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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Bakary Bunja Dabo, leader, GFA

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My name is Karamba Touray. I have over the years developed an interest in reaching out to different citizens across the spectrum of our society and occasionally chat with them about who they are in the context of what I call the Gambian experience. In one such installment, I was fortunate to engage the Honorable Bakary Bunja Dabo, former Vice President, Cabinet minister and Ambassador. I wanted to focus on this installment on his experience and recollections on Gambia/Senegal relationship which is undoubtedly the most important bilateral relationship we have with any country.  Mr Dabo has a long and deep understanding of this issue having worked on it for many years beginning as a mid level administrative assistant at the then Prime Minister Jawara’s office in the 1960s on and off between other temporary assignments up to the time of the coup in 1994. My objective in engaging him is to understand the history of the crafting and management of the relationship in the past and lessons that can be drawn from those experiences to better nurture this enduring relationship in ways that are mutually beneficial . Here is BB Dabo in his own words:

1. How would you describe Gambia/Senegal relationship in the bilateral, multilateral and overall foreign policy context of The Gambia in the period you served in government? 

Senegal and The Gambia have, since independence, sought to maintain the closest possible of inter-state relationships. More than merely conforming to the conventional scheme of inter-state relationships which follows the model of concentric circles, the option here has always been informed by strategic considerations.

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Over and above any other considerations, it is the factor of geography which, by juxtaposing Senegal in the very peculiar manner which we all know, condemns the two countries to pursue a policy of peaceful co-existence and close co-operation. Apart from sentiment borne out of cultural affinities and family ties, tiny Gambia, which is also poorly endowed in resource terms, set out at independence as an ill-equipped a tiny entity for which standing on her own could take a struggle; she always needs the shoulders of her bigger neighbour to lean on to meet many of her subsistence needs. Senegal, for her part, has her national territory broadly split into two halves by the position of The Gambia; she badly needs the goodwill of her smaller neighbour, at issue being socio-economic development and national security.

Already, at the approach of Independence for The Gambia, the parting colonial power, Britain, and Senegal felt obliged to address their minds to the subject of the organic relationship most appropriate for the two territories to have. Of the three options advised at the time by the UN appointed experts, the two sides, following The Gambia’s accession to statehood, settled for the model which, in prescribing the loosest embrace [separate independent states], envisaged  very close and special relationship, a point which was to be captured in the 1967 Treaty of Association binding the two countries to pursue close cooperation in almost all spheres of state activity ranging from defence and security to foreign policy, trade and economic matters as well as cultural exchanges etc. To underscore the special nature of the relationship, the two states agreed to grant the endearing designation of High Commission to the diplomatic missions they maintained in each other’s capital.

The Treaty of Association served as the anchor for effective and mutually beneficial cooperation in many domains. It set up structures such as the Heads of States Conference and the Inter-ministerial Committee which met periodically to review the state of affairs in the relationship and to agree on expanding the scope whenever considered necessary.

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In addition, a dedicated executive agency called the Sene-Gambian Permanent Secretariat was created to follow up on the implementation of measures agreed on. Having served for three years in the number two leadership slot of that agency, in the role of Director of Economic and Technical Cooperation, I am able to testify to the effectiveness of the policy of cooperation, judged by the benefits that accrued to the two peoples in diverse spheres of development and nation building, including farming, animal husbandry, fishing, but also health and cultural development. In addition, the arrangement served as framework for initiating major development projects such as the River [Gambia] basin studies to prepare the ground for harnessing the waters for agricultural and hydroelectric power production, and the Integrated Transport Network Studies which prepared the ground for a streamlined system of interstate movement of goods and persons, envisaging in the process the construction of a trans-Gambia bridge at Bamba Tenda. The defence and security cooperation arrangements, for their part, demonstrated their effectiveness when they were invoked in 1980, and again in 1981, to help address critical challenges at the time faced by The Gambia.

