BANJUL, GAMBIA — ALMOST a year after the dissolution of their confederation, Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent, is surviving the economic sanctions of Senegal, the country that borders it on three sides. The Senegambia Confederation was formed after Senegalese troops rescued the Gambian government from a coup attempt in 1981. But Senegal's desire for greater economic and monetary integration with Gambia was rebuffed when Senegal pushed too hard, observers say.
``Senegal saw the confederation as a stepping stone toward absorbing Gambia,'' says Sulayman Alieu Jack, a Gambian government official.
A confederation seemed natural. The two countries share ethnic groups, African languages, and traditions. Most people living near the border have family on the other side. The two countries have been trading together since the days when the British colony of The Gambia, as it is formally known, imported cheap Indian cotton to trade for cattle with the French colony of Senegal.
But upon independence, the two countries took different economic roads. Gambia maintains a liberal trade policy. This is recommended by international lenders and donors and is perhaps the only viable strategy for the Connecticut-sized country. Senegal has high tariffs to protect and develop local industries that produce such items as cotton textiles, sugar, and tomato paste. It aims to reduce dependence on European countries.
Senegalese customs agents had periodically sought to crack down on the flow from Gambia of cheaper European goods, which are often superior to the Senegalese equivalents.
For instance, Senegalese traders would cross the border to buy consumer items such as toothpaste, matches, and Chinese tea, and then return to their villages to sell these items at a profit. Gambia survives largely because of this re-export trade, which accounts for about three quarters of its exports.
Since the breakup of the confederation, Senegalese entering Gambia are strictly forbidden to carry more than the equivalent of $70, effectively prohibiting trade. The wholesale movement of rice, sugar, and cloth across the border has been interrupted.
``Senegal will not accept to serve as a dumping ground for Gambian contraband,'' says President Abdou Diouf. ``During the confederation, because we wanted to play by the rules of integration, we were a bit lax, perhaps we let things go. We can no longer afford to do this. We must see to it that we don't commit economic suicide to please Gambia.''
Gambians say that their exports are not aimed solely at Senegal. Traders from Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso all come to buy in Banjul. But they must cross the difficult Senegal-Gambia border. Thus the breakup has affected trading patterns throughout the region.
Traders point out that it's almost impossible for Senegal to control the entire border. After the first three or four months of prohibited trade, according to Gambian exporters, business began to go back to normal.
``The re-export trade hasn't stopped completely. As you can see for yourself, trade is brisk,'' says Pierre Njai of the Gambian Chamber of Commerce, gesturing to his window overlooking warehouse-lined Buckle Street, the center of the re-export trade district in Banjul.
So far the export limits do not appear to be fatal for Gambia. And challenges on the political front give Senegal reason not to pressure Gambia too much. In recent months, in the Casamance region of Senegal below Gambia, several terrorist incidents have occurred.
Blame is being pinned on a Casamance separatist movement which has fought sporadically for independence.
Senegal has long repressed the separatists, fearing the loss of the lushest region of its country. One concern in Senegal is that Guinea Bissau, the Casamance region, and Gambia could together form a powerful political and economic unit.
Most Western observers say that all of the small West African states must form an economic union in order to compete on the word market. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which held a summit in Banjul in May, is attempting to fill the need for regional economic cooperation, so far without many results.
It will be difficult to reconcile Senegal's protectionist, development-oriented policies with Gambia's orientation toward liberal trade. Says President Diouf, ``Either Senegal lets Gambia do what they do and Senegal will never develop, because all our industries will collapse thanks to the products coming from Gambia. Or Senegal can defend itself, and we will always have tensions on the border.''