48 years ago, Senegalese leftist Omar Blondin Diop died in detention under suspicious circumstances. His death triggered widespread outcry against Western-backed state repression — and it laid bare the violence of neocolonialism.
In June 2020, a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd, Senegalese graffiti collective Radikal Bomb Shot painted a colossal mural in the capital, Dakar, in memory of black liberation fighters from around the world. Alongside pan-Africanist Cheikh Anta Diop and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Omar Blondin Diop is depicted, cigarette in hand, reading historian Amzat Boukari-Yabara’s Africa Unite! A History of Pan-Africanism.
The photograph that inspired this spray-painted portrait dates from 1970, shortly after Blondin Diop’s expulsion from France for his involvement in the May ’68 protests. Five years later, when he died in prison in Senegal, he was more than a radical dissident — he was a martyr.
Senegalese authorities claimed Blondin Diop, fourteen months into a three-year sentence for “being a threat to national security,” committed suicide. Most had good reason to suspect he was murdered. Ever since, his family has demanded justice be done, and artists and activists have taken the lead in holding on to Blondin Diop’s memory.
Who Was Omar Blondin Diop?
Omar Blondin Diop’s death should not be understood as an isolated incident, but rather as one tragic episode in a series of tenacious acts of Western-backed, state-led repression in Senegal.
The persistence of foreign interests entangled with newly independent national governments was a common sight in former French colonies. Well into nominal political independence, burgeoning autocracies largely stifled revolutionary struggles against capitalism and neocolonialism. We don’t often hear of resistance movements in Senegal during Léopold Sédar Senghor’s rule (1960–1980) because his regime successfully marketed the country as Africa’s democratic success story. Yet, under the single-party rule of the Progressive Senegalese Union, authorities resorted to brutal methods: intimidating, arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and killing dissidents.
Omar Blondin Diop was born in the French colony of Niger in 1946. His father, a medical practitioner, had been transferred from Dakar, the administrative capital of French West Africa, to a small city near Niamey. Diop’s father was no flaming radical, but colonial authorities monitored him, suspecting him of “anti-French sentiment” (and thus potential anti-colonialism) because of his trade unionism and support for the socialist French Section of the Workers’ International.
Once Blondin Diop’s family was allowed to return to Senegal, he spent the better part of his childhood in Dakar, before moving to France with his family in 1960. He received his secondary education in Paris, where he attended a prestigious teachers’ college and studied classical European thinkers, from Aristotle and Kant to Hegel and Rousseau. And he began frequenting leftist circles.
Typically, politically active African expats focused on struggles from their home countries. Blondin Diop had a foot in both worlds. Shortly after hearing about the Senegalese activist, the radical filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard selected him for a role in his 1967 movie, La Chinoise. In 1968, now a twenty-one-year-old student-professor, Blondin Diop plunged into debates organized by far-left groups. Inspired by the writings of Spinoza, Marx, and Fanon, he favored theoretical eclecticism — in and out of situationism, anarchism, Maoism, and Trotskyism, he never held onto one given ideology.
Whatever his politics, they were too radical for the French authorities: Blondin Diop was deported in late 1969. Back in Senegal, he participated in the Movement of Marxist-Leninist Youth alongside other comrades who had studied in Europe and grew interested in the revolutionary potential of art. He developed a project of “a theater in the streets that will address the concerns and interests of the people,” closely related to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. “Our theater,” he explained, “will be a collective and active creation.”
Before playing in a neighborhood, we shall know its inhabitants, to spend time with them, especially the young people. Our theater will go to the places where the population gathers (market, cinema, stadium). It is especially important that we make whatever we can ourselves. Moral conclusion: Better death than slavery.
Neocolonialism in Senegal
Yet amid this explosion of creativity was a neocolonialism lurking in the background. Léopold Sédar Senghor had initially opposed immediate independence, advocating instead progressive autonomy over twenty years. When he became president, he regularly called upon France’s support.
And he meted out repression with little compunction. In 1962, Senghor wrongfully accused his longtime collaborator Mamadou Dia, president of the Senegalese Council, of attempting a coup against him; Dia and his collaborators were later arrested and imprisoned for more than a decade. 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. Dakar had been preparing for Pompidou’s twenty-four-hour stay for more than a year. On the official procession’s main route, authorities rehabilitated roads and buildings, attempting to whitewash the city’s poverty.
To young radical activists like Blondin Diop, Senegal’s reception of the French president was an open provocation. A few weeks earlier, a group inspired by the American Black Panther Party and the Uruguayan Tupamaros set fire to the French cultural center in Dakar and the Ministry of Public Works building. During the actual visit, they attempted to charge the presidential motorcade.
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, having returned to Paris a few months earlier after his entry ban was lifted.
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 guerrillas. Their plan: kidnap the French ambassador to Senegal in exchange for their imprisoned comrades.
Two months in to 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 chapter in Algiers. A split within the movement, however, forced them to reconsider. After swinging by Conakry, they moved to Bamako, where part of Blondin Diop’s family lived. From there, they reorganized.
In late November 1971, the police arrested the group days before President Senghor’s first state visit to Mali in over a decade. Under the control of the infamous director of national security Tiékoro Bagayoko, 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. He was extradited to Senegal and sentenced to three years in prison, confined to a dark cell (half an hour of daylight in the morning, half hour in the afternoon) that he was prevented from leaving for much of the day.
On May 11, 1973, Omar Blondin Diop was reported dead. He was twenty-six 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 beginning, the Senegalese state covered up the crime. Rebuffing 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.
For years, every May 11, armed forces would surround Blondin Diop’s grave to prevent any form of public commemoration.
The Legacy of Omar Blondin Diop
Exhibitions, paintings, and movies in recent years have revisited Blondin Diop’s story — one that unfortunately resonates with the authoritarianism of the present.
President Macky Sall’s government has repeatedly sought to suppress freedom of demonstration, embezzle public funds, and abuse its authority. Protesters are still imprisoned for demonstrating; activists like Guy Marius Sagna are time and again intimidated, arrested, and unlawfully detained. Just two months ago, the state helped put down nationwide protests. So long as “governmental accountability” is nothing more than an empty buzz word for international donors, practices from the past are bound to live on.
Authorities have 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.”
This post was originally published on Jacobin.