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The historical perspective of Senegambia: The prospects and the way forward

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« This region, as a matter of fact, encompassed all the present states of Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, a portion of Mauritania, Mali and Guinea Conakry (Boubacar Barry – La Sénégambie du XVe au XIXe siècle. 

Paris: L’Harmattan, 1988, p7) 

This vast region spanned beyond the sources of the River Senegal and the River Gambia and way beyond the frontiers of the 1981 Senegambia of Kaur. As an economic, political and socio-cultural hub, 15th century Senegambia was, according to Boubacar Barry, “the main gateway to Sudan, the cradle of the great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai, with Niger as its axis (…), is the centre of gravity for West Africa” (Boubacar Barry, p26). Because of the vast resources this region is endowed with, the Europeans were quick to embark on business activities in this part of the African continent. And because of the lucrative nature of this business, rivalry between the Portuguese, the English and the French came out in the open, each of them striving to have the upper hand in this massive block. 

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Thus in 1677, the French took the Island of Gorée, after chasing away the Dutch, and occupied a strip of land that went up to the north bank of The River Gambia. In 1681, Albreda fell under the control of the French, against payment of a bar of iron per month. This was the beginning of Anglo-French co-existence in The Gambia, marked by clashes from time to time. Between 1688 and 1697, clashes between these two nations had ripple effects on The Gambia. In fact, in 1692, the English briefly confiscated Gorée and Saint-Louis, before regaining control of The Gambia. It was, what one can conveniently call, the Seven-Years War that was being witnessed in 1756. On the 2nd of May, 1958, Saint-Louis was occupied by Keppel and Gorée was subjected to the same fate three weeks later. In 1763, according to Michel Armand Prevost in Un micro Etat: La Gambie, Saint-Louis was left in the hands of the English, while Gorée and Albreda were handed back to the French, in keeping with the provisions of the Treaty of Paris. But on account of the numerous difficulties the English were confronted with in the management of Saint-Louis, the Committee of Merchants residing in Senegal and The Gambia was replaced by the Senegambia Province in 1765, through a decision made by the British Parliament.

However, in 1778, after the American War of Independence, the war was transported to Africa. Thus, Saint-Louis was regained in January 1778 and The Gambia in 1779, while the fort in James Island was completely razed to the ground. But at the end of that year, the English regained control of Gorée. It was not until the Treaty of Versailles (1783) that the Senegambia space was partitioned. Indeed, the Versailles forum recognised the right of Great Britain to The Gambia as well its possession of James Island, and equally recognised the cession of Saint-Louis and Gorée to France. This led to the dissolution of the Senegambia Province.

With the arrival of Faidherbe in the scene as governor, the French, deeply steeped in their policy of expansion, saw The Gambia as an obstacle. As for Faidherbe, this country served as the base where the Senegalese indigenes were receiving fresh supplies of arms and ammunitions. 

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It was this reason and the economic advantage of Senegal that propelled the French into embarking on a series of negotiations with the English in order to regain control of The Gambia. To the French, The Gambia was an asylum for such resistance fighters as Maba Diahou Ba and Lat Dior Ngone Latir Diop.

In 1886, France, through her ambassador in London, officially proposed ceding Dadou, Grand Bassam and Assinie (in La Côte d’Ivoire) to the British in exchange for The Gambia. But England asked France to add Gabon to the bargain which the French categorically refused. However, the discussions continued on the 23rd of February, 1870, and the French accepted the new proposals made by England which were fairly moderate this time. Based on this agreement, the Governor of Senegal sent two French senior civil servants to The Gambia, in order to prepare and examine the status of the colony. Unfortunately for the French delegation, they stumbled against a fierce opposition by the British merchants and the Aku community. This led to the dispatch of a petition to the House of Commons signed by 500 indigenes. This dispatch was accompanied by a protest campaign in England, championed by the Times and Standard newspapers, as well the Chambers of Commerce and some members of the House of Commons. What is more, the Manchester Chamber of Commerce mounted a violent press campaign against the British Government, accusing it of intending to relinquish to France, without any compensation, a rich territory, and, in the words of Armand-Prevost, “an unfortunate people abandoned to the barbaric rule of the French Government”. It was these campaigns that brought about the termination of the negotiations on the 20th of March, 1876. And efforts to rekindle talks by the French in 1879 and in 1881, with a view to unifying The Gambia and Senegal yielded no dividends.     

In view of the foregoing, we can assert, in line with Michel Armand Prevost’s position, that, the inability to create a French Senegambia was basically because of the incompatibility between two colonial systems: assimilation by the French and the indirect rule by the English. It is for this reason that, after the dissolution of the Province of Senegambia, the country was subjected to an uninterrupted British administration up to the time of independence. However, the same problems were inherited by the new masters of these two States after the attainment of self-rule in 1960 for Senegal, and in 1965 for The Gambia.


The 1981 Senegambia Confederation: 

A political and economic issue

The decision to create the Senegambia Confederation was made by the two governments of Senegal and The Gambia at the behest of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara during his temporary exile in Senegal, after the July 30, 1981 aborted coup d’état led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang. Invoking a 1965 collective defence pact between the two countries, President Abdou Diouf gave the order to his troops to intervene in order to reinstate President Jawara in power. After the failure of the coup d’état, Diouf and Jawara signed, in November, what could be called “The Kaur Declaration”, in which the two countries expressed their desire to create the Senegambia Confederation. This declaration was ratified by the two houses of parliament a month later, before its coming into force on the 1st of February, 1982.

