“Let the politician die, and the Poet live!” – Senghor’s vision of political power

David Tonghou Ngong writes about the importance of understanding Leopold Senghor’s poetry when thinking about his perspective on political power. Senghor’s 1951 poem “Chaka” captures his own situation as a person torn between his duties as poet and politician. Ngong argues that from this perspective, we should see Senghor as a complex figure who was neither saint nor sinner.

By David Tonghou Ngong

A portrait of Senghor marking the 60th anniversary of Senegal’s independence in 2020 was critiqued for implicitly praising Senghor’s leadership as first president of Senegal, as one “whose pen mattered more than his sword.”[1] The brief film was taken to task for showing only Senghor’s sunny side, for showing him as poet-president who led the people “as a teacher, with method and organizational spirit,” but failing to show his shadow side, such as how Senghor was beholden to France and the brutality that characterized his regime (1960-1980).

The critique portrayed Senghor as one who was never comfortable with independence, preferring instead to remain under French tutelage. It catalogued the brutalities of Senghor’s regime, among which was his enforcement of a single-party political system, the jailing of opponents, the putting down of student revolt, and orchestrating the death of activists. For the critic, Senghor was not as radical as he should have been.

My goal in this piece is neither to defend the short film nor Senghor. Rather, it is to argue that to understand Senghor, we need to begin with his theory of political power. When we look at his theory of political power, we would realize that his leadership style, both as an anticolonialist and as president mirrored his view of political power. From this perspective, we would see that Senghor saw himself as a complex figure who needed neither to be portrayed as saint or sinner. Speaking of his leadership, Senghor noted that human beings are neither saints nor heroes.[2] This is not to say that we should not condemn him where such condemnation is deserved nor praise him where such praise is needful; rather, understanding his theory of power would prevent us from simplistically presenting him as one thing – and only one thing. In Senghor’s view, I argue, political power is inextricably linked to violence.

I make this argument by noting that the place to look for Senghor’s theory of political power is not in his philosophical corpus or even his acts as president but rather in one of his poems that have received little attention over the years. The poem in question is “Chaka” (also spelled Shaka), which was written in 1951, when he was still involved in anticolonial struggle. I argue that this poem was his way of coming to terms with his conception of political power that served both his anticolonial work and his work as president of Senegal. The vision of power enunciated in the poem captures his life as politician and poet. Writing to the American scholar of African literature Donald Burness in 1971, twenty years after the poem was written and over ten years after he became president of Senegal, Senghor confessed to the importance of this poem in his thinking about power when he said that “Chaka” captures his own situation as a person who is a poet and a politician, a person torn between his duties as poet and politician.[3] The poem is found in Senghor’s poetry collection, Ethiopiques (1956).

While “Chaka” was inspired by the legendary Zulu strongman and empire-builder, King Shaka (1787-1828), Senghor’s portrait of Shaka is actually inspired by a work of fiction, the novel Chaka, originally written in the Sotho language by Thomas Mofolo and published in 1925. Senghor’s depiction of Shaka however departed from Mofolo’s portrait of the man because Senghor’s Shaka was influenced by Negritude. In fact, Senghor’s Shaka is a reaction to Mofolo who is believed to have slandered African cultures and the king in his own portrayal. In Mopholo’s Chaka, as the translator of the novel Daniel Kunene has noted, Mofolo invented traditions that did not exist among the Zulus and characters that did not exist in the life of the actual Shaka.[4] For example, early in the novel, Mofolo says that there is a tradition among the Zulus that a woman found to be pregnant out of wedlock is to be killed.[5] Mofolo creates a Diviner called Isanusi who would lead Chaka to sign a pact with him in his violent quest for power, and a woman, Noliwa, with whom Chaka would fall in love, and whom Shaka eventually murders in his quest for power. Mofolo’s Chaka, it is suggested, portrayed Chaka as a violent person who sought power for its own sake and destroyed everything that stood in his way to achieving that power.

Mofolo was a Christian and is therefore believed to have been influenced by missionaries to slander both African culture and a revered African leader. Many scholars in the Negritude movement sought to challenge Mofolo’s view of Shaka, including Senghor. Senghor’s portrayal of Shaka was therefore intended to redeem his character. Senghor’s portrayal of Shaka however was scandalous at the time it was written because the world was just coming out of wars believed to have been orchestrated by people with violent characters such as Shaka’s.[6]

“Chaka” is a dramatic poem made up of two songs (Chant I & II) that interrogate and at the same time praise Shaka’s actions, developing theories of political power in the process. The central question in the poem is why Shaka wanted power? Did he want power for its own sake or did he want it to achieve some higher purpose? In Senghor’s hand, Shaka becomes a figure who wanted power not just for its own sake, as Mofolo portrayed him, but rather to serve a higher purpose – to rescue his people from oppression and create a more humane world, a new world.

Thus, Senghor presents Shaka as a kind of Christ figure who dies for love of his people, a martyr who dies for a worthy cause. In fact, the poem is dedicated to “the Bantu martyrs of South Africa,” suggesting that the poem should be read from the perspective of the martyrs among whom Shaka is included. In other words, Shaka’s death should be understood as the death of a martyr. While Mofolo presented Chaka as a tyrant who would not let anything, not even his love for a woman, stand in his way to achieving absolute power, Senghor presents him as one whose quest for power is motivated by love, the love for his people, the love for Black people – as one whose quest for power is motivated by his Negritude.

Yet if Shaka is motivated by love, the love of Black people, by his Negritude, as the poem suggests, why did he kill his lover, Noliwa, whom Senghor calls Nolivé, and a host of other people? Shaka’s response is that he killed her because of love, the love of his people. He kills her not just because he wants power but rather because he wants power “as a means” (“un moyen”) to serve his people, to rescue his people from oppression, the oppression of Europe.