With the signature of the Confederation Agreement at the end of 1981, the Treaty of Association, and the institutions it set up, were replaced with a new scheme which in a sense brought the following innovations:

o          creation of a Confederal Cabinet, presided over by the President of Senegal, with the Gambian President as his Vice, to replace the   Heads of States Conference and the Inter-ministerial Committee;

o          creation of a Confederal Parliament to provide for greater involvement of the peoples in charting the course of the relations between the two countries,

o          greater emphasis given to defence and security matters, with the creation of the Confederal Army and Confederal Gendarmerie to compliment the services provided by the national structures and

o          a more determined, [but ill-fated] push for an accelerated process of economic and monetary integration.

Unfortunately, the confederation did not prove as effective on the ground as its more pragmatic predecessor scheme under the Treaty of Association. The arrangement was dissolved in 1989 as a result of fundamental disagreements especially in relation to approaches to monetary integration, in addition to conflicts which had more to do with personal ego among key players.

Efforts were re-started, and continued under the military dictatorship and the present Coalition administration, to bring about close relation through policy and actions, but they remain lacklustre and largely ineffectual. What today subsists by way of cooperation between the two countries falls within the framework of ECOMIG, an ECOWAS-wide initiative, or takes the form of occasional ad hoc consultations on foreign policy issues or that of business or investment deals with private sector operators, typically having connections within official circles.

2. How and when did you get involved in activities surrounding Gambia/Senegal relationships? 

I was a young Administrative Officer when I was moved in 1968, from my position as Assistant Commissioner in Basse, to the then Prime Minister’s Office in the capital to serve in the role of Assistant Secretary assigned to the schedule handling international cooperation, including Senegalo-Gambian relations. My status then was that of a middle-level manager within the Office; my role included support for and advice on issues touching on the development of Senegalo-Gambian relations from The Gambia’s end of things. Less than a year later, I was moved, together with my schedule of duties, over to the Ministry of External Affairs with the difference being that my focus centred even more on Senegalo-Gambian relationship. I attended most technical meetings on the subject, wrote briefs and advice for the Inter-Ministerial Committee meetings which I attended in a technical support role. In effect I became confirmed as Foreign Service Officer dedicated to issues touching on Sene-Gambia relations. Except for a brief period of parenthesis during which I was moved to Kerewan as Commissioner, I worked in that same role till 1971 when I was assigned on secondment to the SeneGambian Permanent Secretariat as Director for Economic and Technical Cooperation. As the most senior Gambian official, and second in seniority in the agency, my role was essentially to lead efforts in the follow up on various cooperation arrangements concluded under the Treaty of Association.

In 1974, for the second time, I was deployed away from work on SeneGambian relations when I was assigned to the Commercial and Development Bank, an institution set up to provide development finance and promote local entrepreneurship. In 1979 I was again recalled to the Ministry of External Affairs and assigned as envoy, with rank of Ambassador/High Commissioner to Senegal and other neighbouring countries. The focus of my duties was very much on strengthening relations, including broadening the scope of the Sene-Gambian cooperation, over and above the normal run of representational and consular duties. My remit included technical analysis and advice, but also political and diplomatic contacts and negotiations.

3. As far as you know, how was Senegal policy generally shaped within government?

Typically,foreign policy in small newly independent states such as The Gambia is always the preserve of the Head of State. Ministers, Ambassadors, and officers come in to carry out the line laid down by him, and offer him technical advice as and when considered necessary. The personality and beliefs of the particular chief of state are largely reflected in the shape and direction of foreign policy.

That point having been made, I would have to say that our own Head of State at the time, Sir Dawda Jawara was both open and reasonable; he appreciated sound technical advice. As such, in the direction as well as the implication of our relations with Senegal, he never hesitated to consult advice from his circle of officials, but also sought the views of people he believed possessed relevant experience. On occasion, he consulted his people through their parliamentary representations. I would say that foreign policy under Jawara was formulated and shaped on sound basis; everybody knew who the boss was, but often he decided taking into account advice obtained from diverse quarters.

