’est mise à régresser.
La pauvreté ? Elle a reculé partout dans le monde et de façon spectaculaire en Asie, mais guère en Afrique.
Une trop grande partie de la population de la majorité des cinquante-quatre pays du continent est encore engluée dans un état de grande pauvreté.
C’est là le résultat de la mauvaise gouvernance et de l’absence de toute industrialisation digne de ce nom, contrastant avec la richesse du sous-sol d’un continent où l’électricité fait encore défaut et qui donne l’impression de n’être pas sorti du XIXe siècle.
La situation de la démocratie
Tout le monde sait, et en premier lieu ceux qui y aspirent, que le pouvoir ne s’acquiert plus par des coups d’État. L’on y accède durablement, et l’on ne s’y maintient désormais que par les urnes.
Mais celles-ci sont capricieuses, et leur verdict est aléatoire. Que faire quand on veut le pouvoir à tout prix ?
On triche, et, dès lors que tous les candidats ou presque s’adonnent à cet exercice, ce qui est le cas, l’emporte celui qui triche le plus et le mieux.
Il le fait trois fois de suite : lors de l’établissement des listes, le jour du vote et au moment du dépouillement.
Ceux qui détiennent le pouvoir et veulent s’y maintenir ont appris, en outre, à contrôler la commission électorale (censée être indépendante) et à faire en sorte que ce juge suprême qu’est le Conseil constitutionnel arbitre en leur faveur.
L’alternance est ainsi quasi impossible.
La Constitution dont vous avez hérité ou que vous avez vous-même fait élaborer limite le nombre de vos mandats ? Qu’à cela ne tienne ! Vous cherchez et trouvez le moyen de la modifier.
Vos concurrents crient à la fraude ? Leurs contestations sont trop bruyantes ? Vous avez les moyens, dont la prison ou même pire, de les faire taire.
Et si eux-mêmes, leurs avocats et leurs partisans protestent, vous répondez sans ciller : « Nous sommes dans un État de droit, la justice est indépendante… »
Et vous jouez la montre, attendez que le temps fasse son œuvre. On se lassera de protester, et « le fait accompli » viendra confirmer votre victoire : au bout de quelques semaines, vous voilà « un président démocratiquement élu ».
Ces pratiques ont pour principale victime la démocratie africaine elle-même : est-elle « morte-née » ?
Oui, tant que l’opinion publique africaine acceptera cette situation, que l’Union africaine (UA) et ce qu’il est convenu d’appeler « la communauté internationale » ne seront pas plus sévères à l’endroit de ces présidents faussement élus et qui ne sont, en réalité, que des dictateurs qui se défendent de l’être.
Il suffirait de refuser de reconnaître « les assassins de la démocratie » et de s’abstenir de traiter avec eux. N’est-ce pas de cette manière qu’on a combattu les coups d’État au point de leur enlever tout intérêt et de les faire ainsi disparaître ?
Un signe qui ne trompe pas : la pauvreté
Début octobre, la Banque mondiale en a donné les derniers chiffres disponibles : dans le monde, 767 millions d’hommes, de femmes et d’enfants, soit un peu plus de 10 % des êtres humains, ne disposent (en parité de pouvoir d’achat) que de 1,90 dollar par jour au maximum, juste de quoi ne pas mourir de faim.
Ce chiffre et ce pourcentage ont beaucoup baissé en vingt ans (entre 1993 et 2013), car ces malheureux étaient près de 2 milliards en 1993, soit le tiers de l’humanité.
En Inde et en Chine, respectivement plus de 200 millions et plus de 300 millions de personnes sont sorties de la pauvreté au cours de la dernière décennie.
Quid de l’Afrique ? La même Banque mondiale donne les pourcentages disponibles par pays. On note tout d’abord l’absence de chiffres pour une quinzaine d’entre eux : on ne sait pas ! Dans une dizaine d’autres, plus de la moitié de la population vit dans la pauvreté.
Dans d’autres États enfin, qui forment la moitié du continent et sont les mieux lotis, la proportion de pauvres se situe entre 20 % et 40 %.
Nous sommes, comme vous le voyez, le continent de la pauvreté : elle est plus répandue chez nous que partout ailleurs…
Si l’on s’aventure à comparer avec les pays riches ou assez riches, membres de l’OCDE, on doit tout d’abord changer de critère : dans ces trente-cinq pays sont décomptés comme pauvres ceux dont le revenu est inférieur à la moyenne nationale.
Le pourcentage des personnes dites pauvres est en même temps indicatif de l’inégalité qui règne dans les pays considérés.
Béchir Ben Yahmed fondateur de Jeune Afrique (17 octobre 1960 à Tunis) Président-directeur général du groupe Jeune Afrique.
Whereas the coups d’etat plague affected the African political landscape for decades, Senegal has avoided state takeover and government downfall, whether military-staged or civilian-led. As a result, it has gained the reputation of a beacon of democracy on the continent. However, the republic of Senegal was not immune from the domination of single-party rule. Indeed, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS) remained firmly in control, again, for decades, despite challenges from opponents like Abdoulaye Wade. Worse, in 1960 (the collapse of the Mali Federation), and in 1962 —discussed here—, the political class experienced deep, but non-violent crises. In the second case, irreconcilable differences broke out between the three main political leaders: National Assembly President Lamine Guèye, President Leopold Sedar Senghor, Prime minister Mamadou Dia. The dissensions led to the arrest and trial of Prime minister Mamadou Dia along with three of his cabinet members (Valdiodio Ndiaye, Ibrahima Sarr, Alioune Tall), on charges of attempting a coup d’état. The late American anthropologist and political scientist, Victor Du Bois, was present at the trial. He gives us a first-hand account of the court’s proceedings. In the end the Haute Cour de Justice convicted and sentenced Mamadou Dia and his three co-accused to heavy prison terms.
Victor D. Du Bois
The Trial of Mamadou Dia. Part I: Background of the Case.
American Universities Field Staff Reports. West Africa Series, Vol. VI No. 6 (Senegal), pp. 1-8
Dakar, July 1963
On May 7, 1963, the trial of Mamadou Dia opened in Dakar.
The former premier of Senegal and four of his ministers were being tried on charges arising from an attempted coup d’état last December 17. On this day the Avenue Pasteur leading to Dakar’s starkly modern Palace of Justice was crowded with chattering, gesticulating Senegalese making their way in small groups up the sun-drenched street. Lines of cars, sleek Citroëns and Mercedes, crawled toward the waiting soldiers who guarded all approaches to the building. Cars with the “CD” plates of the diplomatic corps were waved through; the others were stopped until their occupants produced the red invitation cards to show that they, too, had been invited to witness the drama which was to unfold that day.
For the foreign observer, already cynical about the quality of African justice, the sight of hundreds of soldiers with Tommy guns slung over their shoulders was not reassuring. Their presence seemed to detract from the claims of the Senegalese government that this would be an open and impartial trial worthy of a free democracy.
Running the gantlet of troops that lined the corridor to the courtroom, visitors were asked again and again to show their red cards. The final test came at the door of the courtroom itself, where a Senegalese lieutenant scrutinized each arrival’s credentials.
Inside, the situation was a little better. The 50-odd soldiers, grouped in a solid phalanx at the rear of the chamber, somehow did not seem quite so conspicuous. On one side of the long rectangular room-where the jury would sit in an American court- were members of the press, a majority of them foreigners. Opposite sat representatives of the diplomatie corps. In the middle were about 40 rows of seats for the witnesses and for grave-faced functionaries who were important enough to have been invited to the trial.