It is at this point that we see Senghor at his most realistic when it comes to how to obtain power and keep it. For Shaka to obtain absolute power, as the Diviner, Issanoussi, tells him, he must give up something important. As the Diviner states, “Power doesn’t come without sacrifice/ And absolute power requires the blood of the most cherished.” (“Le pouvoir ne s’obtient sans sacrifice, le pouvoir absolu exige le sang de l’être le plus cher.”) Here, we see that Shaka does not flinch from sacrificing the love of his life to obtain power. If sacrificing her is what he needs to do to obtain power, “Then she must die,” he concludes. “Il faut mourir enfin, tout accepter….”

Thus, in “Chaka,” Senghor is suggesting that the one who seeks political power should be motivated by love, the love of people, their people. The African who seeks power should be motivated by love for Africans. This is indeed a rare claim to make about why an African leader should seek power. But we also see that this love for the people is fraught as it could also be used as a pretext – the pretext for murderous acts! What kind of love is this that does not hesitate to massacre in order to obtain the power to rescue one’s people? Should love seek power through the murder of the very ones purported to be rescued? Given that Senghor indicates that the poem is his way of coming to terms with political power, did his claim that the politician should be motivated by love shape his own political life? If so, how? If not, why not?

Reading “Chaka”, we see that Senghor’s theory of political power is a problematic one that could sponsor the brutalities that happened under his regime. While he sees love for one’s people as an ultimate reason to seek political power, it also seems that this love may sometimes be used as a pretext, as a reason to do whatever it takes to sieze power, even to the point of killing one’s intimate partner and people.

Senghor’s “Chaka” should therefore lead us to interrogate the kind of leaders we idolize. Do the people we idolize stand for lifegiving politics? Does the remaking of Shaka in the image of Negritude lead Senghor to pass over in silence a murderous view of power that was in turn replicated in his political life as first president of Senegal?

In his paper “Representation of Violence in Two African Epic Heroes,” Konate Siendou of Université de Cocody-Abidjan takes Africans to task for idolizing leaders whose view of power is rooted in violence.[7] This, he suggests, is found in how the stories of leaders such as Shaka and Sundiata have been narrated. These narratives often present the violence of these figures as essential to their rise to power so that they might save their people. Should we accept such violence as central to political power? If so, can we blame politicians for relying on it in their rise to, and execution of, power?

Modern African politics has been characterized by leaders who identify with the violence of animals such as the leopard or the lion, such as Mobutu of former Zaire (leopard) and Paul Biya of Cameroon (“l’homme lion”). Senghor’s “Chaka” helps us interrogate the relations between power and violence. How is it possible for violence to bring about a new world (“monde nouveau”), as Senghor intimates in the poem? Has African leaders’ use of violence not only brought death and destruction to the people?

Perhaps it is this aporia of the relation between power and violence that led Senghor to finally give up the quest for political power in “Chaka.” Thus, in the poem, the politician gives way to the poet. “Let the politician die,” we read, “and let the Poet live!” (“Bien mort le politique, et vive le Poète”). The poet here is one who wants to provide a salutary vision for life, a vision of fraternity and peace. But seeking these things seems to be intimately linked to violence. Could this be why Senghor gave up power, why he resigned the presidency? Did he give up power because he was disillusioned with the life of a politician and preferred the pensive life of a poet? Could he then be described as poète de l’action (poet of action) as the title of one of his books suggests?

Whatever the case, in “Chaka”, we see the struggles of the poet-politician. The poem provides us with a window into Senghor’s vision of power and how this pans out in his political career and it should be central to any study of Senghor’s praxis of political power.

David Tonghou Ngong is Professor of Religion and Theology at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and author of the forthcoming book on Senghor, Senghor’s Eucharist: Negritude and African Political Theology (Baylor University Press, 2023)

Featured Photograph: Independence Day in Senegal, President Léopold Sédar Senghor (centre) is walking to N’Gor beach with a crowd of spectators in the background (4 April 1962).


[1] See Florian Bobin, “The Senghor Myth,” Africa Is A Country, June 9, 2020. Florian Bobin previously published the piece as “Poetic Injustice: The Senghor Myth and Senegal’s Independence,” Review of African Political Economy, May 5, 2020, and “Le Mythe Senghor à l’épreuve du souvenir de l’indépendence,” Seneplus April 6, 2020.

[2] Léopold Sédar Senghor, La poésie de l’action: conversation avec Mohamed Aziza (Stock, 1980), Loc 2064, Kindle edition. Senghor writes: “Les homme ne sont, hélas! ni des saints ni des héros.”

[3] Donald Burness, Shaka: King of the Zulus in African Literature (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1976), 30, 40 n 8. In a letter to Donald Burness, Senghor writes that “c’est ma situation que j’ai exprimée sur la figure de Chaka, qui deviant, pour moi, le poète homme politique dechiré entre les devoirs de sa fonction de poète et ceux de sa fonction politique.”

[4] Daniel F. Kunene, “Introduction,” in Chaka, xiv-xix.

[5] Thomas Mofolo, Chaka, a new translation by Daniel F. Kunene (Oxford: Heinemann, 1981), 5.

[6] For more on the reception of Senghor’s “Chaka”, see Alexia Vassilatos, “A Misreading of Poetic Proportions: Thomas Mofolo and Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Chaka(s): Two African Texts in Conversation,” English Studies in Africa (2011): 136-153.. Also see, Burness, Shaka.

[7] Konate Siendou, “Violence in Two African Epic Heroes: A Comparative Study of Chaka and Sundiata,” Revue Scientifique the Lettres, Arts, et Sciences Humaines (2020).


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