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Monday, October 2, 2023

Senegalo – Gambian relations: Continuities in the past and future

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The past

 For over four decades the history of relations between Senegal and The Gambia was dominated by an almost exclusive focus on ways and means of crafting ‘Senegambia’; that is, the integration of the two states of Senegal and The Gambia into a single state. The experience falls into six phases. First, the 1958 to 1967 period witnessed a concerted effort to work out the approach to and methodology for furthering cooperation, the purpose and objective of such cooperation and what precise modalities were to be adopted. Such discourse had been launched in 1958, even before either of the two countries gained full political independence. To assist in the process of defining the alternatives to cooperation United Nations expert assistance was secured but sharp differences in perspectives between the two leaderships resulted in a stalemate. 

The all-dominant role of national politics and perceived national interests frustrated any rapid advances to integration. This first period was the most critical; yet it coincided with the most intense competition for political power, especially as successive constitutional changes brought the likelihood of independence nearer. The process had commenced since 1954 and became fiercely competitive by the end of the decade. A major reason was the emergence of the Protectorate as a political force to challenge the Colony-restricted politics; the introduction of universal adult suffrage contributed to these new dynamics. The political stakes were higher. The 1960 and 1962 General Elections confirmed this shift in the locus of political power from the Colony to the Protectorate, as did the attainment of self-government status (October 1963) and independence (February 1965).

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In the circumstances, the issue of cooperation and integration between Senegal and Gambia was trapped in the maelstrom of national politics. By the end of the period, especially after the negotiations over the UN report in May 1964, it appeared that the functional methodology was the preferred option of The Gambia government. For the Senegalese government, on the other hand, instant integration was favoured. But, it decided to go along with the Gambian position in the expectation that, with time, the latter would be won over. 

As it turned out, the second phase of cooperation, 1967 to 1980, was to be the halcyon days of ‘Senegambian’ cooperation. It saw the establishment of institutional infrastructures, particularly the Senegalo-Gambian Secretariat, mainly to service the political and technical bodies designed to intensify cooperation between the two states through a host of framework protocols and agreements. Consequently, substantive cooperation in a multiplicity of sectors was achieved and ‘Senegambian integration’ took on real meaning. Both in terms of scope or level, there was a noticeable increase in cooperation activities. Regardless of the measurement employed ‘transactions’ increased exponentially. In fact, it could be said that interactions at all levels and in all areas – the generality of the populations, technocrats and policy tsars, the political leaderships, professionals and business people etc. – became very natural. Occasional conflicts were amicably settled by appropriate machinery put in place by both governments.

The third phase spread over the 1980 to 1989 period. An attempted coup d’état took place in The Gambia at the end of July 1981; it was civilian-led but subsequently attracted military backing. Invoking the Mutual Defense Agreement between the two countries (1967), the government of The Gambia solicited Senegalese military assistance for its suppression. This was forthcoming – and successful. By mutual consent the Senegambia Confederation was created. However, serious differences in a number of areas, particularly in perceptions and expectations as to the end-goal of the new order, led to its dissolution in August 1989. To quote the Gambian president, the Senegalese saw the move ‘as a first step toward closer integration of the two states probably leading to a federation and ultimately leading to a unitary state of Senegambia’.

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On the other hand he saw it as ‘an expression of the very special relationship existing between the two countries’. When to this is added such other factors as short gestation period, changing economic circumstances, security interests, fragile support base, and unequal distribution of opportunities, the smallest straw was likely to break the back of the Senegambia Confederation. This is precisely what happened. It was dissolved by mutual agreement on 29 August 1989. 

The post-Confederation era incorporates the fourth and fifth periods. The fourth extended from 1989 to 2000. It saw the military take-over of the government in The Gambia in July 1994 and the end of the Presidency of Abdou Diouf in March 2000. Diouf had assumed power in Senegal, in 1980, a few months before the attempted coup d’état in The Gambia, and built on the foundations for Senegambian cooperation laid down by his predecessor, President Senghor, through the first and second periods. The end of the confederation meant a new era in relations; there was less preoccupation with cooperation and “integration” almost disappeared from the political lexicon. ‘Senegambia’ ceased to refer to a process of merger of the two states into one legal entity; it was now a matter of inter-state relations between two coexisting states as for any other two independent states. But, at the same time, given the ties that bind, as noted earlier, relations were now characterized as ‘special and privileged’. 

Much the same prevailed in the fifth period, 2000 to 2012, denoted by the coming into power of President Wade’s government and its demise. The basis of relationships changed to a heavier focus on national interest; and, for Senegal, the priority of priorities was the resolution of the Casamance problem. For dealing with this preoccupation, it was in the interest of peaceful coexistence that cooperation continues, even if not with the same intensity as in the second and third periods. The institutional architecture for organizing such cooperation was of the leanest; in fact, it was non-existent until the formation of the Ministerial Commission and the Consultative Commission. Perhaps it was because of the new form of relationship that the crises that emerged since 2000 were not easily resolved: these included border incidents over transit charges for Senegalese vehicles, the football ‘war’ between the two national teams, shipment of military hardware from Iran, harassment of Gambian nationals at Dakar airport, etc. 

As seen in any map of the area, the Casamance region in Senegal is cut off from the rest of the country by Gambian territory. This, in addition to other realities, gives it an identity more akin to adjoining parts of The Gambia than to Senegal. Since 1984 there has been a sustained civil conflict against the Senegalese government, which has invested considerable resources in its containment; secessionist military forces have spearheaded the movement for secession. 


Dr Jeggan C Senghor is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.


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