By Natta Mass
What is factual and will always remain true is that the two strips of land on either side of the majestic river Gambia are of indispensable strategic importance to Senegal. Having those two strips of land being a different independent sovereign entity that divide your country into two is a nuisance that any nation would like to be rid of. The mechanics of modern international relations, international law, geopolitics and obligations under international charters makes the options for containing such a nuisance volatile at best.
There are consequences for breach of internationally agreed upon conventions, more so breaching international borders. So how would Senegal go about solving the problem of little Gambia that is in fact a giant pain in the rear of Senegal’s economic activities?
To get from southern Senegal to northern Senegal and vice versa, the shortest and most cost effective route had always been to cut through the sovereign territory of The Gambia. This bottleneck had always been a headache for commerce within Senegal. The unreliable ferry services and the lack of bridges across the over 300 km river until very recently have always been lamented by Senegalese drivers who carry goods from one part of the country to another.
Attempts by at least two administrations to forge closer ties between The Gambia and Senegal have failed because such agreements have always been heavily tilted in favor of Senegal. The boldest agreement since independence was the Senegambia confederation, an agreement whose terms were highly unfavorable for the Gambia collapsed as did many other bilateral agreements. Relations worsened under Yahya Jammeh, who always maintained that Senegal does not give her much smaller neighbor the due respect she deserves as a sovereign nation; despite cultural similarities, geopolitical interests have left these two closest African nations apart for the most part.
Thanks to former President Jammeh’s belligerence and refusal to relinquish power after he was defeated at the polls in December 2016 and threatening bloodshed, the West African bloc (ECOWAS) took the bold step of ensuring the mandate of the Gambian people was respected and so deployed a military coalition to deter and forcefully remove Jammeh if it came to that. This of course presented Senegal with a golden opportunity to lead that force of the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) both as a key member of the bloc and her proximity to The Gambia.
Three years after Jammeh was sent into exile, that force still remains in The Gambia with the greater task of Gambia’s national security falling to them while the much touted Security Sector Reform aimed at reorienting and restructuring Gambia’s security forces took a nose dive into unconcern.
Unrest in The Gambia is absolutely, without doubt going to cost Senegal a great deal even when they do not get directly involved. In the 1981 military uprising, Senegal intervened to thwart the attempted overthrow of then president Jawara and lost many of its citizens who took part in that military operation.
In 1994, when the Gambia National Army rebelled and successfully overthrew Jawara, Senegal took a seemingly non-aligned position. But to many observers, the aftermath of the 1981 putsch left a bitter taste in the mouth of Senegal, a grudge they held against Jawara that they were determined to get him back for. Later evidence would reveal that Senegal expected too much in return for their part in thwarting the rebellion, a demand that Jawara viewed as unfavorable to Gambia’s sovereignty and did not yield to, hence the collapse of the Senegambia federation.
In fact, later revelations from sources within the corridors of power stated that in 1994 with Senegal’s reluctance to intervene, help was sought from Nigeria and then President Abacha was determined to send troops but Senegal denied the Nigerian contingent access to The Gambia via Senegalese airspace.
All these point to evidence that Senegal wanted a bigger hand in directing affairs in The Gambia in a bid to ensure economic stability and security within its own borders.
When they intervened to thwart an armed rebellion in 1981, and then stood by and let another succeed in 1994 when they could have foiled it, Senegal was signaling to The Gambia that it has power and influence enough to determine the outcome of events in The Gambia. With that status established, Senegal could hope to hold a bargaining chip over The Gambia in any future negotiations.
That prospect seemed very likely in 1994 with the overthrow of the more seasoned Sir Dawda who was replaced by mutinous soldiers. All but 29 years old, inexperienced at state craft, naïve and power hungry; Senegal saw an opportunity yet again to have her way with The Gambia, but the youngsters turned out to be more of a thorn in the side of Senegal than anticipated. Not only was Gambia a thorn in the side of Senegal with Jammeh at the helm of Gambia’s affairs; Senegal’s own sovereignty was threatened by Jammeh’s open support for the rebellion in southern Senegal. Besides the oppressed Gambians, no one was more eager to see Jammeh out of power than Senegal.
