The Tukolor settled in the Senegal River valley in the 9th cent., and during the period from the 10th to 14th cent. their strong state of Tekrur dominated the valley. The Tukolor were converted to Islam and in the mid-11th cent. a group of them participated in establishing the Almoravid state, centered in Morocco. In the 14th cent. the Mali empire expanded westward from the region of the upper Niger River and conquered Tekrur. In the 15th cent. the Wolof established the Jolof empire in the region between the Senegal and the Siné rivers. Jolof was made up of a number of states (including Wolof, Cayor, Baol, and Walo); internal rivalries led to its breakup in the 17th cent.
In 1444–45, Portuguese explorers reached the mouth of the Senegal River; it and the Gambia River were used as routes to the interior. Trading stations were established at the mouths of the Senegal and Casamance rivers and on Gorée Island and at Rufisque, both located near present-day Dakar. In the 17th cent. the Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch and the French.
The French established a post at the mouth of the Senegal in 1638 and in 1659 founded Saint-Louis on an island there. In 1677, the French captured Gorée from the Dutch, and it was for a time the main French naval base in W Africa. André Brüe, who was director of the Royal Company of Senegal from 1697 to 1720, extended French influence far into the interior, increased the export of slaves, ivory, and gum arabic, and encouraged with little success the cultivation of cotton and cacao. Later the French companies active in Senegal had competition from Fulani and Mande merchants.
During the Seven Years War (1756–63), Great Britain captured all the French posts in Senegal, returning only Gorée in 1763, and joined them with its holdings along the Gambia River to form the short-lived colony of Senegambia, Britain's first colony in Africa. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), France regained its posts but surrendered Gorée to Britain under the Treaty of Paris (1783). During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain again captured France's holdings in Senegal, but they were returned in 1815. At this time, the French presence was limited to Saint-Louis, Gorée, and Rufisque, and during the first half of the 19th cent. there was little contact with the interior, whose trade was oriented to the north and east. As part of a French policy of assimilation, inhabitants of Saint-Louis and Gorée elected a deputy to the national assembly in Paris from 1848 to 1852 and (joined by the inhabitants of Rufisque and Dakar) from 1871 to independence in 1960.
During the period from 1854 to 1865 (except for 1862), Capt. Louis Faidherbe was governor of Senegal, and he extended French influence up the Senegal and along the Casamance and conquered Walo and Cayor. Faidherbe established schools for the Africans and halted the westward expansion of al-Hajj Umar, the Tukolor leader of the Tijaniyya brotherhood, who waged a large-scale holy war from a base in what is now Guinea beginning in the early 1850s. In 1895, Senegal was made a French colony, with its capital at Saint-Louis; it was part of French West Africa, headquartered from 1902 at Dakar.
Under the French, Senegal's trade was reoriented toward the coast, its output of peanuts increased dramatically, and railroads were built. During World War II, Senegal was aligned with the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1942 but then joined the Free French. In 1946, Senegal, together with the rest of French West Africa, became part of the French Union, and French citizenship was extended to all Senegalese. Politics in Senegal were led by its two deputies in the French national assembly, Lamine Gueye, whose base was in the coastal cities, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, whose political strength was derived from the rural areas of the interior. In 1948, Senghor founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc, which dominated politics in Senegal in the 1950s. In 1956, a national assembly was set up in Senegal.
In late 1958, after Charles de Gaulle had come to power in France, Senegal became an autonomous republic within the French Community. In Jan., 1959, Senegal joined with the Sudanese Republic (the former French Sudan, now Mali) to form the Mali Federation, which became independent in June, 1960. On Aug. 20, 1960, Senegal withdrew from the federation, becoming an independent state within the French Community. At the time of independence, power was fairly evenly divided between the country's president, Léopold Senghor, and its prime minister, Mamadou Dia. In Dec., 1962, Dia staged an unsuccessful coup; he was arrested, and early in 1963 a new constitution was promulgated giving the president much additional power.
