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As an academic term, post-colonial theory typically refers to the wide range of previous scholarship examining the present relationships and interactions between populations that have been colonized and former colonizers; the term is often used in contemporary literature to refer to the interactions between a "Global South" or “Third World” juxtaposed with European states and their respective cultures. As colonial powers exerted their influence over foreign populations, colonial governance and its accompanying settlers became concentrated within urban contexts and environments. Consequently, institutions such as language, infrastructure, city planning, and notions of citizenship have been entrenched within the core of cities that are nominally independent from former colonial powers, shaping the nature and tone of subsequent and present-day interactions. However, there are important distinctions to be made between cities adopted within nations that were colonized for the purpose of exploitation colonialism, and those chosen for settler colonialism: the former often suffer from weaker social infrastructure and institutions, denying both access and interactions, while the latter rely on those same institutions that were often used to maintain colonial social control. Dakar is relatively unique among post-colonial cities in that it was integral to the success of the French Empire. As a trading port, its scale and activity rivaled those of similarly-sized cities such as Hanoi and Beirut. The legacy of French colonialism is evident upon appraisal of Dakar’s institutions: its secular schooling is conducted in French, as is the toponymy for the roads and streets that make up a significant part of the city’s bounds. Furthermore, Dakar’s architecture and urban planning are a product of the extra-European city planning that took place during the colonial era; this presently influences the form of negotiations between occupants of different locations in the city. The common points between the colonial past of the city and its present formation indicate a significant and ongoing relationship between the city and its former colonial power. Thus, post-colonial theory may be applied to better understand the unique dynamics and social importance of Dakar in modern geography and broader academic contexts.

Dakar, Senegal


The theme of our work is to consider how a former colonized city interacts with its past to create a dynamic present in both economic and political terms. This duality between past and present can be found across the Global South, which includes lots of former colonies. The political processes of colonialism shaped these cities to become places where different heritages and influences intersect; with many debates today about the persistence of a form of colonial interference, notably through the concept of neo-colonialism. We have seen in class how cities, such as Singapore, can link their colonial heritage with their local, pre-colonial history to build their own future. At the same time, the course clearly demonstrated the Eurocentrism of current concepts and the importance of a form of neo-colonialism in the development of the cities of the Global South.

From this perspective, Dakar is a striking example of a Global South city: on one hand it is dynamic economically, demographically and politically; on the other hand, the city is still undermined by its colonial legacy and neo-colonial constraints. Yet Dakar retains certain traits that set it apart from other cities in the region and in the Global South. In particular, the duality between past and present is very important for Dakar: as noted before, it was a crucial hub of the French Empire, which still has huge impacts on the daily life of Dakar’s citizens. To understand the city’s present situation, one must first understand Dakar's colonial history. The French first settled on the Dakar-facing island of Gorée as early as 1677. However, the island was small and unsuitable for colonial expansion. Colonial records suggest that Europeans had begun to settle in Dakar by the middle of the 19th century: in 1858, planners created Dakar’s first cadastral plan [1] . The cadastral plan shows the colonial influence on the urbanization of the city by itself; consequently, many important buildings – like the current Presidential Palace – were built under colonialism. Dakar’s metropolitan influence increased when the French made Dakar the capital of French West Africa in 1902 - it remained so until it became the capital of the ephemeral Federation of Mali, then finally, that of the Republic of Senegal on April 4, 1960.

Since independence, Dakar has been characterized by its own unique political life and governance; it is the capital of one of Africa's strongest democracies and economies. Indeed, Senegal is one of the most stable countries in Africa. Since 1960, it has undergone three major political changes, all of them peaceful. Economic growth has remained steady over 6% since 2014. With planned expansions in the energy (oil and gas) sector by 2022, Senegal is expected to maintain its economic momentum in the coming years. While the GDP growth rate accelerated in 2017 to over 7 per cent, projections indicate a stable increase of over 6 per cent for 2018 and beyond [2]. Furthermore, Dakar constitutes 25% of the Senegalese national population and nearly 80% of economic activities despite representing only 0.28% of Senegalese territory.

