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Monday, September 25, 2023

A Senegambian Insight by FaFa Edrissa M’Bai

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

Part 1

A Senegambian Insight (224 pages), which is an adaptation of his thesis “Problems of Integration in Senegambia: A Case-Study of Inter-State Relations in Contemporary Africa”, defended in 1975 for the Master’s degree at Keele University, was published in 1992.

Excerpt (pages 109-116)

The issue of closer cooperation between The Gambia and Senegal has been on the agenda for at least twenty years. A quick glance at a map would serve to indicate why the question of some form of association between the two countries has arisen. The anomalous geographical setting of The Gambia has been aptly described as an extreme example of a territory which owes its existence entirely to colonial policy. It forms a quite irrational intrusion into the much larger country of Senegal, stretching from the coast inland along both sides of The Gambia River, and making up a strip about 200 miles long and 12-13 miles wide. Although roughly following the course of the river, the country does not extend to the natural limits of the basin on either side, nor does it reach the source of the river in Guinea-Conakry. The frontiers of The Gambia cut through both natural features and human settlement patterns. Wholly surrounded by Senegal except on its seaward margin, The Gambia largely isolates the southern region of Casamance from the rest of Senegal. Ethnically the people of The Gambia and Senegal are the same. For a brief period (1765-1783), much of what are now Gambia and Senegal formed a single British colony of “Senegambia”.

Since the motives for considering association were largely economic, a brief review of some salient economic features of the two countries is required. From the standpoint of size, the two countries are very different. Senegal is much larger in population and area. However, the two countries are very similar in terms of basic economic structure. Both are essentially mono-crop agricultural economies that rely mainly on groundnut products in the commercialised sector. Both have a trade deficit. In both, the greater part of the population is engaged in agriculture. The indicators of social development, such as literacy, primary school enrolment and life expectancy at birth, are similar for both countries.

There are at present significant disparities in economic development both between Senegal and The Gambia and within Senegal itself. Average per capita GNP of Senegal is about 75 per cent higher than that of The Gambia, the 1979 figures being $430 and $250, respectively. The economy of Senegal is not only much larger than that of The Gambia but is also more diversified. This is indicated principally by the existence of a sizeable secondary sector (industry, mining and energy), which contributed 24 per cent of the GNP compared with about 6 per cent in The Gambia.

Furthermore, the physical and institutional infrastructures needed for modernisation and economic development, particularly the expansion of modern sectors such as manufacturing, construction, and transport communications, are much more developed in Senegal than in The Gambia. Although they bear many similarities in their basic structure and resources, the two economies are organised on very different bases. The differences manifest themselves in the first place in foreign trade policy. In Senegal, a protectionist and discriminatory policy is followed, and import charges are high; The Gambia’s policy is liberal and non-discriminatory, and import charges are relatively low.

A second important disparity between the two countries is that there is a substantial difference in both the structure and the general level of internal prices. A number of goods are relatively expensive in Senegal, due in part to restrictions on the sources of imports and in part to relatively high tariffs. Thus, food prices are estimated to be up to 100 per cent higher in Dakar than in Banjul, wages up to 80 per cent higher and in general the cost of living to be 50 per cent higher. Given these differences and the difficulty of policing the frontier, it is not surprising that there is a good deal of smuggling to and from The Gambia to Senegal.

The economic environment in which the development plans of the two countries are being implemented is similar in many ways. Senegal, like The Gambia, has faced severe budgetary and balance of payments problems during the last few years, caused by an essentially similar combination of factors: a sharp fall in agricultural output because of successive droughts, deterioration in terms of trade due to steadily rising costs of imports and decline in prices of exports and management problems, particularly in some of the major parastatals. The balance of payments had been in deficit since the early 1970s, and the deficits have been increasing.

Following Senegal’s independence in 1960, and the prospect of early independence for The Gambia, there was a revival of interest in the possibility of a closer relationship between the two countries. This new interest was spurred by the establishment of an Inter-Ministerial Committee in 1961 to discuss joint matters. These talks led to the commissioning from the United Nations of a report to consider the various possibilities of association.

On the question of the constitutional form which the association between The Gambia and Senegal might take, the United Nations report outlined three alternatives. The first was the integration of The Gambia as the eighth Senegalese province. The second possibility was a Senegambian federation. The report’s authors clearly favoured this alternative but evidently doubted whether a precondition, a will to create and maintain such a federation among leaders and the electorate, was fulfilled in The Gambia. The third alternative, the establishment of a Senegambia entente, would not involve the creation of a new state, and both countries would remain sovereign.

Ever since the possibilities of the association began to be explored towards the end of 1961, and thereafter until 1981, the view of the Gambian authorities appears to have been that there were serious disadvantages in entering into a form of economic cooperation resting on a simple customs union.

It is, therefore, appropriate at this stage to consider the moves toward some form of “Senegambian” entity both in relation to the findings of earlier writers on the subject and to wider studies of problems of political integration. A perusal of the latter sources (Welch, Foltz, Franck, Wheare, Friedrick and Deutsch) suggests a number of factors which play a determinate part in initiating, sustaining, or breaking-up union between independent states; most of these factors can be seen in the Senegambian situation.

Contrary to the views of those Africans concerned with implementing union, these sources place little importance on historical imperatives, and only a qualified place is given to socio-economic factors. The oft-repeated claim that African unity is pre-ordained and inevitable is firmly scotched by Foltz when he observes that “if history points ineluctably to African political unity, this destiny is so veiled in mystery, and the workings of history are so complex and take such an irregular course, that those who seek Africa’s unity might better not rely on history to bring about their ends. Franck, looking at East Africa, similarly notes the failure of a “natural ethnic law” of common African brotherhood to overcome more petty divisions among the new states of the region. Cultural affinity or belief in economic gain are mainly felt to be permissive rather than determinate factors. Instead, there seems to be common agreement on the primacy of political factors in bringing about a supra-state union. Franck points out that “the absence of a positive political or ideological commitment to the primary goal of the federation as an end in itself among the leaders and peoples of each of the federating units did….make success improbable, if not impossible”. Foltz suggest that “economic advantages and social links by themselves are not enough. It is the political interests, desires, and expectations of the political elite that are crucial”. Welch agrees that “the importance of purely economic arguments in West Africa can easily be over-rated and that only in The Gambia were financial arguments of major importance in the attempt to establish a supra-state political union. He concludes that political, rather than economic, social or historical, considerations gave the greatest spurt to unification movements”.

Principally, it has been a lack of an overriding political commitment to unity which has led to failure or only partial success in federating African states. This belief in a self-denying “manifest destiny” of unity as end not means, is conspicuously absent at a practical level in post-independence Africa. Many leaders preach the cause of African unity but very few have been prepared to sacrifice personal or territorial interests in order to gain this greater good; some have openly admitted to the paramountcy of national claims. Welch has noted this dilemma of leadership – yesterday’s anti-colonial racial solidarity yielding place to today’s concern with personal status and the need to create unity within rather than between states. Ironically, the impetus for national integration and the desire for supra-state political links come from the same source: the leaders of African political parties.

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.

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