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Senegalese relations with France, the US, and China

Updated on February 4, 2018

There are generally three big foreign actors in Africa : the United States, Europe, and China. In Senegal, the three most important foreign relations for the country are the United States, France, and China. This article elaborates how the relationship between Senegal and these countries is structured.

Macky Sall and François Hollande, former president of France.
Macky Sall and François Hollande, former president of France.


Following independence, French influence continued to be extremely strong, controlling significant amounts of the Senegalese economy and foreign relations, going so far as a significant number of teachers in even high schools being French. Senegal did not opt for a major break with France, as the example of Guinea (where France had opted to place major sanctions on Guinea for choosing independence) was a significant warning sign. Most obvious as a symbol of the influence of France is the official position of the French language, which dominates business, education, communications, official writing, and administration in Senegal, even if Wolof is the popular vernacular (alongside a host of other National Languages). So too, the Senegalese monetary system means it uses as its currency the Franc CFA, which is backed by the French treasury and tied to the Euro.

Despite some waning of influence, France continues to be extremely influential in the region, and under President Macky Sall, has seen something of a renaissance: French companies like Total have been growing further. France has the largest investment stock in Senegal as well (78% of the total, 2.2 billion euros) and constitutes the largest trading partner with Senegal, at some 834.2 million euros in 2016. Significant amounts of French aid are directed to the country, with a French contribution of some 500 million euros to the Senegal Emergent plan. French involvement in infrastructure such as the TER (train express régional), a 57 km high speed train system linking Dakar to the future international Blaise Diagné international airport with a number of intermediary stops, confines to long-standing French involvement in African infrastructure.

While the French military base in Senegal was closed in 2010, France continues to maintain an air force squadron at Léopold Sedar Senghor international air port. Culturally, an Institut Français is found at Dakar, as well as Saint Louis, while Alliance Françaises are at Ziguinchor (687 students) and Kaolack (362 students). Some 9,500 Senegalese students attend French higher education, and even for many students and people who leave from Senegal to America, their initial exit is made through France. French technical advisors are present in Senegal as well.

In political terms France and Senegal are very close. Senegal is part of the Francophonie, and all post-independence Senegalese presidents have enjoyed French citizenship as well as their Senegalese citizenship, and most often visits to Africa or Europe by the respective parties start with the president visiting first the other nation.

United States

Senegal’s relations with America are partially driven by the lack of overt American colonial presence in Africa, which has reduced accusations of neo-colonialism like with France. It only began to be felt really with the independence of Senegal, growing from the 1980s onwards. Under Abdoulaye Wade, opening to the world was used as a way to exert pressure on the French, by providing alternate negotiating partners. Senegal has been very involved in the war on terror, which has served as an important bond with the Americans. The US did not support President Wade’s third term for presidency however, publicly condemning such a move.

Senegal has provided significant support to peacekeeping programs that the US supports. President Diouf went to Washington DC for his first official visit there in August 1983. Wade met President Bush in June 2001. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both visited Senegal. US support for the Senegalese military joins alongside France in helping to equip and professionalize it for fighting in the war on terror and in international peace keeping missions. Judicial cooperation is tight, such as in the war on drugs.

Around 300 Senegalese students go to the US each year for study. Conversely, around 270 Peace Corps volunteers are present in Senegal, serving in agriculture, forestry, health, and small business development, the largest number in Africa.. Fullbright programs encourage bilateral projects, such as Senegalese teaching French in the US. The US Embassy in Senegal is the third largest in Africa.

American foreign aid has been important in various programs in Senegal, such as money from the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Up to 540$ million has been promised to be spent on this from 2009 onwards. This has in particular been used for agricultural projects in the Senegal River Valley in the north and in the Casamance region. Commercial rice production is desired in both regions, to reduce the massive rice imports that Senegal undertakes. This continues to be in implementation and has been smother under President Sall than under President Wade.

