The Trial of Mamadou Dia, Dakar 1963. Part I

Senegalese paratroopers guarding the street leading to the Palace of Justice during the trial of Mamadou Dia. Dakar, december 1962. (Photos courtesy Dakar-Matin, Senegalese Ministry of Information, and Photo Bracher, Dakar) — BlogGuinée

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.

Read also The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal: 1900-1920

Tierno S. Bah

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.

t 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.

Next, The Trial of Mamadou Dia. Part II: The Proceedings in Court, May 7, 1963

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Author: Tierno Siradiou Bah

Founder and publisher of webAfriqa, the African content portal, comprising:,, webPulaaku,net,,,,,,,, and