By Samsudeen Sarr
I believe last week’s maiden trip of The Gambia’s newly-appointed Foreign Minister, Dr Mamadou Tangara to Dakar Senegal on a mission ostensibly hinged on reinforcing the progressive bilateral relationship established between our two countries since President Barrow’s ascension to the presidency, deserves an important enlightening discussion among Senegalese and Gambians alike over the ways and means of achieving such an elusive goal in the past.
Sparsely hearing or reading about the salient points covered and the officials present in Dakar from various news outlets without elaborating on the details simply fell short of the essential ingredients to trigger the necessary debate on such an important undertaking.
It is my opinion that the question of The Gambia and Senegal trying to find a permanent and stronger bilateral relationship now should have been treated with equal importance as our prioritized commitments in drafting a new Constitution, investigating the former president’s source of fortune, setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the like. I would have even suggested that the Think Tank team established by the new government take up the issue with special devotion.
Of course, the time to find such a lasting Senegal-Gambia resolution cannot be more urgent than now. If we fail to do so, we could end up derailing every effort being presently invested for a better future in The Gambia. We don’t want a repetition of what happened in 1989 after we had lived through a false hope of unification with Senegal for over eight years just for the entire covenant to one day fell apart, subjecting The Gambia to a suffocating border closure that over time seemed to be accepted as normal.
Although Senegal this time appears to be more focused on result-oriented actions with minimal talking, their posture clearly reflects the same ambitious strategy that unfortunately failed with the PPP and APRC governments in the past.
I stand to emphatically say that there is no Gambian diplomat today who better understands what I mean than Dr Tangara when I say that thanks to Senegal’s active involvement before, during and after the 2016 political impasse that The Gambia is politically where it is today. That fact cannot be trivialised considering their zealous role at the UN, AU and Ecowas just to make sure that former president Jammeh did not stay in power after the 2016 election; and needless to mention the Senegalese did not do it for free or for the mere love of The Gambia and Gambians. Instead, it was purely in their strategic national interest, pursued over the years well before The Gambia attained her independence in 1965.
It is therefore obvious that since the impasse the Senegalese like in the post-1981 abortive coup d’etat situation, never want to step back but continue to entrench their presence in the country to ensure that President Barrow’s government remains reliably affiliated to the aspirations of President Macky Sall’s government. Just that this time around they are a bit more tactical in pursuing their objectives than they had in the past.
But it is no secret that among other subsidies catered by the Senegalese, they are literally providing The Gambia and its presidency with the most critical security assistance, a phenomenon without which nothing safe could be guaranteed in forging ahead.
They are also providing The Gambia with vital electricity supply in certain parts of the country.
Not to forget their vigorous involvement in the construction of the Yellitenda-Bambatenda Bridge that upon its completion will serve their long-time wish of opening up a vibrant trade and transportation route between northern and southern Senegal. In addition, the business agreements that I understand but not necessarily confirmed about fishing rights awarded to Senegalese companies to fish in Gambian waters for costs and periods never shared with the public.
With all that in mind we can agree that the Senegalese are realising far better cooperation with President Barrow’s government than with Presidents Jawara and Jammeh’s combined. Yet the border closure remains ever tighter with no hope in sight of changing at all.
Ironically, it is fair to assert that despite their fundamental differences in governing styles the PPP like the APRC governments shared the common “weakness or strength” of not being able to sustain a healthy and durable relationship with Senegal that essentially resulted in an irresolvable economic impediment that keeps on hurting The Gambia up to this day. Whether the new government will make a difference over this blockade problem or not should be a serious concern to every one of us in Senegal and in The Gambia. Twenty-nine years of the same problem of closing down our borders shouldn’t be extended to a thirtieth year. The deafening silence over this critical issue should no longer be entertained.
One can in fact recall that the confederation of the two states from 1982 to 1989 following Senegal’s well-appreciated military intervention on behalf of the PPP government in that historic bloody abortive coup in 1981 at one point, translated into an apex of the most auspicious bond ever enjoyed by our two countries. For The Gambia, it was a period of political stability coupled with economic boom primarily derived from a lucrative re-export commerce that attracted neighbouring countries like Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau and even Senegalese traders who all poured into the country to purchase comparatively cheap merchandise from our ports. Of course the trick was due to The Gambia’s relatively lower import tariffs that Senegal would not have ordinarily condoned.
But Senegal at the time with their hopes hinged on realising their keenly anticipated federation of the two countries simply allowed The Gambia’s business opportunity to flourish irrespective of its negative effect on their national economy.
They did not necessarily approve the clandestine flow of the fraudulent merchandise crossing their borders. Yet given the pervasive smuggling of the goods, ignored with minimal restriction, it was clear that the Senegalese more or less deliberately tolerated the situation for special reasons.
Then somehow in September 1989 after series of telltale incidents of mistrust and disappointments with the PPP government they decided to unilaterally and unceremoniously withdraw their commitment to the confederation protocol, leaving the ordinary people of both countries in a state of confusion.
And paradoxically up to this day in July 2018, no official reason for ending the confederation has ever been shared with the public by either government. I hope it will be one of those subjects we can now sincerely explore with Senegal for closure by getting to the root causes and to see how best to prevent its recurrence in the future. Presidents Abdou Diouf and Sir Dawda Jawara are still around to help us on clarifying the facts.