At the head of the courtroom, well elevated, stood a horseshoe shaped table of polished mahogany behind which were high-backed leather chairs for the judges. Sorne five yards in front of the judges’ table stood the symbolic bar of justice; behind it were the benches for the accused; and behind them, were desks from which the defense attorneys would plead their case. Far to the rear of the room, back of the soldiers , crowded two hundred or so ordinary citizens of Senegal.
It was strange to see Mamadou Dia sitting on the prisoner’s bench. It was difficult to believe that this man who had been a leader in Senegalese politics for the last 14 years and had held the second highest office in the land was on trial for an attempted coup d’état.
How did it happen and why? Origins of the Conflict
The reasons are as complex as Senegalese politics itself. Vested financial interests, local power rivalries, and entrenched privilege all played a part. The conflict, at least initially, was not so much between Dia and President Léopold Senghor as between persons lower on the political scale—men who used Dia and Senghor as shields behind which to fight their private battles and to defend their own interests.
Central to the conflict was Dia’s plan for the gradual socialization of the economy and the institution of reforms in the social sector. Both programs threatened established interests. A more immediate cause, however, was the growing estrangement over the past year between members of Mamadou Dia’s govemment and certain deputies in the National Assembly who were critical of Dia’s policies. This estrangement reflected a deeper crisis: the alienation of party from parliament.
Although in theory Senegal is a multiparty state, in fact the ruling Union Progressiste Sénégalaise (UPS) holds such preponderance of authority that it is the only real power in the land. Of the 80 seats in the National Assembly, the UPS controls 79. The deputies to the Assembly are nominated by the party and as such are theoretically its agents in parliament. However, many of the present deputies are men of substance whose positions of prominence date back to the colonial period. These men feel relatively little obligation toward their party. They feel even less obligation toward the younger party militants, who today occupy many positions of authority in the party’s lower echelons and who are eagerly waiting to replace them in their jobs .
These younger rnembers of the UPS are the most dynamic element in the party. They are also the group most desirous of pushing the economie and social changes in the direction envisioned by Mamadou Dia. The parliamentarians, on the other hand, are allied with the conservative interests in the country: the urban bourgeoisie, the European business community, the Marabouts (Muslim religious leaders), and local oligarchs. Many, with important financial intere sts in the sale and transport of peanuts (Senegal’s principal crop), have much to gain from keeping economie and social conditions as they are now. Viewing any change with misgiving, they have tended to act as a brake on the socialist programs advocated by Dia and by the younger party militants.
Differences between party and parliament were evidenced by their taking opposite sides on the issue of socialisrn and on the role to be accorded private enterprise . These differences were also manifested in frequent and sometimes bitter struggles in regional politics and over political appointments at every level. Each side sought to reinforce its standing by placing as many of its own men as possible in positions of power.
Aware of the dissension within the party, President Senghor tried to mediate between the two sides. But his role as arbiter was impossible to maintain, for neither side was willing to accept it. Senghor’s own position was ambivalent. Though sympathetic with Dia and his aims, he was impatient with Dia’s reluctance to stamp out corruption in high places, particularly among some of his own ministers.
Moreover, Dia’s attempts to curb the influence of the powerful Marabouts threatened to jeopardize the President’s own cordial relations with this important element of his political support.
Thus dragged into the controversy, the President unwittingly became the symbol of the anti-Dia forces. Although he had not summoned them, around him rallied all the conservative elements in the nation. Against the wishes of both opponents, it became a contest of Dia vs. Senghor .
Prelude to the Attempted Coup d’État
The National Council, highest organ of the UPS met at Rufisque on October 21, 1962. Several days before, rumors of an open rift between President Léopold Senghor and Prime Minister Mamadou Dia had circulated widely, but a communiqué issued at the end of that meeting categorically denied any such rift. A certain malaise was nevertheless felt to exist within the ranks of the party, and it was decided that special delegations should be sent to various subsections of the UPS to allay it.
On November 12, 1962, Mamadou Dia reorganized his government. The most important innovation was his assumption of the Ministries of Defense and Security.
Valdiodio N’Diaye, former Minister of the Interior, became head of Finance
Ibrahima Sarr, former Minister of Public Functions, became Minister of Development
Joseph M’Baye, former Minister of Rural Economy, replaced Alioune Tall as Minister of Commerce
Tall was named Minister of Information.
On December 14, 1962, the real crisis began. On the afternoon of that day, Théophile James, a deputy, deposited with Lamine Gueye, President of the National Assembly, a motion of censure against the Dia government signed by himself and 40 of his colleagues. Accompanying the motion was a statement by the deputies denouncing the “fetters to the free exercise of parliamentary prerogatives” which, they claimed, the Dia government had fastened on the Assembly. They declared that the “state of emergency law,” which had been in force in Senegal since the breakup of the Mali Federation in order to better assure national solidarity, had become an excuse for suspending the provisions and defeating the purposes of the Constitution and “an instrument of blind repression.” The signatories where therefore withdrawing their support from the government.
Because of the impending governmental crisis, an extraordinary meeting of the Council of Ministers was called on Saturday, December 15, 1962, to discuss the impasse between the government and the Assembly. But no solution was found acceptable to both sides. The cabinet itself was split over whether, in view of the state of emergency still legally existing in the country, the deputies had the right to file a censure motion at all. Part of the cabinet supported Prime Minister Dia’s view that the deputies could not do so; the rest of the cabinet sided with the Assembly, arguing that they could. Because it was impossible to reach agreement, Prime Minister Dia suggested to President Senghor that the Supreme Court be asked to decide the issue. Senghor rejected this proposal.
The next day (December 16, 1962), the party’s Political Bureau (the UPS’s highest executive body) met in an effort to resolve the crisis. But again no compromise was reached between the Dia government and the parliamentary group sponsoring the censure motion. It was decided, therefore, to convoke a special meeting of the 300-member National Council of the UPS at Rufisque on December 20 to settle the issue. In the meantime, the Political Bureau ordered the deputies to withdraw their censure motion, and President Senghor, approving the Political Bureau’s decision, personally appealed to certain influential deputies to withdraw their signatures. The deputies, however, fearing that they would not be backed by the National Council, yet equally certain that they could carry the censure motion in the Assembly, refused to obey the Political Bureau’s orders.
The Events of December 17, 1962
At 9:30a.m. on December 17, the heads of the various commissions of the National Assembly met to set the hour at which the Assembly should convene to consider the censure motion. At this meeting the Dia government was represented by lbrahima Sarr, Minister of Development. It was decided that at 10:00 a.m. there should be a meeting of the Political Bureau of the UPS and the parliamentary group sponsoring the censure motion.
10:00 a.m. First Mamadou Dia, then President Senghor arrived at the National Assembly for the proposed meeting. Dia explained briefly to Senghor that he saw no point in remaining, since the deputies had already decided to disregard the Political Bureau’s orders and proceed with their deposition of the censure motion. Dia then left; President Senghor himself departed a few minutes later.
Shortly thereafter gendarmes and police arrived and ordered the heads of the parliamentary commissions to leave the building. Lamine Gueye, President of the National Assembly, insisted that the parliamentarians’ debate should not be disturbed, but his protest was disregarded. Again the deputies were ordered to evacuate the Assembly at once. In the meantime the building had been surrounded by gendarmes, presumably taking orders from Dia. As the deputies filed out of the building, four of them, including Fofana Abdoulaye, a former minister, Ousmane N’Gom, Vice-President of the Assembly, and two others active in pressing for the censure motion, were arrested and taken to central police headquarters . The other deputies followed Lamine Gueye to his home near the President’s palace. Once there, Lamine Gueye, as President of the Assembly, dispatched a message to the President of the Republic reporting what had taken place. He asked the President, as “guardian of the Constitution,” to authorize the Assembly to hold an extraordinary session in his house to consider the censure motion.
