How was Senegalese patriot, Omar Blondin Diop, “tortured” to death for fighting against French neocolonialism?Updated on April 09, 2021, Florian Bobin
Omar Blondin Diop’s revolution in Senegal: In 1973, Senegalese activist and artist Omar Blondin Diop died in a Senegalese prison. His life helps reveal what revolutionary politics look like in a neocolonial state.
In 2013, the family of Omar Blondin Diop organized a memorial ceremony for him, forty years after his death on the island prison at Gorée. Centuries before, the island had been a major transit point for ships transporting enslaved African captives to the Americas. As part of the commemoration, Diop’s relatives installed a portrait of him in his former cell, now an exhibit of Senegal’s main historical museum. The picture captured him in 1970 just after he had been expelled from France, where he had been living for a decade. When the photograph was taken, he was a 23-year old student-professor in philosophy. Like many other students at the time, he was swept into the May 1968 protests. But five years later, he was more than a radical dissident—Omar Blondin Diop became a myth. When he died in prison fourteen months into his three-year sentence for “being a threat to national security,” authorities in Senegal claimed he committed suicide. Most had good reason to suspect he was murdered. Ever since, his family has tirelessly demanded justice be done, and artists alongside activists have taken the lead in holding on to his memory.
Independent Senegal was also a neocolonial space. Senghor had initially opposed immediate independence, advocating instead for progressive autonomy over twenty years. So, when he became president, he regularly called upon France’s support. In 1962, Senghor hastily accused his long-time collaborator Mamadou Dia, President of the Senegalese Council of Ministers, of attempting a coup against him—Dia was later arrested and imprisoned for over ten years. (Among others, Dia served as the first Prime Minister of an independent Senegal.) In 1968, when a general strike broke out in Dakar, the police suppressed the movement with the help of French troops. By 1971, Senghor’s embrace of France seemed to reach its peak with the state visit of French president Georges Pompidou, a close friend and former classmate. For over a year, Dakar had been preparing for Pompidou’s 24-hour stay. On the official procession’s main route, authorities rehabilitated roads and buildings, attempting to “invisibilize” the city’s poverty.
To young radical activists, Senegal’s reception of the French president was an open provocation. A few weeks prior, a group inspired by the American Black Panther Party and the Uruguayan Tupamaros set fire to the French cultural center in Dakar. During the actual visit, they attempted to charge the presidential motorcade. But they were caught. Among those convicted were two of Blondin Diop’s brothers. He, too, believed in direct action but was not involved in planning this attack. He had returned to Paris a few months earlier, after the lift of his entry ban. Distressed, Blondin Diop decided, with close friends, to leave France to train for armed struggle. Aboard the Orient-Express, they crossed all of Europe by train before arriving in a Syrian camp with Fedayeen Palestinian fighters and Eritrean guerilleros. Their plan was to kidnap the French ambassador to Senegal in exchange for their imprisoned comrades.
Two months into military training, Blondin Diop and his comrades left the desert for the city. They were hoping to garner support from the Black Panther Party, which had briefly opened an international office in Algiers. A split within the movement, however, forced them to reconsider. After swinging by Conakry, Guinea, they moved to Bamako, Mali, where part of Blondin Diop’s family lived. From there, they reorganized.
In Novembre 1971, the police arrested the group days before President Senghor’s first state visit to Mali in over a decade. Intelligence services had been monitoring them for months. In Blondin Diop’s pocket, they found a letter mentioning the group’s plan to free their imprisoned friends. Extradited to Senegal, he was sentenced to three years in prison. For the more significant part of their days at Gorée, detainees were not allowed to leave their cells. To minimize interaction, experience of daylight was restricted—half an hour in the morning, another half hour in the afternoon. Days became nights, nights were endless, and torture was the norm.
Omar Blondin Diop was reported dead on May 11, 1973. He was 26 years old. The news came as a bombshell. Hundreds of young people stormed the streets and graffitied the capital’s walls: “Senghor, assassin; They are killing your children, wake up; Assassins, Blondin will live on.” From the very beginning, the Senegalese state covered up the crime. Going against official orders, the investigating judge started indicting two suspects—he had discovered in the prison’s registry that Blondin Diop had fainted days before the announcement of his death, and the penitentiary administration had done nothing about it. Before the judge had time to arrest a third suspect, authorities replaced him and closed the case. Every May 11 until the 1990s, armed forces would surround Blondin Diop’s grave to prevent any form of public commemoration.
For decades, Omar Blondin Diop has been a source of inspiration for activists and artists in Senegal, and elsewhere. In recent years, exhibitions, paintings and movies have revisited his story, one which sadly resonates with contemporary politics. The authoritarian methods deployed by Senegal’s current administration illustrate how impunity feeds off of the past. President Macky Sall’s regime has repeatedly sought to suppress freedom of demonstration, embezzle public funds, and abuse of its authority. So long as governmental accountability serves no other purpose than an attractive concept to international donors, practices from the past are bound to live on. In Senegal today, people are still imprisoned for demonstrating; activists like Guy Marius Sagna are time and again intimidated, arrested and unlawfully detained. In this context, the state has unsurprisingly refused to reopen Omar Blondin Diop’s case. Nonetheless, as his family’s saying goes, “no matter how long the night is, the sun always rises.”
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