The contested real estate empire of a colonial Senegalese businessman

While looking for information on Dakar’s mid-century housing crisis, I came across a little legal story that played out in the pages of the newspaper Paris-Dakar in 1948. This was the year of the death of Alassane N’Dir, a major landowner in Dakar and a prosperous businessman and philanthropist. By the time he died, N’Dir had been an active merchant for over half a century, since starting up in 1895. He first made his fortune trading kola nurs in Côte d’Ivoire. In that colony, N’Dir acquired a portfolio of urban land from early on: in 1906, he purchased a block of 1250 square metres in Abidjan. With a business partner, he had also held property in Bamako, in what was then the colony of Soudan français and is now Mali. But his main property empire was in Dakar. N’Dir was a Lebu landowner: that is to say, he had customary rights over the land upon which a rapidly growing Dakar was build. His name appears frequently in the cadastral register; in the November prior to his death, the newspaper Paris Dakar published a notice saying that N’Dir had registered a property of 44 hectares in what is now the suburb of Sicap-Liberté. He was also very well-connected politically: he was allied with Lamine Guèye, who was a Senegalese deputy in the French parliament. On his death in April 1948, Betty Fall wrote for Paris-Dakar that ‘all of Dakar’ had come out to accompany his body to its final resting place in the Muslim cemetery in the suburb of Médina.

His nephew, Assane Sylla, claimed the role of executor. Sylla published a notice in Paris-Dakar on 19 July advising all of N’Dir’s tenants that Amadou Mboup, who was employed at the Chargeurs Réunis, no longer had the right to collect the rent due to N’Dir, since he was neither related to N’Dir nor had he been authorised to act on behalf of N’Dir’s estate by N’Dir’s descendants. Mboup responded quickly: the following day he took out a notice in Paris-Dakar as well, informing N’Dir’s renters that Sylla had been dishonest, and that he, Amadou Mboup, ‘remained the custodian of the buildings of Hadj Alassane N’Dir’ since the latter’s legal successors had confirmed it in ‘a family meeting’. Consequently, N’Dir’s tenants were, Mboup affirmed, required to pay rent to him, as custodian. On the 21 of July, a party of three men—Bachirou Badiane, Malamine Diol, Ibra Sarr and Abdoulaye Sy—took out yet another notice, stating that they were the duly authorized representatives of Aminata N’Dire, Woré Diagne, N’Dir’s widow as well as Amsatou Sow and M’Bassa Diop (both of whom had borne N’Dir’s children). The confirmed Assane Sylla’s account: as N’Dir’s nephew, he was the sole executor of N’Dir’s will. They further demanded that Amadou Mboup ‘rectify’ the notice he had placed in Paris-Dakar, ‘so as to avoid any legal action’. From here, the newspaper trail goes cold: Mboup doesn’t appear to have published any correction to his claim to collect N’Dir’s rent. (This wasn’t the last time that Alassane N’Dir’s memory would be invoked in a fraud: in 1949, Paris-Dakar carried a notice about someone who ‘called himself the son of El-Hadj Alassane N’Dir’, passing himself off as the heir to the deceased entrepreneur.)

The stakes were high. In the last decade or so of colonial rule in Senegal, house rents in Dakar — and in cities across West Africa — were very high, as I document in this working paper (now revising for publication). Control over N’Dir’s real estate empire in Dakar would have been a lucrative source of income in a city in the throes of a housing crisis. We don’t know very much about housing entrepreneurs, but — as I argue in the paper — more research on their investment strategies may help to understand why investment in industry was so low in many African countries after independence.

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