Meanwhile, Dia forces had taken control of Radio Senegal and of the Administration Building, seat of the national government.
10:00 a.m.-12:00 a.m. President Senghor, forced now to choose between backing Dia and supporting the Assembly, decided on the latter course. He authorized the Assembly to meet at Lamine Gueye’s house. He also issued a requisition order, assuming direct command of the nation’s armed forces. A company of parachutists stationed at Rufisque was summoned to Dakar to protect the President’s palace.
1:00 p.m. Prime Minister Mamadou Dia at this time seemed still to have the upper hand. The Dakar police and gendarmerie had put themselves under his orders . Even the Senegalese Chief of Staff, General Fall, declared that he would respect Dia’s authority as Minister of Defense (in effect, disregarding the President’s requisition order).
Alioune Tall, Minister of Information (and a Dia supporter), announced over Radio Senegal that measures had been taken in agreement with the Secretary-General of the UPS (i.e., President Senghor) to prevent certain deputies (signers of the censure motion) from subverting the government. Tall promised that at eight o’clock that evening, the Prime Minister would address the nation.
The parachutists from Rufisque had now arrived in Dakar and surrounded the presidential palace, displacing the police and gendarmes previously sent there by Dia. It was announced shortly afterward that General Fall had been stripped of his command and replaced by Colonel Alfred Diallo, chief of the parachutists. By this time Dia and his ministers had barricaded themselves on the ninth floor of the Administration Building. Outside, Dia’s gendarmes continued to mount guard.
By 3:00 p.m. the Administration Building was surrounded by parachutists under the command of Colonel Diallo. Both the gendarmes and the parachutists, anxious to avoid bloodshed, held their fire. Left to themselves while their officers conferred over the situation, the troops within a remarkably short time were smiling, snapping their fingers, and patting each other on the back.
At 5:00p.m. the deputies convened at the house of Lamine Gueye. Some 40 members of the National Assembly were present, among them five ministers who had chosen to resign from the Dia government rather than follow him. All those present, including Boubakar Gueye, sole deputy of the opposition Bloc des Masses Sénégalaises (BMS), voted in favor of the censure motion, which was carried. The Assembly then proposed to authorize the President to submit a constitutional amendment to popular referendum. The amendment would do away with the office of prime minister and establish a presidential regime. This proposal was unanimously approved and President Senghor was immediately notified of the Assembly’s action.
At this moment it was announced to the deputies that parachutists had surrounded Radio Senegal in Dakar. In the meantime the radio station at Rufisque had passed into the hands of President Senghor’s paratroopers. Under orders from Joseph M’Baye, Dia’s Minister of Commerce, all telephone lines leading from the President’s palace were cut. Senghor, fearing that the direct confrontation of the opposing forces might lead to bloodshed, ordered the paratroopers to withdraw from the Administration Building, where Dia and his ministers still remained barricaded.
At 8:00 p .m. President Senghor attempted to address the nation. After a few minutes his voice was cut off the air and that of Mamadou Dia was heard. Then Dia, too, was cut off. It was evident that within Radio Senegal itself there were partisans of both sides.
By 3:00 a.m. of the following day (December 18, 1962), the entire capital had learned of the Assembly’s vote and of Colonel Diallo’s appointment as commander of all forces in the Dakar-Rufisque area. It was now clear that the coup d’état had no chance of success. Accordingly, the chiefs of the gendarmerie and of the Dakar police went to the President’s palace and placed themselves under his direct orders. Mamadou Dia, abandoned by the few forces that earlier had supported him, left the Administration Building. With the four ministers still loyal to him, he returned to his home in the Medina. Throughout the early hours of the morning, Radio Senegal, now firmly held by Senghor forces, broadcast the full text of the President’s earlier message.
At 9:00a.m. the deputies returned to the National Assembly Building, which was restored to them. Now numbering 55, they voted unanimously in favor of the amendment, filed with the Assembly the previous day, which would abolish the office of prime minister. They also granted Mr. Senghor full powers to govern the country pending the change-over to a presidential form of government.
That afternoon President Senghor broadcast from his palace an appeal to the Senegalese people to maintain their national unity. In the evening, a detachment of paratroopers went to Mamadou Dia’s house in the Medina with an order for his arrest issued by the High Court of Justice . Warrants were also issued for the arrest of the four ministers who had stuck by Dia. When Mr. Dia heard that the warrant for his arrest had been signed by Doudou Thiam, his former Minister of Justice, he at first told the arresting officer that he refused to follow him. But Mr. Tall, Dia’s Minister of Information, pleaded for a moment to talk with the Prime Minister. He succeeded in convincing Dia that further resistance was futile and that he owed it to his people and his friends to go along peaceably. The Prime Minister consented, thus averting a possible tragedy, and the five men were taken to a private villa where they were put under guard. Mamadou Dia’s contest of power with the National Assembly had failed.
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.
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.
Notes 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
This is the third and final article in Victor Du Bois‘ coverage of the trial of former Prime minister Mamadou Dia and his four co-defendants, who were accused of attempting a coup d’état. Not surprisingly, the author’s account is clear and informative ; his analysis is balanced and adequate. However, it appears that the argumentation falls short on at least two points: the French military base in Dakar, and references to the country’s colonial and precolonial history and culture.
The French military presence
Du Bois accurately indicates that the 8000-strong military base in Dakar served as a shield to French economic investments in Senegal and beyond. And he underscores that those interests were never threatened, in either of the two major crises that shook Senegal in the early 1960s: the collapse of the Mali Federation in 1960 and the 1962 constitutional crisis between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches of the state.
But it would be naive to think that because French troops did not patrol the streets of Dakar, their officers did not participate, behind the scenes, in the eventual defeat of the Mamadou Dia camp. After all, they had all the intelligence and logistics resources at their disposal.…
Likewise, in hindsight, France’s strong military deployment in its former colonies (Senegal, Gabon, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, etc.) was a strategic response to the Soviet Bloc in the tense Cold War era. And after that rivalry waned and ended in 1990, the Dakar air force installation remained open for ten more years. In the end, located in the suburb of Ouakam, the former Colonel Frédéric Geille base 160 closed in 2011, pursuant to a bilateral agreement signed by presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Abdoulaye Wade.
Historical and cultural backgrounds
Du Bois was a dedicated field researcher, a perceptive analyst, an elegant writer, and an articulate and empathetic thinker on the subject of African politics. He observed closely and his publications deciphered meticulously the evolution and contradictions of the newly independent states. However, he devoted less focus on the historical and cultural background that embed them—then, now and for the foreseeable future. For instance, he refers only briefly to the Muslim clergy (marabouts, a French word derived from Arabic m’rabit, i.e. sufi, spiritual mystics and warrior monks organized in fortified convents). Yet, he acknowledges their role as power brokers. But he does not outline the brotherhood system they run to wield their influence in all aspects of life in Senegal: religion, economy, culture, politics. In fact, the main brotherhood—the Mourides, founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba—is not mentioned at all. And only a footnote is devoted to Seydou Nour Tall, who “was flown to Podor to calm potential unrest.” But the article does not point out that the government asked him to intervene because he was the leader (Cheikh) of the Tijaniyya, Senegal’s second most influential brotherhood. Last, Du Bois mistakenly places the geographic location of the town of Podor in Casamance, i.e. in southern Senegal, bordering the republic of Gambia. Actually, Podor is the main city in Fuuta-Tooro, in the north of the country, near Mauritania. And the visit by Cheikh Seydou Nour Tall —a descendant of Alhajji Umar Tall—was important to his Tijaniyya followers in that region, where Tukolor (Toucouleurs) are predominant. Also known as Takruri, they form an important branch of the Fulɓe/Halpular civilization.