Because of this particular history and these general factors, the city illustrates our theme by showing general characteristics and a specific way of urban governance – where, as seen in Week 5, the state has an important role to play to answer the dwellers’ claims. Our study will focus on the municipality of Dakar, but national context could be used in order to better understand the political life of the city. Moreover, regional examples could give interesting comparisons, and cities like Abidjan or Bamako could be mobilized [3]. In fact, this phenomenon is both local, with Dakar’s own specificities, and global, as part of broader trends and patterns common in the Global South.

Case Study of Theme/Issue

The French colonial legacy has played and continues to play a major role in the urban dynamics of Dakar, both in terms of architecture and administrative organization. Due to its geostrategic position as a crossroads between Africa, Europe and America, the whole French colonial system in Africa relied on Dakar.

To begin with, the city has been built around the port on a peninsula. Actually, the city was first used as an export platform for raw materials produced in the vast hinterland by exploited populations. In order to ensure the smooth movement of products, transport infrastructures are being created such as a first railway. Meanwhile, the first sketches of an administrative organization are created in the direct vicinity of the port. Dakar inherited the tradition of French centralisation of economic, political and cultural powers in the main city. Contrary to what one might think, in spite of the power imbalance, which is inherent to colonial laws, urban urbanism in the colonial Dakar did not only consist in top-bottom policies, but also in bottom-top urban politics, at least theoretically. Dakar was one of the four communes where adult males where granted the right to vote for the election of the city council. However, only white colonisers benefited from the scarce resources devoted to urban planning.

French occupation has left structural traces of its passage in Dakar that can still be seen today, first of which is the overall organization of the city[4]. The ‘Plateau’ neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the port and historically area reserved to white settlers where were located the main administrations of the country, is today the political centre of the country. The executive, legislative and judiciary branches of power are based in the administrative buildings of the colonial period in the Plateau. Moreover, the Plateau has become a real business district as most of the national banks and insurance companies have chosen domicile there. The Sangada market is a symbol of Dakar’s nerve economic centrality. Besides, Dakar’s colonial port has kept a crucial role in linking Senegal to the world as its outward-oriented economy still relies on raw materials production. As every colonial city, Dakar was characterized by spatial segregation. Indigenous populations inhabited the Melina’s neighborhood on the pretext of sanitary precautions. Street naming- named after French famous people- appeared as a tool of spatial segregation as it created a kind of mental barrier between white settlers and indigenous. In spite of the renaming process after independence, there is still a slight prevalence of colonial-era names over new names. This spatial segregation based on ethnicity is still striking today.

Dakar, Senegal

Since the independence in 1960, urban dynamics have dramatically evolved, which calls into question the colonial model of organization, deemed inappropriate[5]. The city has been confronted to a massive urban growth. Dakar hosts nearly 3 million inhabitants- more than a fifth of Senegal’s population- on an area of 550km2. Far from disappearing, Senegalese macrocephaly has even increased, with Dakar accounting for 55% of GDP. The lack of consistent urban planning since decolonization has led to an anarchical urban growth.

Indeed, despite the establishment of public spatial planning institutions in the 60s, the difficult economic situation of the country, worsening in the 90s with the IMF structural adjustment plan, aborted their main projects. The State’s vacancy in urban planning is filled with informal housing in the suburbs, that now makes up nearly 30% of Dakar’s area. Dakar’s geographical localization is quite problematic as it has been built on a cramped peninsula, making spread-out dynamics trickier. Actually, informal peripheries have spread to the bottleneck linking the city to the hinterland, creating massive problems of traffic congestion.

Meanwhile, the Senegalese government has opted for a decentralization policy in 1996[6], granting more prerogatives to local authorities in terms of urban planning so that they reflect more accurately people’s claims. Considering the lack of states economic resources devoted to urban planning, local authorities have decided to resort to the private sector. However, it did not work out the numerous issues to which Dakar is confronted. First, the decentralization policy has contributed to the multiplication of administrative levels, making collaborative decision making much more complex. Moreover, the creation of new neighborhoods deeper in the hinterland fell short. As it was not followed by business transfers, these districts became ‘dormitories’ for people working downtown, resulting in more traffic congestions. In addition, these projects ignored the problematic of informal areas such as Pikine (1,5 Million inhabitants) which appear as buffer strips between downtown and far-flung suburbs. To avoid the trap of the dormitory city, Dakar’s administration has launched a project for a new city in Diamniadio[7], which would not only relieve Dakar's congestion but also decentralize the activity by promoting a real economic dynamism. This city would be linked to Dakar by a train. The project is completely financed by the private sector.