4. How was President Jawara personally involved in the shaping and overall management of this vital relationship? Please refer to the answer given to question number 3. I would only add that Sir Dawda’s involvement in the overall management of the relationship was in the form of a keen hands-on supervision. He allowed officials to get on with their work, but he remained attentive, and exercised informed oversight of developments.

5. How would you describe your tenure as Ambassador in Senegal in broad policy terms?

I settled down to my job as Ambassador, aware that my remit was the same as the one that all those who held that position before me had, but I was keenly aware that a lot was expected of me; I came to the position as a trained Foreign Service Officer with considerable background experience of Sene-Gambian relationships. I should add that I, in addition, had the benefit of a network of personal relationships earlier established with senior Senegalese government officials and other national figures. As such, my tenure as Ambassador in Dakar is remembered with fondness; my experience for the two and half short years I served as Ambassador was painless, indeed pleasant, very productive and fulfilling. Our interstate relations, marked by great warmth, were promoted through intensified cooperation culminating in the much commented intervention of Senegal in helping to put down the 1981 rebellion. I personally felt comfortable with the broad policy thrust I had to work under, it helped me contribute modestly to the furthering of positive relation between our two countries.

6. Can you please reconstruct the events surrounding the 81 coup and its aftermath when you served as ambassador in Dakar in the thick of what was a major national crisis. The period immediately preceding the 1981 incident was marked by a deep sense of distrust and unease, in both Gambia and Senegal, about the actions and designs of Colonel Ghadafi in our West Africa sub-region. On the occasion I presented my letters of credence as High Commissioner, the words of advice which President Senghor felt he needed to ask me to transmit to President Jawara were that we all needed to be very careful and remain watchful over what Gaddafi’s moves in our respective countries. This was in April 1979; Senegal had already severed diplomatic relations with Libya.

Against that background, when Kukoi and his band of adventurers burst upon the scene, with their confused revolutionary rhetoric and their many suspicious-looking moves (attempts to place telephone calls to Gaddafi, the mysterious appearance on the streets of Banjul of many Soviet-made Lada cars in the early hours of the rebellion, etc.), the temptation was very strong to see outside hands at work behind the attempt to overthrow constituted authority in the Gambia. For the Gambian and the Senegalese authorities, at the time, there appeared little doubt that this was a rebellion orchestrated from outside and therefore met the threshold of the situation envisaged in the Mutual Defence Agreement which provided for mutual support in dealing with the threat.

As such, as soon as I was able to facilitate contact between Sir Dawda, then in London, with the Vice President and the small number of ministers at the time holed up at the Police Station on Buckle Street, he was able to signal the green light for invoking the Defence Agreement. From that moment, the Senegalese High Commissioner in Banjul, M’Baye M’Bengue, and my humble self, as High Commissioner in Dakar, had to it as duty to step up to the plate to ensure that the necessary demarchewas initiated, and effective contact and communication were maintained leading to the intervention decision and the roll-out of field operations.

My own role at the time is high profile in most accounts of the crisis merely because the decisions on the deployment and operations were taken in Dakar where I was based as representative for The Gambia, and also because Sir Dawda himself a little later flew into Dakar and remained based there to take control of the direction of things in The Gambia. During those hectic days, I was a little more than your regular representative of his Country; I had to step in as the most senior state official around to afford technical support and advice to the President in his discussions with the Senegalese authorities, as well as in his direction of the state from the distance of Dakar.

In the event despite logistical and other challenges, the operation proved successful from the military point of view and, by putting down the rebellion, it effectively helped end the crisis, allowing for calm quickly to return and for the period of reconstruction to start without delay. The Intervention stands out as a high watermark of our effective interstate cooperation driven by a policy of close and loyal collaboration for which Gambia and Senegal settled down since independence.