Victor D. Du Bois
The Trial of Mamadou Dia. Part III: Aftermath of the Trial, May 7, 1963
American Universities Field Staff Reports.
West Africa Series, Vol. VI No. 8 (Senegal), pp. 1-11
Dakar, July 1963
The trial and conviction in May 1963 of former prime minister Mamadou Dia and his co-defendants on charges of attempting a coup d’état dealt a serious blow to Senegalese national solidarity. The government had been set against the National Assembly; party unity had been shattered; the citizenry had been divided; and the army had been compromised. How did the Senegalese greet the outcome of the Dia affair? What position did Senegal’s large European population take in the controversy? What were the repercussions of the trial on internal politics? Viewed in retrospect, why did the attempted coup d’état fail? What effect did the trial have on Senegal’s subsequent reconciliation with Mali? And, finally, what new problems lie in wait for Senegal as a result of this crisis?
The Reactions in Senegal
Considering the risks which the Dia trial ran of inciting antigovernment demonstrations, the Senegalese, on the whole, accepted the High Court’s judgment with equanimity. A few hundred tracts denouncing both President Léopold Senghor and Lamine Gueye, President of the National Assembly, were circulated in Dakar shortly after the trial; but there were no riots in the streets of the capital, no mass movements in the Medina to protest the Court’s harsh sentences on the defendants 1. Senegalese went about their daily business. The Dia episode seemed to pass unnoticed by the majority of the people. Indeed, one of the comic-opera aspects of the entire attempted coup d’état was that even during its height, life in Dakar went on the same as usual. Vehicular traffic rolled on without interruption, the cafés were full, and crowds queued up to go to the cinemas.
In some circles the conflict between President Senghor and Prime Minister Mamadou Dia inevitably was given a racial and religious interpretation. It was alleged, for example, that President Senghor acted for European economic interests, that the European element in Senegal supported him while the African population of the country was overwhelmingly behind Prime Minister Dia. It was also claimed by some that Senghor, a Catholic, was interested in eliminating Mamadou Dia from power because he was a Muslim.
Actually, the situation was quite different. Although the President was generally regarded as more permissive toward European private enterprise than his Prime Minister, in reality, he shared many of Mr. Dia’s views on the need for state planning and a balance between private and public interests. Like Mr. Dia, President Senghor was firmly committed to a socialist form of government for Senegal. Ironically enough, President Senghor found his major political support not among the Catholic element in the cities, but among the Muslim population in the hinterland, whose leaders, the Marabouts, he has always courted. By the same token, Mamadou Dia derived his support not from his fellow Muslims (many of whom regarded him with suspicion because of his belief in a reformed Islam and his determination to diminish the power of the Marabouts) but from the urban African Catholic population who looked with favor on his progressive social policies.
The European Position in the Crisis
By and large, Senegal’s European population of 40,000 remained completely aloof from the crisis. Through the French Embassy in Dakar and consular offices in several other key cities, French residents were advised by letter to refrain from getting involved in the Dia-Senghor quarrel. This advice was generally followed.
Sensibly, French military personnel stationed in Senegal (about 8,000 strong) were kept completely out of the picture. During the critical period of December 17-18, 1962, they were confined to barracks by their commanders. Not so much as a solitary French soldier was to be seen on the streets of Dakar. As neither French lives nor property were at any time threatened, there was no need for the French troops to act. The French thus showed the same sound judgment during the Senghor-Dia fray that they did during the crisis of the Mali Federation in August 1960, when they also refused to take the side of either protagonist. Had they intervened, this purely intemai quarrel might have tumed into a Franco-Senegalese conflict whose repercussions would have been felt far beyond the confines of Dakar.
Although they were not directly involved, this does not mean that the Europeans did not feel strongly for one side or the other. Their prejudices increased as the time for the trial neared. Most among them, of course, were for President Senghor, whose attachment to France they well knew and appreciated. The business community, predictably enough, was solidly behind Senghor—not so much because it was persuaded of his procapitalist tolerance, as because it knew that his allies, the 41 deputies who had originally proposed the motion of censure against the Dia govemment, had interests which coincided with its own. To both, Dia’s socialism was anathema, and his removal from power was hailed as a welcome development.
Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that all of the Europeans were for Senghor. Some were for Mamadou Dia. Particularly was this so among the so-called “technocrats,” the men who had worked directly with the former prime minister in the government. At one moment during the trial the strong feeling felt for Dia was dramatically illustrated by the appearance of François Perroux, a professor of the famed Collège de France, and one of France’ s most distinguished economists. Flying from Argentina, where he was on lecture tour, to testify as a character witness, Perroux delivered an impassioned plea on Dia’s behalf, extolling his qualities as statesman, intellectual, and humanitarian. He told of Dia’s dedication to promoting tolerance and understanding between the Muslim and Christian communities in Africa. His testimony, culminating in a fatherly embrace given to Dia, visibly moved the audience in the courtroom as few other incidents had during the trial. That one gesture, wholly ingenuous, brought into relief the divided sympathies of the French. It highlighted the anguish felt by many—Senegalese and foreigners alike—at seeing so worthy a person as Mamadou Dia in such an ignoble position.
The Attempted Coup d’Etat Viewed in Retrospect
What kept many people from siding with Mamadou Dia in the attempted coup d’état was that while they esteemed him personally, they did not sympathize with the principle of party supremacy he was supposedly defending when he undertook the actions he did against the Assembly. While the “41” who originally had moved to censure the Dia government did not inspire wide confidence either, they at least had the tactical advantage of being able to pose as defenders of a principle—the rule of law—which elicited the support of many civic-minded Senegalese. Ultimately, this proved the stronger cause.
Thus one of the major mistakes of Dia’s attorneys was that they chose to justify the actions of the defendants on grounds which could not hope to compete in respectability with the prosecution’s more virtuous claim of defending the Constitution. It was not that the defense was wrong when, in near desperation, it accused the prosecution of seeking to apply in the present case legal principles (i.e., the primacy of the Constitution over the party) not in keeping with actual political realities. It was just that this argument was useless in dispelling the popular view, now firmly embedded, that Mr. Dia had gravely erred when he took matters into his own hands, had violated the Constitution, and had precipitated the crisis which had threatened to plunge the whole nation into a bloody civil war.
Another reason that this attempted coup d’état did not succeed was that it lacked one essential ingredient which any such action requires if it is to be successful: namely, a certain minimum of popular support. This the Prime Minister simply did not have. For all the admiration he quite justifiably elicited from persons abroad, Mamadou Dia was never particularly popular in his own country. Aloof, austere, contemplative, he rarely inspired the enthusiastic response from people that the far more popular President Senghor did. Though a Muslim, he did not command the following of Senegal’s overwhelmingly Muslim population.
In part, this was because he had never solicited their support on religious grounds, but it was also because he had refused to court the powerful Marabouts, the Muslim leaders, who hold the real keys to power among Senegal’s hinterland peoples.