The US might be the largest donor to Senegal, and certainly is one of the largest, these depending on what one uses as the criterion for aid. US aid increased from 60$ million to 109$ million from 2008 to 2012. Exports to the US are low, at 17$ million, while Senegal imports 150$ million from the US. US companies have 50$ million dollars of foreign investment in Senegal, but French companies are the largest investors. American assistance with microfinance in Senegal has been present as well.


Macky Sall and Xi Jinping meet in Beijing.
Macky Sall and Xi Jinping meet in Beijing. | Source


The Chinese presence in Senegal has been becoming more and more important since 2005, when relations were restored between the PRC and Senegal, the Senegalese having previously recognized Taiwan. Chinese economic involvement happens principally in the form of loans and economic efforts. Many Chinese traders tend to be in the informal sectors. Chinese in Senegal are often former workers who were here for 2-3 years, and who stayed and opened a business : often they were former small businessmen in their home country. They used their networks to order products directly from China to sell at competitive prices in Senegal; however, increasing competition has been cutting into profit margins. The number of Chinese located here is still limited though, China has not yet replaced the number of say, French located in Senegal. This presence however falls into a long-term trend of migrants, such as Lebanese who were traders, French (working in the colonial administration), and other European immigrants. They continue to have linguistic problems, with limited French or Wolof skills, requiring intermediaries to work for them. They concentrate significantly in the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle. These merchants have little support from China which views them as a negative mark upon its image and prestige in Senegal. In Senegal, teaching of Chinese has expanded, as with the expansion of China's presence around the world, occurring at various higher education establishments. There is also a Confucian Institute located in Dakar.

Chinese relations with Senegal fall into the category of growing south-south economic relationships. Chinese companies have long been present unofficially, principally in the construction sector. Increasing Chinese investment stock and trade has come, with 2009 seeing 549$ million bilateral trade, up from 23 $ million in 1994, while Chinese investment stock in Senegal reached 45$ million. China exports much more to Senegal than Senegal exports to China, and Chinese trade has contributed to a growing trade deficit, which stood at 251.6 million euros in 2009. This has made China the third largest foreign trader for Senegal, after France and Nigeria. China exports building materials, glass machinery, textiles, tea, shoes, and tomato paste from China, while exporting primarily fishery products to China. President Macky Salt would travel to Beijing in 2014, hoping to expand bilateral cooperation in various economic matters. China also accords 30 scholarships to Senegalese students to study in China, each year.

Chinese investment and populations have been increasing across all of Africa
Chinese investment and populations have been increasing across all of Africa

2000-2005 Trade (All Figures in Dollars, Millions)

Imports into Senegal
Exports to China

The PRC has financed the Grand Théâtre National (the largest in wrest Africa), and built the National Wrestling Stadium, as well as promising to build the Musée des civilisations noires. A variety of other stadiums have been financed as well, and par normal with Chinese involvement in Africa, China is involved heavily with a variety of infrastructure projects, something which Western countries abandoned as part of their aid projects in the 1970s, providing a valuable niche for China. Almost all labor, building material, and technical equipment for projects comes from China

China has provided aid to Senegal, such as supplying enough drugs between 2008-2010 to provide for 180,000 anti-malaria treatments, a smaller figure than the 400,000 provided by the United States in the same time period. Grand aid and training for agriculture has been provided, and Chinese doctors have worked in Senegal. Computer and agricultural equipment has also been received from China. Interest free, or preferential loans have also come from China, often being used to expand Senegalese infrastructure.


The result of the trio of these three nations is that Senegal has a significantly more diversified foreign relations portfolio, as compared to the past when it exclusively relied on France. French influence continues to be extremely significant, but shares Senegal with the United States and to a lesser extent China. At the current time this represents a sustainable trio which has provided benefits to Senegal. Continuing increases in Chinese influence, and the position and strength of France in the region, will represent the evolving factors of the relation with these three countries in the future.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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