Dakar, Senegal — During their 100-year reign in West Africa, the European colonial powers tried on several occasions to make one territory out of French Senegal and the British colony that extended 200 miles into its interior, Gambia.
At one point, the French even offered up the Ivory Coast in exchange for the Gambian sliver -- but in vain.
What 100 years of colonial negotiations could not do was accomplished in the span of a few weeks during August when a leftist rebel leader unleashed the forces of discontent in Gambia. Troops from pro-Western Senegal swooped in to crush the rebellion at the request of teh deposed Gambian president, Dawda Jawara. And now, at the restored leader's request, those troops will never leave.
The countries' leaders -- Jawara of Gambia and Abdou Diouf of Senegal -- have agreed to unite their countries, at least for commercial purposes. Their confederation will be called "Senegambia."
Since Gambian independence in 1965, Senegalese leaders had looked at the map of their country and cringed at what they considered an "historical anomaly" and a major economic problem for their struggling country.
Gambia, with its favorable import laws and permeable borders, has been a haven for men who deal in contraband. Senegalese officials have claimed that contraband has deprived their economy of $35 million annually.
And with an antiquated ferry system on the Gambia River, north-south travel in Senegal was considerably inhibited. Moreover, Gambia had always dragged its feet on joint programs aimed at coming to an agreement on these problems.
"They lived off our backs. We sensed that the Gambians were always a little reticent when they were not outright hostile toward mutual projects," said Christian Valantin, an influential member of the Senegalese National Assembly.
But since the Gambian rebellion was launched July 30, aided by mutinous elements of nation's 1,000-man security forces, reticence has disappeared.
"The ways of God are impenetrable," said Senegalese President Abdou Diouf in an interview.
Gambian President Jawara suggested a "confederation" of the two countries Aug. 18 during a brief visit to Dakar, but it is Diouf, the 6-foot 8-inch President who many had believed to be a timid technocract, who has been the master of events since then.
But Diouf has been much more frank in discussing the timing and objectives of Senegambia -- objectives that resolve most of the problems an independendent Gambia had posed for Senegal.
The confederation will be a reality by Jan. 1, 1982, Diouf said. It must be approved by the national assemblies of both countries, two of the region's rare democracies. But with the presidents' respective parties controlling the legislatures, no opposition is expected.
Its priorities will be a customs union -- creating a common market and adopting a unified money, the Central African Franc now used by many French-speaking countries -- the construction of a bridge across the Gambia River, and the improvement of road linkages between the two countries, Diouf said.
What Jawara gets in return is a guarantee of order. In a country where 800 people died in recent violence, where 600 are still in jail on charges stemming from the rebellion, Jawara says his top priority is security.
Diouf said that at least 500 of the 1,500 Senegalese soldier sent to Gambia will be permanently stationed in the former British colony. Senegalese gendarmes guard Jawara as well.
The political structure of the confederation has yet to be fully explained. Senegalese officials say the countries are likely to remain nominally independence within a confederation president over by the President of Senegal.
The two countries share a common ethnic and religious heritage. But the Senegalese recognize that different colonial experiences plus 16 years of independence have give the Gambians a certain "specificity." They recognize also that their army could well be seen as a force of occupation, not of liberation.
The Sengalese media have tried to become an instrument of union. They broadcast in English as well as French. English will be taught in Senegalese schools.
Diouf recognized that the "selling of Senegambia" will not be easy -- there may be problems in Gambia, where a portion of the population is likely to feel union has been imposed upon it, and also in Senegal where certain sacrifices will be required of the Senegalese.
Senegal has to foot the bill for keeping 1,500 troops in Gambia. Senegal's average annual income is $465; Gambia's is $200. Senegal already is operating under an austerity budget aimed at getting itself out of the worst economic crisis since it is independence. Diouf is not sure how his country will pay the cost of supporting the troops. He may look to his country's friends -- particularly France, but also the United States -- for financial help, he said.
The union has received almost total support from the international community.