A further reason for his lack of success was that he was the target of popular dissatisfaction. As the government’s Prime Minister, Mr. Dia had been the author of many measures which over the years had alienated him from various groups of his countrymen. Many of these measures such as the organization of the controversial Office de Commercialisation des Arachides (OCA), or the reform of Dakar’s archaic transport system, were necessary—even indispensable—in the long-range socialist plans he envisaged for his country; but they earned him many enemies . His plans to reorganize the means of collecting and shipping peanuts—Senegal’s principal crop—directly threatened the financial security of the Marabouts, and of certain deputies (among them Théophile James, one of the judges on the High Court) who had important interests in these activities.
Prime Minister Dia could not claim the support of his country’s intellectuals either. These intellectuals, especially as represented by the students in Paris and at the University of Dakar, were not any more sympathetic with Dia than they were with President Senghor, both of whom they have always regarded as little more than pro-French collaborators. Neither man, however much he talked of African socialism or négritude, had ever been invested by them with the halo of hero-worship with which they had crowned, say, Guinea’s Sékou Touré or Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, because of the latter’s extreme nationalism and vociferous anti-colonialism. Whether Mamadou Dia, in his imprisonment, will now become the hero of this militant and articulate element of the extreme left is one of the things to watch in the months ahead. But if he does, it will be for the first time. Mr. Dia fared no better among the government functionaries, although it was among this group that he probably enjoyed his greatest popularity. As Prime Minister, he was their immediate superior, and whatever improvement in social and material standing they, as a class, have come to know over these last few years, they owe primarily to him. Although many of them sincerely believed in Dia’s “Plan” for Senegal and shared his conviction that judicious planning and a careful balancing of state and private interests could raise the general standard of living of the country, in the moment of crisis they did not come forward to aid him. Considerations of jobs and security discouraged them from embarking on any such adventurous course.
The Repercussions of the Trial on Internal Politics
The most severe repercussions of the Dia trial were felt within the Union Progressiste Sénégalaise (UPS), the ruling political party in Senegal, of which both President Senghor and Prime Minister Mamadou Dia were members. Once Mamadou Dia and the other defendants were out of the way, the 41 deputies who had sponsored the censure motion quickly sought to consolidate their position. Determined to neutralize completely all of Dia’s followers, they moved first against those of their fellow deputies who had refused to go along with them on the censure vote. Aboubakry Kane and four other deputies who had defended
Dia’s actions, either in testimony before the High Court or in party councils, were expelled from the UPS. Many other deputies who had also refused to go along with the censure vote suffered a comparable fate.
By exerting pressure on local party organizations, the “41” were able to deprive most of these pro-Dia deputies of the mayoralties in their home territories which served as their bases of power. The loss of other political offices quickly followed. Within a remarkably short time the mosaic of political power in the country was completely rearranged. Twenty-nine major towns throughout the country passed into the hands of men representing the interests of the “41.”
The municipal councils of ten towns which had pro-Dia mayors were dissolved. The shift in political loyalty was especially noticeable in Senegal’s key cities. In Thiès, Ousmane N’Gom, Vice-President of the National Assembly and a key figure in the “41” clique, replaced Ibrahima Sarr, Dia’s former Minister of Development, as that city’s bigwig. In Kaolack, another “41” sympathizer, Ibrahima Seydou N’Daw, replaced Valdiodio N’Diaye, Dia’s convicted Minister of Finance, as the chief political figure. In Saint-Louis, Mayor Macadou N’Diaye, who was on his way out as a political power before the Dia-Senghor quarrel, got a new lease on life and is now firmly back in power in that important town. A similar shake-up occurred in Matam, where Mayor Fodel Kane, a Dia sympathizer, was replaced by a supporter of the “41.”
The Dia Trial and the Reconciliation with Mali
One of President Senghor’s first acts after the arrest of Mamadou Dia was to announce that Senegal wished to settle its differences with Mali. The President’s now famous remark, “Nous tendons la main au Mali” (We extend our hand to Mali) was welcomed with a sigh of relief throughout French-speaking Black Africa. It meant that at last the two former partners in the ill-fated Mali Federation were ready to close the breach that had developed between them since the collapse of the Federation three years earlier (1960).
President Senghor’s choice of this particular occasion to extend the olive branch to Mali’s President Modibo Keita gave rise to much speculation. Did it mean that Mamadou Dia’s presence as “Number 2 Man” (Prime Minister) in the Senegalese government had all along impeded the normalization of relations with Mali? Was it a move on Senghor’s part to boast his popularity at the expense of his deposed Prime Minister? Was it a reaction to internal pressures?
In all likelihood it was a combination of these three factors. At the time of the Mali Federation, Mamadou Dia was Vice-Premier to Federal Prime Minister Modibo Keita 2. Few persons familiar with the facts concerning the Mali Federation would blame Mamadou Dia any more severely than Senghor or Keita for its collapse. But in the eyes of many Malians, and in those of many Senegalese as well, Mamadou Dia was always regarded as the central figure around whom the storm broke. It was he who, as Federal Minister of Defense, had vetoed Modibo Keita’s nomination of Colonel Soumaré, a fellow Soudanese, as Chief of Staff of the Federal Armed Forces—an action which prompted Keita to divest Dia of his ministerial portfolio and even to seek his ouster as Premier of Senegal, thereby precipitating the crisis.
While Dia was very interested in and worked vigorously for a reconciliation between Mauritania and Morocco and even for a settlement between France and Guinea, he concerned himself less with the problem of righting relations with Mali. Though as an economist he was sorely aware of Senegal’s dependence on Mali, as its natural hinterland market, he sought to compensate for the loss of this market not by seeking a rapprochement with Mali, but by trying to expand trade relations with other nations.
Yet it was not Mamadou Dia’s presence in the Senegalese government that all along had impeded the resumption of normal relations with Mali. Rather it was the residue of ill-feeling and mistrust remaining between the two countries from their sad experience with the Federation that poisoned relations between them. Their conflicting stands on certain basic issues of the day, such as their membership in the rival Casablanca and Monrovia groups, their different attitudes
in the Cold War, and their opposing positions on such African problems as the Algerian War, the Congo crisis, and the existence of Mauritania, all contributed to the existing enmity. It was not the disappearance of Mamadou Dia from Senegalese politics that made a reconciliation with Mali possible. It was the resolution of these basic problems.
As the leader who initiated the rapprochement with Mali, and as the Senegalese statesman who represented his country at the recent African summit conference at Addis Ababa, Mr. Senghor, of course, will reap the benefits of this reconciliation. The settlement with Mali and the resumption of normal diplomatic and trade relations which this settlement will make possible should do much to strengthen Senghor’s position in his own country.
But President Senghor is not relying on this alone to enhance his stature, either at home or abroad. He is also taking a much more active role in African and international affairs. The strong stand he has taken on Portuguese colonialism and South African apartheid indicates a desire to prove that he can be as much a nationalist as other African leaders. His plan for organizing in the near future a form of economic union around the states of the Senegal River Basin (Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Guinea) points to his hope of creating a Senegalese version of the successful Council of the Entente founded by Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
Internal political considerations also made it advisable to seek a reconciliation with Mali at this time. With his own party torn from within as a result of the Dia trial, a settlement with Mali might serve as an inducement to Senegal’s opposition parties to join with the UPS in forming a sort of “national union.” The Senghor forces hope that this idea will be particularly attractive to members of the Bloc des Masses Sénégalaises (BMS) and the Parti de Regroupement Africain (PRA), two parties with which they share many political views, and which have always been in favor of mending fences with Mali.