In 2016 Gambians took it upon themselves to vote Jammeh out, but being the tyrant he was Jammeh was determined to not leave power in peace. This presented Senegal with a third opportunity and this time, they are determined to play their cards right.
With Yaya Jammeh ousted and The Gambia now saddled with an even more inexperienced and naïve president elected in 2016, Senegal can play its cards right this time around; right under the unsuspecting nose of Barrow who was first sworn in as president at the Gambian embassy in Senegal. Adama Barrow is presenting Senegal with what they sought but couldn’t have for over five decades; a deciding hand in Gambia’s affairs in a bid to foster their own interests.
One only has to see Adama Barrow in the company of Macky Sall or hear him speak about Macky Sall to know that he holds the Senegalese president in the highest esteem. Holding such reverence for anything Senegal or Macky Sall is understandable considering Senegal took the leading role in ensuring he serves his mandate. He even refers to Sall as his big brother whom he says he shares cultural lineage with; “we speak in Pulaar when I talk to him.”
As stated earlier, Gambia and Senegal are inextricably linked culturally, so that is not a unique circumstance, but with Barrow’s childish demeanor he has taken that “kinship” to heart and trusts Macky Sall completely. If there is one advise he will take above all else without question, it will be the advice given by Macky Sall. This is even evident in his governance style in which he refuses to address issues of concern or treat them with the urgency they deserve unless public pressure mounts to fever levels. This is reminiscent of Macky Sall’s style of governance; give a deaf ear to critics. The difference being Macky Sall leads with action unlike Barrow, and Senegal is not in the same situation as The Gambia that has endured over two decades of tyranny marred by gross human rights violations, so what works perfectly for politically stable Senegal is potentially catastrophic for us and therein lies the threat.
With Senegalese President Sall feigning the savior big brother role, Barrow has completely fallen for the “Gambia and Senegal are one” mantra and refuses to see a threat to Gambia’s sovereignty emanating from Senegal, not especially emanating from “Mbackeh Sall” as he calls him.
Security experts who took a close look at Gambia’s current security set up point to glaring flaws within, both in terms of scope and structure. In their assessment, they raise the question as to whether The Gambia needs an army and point to the fact that any external threat to Gambia’s sovereignty will come from/through her much larger neighbor Senegal. Not to say that is an imminent threat, but in assessing external threats to one’s sovereignty, the assessments will largely be dependent on one’s neighbors and The Gambia only has one neighbor; Senegal.
The legacy of colonialism effectively created two countries for one people, culturally speaking; both having different socio-economic interests that are independent of each other but highly interdependent. Both have two very different political cultures influenced by two very different European powers; France and Britain, and that colonial influence is reflected in their governance style and political structures. Without sincere pan African goals leading the agenda, any agreement between the two will require one to give up more than the other and Senegal clearly is not the one inclined to make such a sacrifice. So where do they go from here?
Invading with a superior military is out of the question thanks to commitments owed to The Gambia by the various multi-lateral organizations it is a part of and international conventions, breach of which will invite consequences for Senegal. Maybe Senegal has no such intention, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they will not stand idly by and watch little Gambia disrupt the free flow of commerce between the two regions of Senegal separated by The Gambia in the name of sovereignty, if nothing else fuels Senegal’s interest in what obtains in The Gambia. So how can they ensure that?
Under the current arrangements with the ECOMIG contingent deployment, The Gambia’s national security falls almost entirely to Senegal who is leading the ECOWAS mission both in terms of boots on the ground and equipment for obvious reasons. The President and first family’s security detail is entirely in the hands of forces loyal to the republic of Senegal. The training and reorienting of the Gambian security forces as part of the security sector reform also has a lot of Senegalese input. Intelligence gathering is at its optimal during this period and how Senegal could use that cache of information; well we best leave that to the experts.