In 1966 the Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), headed by Senghor, became the country's only political party, and he was reelected overwhelmingly in 1968 and 1973. From the mid-1960s, however, there was considerable unrest in the country, caused by dissatisfaction with the growing concentration of power in Senghor's hands and by a declining economic situation resulting from lower world prices for peanuts and reduced aid from France. The economic situation was worsened by a long-term drought in the Sahel region of N Senegal that lasted from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s. Major demonstrations and strikes became an almost annual occurrence and were particularly disruptive in 1968, 1971, and 1973.
Senghor was a leading force in establishing (1974) the West African Economic Community, which linked six former French territories. Throughout the 1970s, Senghor continued to consolidate power in the presidency and strengthened relations with the country's Muslim leadership. In 1978, the government mandated a three-party system based on official ideological categories; a fourth party was legalized in 1979. Despite the institution of a system that effectively banned Senghor's opponents from the political process, opposition from unofficial political organizations grew steadily.
In 1981, Senghor, who remained head of the Socialist party (SP), yielded the presidency to Abdou Diouf. After a successful Senegalese intervention in a coup attempt in The Gambia, both countries officially proclaimed their union in a Senegambian confederation. Each nation was to maintain its sovereignty while consolidating their defense, economies, and foreign relations.
In response to mounting criticism of his regime, Diouf abolished government limits on the number of political parties. Deteriorating economic conditions led the government to adopt unpopular austerity measures, causing unrest in both rural and urban areas. The government subsequently strengthened the police force and restored some restrictions on political activity.
The elections of 1988, in which Diouf was reelected amid charges of fraud, took a violent turn, leading the regime to ban all public meetings. Two diplomatic crises arose in 1989: a maritime border dispute with Guinea-Bissau (later resolved by the International Court of Justice in favor of Senegal) and a violent dispute with Mauritania that evolved from a conflict over grazing rights in S Mauritania. Some 40,000 Senegalese workers and some 65,000 black Mauritanians were driven or fled from Mauritania for Senegal. In the same year, the confederation with The Gambia was dissolved.
Diouf was again elected in 1993. Legislative elections held in 1998 were won by the SP, as were elections for the newly created senate in 1999. Opposition parties boycotted the senate election. In the presidential elections in early 2000, however, Abdoulaye Wade of the Senegalese Democratic party defeated Diouf after a runoff; Wade's election ended nearly 40 years of Socialist rule in Senegal. In Jan., 2001, a new constitution was adopted, establishing a unicameral parliament and reducing the president's term to five years.
Casamance, an undeveloped region south of Gambia and centered on the Casamance River, has been the scene of a violent separatist movement since the 1980s. An agreement with the rebels there was signed in Mar., 2001, but the accord failed to end the fighting. In April, a coalition supporting President Wade won a majority in the national assembly. In Dec., 2004, a new cease-fire accord was signed with the Casamance rebels, but not all rebel factions supported the pact. The fighting there continued; in Aug., 2006, the government launched a significant new offensive against the rebels who had not signed the peace pact.
Wade was reelected in Feb., 2007, in an election African observers termed free and fair, but opposition parties accused the government of fraud. Wade's coalition won an overwhelming majority in the national assembly elections in June, 2007; the opposition largely boycotted that vote and the August one for senate seats. A proposed constitutional amendment to create a vice presidency, which many believed was designed to enable Wade's son to succeed him, led to violent protests in June, 2011, and it was not adopted. Wade's bid for a third presidential term also alienated former supporters, and in Mar., 2012, he lost the presidential runoff to Macky Sall, his former prime minister and the Alliance for the Republic candidate. In July, Sall's United in Hope coalition won an overwhelming majority in the assembly elections. In August, following severer than normal flooding during the rainy season, Sall called for the country's largely appointed Senate to be abolished and for the money saved to be used toward aiding flood victims and preventing future flooding. The move was criticized as an attempt to weaken the opposition (most senators supported Sall's predecessor), but the change was approved in September.