Senegal’s revolutionary icon Omar Blondin Diop deserves justice

Forty-eight years ago, Omar Blondin Diop died in prison under suspicious circumstances. Justice is yet to be served.

Omar Blondin Diop depicted among other African and African American activists in a mural painted on June 15, 2020 by the Senegalese graffiti collective Radikal Bomb Shot in Dakar [Courtesy of RBS]

On May 11, 1973, Senegalese revolutionary activist Omar Blondin Diop was declared dead in a prison on Gorée Island, off the coast of the Senegalese capital, Dakar. His life and tragic death have remained a potent symbol of the revolutionary struggle in Senegal.

Today, his image is featuring prominently in anti-government and anti-neocolonialism protests. On March 2, 2021, just hours before Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko’s arrest, the Front for an Anti-Imperialist Popular and Pan-African Revolution (FRAPP), a major youth-led protest organisation, held a press conference to call for mobilisation against the “project to liquidate [opposition] activists” in Senegal. Diop’s portrait stood prominently behind the speakers at the presser.

In the following days, thousands of youths took to the streets of Dakar to challenge the increasing authoritarianism of President Macky Sall and his suspected collusion with Senegal’s former colonial ruler, France. Many of them espouse the revolutionary values Diop stood for – anti-imperialism, anti-racism and pan-Africanism.

Forty-eight years after his death under suspicious circumstances, Diop is upheld as a “martyr of neocolonialism” and of the Senegalese state’s repressive practices, long covered up by the official state narrative presenting the country as an island of stability and democracy in a continent ravaged by war and dictatorship. This resurgent veneration of the revolutionary youth activist is not only a reflection of the dynamics in the Senegalese streets but also an indication that it is time for his case to be reopened and justice to be served.

A revolutionary life

Omar Blondin Diop in Dakar shortly after being deported from France, 1970 [Courtesy of the Diop family]

Despite his untimely death at just 26, Diop still managed to have an accomplished political life. As a teenager, he moved to France where he finished high school and enrolled to study philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, a prestigious teachers’ college. In 1968, he was a founding member of the March 22 movement, which carried out a prolonged occupation of Nanterre University’s administration building in the Parisian suburbs, demanding more freedom for the youth. The occupation was a precursor to the uprising of May that year against the conservatism of then French President Charles de Gaulle. Diop was arrested in 1969 for his participation in the protests and deported to Senegal in October of that year.

Back in his home country, he took a research position and regularly spoke at university conferences, impressing audiences with his eloquence and subversion. He also participated in underground Marxist-inspired political organisations that agitated for the overthrow of President Leopold Senghor’s government, which was running Senegal as a repressive one-party state. In 1970, Diop returned to France to continue his studies but did not remain long.

Some of his comrades back in Senegal were arrested over an attempt to attack the motorcade of French President Georges Pompidou during his visit to the country in February 1971. Disturbed by the heavy sentences they were handed, Diop embarked on a journey to liberate them.

He sought military training at a camp run by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Syria and the support of the Black Panther Party’s chapter in Algeria before making it to Mali, where he continued preparation for his plot. Eventually, he was arrested by the Malian secret services and extradited to Senegal, where he was sentenced to three years in prison for “attacking state security”. Diop died after 14 months in prison. The Senegalese authorities declared his death a suicide.

State cover-up

The official version of events, however, is unconvincing. Indeed, the prison register revealed that Diop had fainted several days before. His younger brother Mohamed, an ear-witness from the neighbouring cell, heard him agonise from blows he had received to the neck. This was confirmed by the autopsy conducted by his father, medical doctor Ibrahima Blondin Diop.

Omar Blondin Diop in Dakar shortly after being deported from France, circa 1969-1970 [Courtesy of the Diop family]

After an unsuccessful resuscitation attempt, the Gorée Island’s medic ordered the inmate’s immediate evacuation to Le Dantec Hospital in Dakar. The chief correctional officer refused out of fear that transporting the body outside the prison would cause trouble. Diop’s father filed a complaint for involuntary manslaughter. The investigation started well but ended badly. Faced with the damning evidence, Dakar’s High Court senior investigating judge, Moustapha Touré, proceeded to convict two prison guards. When interviewed by the Senegalese weekly La Gazette in 2009, Judge Touré stated: “The circumstances showed credible and concordant evidence that indicated that the suicide, officially mentioned to justify the death of Oumar Blondin Diop, was, in fact, a cover-up. I then decided, in the secrecy of my investigation cabinet, to indict.”

Soon after the indictment, the judge was removed from the case and replaced by another, who ended the legal proceedings a year and a half later, claiming the case was not within his jurisdiction.

At the same time, the Senegalese government under the aegis of President  Senghor launched a major media campaign – with the publication of a white paper on Diop’s case aimed at presenting him as a “depressed drug addict” and his death as a “suicide by hanging”. By order of then all-powerful interior minister Jean Collin, the burial was expedited and took place solely in presence of Diop’s younger brother and father. According to Dr Diop, he was the only person convicted in the case, made to pay the symbolic sum of one franc for “spreading false news” about his son’s death.

Delivering justice

Diop’s death is part of the long and painful history of killings of African radical anti-imperialist figures, including Cameroonian independence fighters Ruben Um Nyobé (1958) and Félix Roland-Moumié (1960), Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (1961), Togolese President Sylvanus Olympio (1963), Moroccan anti-imperialist advocate Mehdi Ben Barka (1965), Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde independence leader Amílcar Cabral (1973), South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (1977) – to name just a few. Diop’s family, like the families of many of his fallen comrades, are yet to see justice for his untimely death.

But recent legal developments in Africa show that impunity is not inevitable. On April 13 this year, a military court in Burkina Faso indicted 14 people linked to the 1987 assassination of Burkinabè President Thomas Sankara, including his successor Blaise Compaoré. And in 2017, a South African court reopened the case of Ahmed Timol – a young anti-apartheid activist who died in prison in 1971 – and established his death was not a suicide, as the apartheid authorities had claimed. One policeman, present at the scene of his death, has been charged with homicide and is awaiting sentencing.

Senegal could follow suit and reopen Diop’s case. In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of his death, his family requested that the case be sent back to court. One prison officer whom Judge Touré did not have time to indict, Néré Faye, said at the time that he was “ready for the reopening of the Omar Blondin Diop’s case” but has since died. But other key witnesses, including former guard Ibrahima Dièye and Judge Touré, are still alive.

Despite a promise to reopen the case given to Diop’s family in 2013 by then Minister of Justice Aminata Touré, there has been no development since her successor, Sidiki Kaba, took over the ministry between that year. Now Senegal’s armed forces minister, Kaba spoke out on April 8 against “the impression [that] Blondin Diop state crimes have never been clarified.” In an attempt to detail the sanctions imposed in recent years on those convicted of state crimes, he admitted at the same time that Diop was the victim of one.

The truth is inescapable. It is high time to reopen the case into Omar Blondin Diop’s death. Delivering justice for Diop will not only set the historical record straight but also serve as an important precedent for contemporary abuses of power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.