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The Senegamabia Confederation: (Marriage and divorce)

Soon after the attempted coup of 31st July 1981 had been put down with the assistance of the Senegalese military, speculation grew and intensified as to the future development of relations between the two countries.

The Special Legal Adviser assigned Aida Drammeh and I, as soon as he was appointed, with the task of carrying out research and preparing a memorandum on the structure of the various forms of political cooperation and association between states including integration, federation, confederation, loose forms of co-operation, etc. We were still beavering away when on 14th November 1981 on the occasion of the state visit of President Abdou Diouf of Senegal to The Gambia, the two heads of state announced their intentions, in what was called the Kaur Declaration, to establish the SeneGambia Confederation and to conclude an agreement to that effect. The agreement establishing the SeneGambia Confederation was signed by the two heads of state on the 17th December 1981…


The end came at a time when Senegal was embattled on several fronts: to the north there was the conflict with Mauritania fuelled by Arab-African racial tensions leading to massacres on both sides of the border and a large movement of refugees-of Arab Mauritanian’s family from Senegal into The Gambia and of Senegalese and Mauritanians of African descent into Senegal; to the south the secessionist war with rebels in Senegal’s southern province of Casamance had intensified; further still to the south a maritime border dispute with Guinea Bissau exacerbated by reports of substantial crude oil deposits offshore was simmering.

The Gambia had also formally and in accordance with the main Agreement requested Senegal for a review and alteration of the arrangement whereby it was permanently assigned the position of vice president of the confederation. It wanted a rotation of the presidency between The Gambia and Senegal.

The end came in a dramatic way. On Friday 18th August 1989, the secretary to cabinet telephoned to inform me of an emergency meeting of the cabinet scheduled for 12 noon. He did not know the agenda. It was the first such emergency meeting since I joined the cabinet five years earlier.

A few minutes before noon, wondering what could have necessitated such a meeting. I left for the cabinet room at the State House in the company of my chauffeur – Sainey Samateh – a disciplined, punctual, ever present chauffeur of the old school. At the time the Confederal Gendarmerie basically comprising Senegalese troops – which constituted the Presidential Guard – were housed at the old wing of the Atlantic Hotel on the Marina Parade. As I passed along the Parade on to the State House, I could but curiously notice truckload upon truckload of fully dressed Senegalese gendarmes stationed along the way. What was striking was that they seemed ready to travel! 

The cabinet meeting did not take off until 1 pm. There was no agenda or formal memorandum for consideration. The president briefed us. It was just as he was to later describe in his books, Kairaba. He informed us that as was customary on Friday he had been prepared to proceed to the King Fahd Mosque in Banjul for the Friday juma congregational prayers. He had sent for the Senegalese commander of the Confederal Presidential Guard to alert him of his intention. The commander informed the president that he and all his men had received instructions to stand down and prepare to depart for Senegal. He asked whether the president was not in the picture. Sir Dawda indicated he was not aware. In fact it became clear that all Senegalese military and security personnel in The Gambia had been stood down from duty and there had apparently, as a result, been a vacuum in national security for some hours. Sir Dawda had received no communication from President Abdou Diouf of Senegal on this matter.

Sir Dawda had telephoned President Diouf, he reported, and the latter had expressed regret and blamed a failure in communication as the cause of this situation. He disclosed that he would be sending an envoy to Sir Dawda to further brief him on the matter.

There was much shock and anger in cabinet at the Senegalese action and even though no explanation had yet been received from the Senegalese side so far, few, if any, of us had any doubts it was linked to The Gambia’s request for a review of the Confederal Agreement provision which had made the presidents of Senegal and The Gambia respectively president and vice president of the confederation without any rotation. We endorsed the action of the president in deploying the men and officers of the infant Gambia National Army and Gendarmerie to replace the Senegalese forces with immediate effect. There was agreement on the need to maintain a high state of alert and for all the cabinet ministers to stay within reach. It was further agreed that the government should issue a statement in other to explain the situation and assure the public. It was a quiet but tense weekend for cabinet ministers. We all missed Friday prayers at the mosque that day.

Thus at 1pm on Saturday August 19th The Gambia Government issued the following statement over Radio Gambia:

“The government of Senegal, without any notification to the government of The Gambia, has decided to withdraw all Senegalese troops serving in the confederal forces stationed in The Gambia. The withdrawal was not carried out at the request of The Gambia government.

The government of The Gambia has taken the necessary and appropriate steps, including the immediate replacement of all Senegalese army and gendarmerie personnel by Gambians, to ensure that the withdrawal of the Senegalese troops does not create any security void in the country”.

While there was undoubtedly justification in The Gambia’s request for a review of the arrangement regarding Presidency of the Confederation, with hindsight it is reasonable to see that the timing of it – when Senegal was besieged and embattled on several fronts – may have been inappropriate.

The decision to deploy Gambia National Army personnel to take over from the Senegalese as well as what was generally perceived as shabby treatment by Senegal aroused nationalist sentiment. Sir Dawda’s first public appearance after the announcement – while on his way from Banjul to his Yundum farm escorted by excited and enthusiastic Gambia military motorcycle outriders – was spontaneously and well received all along the highway by cheering multitudes.

Meanwhile, the tension between Mauritania and Senegal escalated. On August 21st Senegal severed diplomatic relations with Mauritania. Tuesday August 22nd was a busy day. The Foreign Minister of Mauritania arrived at 8.50am as a special envoy of his president to Sir Dawda. He was received by LK Jabang, Minister of Foreign Affairs who attended his audience with the president. 