The “Plan Directeur d’Urbanisme de Dakar et ses Environs Horizon 2035”[8] aims at answering these lingering problematics (informality, spatial segregation, traffic congestion, pollution, lack of mobility, etc.). It has been elaborated in concertation with low levels of the administration so that it represents people’s claims (bottom-up policy). One of the goals of the plan is to increase the provision of basic services to people living in informal areas. Today, only 25% of Dakar has access to a proper sanitation network and 54% to toilets. It has tragic consequences on the public health, particularly in slums. The plan seeks to extend the sanitation network so that it covers 63% of the population and to increase access to toilets to 100%.

Lessons Learned

Through analyzing the post-colonial impacts on Dakar over time and the process of urban politics that transpired during French colonialism, we learnt that Dakar had a theoretical approach based on French urban theories rather than its own approach based on its particular context. Dakar's urban planners tried to improve citizen participation through decentralization and localized urban politics. However, this approach was not successful because it did not account for people outside of formal settings. An approach based on input from all residents is necessary to appropriately meet their basic needs.

In trying to learn how a former colonized city interacts with its past to create a dynamic present in both economic and political terms, we learn from Liora Bigon that the heterogeneous approach of urban planning explains today’s diversity and fluidity of a both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ Dakar. By looking at how French colonial legacy has played and continued to play a large role in the urban politics of Dakar, we begin to understand how neo-colonialism is critical to the development of the cities in the Global South.

Dakar is a perfect example of one of these Global South cities, characterized by its economical, demographical, and political dynamism, but also by the undermining of colonial legacy and neo-colonial constraints affecting the city today. However, we learn that Dakar is set apart from other cities in the Global South through its duality between past and present. As a once crucial hub of the French Empire, and now after gaining its independence, Dakar is the capital of one of the strongest democracies and economies in Africa.

Through this research on Dakar's post-colonialism and the urban sprawl that took place post-independence, we learned how much urban policy as well as colonial legacy can affect the outcome and success of Global South cities. Moreover, we learn the necessity for a city to create a new narrative based on its own problematics and dynamics.


[1] “From the origin of Sandaga, Gorée Island and Ouakam", Senegalese Press Agency, 4 October 2007, available on Seneweb.

[2] Senegal - Overview, Banque Mondiale (

[3] Bertoncello, Brigitte, and Sylvie Bredeloup. “Privatization of urban markets in Abidjan: a golden opportunity for just a few”, Autrepart, vol. 21, no. 1, Managing the City: Between the Global and the Local, 2002, pp. 83-100.

[4] Abdoul Aziz Diop, « Quelles centralités pour la ville de Dakar, Sénégal ? », Rives nord-méditerranéennes, 10 Février 2007.

[5] LBigon, Liora, About colonial legacy in Dakar urbanism :French colonial Dakar, the morphogenesis of an African regional capital, chapter 5: Dakar's "old city" and beyond, 2016.

[6] Sourcis, Anne : "villes du futur, futur des villes: quelle avenir pour les villes du monde?" chapter 6 : Dakar: les enjeux d'une ville africaine, Sé

[7] "Sénégal: Diamniadio: la ville nouvelle qui veut redonner un souffle à Dakar", Réussite, 18 Septembre 2018.

[8] "Rapport final résumé du Plan Directeur d’Urbanisme de Dakar et ses environs Horizon 2035", Ministère du Renouveau Urbain, de l’Habitat et du Cadre de Vie République du Sénégal.


Diop, Moussa. "Public-private partnership: an alternative to official development assistance? The example of urban water services in Senegal ," Developing Worlds, vol. 165, no. 1, 2014, pp. 79-92.

Njoh, A. J. (2017). Toponymic Inscription as an Instrument of Power in Africa: The case of colonial and post-colonial Dakar and Nairobi. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 52(8), 1174–1192.

Touré, Ibrahima. "Autonomy and Local Democracy in Africa. An illustration by the case of Senegal”, International Journal of Administrative Sciences, vol. 78, no. 4, 2012, pp. 809-826.

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