A Senegambian Insight by FaFa Edrissa M’Bai

By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Part 2

The unwillingness of national leaders to come together stems partly from the absence of popular forces or powerful pressure groups to push them on from behind. Apart from specific instances of ethnic or regional demands for qualified forms of inter-territorial union, pressure for federation is confined to radical intellectuals, but even among these, it is often intermittent and unorganised. Leaders are sensitive to charges of selling out their peoples’ interests and are apprehensive about their own position in any merger, given the personalised nature of African politics and the winner-takes-all approach to contesting power. Wheare has argued that a democratic Government and respect for the rule of law are essential requirements of a successful federal government. “Federalism demands forms of government which have the characteristics usually associated with democracy or free government, the main essentials (of which) are free elections and a party system, with its guarantee of a responsible opposition”. Friedrich also writes of the need to uphold a “federal spirit” with its.. “basic commitment to the over-all needs of the federal system… (and the) “practice of fair play”. The belief persists among African leaders that federation is an instrument to further their neighbours’ interests at their own expense.

In advocating closer relationships, political leaders tended to emphasise such unions’ economic advantages and reduce their territorial concessions to a minimum by arguing for the loosely-structured functional association. Naturally, the emphasis was on what a particular country could obtain from integration immediately rather than on calculated sacrifice leading to mutual gain in the future. It proved extremely difficult to translate pious rhetoric into concrete acts of concession and denial at the conference table, and the delay helped to entrench personal, sectional, and national interests in the new states. Procrastination also meant that countries regarded as incapable of surviving outside of a federal relationship, such as The Gambia, were able to refute this claim by simply surviving. At the same time, much larger and better-endowed states were beset by centrifugal problems leading to violence and major upheavals.


The very success of limited measures aimed at eventual political and economic union seemed to inhibit rather than promote further ties. Once an agreement provided immediate benefit or seemed to work in favour of one partner more than the other, support for additional links fell away. Equally, the failure of prominent experiments in a supra-state union, such as the Mali Federation or the Union of African States in West Africa, discouraged other countries from repeating such ventures, notwithstanding the qualified success registered in Somalia and the Cameroons.

In the case of The Gambia, it has been shown that there was an absence of a total political commitment to union with Senegal. There was no mass support for such a goal, and the political elite was divided on whether there should be any significant discussions at all with the Senegalese. When such talks did take place, the Gambians made clear that the wider federal cause would have to come to terms with local interests and the insistence on protecting local political and cultural autonomy and the economic safeguards demanded as part of a federal agreement, not only exposed the methodological as opposed to the ideological approach of the Gambians but hamstrung the very movement they were supposed to be backing.

By “methodological”, Franck means a concern with material goals so that federation is a means to an end; in an “ideological situation, a federation is a goal sought for its own sake. He is probably making too neat a distinction between two closely inter-twined strands in African political aspiration, and the difference is really one of emphasis rather than of kind. However, the distinction is useful and has implications borne out by the Gambian evidence. Support for federation seemed to have been confined to the leaders of the two states, and these leaders failed to create a mass enthusiasm for their cause. This is seen elsewhere as well. Foltz states, “The Mali Federation was created at the summit; it was also destroyed there,”; and Franck claims that… “Federalism remained (in East Africa) a small personal understanding, or, as it turned out, a misunderstanding involving at its core, no more than at most, four dozen persons”. He believes that a less secret approach could have created broader support for the federation.

Fears of Senegalese intentions undoubtedly contributed to the Gambian evasiveness over federation. The existence of a far more authoritarian form of Government at Dakar, the continued presence of the French, and the cavalier manner in which individual Senegalese engaged in negotiations with the Gambians helped create an atmosphere of suspicion and resentment in official circles in Banjul. The personal bearing of the Senegalese Foreign Minister, Dodou Thiam, nearly wrecked the 1964 talks. A stereotype of the Senegalese as arrogant or devious people is widespread in Banjul and is to be found in official circles as well. Gambians came to feel, particularly after the “invasions” of 1971, that the Senegalese lacked a “federal spirit” and would use their overwhelming numerical strength and greater economic resources to convert a federation into a unitary state. Given a population ratio of eight to one and an outward-looking industrial sector in Senegal, it was difficult to see how the political pendulum could be held in the centre between the two states for economic ascendancy was seen as likely to lead to political dominance.