But the hard fact remains that since then Senegal had uncompromisingly shut down The Gambia’s re-export trade, closing our northern, eastern and southern frontier highways to all vehicles that used to come from other countries for shopping. Foreign and domestic entrepreneurs who attempt to violate the blockade often end up facing harsh transit penalties in Senegal that soon discouraged them from the unprofitable and harrowing venture.
Without doubt if the Nigerian government had not promptly come to the economic and military rescue of The Gambia in 1989 and 1992 our entire economy and security organisation would have crumpled. But General Ibrahim Babangida who was at the time the president of Nigeria and a dependable friend of President Jawara – the General was in fact the chief guest of honour during The Gambia’s silver jubilee independence celebration in 1990 – offered to assist The Gambia with adequate and steady supply of crude oil for re-export that helped to alleviate a major economic meltdown in the country. That was followed by Nigerian military technical assistance in 1992 to keep the disgruntled Gambia Army under “safe” command and control.
It was however a superficial fix of a problem that lingered until the young officers in the Gambia National Army hijacked the command from the Nigerian military officers and overthrew the PPP government on Friday 22 July 1994.
Indeed, Senegal could have intervened and possibly foiled the coup that day, but from the bad blood that existed between Presidents Diouf and Jawara, repeating the risk of restoring the PPP government to power didn’t appeal to him.
Initially, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) junta appeared to have struck a favourable chord with President Diouf’s government until it became clear to the soldiers that there were irreconcilable differences between the two governments worsened by the problem of Senegal’s intransigence in the border shutdown.
You can’t blame them if you factor the destructive effect to their economy when neighbouring countries like Mali and Guinea Conakry are allowed to bypass their markets for the inexpensive Gambian ports. After all by 1994, Senegal had realised so much economic prosperity from the border blockade that nothing in their wildest imagination will ever encourage them to reverse the policy without concrete assurance of federating the two nations.
They don’t even discuss opening the borders anymore. But with the border blockade permanently in place the Gambian economy will forever depend on foreign grants, loans and a very weak tax-based economy with a mushrooming debt burden that will stifle any kind of growth.
And when they talk of a federation between Senegal and The Gambia I sincerely believe that they expect nothing less than using the same currency, preferably the French CFA with equal import tariffs in Banjul as in Dakar. How the leadership arrangement of the two heads of state is going to be in a federation is another puzzle in the equation.
Anyway, with a slight similarity in what prevailed after Kukoi was flushed out by the Senegalese forces in 1981 to the current situation following their major role in forcing President Jammeh into exile, The Gambia once again seems to be at a crossroad that our politicians, technocrats, diplomats, scholars and journalists are all surprisingly mute about.
I think it should form the basis of our foreign policy agenda and indeed discussed exhaustively by every caring Senegalese and Gambian. We all need to know whether to federate the two states or not. If we don’t want it we shouldn’t expect the relationship to end well given the level at which we are committing ourselves into each other’s business.
If however on the other hand we all want it then everything we are doing now should feature the federation outlook of our political destiny. Our ongoing constitutional review should as well include how to deal with a Senegambia federation.
As a footnote I think our new constitution has to dwell on foreign forces occupying the country and under what terms and conditions.
Therefore, when I heard about Dr Tangara’s visit to President Sall as a special envoy of Barrow, my mind reflected on the following points that I believe are critical in cementing our relationship for the better:
1. Presumably now that Nigeria is no longer forthcoming in their huge financial aid to The Gambia (the crude oil), what exactly does Senegal expect from The Gambia for the restoration of the free flow of cross-border business similar to the pre-1989 embargo?
2. Whether Senegal is still expecting a Federation of the two states with a monetary union and one currency and whether they have started engaging the new government on it and whether it is the ultimate precondition for total normalisation.
3. What can guarantee the maintenance of the existing cordial relationship if the Gambia decides not to go for a federation and wants to retain her dalasi currency against a Senegambia single currency?
4. What the two governments are reliably putting in place that could outlive the tenure of both President Macky Sall’s and President Adama Barrow’s governments in office.
I am sure Senegal has something big in mind for The Gambia. The Ecomig forces in the country have since been commanded by Senegalese and their troops constitute the bulk of the West African contingent. That is not a coincidence.
President Barrow’s guards are also mainly composed of Senegalese.
I am however inclined to believe that the Senegalese –Gambian political relationship may require a referendum to determine whether or not to federate the two states. Logically, some Gambians and Senegalese may want it while others may not.
Leaving everything in the hands of the politicians who hardly want to discuss the subject openly while the journalists also seem to be shying away from it is a recipe for a rude awakening someday. We have to honestly tackle this problem head on and with utter urgency.
If nothing is done to resolve the problem I am afraid the Farafenni Bridge will merely serve to expedite transportation opportunities between northern and southern Senegal while The Gambia benefits little from their share of the commission on tolls collected.
Nonetheless it will be inconceivable to one day see the Senegalese surprise us again in a hasty severing of political and economic ties with us because of perhaps the failure of our politicians to agree to their demands.
We have to know how far we can go with them and rapidly act on it.
I once again wish to apologise to my readers who may find anything offensive in this article. Long live The Gambia! And peace to everybody.
Samsudeen Sarr served as commander of the National Army and representative to the UN. He is the author of several books including the novel Meet Me In Conakry and the non-fiction Coup D’etat in Gambia. Currently, he runs Jamil Auto Works at the Futurelec Builiding in Kotu on the Bertil Harding Highway.