One of Africa's most stable democracies, though it still faces armed insurgents
Senegal's northern border is formed by the Sénégal River whose valley provides a fertile strip of land. This soon gives way in the south and west to the flat, dry savannah of the Sahel, suitable only for raising livestock. The centre of the country consists largely of grasslands that are used more intensively for agriculture. Further south, beyond the ‘finger’ of the Gambia, a country that Senegal completely encloses, the Casamance region is greener, with more dependable rainfall and some tropical forests.
Senegal has more than a dozen ethnic groups of whom the largest are the Wolof, who are found particularly in the west. They make up only around two-fifths of the population and their language is also spoken by many others—though the official language remains French. Another large group, found in the west, are the Serer. Senegal also has many Peuhl (or Fulani). They are found throughout the country, and although traditionally they raise livestock many are now settled farmers. One of the politically most powerful groups is the Islamic Sufi sect, the Mourides.
The most significant dissident group are the Diola people in the Casamance region in the south who feel they have been exploited by northerners. Their armed organization, the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC), signed a peace agreement in 2004 though there is fighting by some factions within the MFDC.
Senegal is more developed than its immediate neighbours and Dakar, formerly the capital of French West Africa, is one of the region's more cosmopolitan cities, but the Senegalese are still very poor. More than one-third of the population are below the poverty line, only 40% are literate, and average life expectancy is 55 years. Health services are weak and concentrated in the cities.
Most people still depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, typically in small farms using basic production methods. The main food crops are sorghum and millet, grown in the north and centre, and rice in the Sénégal river valley and in the Casamance region in the south. Even so, Senegal still needs to import three-quarters of its rice consumption.
Most farmers also grow cash crops, of which the most important traditionally has been groundnuts. Groundnuts were also the main export earner but harvests over the last decade have been affected by erratic rainfall and more recently by privatization of the marketing system. Another important cash crop is cotton, much of which is bought by the local textile industry. Livestock production too has been affected by drought and the country also has to import meat.
Catching too much tuna
The largest source of foreign exchange is fish. Senegal's Atlantic coastal waters are a rich source particularly of tuna. Most is caught from small boats by fishermen, who make up 15% of the workforce, but there is also industrial fishing. Tuna is canned and exported to the EU. The industry has expanded recently, making fish the largest source of export income, but over-fishing and increasing international competition have been reducing Senegal's tuna sales.