Observing from the outside and assessing from a layman’s vantage point, few things stand out.
The much touted security sector reform that was high on the agenda of the new administration has seemingly tanked. People who have been complicit or found wanting for rights violations during the Jammeh regime have resurfaced to man key positions within the current set up. As far as we can tell from the citizens’ perspective, the dealings of the security forces with the average person has hardly changed. The heavy handed crackdown on peaceful protesters in January was a grim reminder of the days of tyranny and discontent has grown amongst citizens that this administration has become too consumed with politics to care about one of their main agenda items.
That growing frustration is exacerbated by the fact that Jammeh loyalists have been emboldened by the lack of commitment to the change agenda by the Barrow administration to openly defend the excesses of Jammeh with the justification that everything they accuse Jammeh of is still the norm, so why blame him?
Despite the oft-repeated “Senegal and Gambia are one people” slogan; Gambian transport operators who cross over to Senegal continue to encounter problems including border closure to Gambian vehicles despite existing ECOWAS protocols.
Recently, two incidents within Gambia’s borders involving Senegalese forces not part of the ECOMIG contingent raised more concerns on the relations between the two countries. Senegalese security forces pursing a Gambian into Gambian territory, shooting and then arresting a Gambian national on Gambian soil and transporting him across the border into Senegal was met with unconcern from Gambian authorities who claim that the two countries have a joint security agreement the terms of which allowed for “hot pursuit” arrests even though Gambian security forces would not dare step into Senegal with a service pistol much less arrest a Senegalese national on Senegalese soil.
Senegalese security forces also got into a scuffle at the newly commissioned trans-Gambia bridge when they refused to pay tolls as required by Gambian law, for Senegalese vehicles carrying supplies bound for southern Senegal through The Gambia.
These blatant disregard for Gambian laws and sovereignty has been a cause for concern among many Gambians who are justifiably enraged by such disregard for our sovereignty and our own administration’s ineptitude to face Senegal as an equally sovereign nation and demand respect for Gambia’s territorial integrity.
With all of the foregoing and the fact that Gambians have lost faith in the transitional justice mechanism, yet our president decides to mimic Senegal’s leadership style of non-engagement with the citizens. It begs the question; is Senegal advising Barrow to pay no mind to the constant critics as a ploy to allow for the tensions to simmer and eventually foment massive discontent amongst ordinary Gambians and members of our security forces potentially leading to unrest?
Unrest or any form of instability in the Gambia will only serve Senegal interest; Senegal will have the excuse it needs to extend its military presence in The Gambia under the guise of maintaining stability while scenes like we saw at the trans-Gambia bridge become the norm. This will guarantee uninterrupted commerce between the two regions of Senegal. Despite our political differences and high levels of poverty, Gambians are extremely proud of their little homeland and that pride will not allow them to surrender their sovereignty to Senegal. Senegal knows that, and so they will count on a push back from Gambians and the more Gambia tries to push back, the tighter Senegal will grip.
Once that first extension of the ECOMIG mandate is achieved through that strategy, we are looking at effective annexation of The Gambia as such extension could be potentially indefinite.
Tension or any form of unrest in The Gambia will serve to embolden the separatist rebels in southern Senegal fighting for independence. Southern Senegal borders Guinea Bissau, notorious for its instability and civil unrest, Guinea Bissau could see a spillover. And in these times of restlessness in French Guinea thanks to Alpha Conde’s machinations we could be potentially looking at unrest on a sub-regional scale. This may seem far-fetched and may even be unlikely but there are too many flash points in West Africa and with Senegal increasingly rising to regional economic stardom, they are certainly not going to take any chances with The Gambia.
Everyone seems to know the importance of little Gambia in the wider scheme of things except the man tasked to be in charge of her affairs; an expert at small talk and throwing shade at political opponents but utterly inept at everything else