According to a new Organic Election Law, passed on June 15, 1963, in future elections each party will put up a single list of candidates. Henceforward, the voter will cast his ballot not for individual deputies or councilors but for an entire list. Thus the party whose list gets the greatest number of votes will have all of its candidates elected to office in toto. Whatever its original intention, this scheme, enacted on the heels of the Dia trial, will work to the disadvantage of the opposition parties, none of which are allowed to campaign freely.
lt can also be expected to dissuade any of the chastised pro-Dia deputies either from forming a new party, or from joining forces with other opposition groups, as such action supposedly would gain them nothing.
Still, along with the stick there is also a carrot. The carrot in this case is that the Senghor forces are said to have offered a certain number of places for deputies and even a number of ministerial portfolios to the opposition parties if they will agree to join forces with the UPS in the December 1963 elections. This would have the advantage of presenting proof of a certain “national union,” while at the same time both preserving the dominance of the UPS and cutting the ground from under the opposition.
There is some doubt that either the BMS or the PRA will be drawn into such a scheme. Although it would unquestionably give them a voice in the government—something which they do not now have—they may feel they have more to gain by continuing to go it alone and submitting their own list of candidates in the December contests. Current dissension in the rank and file of the UPS, resulting from the Dia trial,
might just give the opposition parties the chance they have been waiting for to break the UPS’s hold on the country. In either case, the reconciliation with Mali has at least provided the opportunity for reopening the dialogue with the “loyal opposition.” It also stands as one of the UPS’s most concrete achievements since the outbreak of the Dia crisis.
The Problems Ahead
The impact of the Dia trial shook the UPS to its very foundations. The doctrine of party supremacy (primauté du parti)—the mortar which had held the party’s diverse elements together—was chipped away by the prosecution’s successful claim that this doctrine was invalid in a Senegal committed to rule by constitutional law. To what extent this doctrine, which has proved so useful in the past, can again be resorted to in the future is a key question. Having so effectively gained its repudiation at the trial, the Senghor forces may find it difficult to resuscitate it at some later date.
Equally questionable will be the UPS’ s ability to survive the bitter animosities which this trial has engendered among some of the party’s most prominent members. The severity with which the “41” have dealt with the pro-Dia deputies may have gained them their immediate goal (deposing the Dia forces from power), but it is likely that their success also carries with it the seeds of their own eventual destruction. A very real possibility now exists that the dissident deputies, unless they can be reconciled with the “41” faction, will either break entirely from the UPS to form still another party or, failing that, join forces with the major opposition groups to better challenge the conservatives who new have gained control of the party—and through the party, the country. The same holds true for many of the younger, more progressive party elements who have been alienated as a result of the Dia trial.
Recognizing that his party is faced with a major internal crisis, President Senghor’s first task must be to close the breach that has developed in party ranks since the eruption of the Dia affair. To lend vigor to his call for national unity, the President has sought to minimize the impact of Dia’s departure from Senegalese political life by keeping to Dia’s program of economic and social reforms. He hopes thereby to disprove the charge that with Dia’s disappearance from Senegal’s political scene, the country’s social revolution comes to an end. But the President’s efforts have been only partially successful, for he has shawn less willingness to openly challenge the important pressure groups in Senegalese society—the Muslim Marabouts, the transport workers, and the European businessmen—than Mamadou Dia was prepared to do to see his program through.
So long as President Senghor stays at the party’s helm, he may be able to keep the conservative elements at bay, thereby preserving something of the UPS’s progressive air. But Senghor’s popularity has also suffered from the trial. Many Senegalese hold him responsible for the Dia affair. Increasingly, he is being lumped with the “41” and becoming identified with the conservatism which this group represents.
As Senghor must now himself assume direct responsibility for such unpopular measures as the government’s present austerity program, it is only to be expected that he, too, will begin to suffer some of the slings and arrows formerly directed at Dia when he acted as the government’s chief spokesman for such measures. Hence the President’s dilemma: the greatly enhanced powers which have been conferred on him as a result of Mamadou Dia1s elimination, he owes to men whose political views and economic philosophy he does not share. Yet he now needs the support of these men just as surely as they need his and require the luster of his name. Whether a working alliance can be built up between Senghor, those of his liberal advisers remaining, and the “41” will determine how smoothly the Senegalese government will function in the days ahead.
The UPS now also faces a crisis of leadership. Thus it joins the ranks of other African states where the question of who will succeed the incumbent President poses a grave problem. The elimination from the political scene of Mamadou Dia and Valdiodio N’Diaye, two leading prospects, has significantly narrowed the range. Ousmane N’Gom, who appears to be emerging as a sort of éminence grise as a result of the Dia episode, and who therefore would seem to be a logical candidate, lacks a popular following. Moreover, N’Gom is rumored not to enjoy the President1s confidence. None of the other ministers in the present government have yet demonstrated exceptional promise. About the only real alternative to Léopold Senghor existing at the moment in Senegal is Lamine Guèye, Senghor’s once formidable political rival. Lamine Gueye still commands great respect among the nation’s electorate, particularly among Dakar’s Muslims, but his advanced age makes him an unlikely contender.
President Senghor’s chief problem at the moment is to repair the damage to national solidarity left in the wake of the Dia trial. To accomplish this he will first of all have to assert his authority over the “41” and their followers, lest he one day find that they and not he rule the country. Because of the number of people who have been alienated as a result of the trial, and because of the doubts that have been sown about the government’s willingness to pursue the Dia-initiated social and economic reforms which Senegal badly needs, a new basis of unity must be found to reconcile these individuals and to dispel such doubts. Unless this can be done, the Dia trial may not have marked an end so much as a beginning to party-government conflict.
One view which made the rounds in Dakar at the time of the Dia trial was that President Senghor wanted an open trial so that basic questions of conflict between party and government could be threshed out. If this was in fact the case, one may question the President’ s judgment in choosing a public trial as the proper means to accomplish this end. Certain political problems are more amenable to settlement in the privacy of the politicians’ smoke-filled backrooms than in the glare of the public spotlight.
We may never know just how much President Senghor himself shared the opinion of the High Court that condemned Mamadou Dia. Nor may we ever know the full story of the motives which prompted this whole sad episode in the first place. It is difficult to render justice in a political trial, and the tragedy of this particular trial was that in the end it raised more problems than it resolved. It marked an end to a fruitful partnership between two of the most brilliant leaders Africa has yet produced. If there was a winner in this trial, it was not Léopold Senghor. And if there was a loser, it was not so much Mamadou Dia as the young Republic of Senegal.
Notes 1. At its outset the Dia affair did arouse some reaction in the hinterland. Twice during the week following Dia’s arrest, the grand Marabout, Seydou Nourou Tall, had to be flown by special government plane to Podor, in Casamance, to explain to restless Tukulor followers why Dia had been deposed from office and put under detention. The Tukulors, who number about 700,000 and constitute roughly a third of Senegal’s population, greatly esteemed Dia. 2. Senghor, though he had not yet been named as such, was slated to become the Federation’s president.
Barack Obama‘s black presidency has shocked the symbol system of American politics and made the adjective in “representative democracy” mean something quite different than in the past. Obama provoked great hope and fear about what a black presidency might mean to our democracy. His biracial roots and black identity have been a beguiling draw and also a spur to belligerent reaction. White and black folk, and brown and beige ones, too, have had their views of race and politics turned topsy-turvy. What many Americans of all colors believe is that race fundamentally defines America and is a dividing line drawn in blood through the nation’s moral map. Many metaphors of race drape the nation’s political framework: Barack Obama argued in his famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia that slavery is the nation’s original sin, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice claimed that racism is our country’s “birth defect.” 1 Race is the most durable link in the nation’s chain of destiny; it is at once a damning indictment of our quest for real democracy and true justice, and also a resilient category of individual and “group identity—one that cannot be reduced to either mere pathology or collective pride. Race is both the midwife of glorious achievements like jazz and the black freedom movement and the abortive instrument of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Race is the thing we cannot seem to do without—and the thing that we cannot seem to get rid of.