Drawing a line at an association relationship with Senegal and moving away towards a regional policy saved The Gambia from premature absorption by her neighbour but concern for Senegal’s motives remained and could be said to have had a beneficial effect domestically in that the slightly menacing presence of Dakar made Gambians less willing to fight each other lest this gave cause for Senegalese interference in their affairs. Both Proctor and Robson saw a possible threat to The Gambia from Senegal if political dissidents from the latter country were allowed to operate from Gambian territory. There was no immediate likelihood of this, as the return of Guinean emigres showed, but Banjul’s friendship with Conakry might have been resented in Dakar and helped cause difficulties between the two countries. Despite Gambian fears that Senegal considered their territory to be part of a Senegal Irredenta the accepted view was that Senegal would not act precipitately under the Senghor Government, and it was doubtful if any future Senegalese regime would wish to alter this policy.

Senegal had a number of other ways of making its views known to Banjul, and it would have taken an act of severe provocation to make it interfere directly in Gambian politics. It might have been an act of self-flattery on the part of Gambians to think that the Senegalese had nothing else to do except plot the incorporation of Gambian territory into their own. Senegal, it must be remembered, has always acted on a much wider political stage and, of late, seems to share The Gambia’s doubts about the benefits of a union of two such small states. Senegal plays an active part in Francophone Africa and seems to be more concerned with exploiting the resources of the Senegal River at the moment.

The regional policy The Gambian Government pursued also reflected the basic dilemma posed by Pan-Africanism – supra-state unity is desired and regarded as a politically respectable aspiration but must be acquired at a minimal cost. By advocating a regional unity founded on the functional association, the Government reaffirmed its support for Pan-Africanism, and this time on a more plausible and acceptable scale than the micro-state level of Senegambia but at the same time, it re-casts the relationship in vaguer and more distant terms which further delay the day when a real sacrifice of local autonomy will have to be made.

A similar situation occurred in Uganda in 1963 when the Ugandan Government concealed its territorial self-interest under the cloak of continental unity and thereby rejected East African Federation. At that time, Milton Obote seemed to be influenced in his thinking by President Nkrumah of Ghana, then the champion of continental as opposed to regional unity. It is interesting to speculate whether Nkrumah influenced Gambian thinking at this time, for the PPP had established links with Ghana and may have received support from that country. Nkrumah was noted for his opposition to the accommodationist policies of Leopold Senghor.

For some twenty years, the “Association” with Senegal continued at its undemanding level, leaving The Gambia free to run its own affairs, maintain its important ties with Britain, and forge new and countervailing ones with other West African states. There is little reason to believe that this colonial anomaly’ will disappear in the foreseeable future, and if the groundnut crop continues to prosper, Gambians believe that they could continue to enjoy the advantages of smallness and refute the idolatry of size” so prevalent in the world today.


FaFa Edrissa M’Bai was born in 1942 in Sambang Tuba Wollof village, Niamina Dankunku, in the MacCarthy Island Division of The Gambia, some 150 miles from the capital, Banjul. After village school, he went to Armitage High School in Georgetown, the divisional capital, and on graduation, he worked as a civil servant in Banjul. In 1970, he proceeded to England to study law at Keele and London Universities, where he graduated with B.A.(Combined Honours) in Law and Political Science in July 1974, an LL.B(Honours) in August 1974 and was called to the Bar at The Middtetemple in November 1975. He was also awarded the M.A. Degree in Politics in December 1975. He returned to Banjul in April 1976 to alternately take up an appointment as Magistrate and State Counsel before he turned to private practice in 1979. From 1982 to 1984, he was The Gambia’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, a position he reoccupied in the second republic. A prolific writer, an avid reader and an excellent public speaker, FaFa is the author of several published articles. He still has a number of his book-length manuscripts ready for publication. One of his books, ln the Service of My Beliefs, has been published along with this one. Several of his children have studied Law and Accountancy at Universities in England. One is a very senior lawyer in the Judiciary, one is a recognised international lawyer, and another has been a legal counsel of a prestigious bank in The Gambia.