Knowledge of the history of Senegal before the 16th century is fragmentary. The major feature seems to have been the gradual movement into Senegal of the Wolof and Sérer peoples from the northeast, who reached their present positions between the 10th and 15th centuries AD . At various times parts of Senegal were included in the empires of Tekrur, Ghana, and Mali. At the height of its power at the beginning of the 14th century, Mali controlled the Falémé and Upper Senegal. That century saw the emergence of the Jolof empire, controlling the six Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol, Walo, Sine, and Salum. In the middle of the 16th century, Kayor revolted and conquered Baol, but the other Wolof states continued to admit a shadowy suzerainty of Jolof. As the power of Kayor and Baol increased toward the end of the 17th century, however, Jolof power declined, probably because it was cut off by those states from access to the sea and European trading. The 18th and early 19th centuries were marked by struggles among the northernmost Wolof states and by sporadic Mauritanian attacks on them.
European activities in Senegal began with the Portuguese arrival at the Cap Vert Peninsula and the mouth of the Senegal River in 1444–45. The Portuguese enjoyed a monopoly on trade in slaves and gold until the 17th century, when they were succeeded by the Dutch, who virtually dominated all trade by 1650. The later 17th century brought the beginnings of the Anglo-French rivalry, which dominated the 18th century in Senegal as elsewhere. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the main trading activities were the export of slaves and of gum arabic. Peanut cultivation by African peasants, the foundation of Senegal's modern economy, began in the mid-19th century.
French rule was confined to the old trading posts of Saint-Louis (founded in 1659), Gorée, and Rufisque until its expansion under the Second Empire, during the governorship of Gen. Louis Faidherbe (1854–65). The French occupation of Senegal was consolidated and extended under the Third Republic during the last 30 years of the 19th century. In 1871, Senegal was again allowed to send a deputy to the French parliament, a right that had been abolished under the Second Empire. In the following decade, municipalities on the French model were established in Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar, and Rufisque, and only the inhabitants of these towns took part in the elections of the deputy.
Between 1895 and 1904, a series of decrees consolidated eight territories into a French West Africa federation, of which Dakar became the capital. In 1920, a Colonial Council, partly elected by the citizens of the old towns and partly consisting of chiefs from the rest of Senegal, replaced the elected General Council previously established for the four towns. All the elected bodies were suppressed in 1940 but restored at the end of the war, and in 1946 Senegal was given two deputies in the French parliament. Under the constitution of 1946, the franchise was extended and a Territorial Assembly was established in Senegal. Universal suffrage was established in 1957. In 1958, Senegal accepted the new French constitution and became an autonomous republic within the French Community.
On 17 January 1959, in Dakar, representatives of French Sudan (now Mali), Senegal, Dahomey (now Benin), and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) drafted a constitution for a Federation of Mali, but only the assemblies of French Sudan and Senegal ratified it and became members of the federation. The Mali Federation became a sovereign state on 20 June 1960, but conflicting views soon led to its breakup. On 20 August, the Legislative Assembly of Senegal proclaimed Senegal's national independence and announced its withdrawal from the federation. A new republican constitution was adopted on 25 August, and on 5 September, Léopold-Sédar Senghor was elected president and Mamadou Dia became prime minister, in effect retaining a position he had held since 1957.
After an attempt by Dia to avoid a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly by calling out the national police, the legislature met in special session on 17 December 1962 and overthrew Dia's government by a motion of censure. Dia was arrested, and Senghor was elected by unanimous vote of the deputies as head of government. Less than three months later, the electorate approved a new constitution that abolished the post of prime minister and made the president both chief of state and head of the executive branch. A constitutional amendment in 1970 reestablished the office of prime minister, and Abdou Diouf, former minister of planning and industry, was appointed to the post on 26 February 1970. Dia, in detention since 1962, was released in March 1974 as part of an independence celebration.
Having been reelected president in 1968, 1973, and 1978, Senghor resigned as president at the end of 1980 and was succeeded by Diouf. In the summer of 1981, 2,000 Senegalese troops were sent to the Gambia to put down an attempted military coup there. The Confederation of Senegambia was constituted in February 1982 with Diouf as president. Under the terms of confederation, the two countries pledged to integrate their armed and security forces, form an economic and monetary union, and coordinate foreign policy, communications, and possibly other endeavors. The Senegambia agreement was dissolved on 30 September 1989. Diouf was elected to a full term as president on 27 February 1983, receiving 83.5% of the vote in a five-candidate contest. All parties were guaranteed equal access to the media, but the secret ballot was optional, and independent observers reported widespread electoral irregularities. The office of prime minister—constitutionally regarded as the president's successor—was once again abolished in April 1983.