Race is the defining feature of our forty-fourth president’s two terms in office. Obama’s presidency is a lens to sharpen the details of American ideas about race and democracy. His presidency also raises the question of how much closer the election of a single black man may bring us to a more just and inclusive society. Barack Obama has finally made transparent the idea that our country cannot fully flourish without embracing a black identity that is the quintessential expression of the American character. What we all intuitively sense is that this presidency turns on their ear all the ways we have historically looked at presidencies, and perhaps, even more broadly, at our very democracy. Obama certainly bears what James Baldwin called “the burden of representation.” 2
That brilliant phrase refers to the weight and meaning of blackness for individual and collective racial bodies, and for literal and symbolic bodies too. This presidency, unlike all others before it, is analyzed and understood through our obsession with race in the body of the president himself and in the “psyche of the nation he governs. A black presidency is undeniably interracial in the same way that Obama’s body is composed of black and white genes. Obama’s presidency is the symbolic love child of Notes on the State of Virginia and The Fire Next Time 3. Thomas Jefferson and James Baldwin gaze at us from immortal perches separated by two centuries and two races locked in fateful struggle. But Jefferson and Baldwin are separated only by time and race; they are united in their unrelenting sexual and political preoccupation with the “other.” Jefferson and Baldwin can finally be joined in the full complexity of a conversation about race and American politics across time—a conversation that is constantly evoked but never fully engaged, as if it were held behind doors that are locked to everyone who would participate. And yet Obama is snared in a fascinating paradox: a man seen by many observers as the key to the locked doors of conversation about race is most reluctant to take charge and unlock the treasures of racial insight and wisdom.
What we learn about Obama says a lot about what we learn about ourselves; his racial reality is our racial reality. And it is never, ever static. That truth becomes apparent when we understand just how much we as a nation project our expectations and frustrations onto Obama’s presidency, and how he effortlessly represents our deepest doubts and our most resilient hopes. We must concentrate on what Obama says and does—on what speech he gives or what policy he enacts or fails to implement. We must also grapple with what Obama literally means, what his ideas amount to, what veins of ideology or sources of racial imagination he taps when he speaks, and where we travel as a nation by welcoming or resisting the social pathways his presence lays before us.
Obama’s presidency represents the paradox of American representation. Obama represents for all of us because he stands as the symbol of America to the world. He also represents to the American citizenry proof of progress in a nation that has never before embraced a black commander in chief. Yet a third sense of representation has a racial tinge, because Obama is also a representative of a black populace that, until his election, had been excluded from the highest reach of political representation. These three meanings of representation are the core of Obama’s paradoxical relationship to the citizens of the country he represents: he is at once a representative of the country, a representative of the change the country has endured, and a representative of the people to whom change has been long denied and for whom that change has meant the most.
Of course critics may read “black presidency” as a term that denies Obama the agency and individuality that mark genuine social and moral achievement. To say “black presidency” is already to have “reduced Obama’s presidency to something less than any other presidency. But the term also imbues the presidency for the first time with the true promise of democracy on which this country was founded. The paradox of representation is thus two-sided: a member of a minority group deliberately excluded from opportunity now stands at the peak of power to represent the nation. The idea of race both qualifies and enhances the representative stature of the presidency. When it comes to race, representation in America is always an internal barometer of privilege, through the exclusion of blacks and others, while at the same time, given how central to our lives race has become, it is also an external barometer of justice.
In The Black Presidency I examine Barack Obama’s political journey to tell a story about the politics of race in America—our racial limits and possibilities, our tortured past and our complicated present, our moral conflicts and aspirations, our cherished national myths, and our contradictory political behavior. The cultural impact of Obama’s lean black presidential frame will be far more enduring than partisan debates about his political career. Obama has changed the presidency itself; the ultimate seat of power has now been occupied for two terms by a man whose body translates in concrete terms our most precious democratic ideals. Obama gives African legs to the Declaration of Independence and a black face to the Constitution. Obama’s black presidency cannot be erased by political will even as Congress thwarts his legislation. The paradox of representation Obama symbolizes is not up for judicial review even as the Supreme Court troubles the black vote that helped to sweep him into office.
The existence of a black presidency signals for some people an end to racial categories that have plagued America since 1619. The post-racial urge rises in a society seeking to avoid the pain of overcoming its racist legacy. Obama’s presidency has defeated the post-racial myth, not with less blackness but with more of it, though it is the kind of blackness that insinuates and signifies while hiding in plain sight. The presidency is now permanently marked by difference, one that transcends Obama himself and may pave the way for a female president whose gender will be far less noteworthy for Obama’s having been the first black president.
A black presidency and the politics of a lived American democracy are like a transmission and its motor: the motor creates the power and the transmission makes the power usable. A black presidency necessarily engages the identity and meaning of an American democracy that was for so long an efficient engine for excluding black participation. Some may worry that the term “black presidency” is code for a delegitimized presidency that undermines democratic institutions and ideas. But Obama’s achievement gestures toward what the state had not allowed at the highest level before his emergence: equality of opportunity, fairness in democracy, and justice in society. Our system of government gains more legitimacy when it accommodates demands for justice and adjusts to the requirements of formal equality. Obama’s presidency, paradoxically, both critiques and affirms a political order that stymied the ambitions of other black politicians—an order he now heads.
I grapple in The Black Presidency with what happens to the psyche and racial identity of a nation when a two-century-old white monopoly on the presidency is broken for two consecutive terms. Then, too, we must ask how and what the blackness of Obama signifies to other blacks.
Obama’s eight years in office will be referred to as the only black presidency until another black person is elected. If the first line in his obituary reads “first (and perhaps only) black president,” is he forever fixed in the American mind with a racial reference that he labored hard to overcome? Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder.
A brief survey of other figures might shed light on Obama’s unique historical situation. Margaret Thatcher looms large 4. Thatcher-as-prime-minister is the nearest analogy we have to Obama-as-president. Of course, the biggest difference between Thatcher and Obama is that Thatcher was “overtly ideological and Obama is anti-ideological, the very reason he was electable. There are other differences. Is Thatcher’s premiership, these many years later, evaluated as “a woman’s leadership” or “the Thatcher Years”? For the first few years of her tenure, not to mention before her election, when she was opposition leader—imagine an American woman in the late seventies as the political and ideological leader of one of our two ruling parties—critics mused about how or whether her gender determined her style of governing. But Thatcher was so hard-line, in truth, heartless, in so many areas—in other words, so stereotypically “masculine”—that in time she was thought of no longer primarily as a woman but as a steely power player, albeit a female one: “the Iron Lady.” 5 (Can we imagine a time when Obama would not be seen as black but merely as president? For that matter, should Hillary Clinton or another woman become president, can we imagine her beyond gender on these shores?) Still, by the time she lost power in 1990, British women were not, because of her position, living in a post-gender world, and they still are not today 6. Yet some of us naïvely believe that Obama’s rise has removed race from the national landscape.
Other analogous figures come to mind, including Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister in the United Kingdom, and John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. Each offers instructive similarities. Disraeli’s Jewish identity forced him to assure the largely Christian constituency in nineteenth-century Britain that he would not favor Jewish citizens 7. In the same vein, Obama has not favored blacks, opting, arguably, to underplay their interests in order to reinforce his racial neutrality. Kennedy assured American citizens that he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican 8. Obama went him one better: he pushed aside the former, if greatly weakened, black political pope, Jesse Jackson, and helped to enshrine a new one, Al Sharpton, while keeping at a distance the Congressional Black Caucus, the archbishops of black politics.