6. Can you please share your perspectives on the evolution, short life span and unwinding of the confederation?

The answer above, to your question No 1, touched on the pronounced political slant to the scheme of cooperation envisaged under the confederal arrangements. The institution of a Confederal Parliament and Cabinet substantially raised the political profile of the arrangements, but without necessarily solidifying the basis for progress in bringing the two countries closer.

In addition, the pre-eminent role given to politicians, as against technicians, in driving the process under the Treaty of Association arrangements brought along increased susceptibilities and the risk of ego-driven conflicts. As such, it took no more than a disagreement on approaches (not principles) for tempers to rise and in a huff, the decision was reached in 1989 which had the consequence of bringing down the whole edifice.

With hindsight I see the development as a most regrettable backward step; the issues in contention then could have been dispassionately handled and resolved through negotiations. Even the structural and other conceptual deficiencies diagnosed in the confederal arrangements could have been corrected over time if emotions were not been allowed to take over.

7. What are your views on Senegal Gambia relationship in the final year of the Jawara administration up to the time of the coup and its immediate aftermath?

The unfortunate experience with the confederal arrangements left a very bad taste in the mouth; worse it continued during the period that followed, coinciding with the final years of the Jawara administration, to cast a dark shadow over trust in our interstate relationships. Lacking in warmth, relations remained rather tense; attempts to revive things in a different guise proved very slow to take off and their impacts were not felt by the time the administration was overthrown in 1994.

Clearly, the state of our relations at the time influenced the position taken by the Government in Dakar on the overthrow of the Jawara administration. Sir Dawda and his regime were at the time resented in Dakar; their overthrow therefore drew no tears, not even over the fact that it was democracy which was stabbed in the most wanton manner, an affront to all democratic peace-loving Governments as a matter of principle.

While being distrustful of military coups, Dakar in this case choose to gamble by trying to cuddle the tiger; it was an opportunity to spite Jawara but also there was the naïve hope that the new situation could be manipulated to their national advantage. In particular, there was the belief in some circles that the new authorities in The Gambia could prove more helpful to efforts to contain the worsening Casamance crisis, than was possible under the Jawara administration (under Jawara, the rebellion in Casamance was seen as an internal business of Senegal, not encouraged or shown any sympathy. But at the same time, out of our commitment to human rights and rule of law The Gambia resisted attempts by Senegal to secure leave or free hand to come into Gambian territory to hunt down or arrest suspected rebels).

Of course, this proved a terrible miscalculation; in terms of character, Jammeh was simply an irascible, and totally evil person. It took him no time to reveal his true colours on many issues (e.g. crossborder trade, drug peddling, pilfering forest resources in Senegal, etc). It proved impossible to have healthy relations with him.

In addition he was particularly dangerous, because deceptive and duplicitous, over the Casamance rebellion where he provided active and constant support for the rebellion, – his motives being various, e.g. sectarian spirit, retrograde ethnic nationalism, personal material gain, plain criminality.

When the authorities in Senegal woke up to the unpleasant reality, relations between the two countries went into series of crises, which on occasions necessitated interventions by the ECOWAS leadership (Obasanjo) or the UN (Kofi Annan) to prevent the situation deteriorating into open confrontation. Despite the change of leadership in Dakar from Diouf to Wade and then to Sall, relations remained marked by mutual resentment and bitterness. Formal cooperation was maintained at zero level, with frequent border closures, frequent incidences of harassment of travelling Gambians at Senegalese sea and airports with comparable experiences of harassment of Senegalese transporters at crossing points at Bamba Tenda and other points along the length of the River Gambia.

In that situation, Senegal naturally jumped to the opportunity created by the 2016 political crisis over the disputed elections to engineer and lead the ECOWAS intervention to dislodge the hated figure of Jammeh in the hope of opening a new page in the Senegalo-Gambian relations. Under the successor coalition government of Barrow, however, development of our relations has remained lacklustre; the only new new initiatives appear to spawn out of personal relations of Sall and Barrow which are likened by many to that lord and vassal. Lives of ordinary Gambians remain largely untouched by the prevailing state of affairs in interstate relations.

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