Mr Medoune Fall, the Senegalese Minister of Defence and special envoy of President Abdou Diouf, followed soon thereafter to be received by Sir Dawda with LK Jabang, Abdou Janha and myself in attendance. Later in the evening the following press release was issued by The Gambia government.

 “His Excellency the President today received Mr Medoune Fall, Minister of Defence of the Republic of Senegal as a special envoy of President Abdou Diouf. The minister came specifically to deliver a message from President Abdou Diouf with respect to the redeployment of Senegalese troops who formed part of the confederal command stationed in The Gambia.  The minister also expressed his regret to His Excellency for the confusion caused by the precipitate instructions given to the gendarmerie to withdraw before he could deliver his message as a special envoy of President Abdou Diouf. The minister explained the circumstances which led his government to withdraw the Senegalese troops and the explanations given were fully accepted by  the Gambian President Alhaji Sir Dawda Jawara.

The minister also conveyed a message from President Abdou Diouf which in effect underscores the very special and privileged relationships that exists between Senegal and The Gambia and the necessity for The Gambia and Senegal to always work towards maintaining the special relationship. In this respect, the two countries have recognised that the circumstances which led to the creation of the Senegambia Confederation have changed and the two governments in the very near future should reflect on the objective of the confederation and work out new structures which would be based on a consensus and the new realities of the day. What is important in this process is that the process of consultations between the two governments will as usual be based on the very privileged relations that the two countries enjoy.

The minister took the opportunity to give the president an in-depth briefing on the Mauritania/Senegal problem and recent developments affecting Senegal’s relationship with Guinea-Bissau.

His Excellency the president shares fully President Abdou Diouf’s  conception of the Senegalo-Gambian relationship which is special and privileged. He also saw the vital need of maintaining and  strengthening this privileged relationship based on mutual understanding.

His Excellency the President lamented the problem that have sprung up in the sub-region and indicated his strong desire to do everything possible as the doyen in the sub-region to redirect the energies of our people towards greater co-operation rather than confrontation”.

In a BBC interview on the following day, Tuesday the 23rd of August, Sir Dawda declared that the Confederation was not dead but “a little ill” and that the two states should start a thorough review and put the Confederation on a basis which “is entirely satisfactory to both side”. He disclosed that he had already communicated formally to President Diouf that the structures of the Confederation needed to be reviewed and stressed the need for a rotation of the presidency as “it is most appropriate between independent sovereign states”. 

He declared: “We should have a thorough review and put the Confederation on a basis that would be entirely satisfactory to both sides. The structure has to be reviewed and one point in particular is that the Presidency of the Confederation should rotate as we feel that is more appropriate between independent sovereign states”.   

The next day 24th August 1989 was SeneGambia Confederation day. In his address on the occasion, President Abdou Diouf delivered his statement proposing a “freeze” of the confederation.

Fundamental differences seemed to dog the confederation all the way. Even as the end drew near Sir Dawda’s option was for a “review” of an institution that was “a little ill”. Abdou Diouf’s “freeze” seemed more terminal.

On the 1st of September the President Sir Dawda in an interview with The Gambia News Agency disclosed that he has accepted President Abdou Diouf’s invitation to “freeze” the Sene-Gambia Confederation. But he went even further to propose a “winding up”.

How was this marriage to be dissolved? The marriage proposal had presumably been made in Dakar in July 1981; the engagement in Kaur and the wedding in Dakar in 1982. At all those stages both presidents had been present to participate in the process. A meeting between the two presidents, in this by now tense and frosty atmosphere, was totally out of the question. It could in fact be disastrous. But the confederation conceived formally by written agreements between the two states signed by the two presidents would have to dissolve in the same manner.

After consultations it was agreed that each of the presidents would stay put in his own home and sign the agreement dissolving the confederation and copies would then be exchanged. Thus it was that 2pm on Thursday the 21st of September 1989 Sir Dawda Jawara in the presence of the Secretary General and Head of the Civil Service, Abdou Janha and myself, signed the agreement of dissolution of the SeneGambia Confederation. The divorce was final. The last batch of Senegalese troops stationed in The Gambia left on Thursday 5th September 1989. From the 6th to the 8th of September 1989, Senegalese and Gambian officials met in Banjul to discuss and settle the modalities for dismantling the confederal structures.

History, family ties and geography have made cooperation between The Gambia and Senegal a necessity for both countries. On the basis of the principles of equality and mutual respect, that fact should not escape and indeed should guide people and particularly policy matters on both sides. After the cooling down period, cooperation between the two states picked up again but at a modest level, shorn of the expense and multiple institutions of the former confederation.

A loose remarriage under a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation providing for no structures other than a joint commission and making no references to integration was to be concluded by May 1991 as a step towards formalising what was now referred to as a privileged relationship between two states.

It is a matter of regret that this unique experiment in African interstate cooperation foundered and in the end collapsed. Various forms of such cooperation have been tried in Africa with limited success. But the confederal model, by providing a framework both for cooperation in some areas and integration in others all based on respect for the sovereignty of the constituent states remains a viable option for regional integration and indeed for addressing some of the challenges of unity and cohesion in larger conflict prone states.

Journey For Justice is available at Timbooktoo Bookshop on Garba Jahumpa Road, Bakau.


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