Disraeli and Kennedy had, as did Thatcher, their whiteness, an escape hatch that Obama lacks. If boxer Jack Johnson possessed “unforgivable blackness,” then Obama is plagued by inescapable blackness 9. Disraeli soothed the fears of the masses about his Jewishness, Thatcher toned down her femaleness, and Kennedy downplayed his Catholicism and emphasized instead the catholicity of his politics. All three appealed in their own way to the under-girding whiteness that bound them to their constituencies beyond gender and religious difference. Yet color trumps all for Obama; to have one’s presidency examined through the lens of race before any other is as different as Obama’s election itself.
Bill Clinton’s case is not quite like the other figures’, each of whom possesses a quality—ethnicity, gender, religion—that makes their political experiences analogous to Obama’s presidency. But the example of Clinton, steeped in the cultural signifiers of blackness rather than race, still offers an intriguing parallel to consider 10. Toni Morrison and Chris Rock dubbed Clinton the nation’s “first black president”; the white politician from Arkansas shrewdly manipulated the meanings and symbols of blackness to his advantage 11. Clinton strategically embraced blackness to gain the black vote while signaling white suburban voters that he would not bow to Jesse Jackson’s leadership 12. Before his impeachment, Clinton “signed a crime bill that sparked a deadly spike in black incarceration and signed into legislation welfare reform that cruelly cut black bodies unable to find living-wage work from public assistance 13. After his political trial by fire, Clinton embraced Jesse Jackson and played upon black sympathy as smoothly as he blew his sax. Clinton prefigured Obama’s even more complicated use of black ideas and black identity while occupying the Oval Office.
Obama, however, stands alone as the only black person to occupy the world’s pinnacle of power. What he does, says, and means is as important to the future as it is to our own moment. We must grapple with Obama in the present to set the baseline for his interpretation in the years to come. The Black Presidency is my contribution to that goal.
In an Oval Office interview the president granted me for this book, he told me, “In the same way that some of the people who don’t like me probably don’t like me because of race, there are some people who probably like me because of race and put up with me in ways that they wouldn’t if I weren’t African American—the folks in African American neighborhoods who identify with me even if they disagree with my policies. And my hope would be that when you wash out those aspects of it, that people are judging me on what I do as opposed to who I am.”
The Black Presidency wrestles with the words and actions of a singular human being who rose to the summit of American power; it also measures the racial currents his life captures and conveys, and offers the president informed and principled criticism.
Finally, this book asks, and engages, every complex question suggested by its subject. Is it reasonable to expect more than Obama has offered black people and the American public? What are the salient issues provoked by a black presidency, and how does it affect our ideas of race? How does Obama’s relationship to his black elders reflect generational conflicts in fighting for progress in black America? How does Obama’s racial identity influence our understanding of his duties? How does the way he speaks reflect the “black cultures that molded him? What can we learn from his major race speeches about the ideas that shaped him and the way he confronts racial crises? How does Obama respond to the plague of police brutality that has swept the nation—and the revived racial terror that stalks the land? How does Obama’s habit of scolding black America reinforce harmful ideas about black culture? How does Obama’s emphasis on law and order, personal responsibility, and respectability politics obscure the structural features of black suffering? What—and who—would it sound like if Obama cut loose and said what he really believes? In The Black Presidency I answer these and other questions while confronting Barack Obama’s—America’s first—black presidency.”
Notes 1. Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” in The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009), p. 237; Condoleezza Rice, interview on Face the Nation, CBS, November 27, 2011, . 2. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 18. 3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, annotated ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998); James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963; repr., New York: Vintage, 1993).” 4. John Campbell, The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister, abridged ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). 5. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, pp. 298–333; Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso Press, 1988). 6. When Baroness Thatcher died in 2013, President Obama issued an official statement and noted her gender as a defining element of her legacy: “As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” “Statement from the President on the Passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher,” April 8, 2013. 7. Although Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England at the age of twelve, his Jewish heritage remained a central feature of his existence and identity. See Adam Kirsch, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Schocken Books, 2008). Thanks to historian Gerald Horne for suggesting the parallel between Disraeli and Obama in a brief, serendipitous conversation in an airport. 8. Thomas J. Carty, A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). For a fascinating comparison of Obama and Kennedy, see Robert C. Smith, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013). 9. Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). 10. Dewayne Wickham, Bill Clinton and Black America (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2002). 11. Toni Morrison, “The Talk of the Town: Comment,” The New Yorker, October 5, 1998, pp. 31–32. Chris Rock said in an interview in the August 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that Clinton was “the first black president.” He also said that Clinton was “the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be. He spends a hundred dollar bill, they hold it up to the light.” See Jonathan Tilove, “Before Bill Clinton Was the ‘First Black President,’” Newhouse News Service, March 6, 2007, . In 2008, in Time magazine, when asked if she regretted referring to Clinton as the first black president, Morrison said that people “misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” See Toni Morrison, 10 Questions for Toni Morrison, Time, May 7, 2008. Indeed, in The New Yorker, Morrison wrote: “Years ago . . . one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. According to Morrison, Clinton’s blackness became even clearer when “the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the (impeachment) persecution.” Morrison, “Talk of the Town,” p. 32. During a 2008 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina televised live on CNN, journalist Joe Johns asked Obama if Clinton was the first black president. “Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does,” Obama said. “And I think that’s well earned . . . (O)ne of the things that I’m always inspired by—no, I’m—this I’m serious about. I’m always inspired by young men and women who grew up in the South when segregation was still taking place, when, you know, the transformations that are still incomplete but at least had begun had not yet begun. And to see (those) transformations in their own lives(,) I think that is powerful, and it is hopeful, because what it indicates is that people can change. “And each successive generation can, you know, create a different vision of how, you know, we have to treat each other. And I think Bill Clinton embodies that. I think he deserves credit for that. Now, I haven’t . . . I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities. You know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.” Wolf Blitzer said, “Let’s let Senator Clinton weigh in on that.” Hillary Clinton then humorously retorted, “Well, I’m sure that can be arranged.” “Part 3 of CNN Democratic Presidential Debate,” January 21, 2008. 12. Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: Free Press, 1995); Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: Reconstructing Race and Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002), pp. 77–84. 13. President Clinton admitted, both in a foreword to a book on criminal justice and in a speech before the 2015 NAACP convention—the day after President Obama at the same convention offered his landmark speech denouncing mass incarceration—that his policies had been wrong and harmful. “Plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long—we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.” Clinton also argued that it is “time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.” He said that “some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.” See “William J. Clinton: Foreword,” April 27, 2015, (from the book Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, ed. Inimai Chettiar and Michael Waldman (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015)). In his 2015 NAACP speech, Clinton conceded his error as president: “Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform. But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.” See Eric Levitz, “Bill Clinton Admits His Crime Law Made Mass Incarceration ‘Worse,’” MSNBC.com, July 15, 2015, . For the deleterious (racial) consequences of welfare reform, see, by Peter Edelman (who resigned as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in September 1996 in protest of Clinton’s signing the welfare reform bill), “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” The Atlantic, March 1997. Also see Dylan Matthews, “Welfare Reform Took People Off the Rolls. It Might Have Also Shortened Their Lives,” Washington Post, June 18, 2013; Zenthia Prince, “Welfare Reform Garnered for Black Women a Hard Time and a Bad Name,” Afro, March 18, 2015, ; and Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012.”