The ruling Parti Socialiste Sénégalais (PS) was victorious in municipal and rural elections held in November 1984, although 12 of the 15 registered parties boycotted the polls. Diouf liberalized the political process and restructured his administration, making it less corrupt and more efficient. It advocated modulated reform in the face of reactionary elements in the PS.
In the 1988 national elections, Diouf carried 77% of the vote and the PS took 103 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly. Despite a generally fair election, opposition protests escalated into rioting in Dakar. The city was placed under a three-month state of emergency. Diouf's principal opponent, Maitre Abdoulaye Wade of the Democratic Party, was among those arrested and tried for incitement. Afterwards, Diouf met with Wade and tensions were eased.
In April 1989, a nationwide state of emergency was declared and a curfew imposed in Dakar after rioters killed dozens of Mauritanians. Protesters had been enraged by reports of the killing of hundreds of Senegalese in Mauritania. Relations with Mauritania were broken and armed clashes along the border and internal rioting led to the expulsion of most Mauritanians residing in Senegal. Diplomatic relations were reestablished in April 1992 and the northern border along the Senegal River was reopened.
In April 1991, Wade accepted the post of Minister of State in Diouf's cabinet. Diouf appointed Habib Thiam as prime minister on 7 April 1991, who then appointed the Council of Ministers in consultation with President Diouf.
Diouf and PS again won reelection in February 1993. His margin of victory, however, shrank to 58% versus 32% for Wade. The PS took only 84 seats in the May legislative elections and the PDS increased its representation from 17 to 27 seats. The Jappoo Leggeeyal Senegalese Party and the Democratic League won three seats each. Two other parties took the other three seats. Wade and other opponents denounced the elections as fraudulent, though international observers declared them generally free and fair. When the vice president of the Constitutional Court was murdered after the elections were officially certified, Wade and other PDS members were charged in the slaying. He and MPs with parliamentary immunity were later released. Political discontent followed these events and an opposition party demonstration in 1994 resulted in the death of six police officers and injury to many civilians.
In November 1996, the government initiated a decentralization policy that devolved considerable political and administrative authority to the provinces. In July 1998, it undertook a major reshuffling of ministers and ministerial posts, and in November, it signed a peace accord with Guinea-Bissau that was intended to establish a buffer zone along the southern border. In keeping with the accord, the Senegalese army withdrew its 2,500 troops supporting then president, Joao Bernardo Vieira. Togolese, Gambian and Nigerian soldiers under ECOMOG replaced the Senegalese troops.
Since December 1983 the Movement of Democratic Forces of the Casamance (MFDC) has waged a low-scale military insurgency against the Senegalese government for independence. The Movement splintered in 1991 and signed peace accords with the Senegalese government in 1991, 1993 and in December 1999 in Banjul. In 1992 and 1995, Senegalese warplanes bombed rebel bases in Guinea-Bissau suspected of providing safe havens and resupply points for the rebels. In March 1996, the two governments reached an accord. President Jammeh of The Gambia, who belongs to the same dominant Diola ethnic group of the Casamance, and officials in Guinea-Bissau have mediated the conflict. Despite Abdoulaye Wade's campaign promises to end the insurgency through negotiations and military means, by June 2003 the fighting continued unabated.
In January 1999, the PS won highly controversial Senate elections by a landslide taking all 45 elected seats. However, a boycott by the two largest opposition parties undermined the Senate's credibility. The bill to create the Senate had been pushed through by the PS-dominated National Assembly in February 1998, thereby increasing the ruling party's representation. The voting rules also ensured a majority of PS politicians in the electoral college.
In April 2000, Abdoulaye Wade was inaugurated as Senegal's third president. The February–March elections were the first in Senegal's history to result in a change of government. Although Diouf won 41.3% of the vote on the first round, PS defectors Moustapha Niasse (AFP) and Djibo Leyti Ka (URD) threw their support behind Wade to give him 58.5% on the 19 March second round. His victory not only ended 40 years of rule by the Parti Socialiste, but it also ended speculation that Senegal's quasi-democracy was moribund. Using their cell phones, Senegalese youth called in results, which were broadcast by electronic media to prevent fraud.
Wade's record over his first three years in office has been mixed. In December 2001, he became head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest-Africane (UEMOA). In April 2002, Senegal hosted an international conference on the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). As promised, he has begun building primary schools around the country. However, strikes by postal workers, bank employees, and teachers indicate considerable social unrest owing to unmet wage and benefits demands. The government's delay of local elections in the fall of 2001 and the replacement of elected officials with appointees (délégations spéciales) were widely criticized as anti-democratic. Nevertheless, his government has released a poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSP) within the specified timeframe, has reduced the budget deficit, and has improved relations with the IMF.