Mamadou Diouf (New York/Bonn): Constitution-Making and Social Transformation in Africa. Cases from Senegal


Using archival documents, newspapers stories and relaying heavily on interviews and close observation of political activities, this presentation privileges an inward-looking examination in contrast to the dominant and externally driven narrative of the political history and sociology of postcolonial Africa, based on the idea that, compared to Western political norms, the societies on the continent are structurally dysfunctional.

The questions I am examining, of governance, citizenship and political participation are approached from two angles: the first is concerned with the political economy of African independence and the second describes and analyzes the history of the building of a democratic nation-state in Senegal.

The main issue around which this presentation is structured is how Senegal, “An African nation between Islam and the West” (Sheldon Gellar) has been successfully (D. Cruise O’Brien) holding at bay ethnicity and religion that have been in many African countries, the principal basis for making representational claims on one hand and promoting selectively, on the other hand, the Enlightenment ideals of universal citizenship and equality expressed by the commitment to civil rights and democratic deliberation. Pierre Rosanvallon (Le sacre du citoyen: Histoire du suffrage universel en France, 1992; La société des égaux, 2011) emphatically underlines the centrality of the principle of equality as “the “mother idea” of the revolutionary process, promoting the “equivalence of all citizens, the autonomy (the freedom from dependence) of each citizen, and equal participation of citizens in politics

The central question: What does a modern state mean, and specifically, in a postcolonial context heavily shaped by the double precolonial and colonial heritage? How do such legacies articulate with the political engagement of the various African nationalist leaderships that interpreted independence and nation-building as critical moments to opening up new opportunities, and a transition from authoritarian colonial rule and economic exploitation to democracy and social justice? The modern state was imagined as a source of national unity, a perimeter governed by legal institutions such as the administration, the judiciary, the army, the police… mediating between citizens and between them and the state?  The unambiguous aspiration – at least rhetorically - was to shift political allegiances that lie in communities to the state and the nation, recognizing that individuals in Africa, are more likely to acknowledge an unequivocal connection between their political aspirations and their identities defined by ethnicity, religion, language, region of birth, culture or other “traditional “socially ascribed statuses or colonial assignations.

Constitution making – a crucial instrument in postcolonial Africa - carved a territory defined by citizenship, a category of political membership, dissociated from geographic, religious, or ethnic markers. It indexes a radical shift to signal the birth of a new nation based on a legal system that breaks away from the violence and arbitrariness of colonial rule but also the fragmentary consequences of “belonging”. The insistence on the operations of the legal system has been playing a critical function: to demonstrate the governmental, administrative and rhetorical commitment to the law. The language of law and order figured significantly the performance of state legitimacy and the theater of nation-building in Africa. It shaped very powerfully the contours and contents of the public space. The rhetoric of law and order, to promote ethics and national identity, was prominent to justify, the politics and policies conducted by the governments and ruling parties, in particular the imposition of one-party rule to close the vibrant, diverse and multiparty political life that characterized the nationalist period – roughly for many African countries between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s. Since then, the frequent occurrence of constitutional amendments, lawlessness, ethnic chaos… along with corruption and “indiscipline” have been the predicate of political change and violent conflicts in many African countries.

The approach that informs my project is a historical. It is not limited to a classical interrogation of the legal infrastructures and the processes they command. It considers the historical, sociological and mentalités contextsthat shaped and are also shaped by anyconstitutional work. Indeed, the raw material of any legal system that the writing, voting and implementation of a constitution is the purpose. They constitute, at once, the sources and the resources that the law is responsible for translating.

This translation is critical to the successful production of a constitution. It ensures the transformation of a legal text in a story (récit) and a political and cultural reference (Michael Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself. The Constitution in American Culture, 1986).

Prof. Dr. Mamadou Diouf

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Dr. Mamadou Diouf studied history at the University Paris-Sorbonne, where he received his doctorate degree in 1982 as well. His dissertation deals with the topic “Le Kajoor au XIXème siècle et la Conquête coloniale 1815-1885”. Following his Ph.D. Mamadou Diouf worked as an Associate Professor in Dakar, Senegal and Québec, Canada. Moreover, he was Head of the Research, Information, and Documentation Department of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). From 2000 to 2007 Prof. Dr. Mamadou Diouf was Director for the African Studies (CAAS) at the University of Michigan. In addition Mamadou Diouf was the Charles D. Moody Jr. Collegiate Professor of History and African American Studies from 2006 to 2007. Since 2007 he is Leitner Family Professor of African Studies and the Director of Columbia University's Institute for African Studies. His courses include the political, social, cultural and economic history in colonial and postcolonial Africa. Mamadou Diof is member of numerous academic associations as well as an editor of various specialist journals.

From February to July 2017, Prof. Dr. Mamadou Diouf was Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture”. Since June 2018 he continues his fellowship.