In a legal framework, and in keeping with Rights on International Treaties, this pact could be made in two dimensions: direct negotiations between the states or under the auspices of an interstate conference. The two countries chose the first procedure which called for direct engagement between the two presidents. Thus, after this meeting in Banjul, in 1981, a joint Senegalo-Gambian communiqué was issued by the two heads of state. In the form of an outline law, this treaty, published in both English and French, lay the foundation of the confederation in four main points:

i. The establishment of such common politico-administrative institutions as the presidency, the vice-presidency, the council of ministers, the general assembly of the confederation (which members are elected directly by the two national parliaments) and the confederal secretariat.

ii. The amalgamation of the armed and security forces in order to form a confederation army and a gendarmerie that will be stationed somewhere within the confederation.

iii. The creation of an economic and monetary union between the two states.

iv. The coordination of external policies in communication and other domains.

However, in spite of all these exorbitant powers for the feasibility of the confederation, Article 2 of the pact reaffirms the independence and sovereignty of each state.

The enthusiasts of this confederation had six objectives in mind: security, political union, economic and monetary union, strengthening of external relations, pan-African unity and the psychological need (Anglophone and Francophone unification).

Security is certainly one of the most important factors during the creation of The Senegambia Confederation. Already in 1981, President Abdou Diouf had this to say:

“The Senegalese Armed Forces intervened in this country in order to restore law and order so much for the security of our own people as for our concern to respect our international commitments […]. Additionally, it also happened that the safety of our country is at stake in this business.” (Extract of President Abdou Diouf’s speech, 31st July 1981, after the Senegalese intervention)

According to the Soleil newspaper, President Dawda Jawara cherished this security just the same way as his Senegalese counterpart and would not stop pointing an accusing finger at the Colonel Gaddafi’s regime as being the main mastermind of the foiled coup. Dakar would not appreciate Gaddafi’s mega project of creating a United States of the Sahel, which would include Senegal, Mali and The Gambia. Added to this was the Soviet-Cuban menace that should be nipped in the bud. Besides these reasons, there was another one of a geopolitical dimension: surely, the Casamance rebellion. This region, according to the Senegalese government, was a strategic geographical base for the nurturing of the nascent Marxist elite in The Gambia and Guinea Bissau, on account of their political relationship with the Senegalese communists and the Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance (MFDC). According to the newspaper Afrique this uprising was led by Abbé Augustin Diamacoune Senghore in Ziguinchor on 26th December 1982. Moreover, Dakar was out to stop “an anti-Senegal coalition of the three Bs” – Banjul, Bignona and Bissau, that was being clamoured for by the intelligentsia of these three regions (Arnold Hugues, The Collapse of the Senegambia Confederation, Centre of the West African Studies, University of Birmingham, paper presented to the CEAN/IFAN colloquium, p5). As far as the Senegalese government was concerned, stability in Senegal was dependent on security in The Gambia; stationing Senegalese forces in the trans-Gambian zone (Kaolack-Ziguinzor via the Farafeni-Soma ferry) was therefore salutary in order to be able to monitor the threats of the MFDC.

However, putting in place a common security apparatus for Dakar and Banjul would enable the Senegalese authorities to check the Nigerian hegemony in the sub-region, for Banjul would turn to Lagos for protection in the event of any external threat. This was not countenanced by Senegal since it considered The Gambia as “a dagger pointing at the heart of Senegal; if so, the dagger would now be held securely in Senegalese hands” (Arnold Hugues, p5). Similarly, after the foiled coup d’etat, Sir Dawda had no option but to depend on Senegalese security forces to restore the rule of law and the overthrown government. It was for this reason that, from 1981, the internal security of The Gambia entirely depended on the Senegalese army and gendarmerie. 

The political union: being a long-term objective, Senegal was looking forward to seeing a two-state federation, even though The Gambia had always stressed on the confederation which would give to the two states some kind of autonomy.  Despite these differences in the appreciation of the situation, a committee, bringing together the Socialist Party (PS) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), undertook the task of studying ways and means of promoting the best form of integrationist cooperation. 

The economic and monetary union: this was the principal desire of the authorities in Dakar who wanted to have The Gambia to become a member of the franc zone and of the West African Monetary Union (Wamu). To the estimation of Dakar, Banjul, with her very liberal policy, was deeply enmeshed in contraband trade which was completely against the economic interest of Senegal. Thus, after 1987, the African Development Bank estimated that 40% of goods imported by The Gambia were meant for re-exportation to other countries in the sub-region. According to Ibrahima Sall, Senegal was losing between 28 and 35 million FCFA. But all that went against interests of some very powerful private commercial firms in Senegal and The Gambia (Ibrahima Sall – Sénégambie: Territoires, frontières, espaces et réseaux sociaux, Institut d’études du développement économique et social – Université de Paris 1, N° 36, 1992).   

External Relations: The confederation was also a means of strengthening cooperation between Senegal and The Gambia. The two countries, under the auspices of Senegal, were already working towards putting in place a common external policy. This new form of cooperation, according to the Senegalese authorities, discouraged Banjul from attempting to adopt a very autonomous foreign policy or one that would mar the interests of Senegal.


By Pierre Gomez



Dr Pierre Gomez is a senior lecturer and acting dean, School of Arts and Sciences at The University of The Gambia.


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