Africa's Senegambia: a confederation more of form than substance

In the marketplaces of Senegal, the faces of President Abdou Diouf and Gambia President Dawda Jawara smile down at shoppers from embossed bright red and green cloth banners.

The pair are reputedly the leaders of a friendly year-old confederation of their West African countries. Recently they announced appointments to a cabinet that is to run their alliance.

On the surface it appears their confederation - called Senegambia - is made up of equal and sovereign associated states. But as one diplomat quips: ''Senegambia is little more than Senegal's army in The Gambia.''

Senegal and Gambia formed their confederation only after President Diouf sent his troops into Gambia to save President Jawara's government from a coup. A year after the December 1981 signing of the agreement to form Senegambia, the confederation seems to be an empty postscript to the military intervention. It is a union more in form than in substance.

The agreement stipulates that Senegal, a former French colony, and Gambia, an ex-British holding, remain sovereign for now while integrating security and communications operations. It also calls for them to work toward a joint foreign policy and economic and monetary union.

Since Gambia lacks a standing army and Senegalese troops have remained in Gambia, the confederation's joint security objective has not been difficult to achieve.

But there is considerable resistance among many Gambians to the prospect of economic and monetary integration. Gambians have been divided over the confederation idea since it was suggested by a United Nations team in 1964. The Jawara government's foot-dragging betrays some worry that it will become just another province of Senegal.

President Diouf, who faces a presidential election in February in Senegal, is straining to show there are signs of progress toward economic and monetary union. Observers says he would like to give the confederation a sharper veneer of legitimacy and cooperative consensus. He appears sensitive to the kind of accusations lobbed at Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere when his troops moved against antagonistic forces in Uganda.

According to one Western diplomat in Dakar, ''The government of Senegal got the confederation as a quid pro quo for saving Jawara's skin, but now they must pressure him to develop minor protocols supporting it. It has become an embarassment even to mention the Senegambia Confederation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here.''

The announcement of the confederation cabinet in Le Soleil, Senegal's daily newspaper, is viewed here as the first display of progress since the pact was signed in 1981. The article stated that the cabinet selections were made by President Diouf with the ''mutual consent'' of President Jawara, who serves under Diouf as the confederation's vice-president. The nine cabinet positions are filled by five Senegalese and four Gambians. But without further protocols forming a confederal parliament, the ministers will have few real responsibilities.

As an artificially created territory of the colonial period, Gambia is a tiny territorial strip enclosed within Senegal except for a narrow access to the Atlantic Ocean. This strip, from 15 to 20 miles across, extends along both sides of the Gambia River about 200 miles inland. A common African perception is that ''The Gambia is a banana in the teeth of Senegal,'' which is 17 times larger in land area and whose population of 6 million is nearly 10 times that of Gambia.

The Gambian coup attempt occurred in July 1981 while President Jawara was in London attending the wedding of Prince Charles. Almost half his 600-man defense force was among those who tried to overthrow his civilian government, according to sources here.

President Diouf sent 2,000 troops into Gambia at Jawara's request; more than 500 persons were killed in the effort to quash the uprising.

Kukoi Samba Sanyong, the 28-year-old former bureaucrat who led the coup attempt, took refuge in Guinea-Bissau to the south. Both Presidents Diouf and Jawara say he has links to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, but Western diplomats say they have seen no evidence supporting these allegations. Roughly 750 Senegalese troops remain in Gambia for what is being called the first joint operation of security forces.

There are many similarities between Gambia and Senegal. The Wolof tribe dominates in both nations, providing an ethnic and linguistic bond.

Both countries have parliamentary systems and pro-Western foreign policies. But Senegal's bid for a stronger confederation will not be welcomed by many Gambians. Gambia would be required to accept the Senegalese currency, the CFA franc, which is used throughout French West Africa. The smaller country does not appear enthusiastic about this.

Economic union stands as an even thornier problem. For many years, Gambia's low import duties have allowed trading companies based in Banjul to smuggle an estimated $10 million of surplus goods into Senegal annually. Senegal has long urged Gambia to standardize its customs regulations. Many Gambians say a confederated customs union with uniform levies would adversely affect their interests.

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