Senegambia: the limits of pan-Africanism

The line of cars, buses, and tractor-trailers here stretches for hundreds of yards, and new arrivals hunker down anticipating a wait of five or six hours for the ferry that will take them across the Gambia River into southern Senegal. The wait aggravates travelers and truckers who must cross the narrow strip of land and water called Gambia for the shortest route from northern Senegal to the southern Senegalese region, Casamance.

While the Senegalese would like to build a bridge to speed communication with the independence-minded Casamance, officials say the Gambians resist becoming a thoroughfare. The Senegalese ``would have someone up there measuring tomorrow afternoon if the Gambians gave the go-ahead,'' said a Western official in Banjul, capital of this former British colony.

The crossing at Farafenni highlights the divergent interests that continue to separate the two West African nations, despite a six-year-old Senegambia confederation.

Although regional organizations promote limited cooperation in various parts of the continent, Senegambia is the only working example of the broader pan-African ideas of leaders such as the late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Toure of Guinea.

At the same time, Senegambia is a prime example of the serious limits to those ideas - limits that can stem from differing economies and fear among residents of the weaker partner being swallowed up by the stronger.

There have been numerous attempts to integrate African states into more economically viable groupings since before the wave of independence in the 1960s. All have failed.

The notion of a Senegambia confederation had been discussed since the 1950s, but it took a coup attempt in Gambia in 1981 to spur tighter ties with Senegal, a former French colony that surrounds Gambia on three sides. When the coup attempt came, Gambia requested Senegalese troops to put down the rebellion. The troops stayed, and in early 1982 President Sir Dawda Jawara inaugurated the confederation with his larger neighbor.

During the past six years, the two countries have formed a confederal army and parliament, although each state also retains its sovereign bodies. They have worked out pacts on telecommunications and road construction and coordinate their foreign policies. The Senegalese trained a Gambian gendarmerie to replace the rebellious field force, and Senegalese soldiers guard Sir Jawara's palace.

Diplomats in Banjul say these ventures are not surprising. In many ways, they say, the two states seem suited for confederation, even eventual union.

``In the larger spectrum we are really a nation,'' said a Gambian official. ``We belong to the same ethnic background.''

Yet events in the two countries suggest the limits of pan-Africanism more than its possibilities. Many Gambians feel they were pressured into confederation by the stronger Senegalese at the time of the coup. Senegal denies this.

``We were bargaining with these people sitting on top of our stomachs,'' said Assan Camara, who, as then vice president, authorized the Senegalese troops to come in in 1981. ``... It was an opportunity, an opening for the Senegalese.''

And while the Gambian government and many opposition leaders see a need for close security and economic ties with Senegal, there is fear that it wishes to absorb Gambia to control Casamance and staunch a flood of inexpensive goods smuggled in across the long border.

``One gets the impression that the Senegalese are lock, stock, and barrel for unification now,'' said a second Gambian official. ``They are more interested in taking over the Gambia and making it a region of Senegal.''

Gambian opposition leader Sheriff Dibba says, ``The Senegalese talk of the process of integration, whereas the Gambian President says that Gambian independence is non-negotiable.''

Opposition leaders in Gambia complain that the public has never had a chance to vote on the confederation, which was not a major issue in the 1982 elections or last year's presidential vote. And many government and opposition leaders say if there were a referendum, most Gambians would reject the confederaton.

Nationalism, as well as the linguistic and economic legacies of British and French rule, have thrown up barriers to further unity. Officials in Banjul say the most difficult area is economic.

The British left Gambia with liberal trade policies. Aside from peanut exports, its economy relies largely on the re-export of cheap goods imported at Banjul and sold in other African countries.

Senegal, on the other hand, has high tariff walls to protect local industries from exactly the cheap imports so important to Gambia. While the Senegalese have recently begun to open their economy, many industries are still in the hands of monopolies or near-monopolies that charge high prices.

There has been talk - but little progress - of adopting common tariff levels and a common currency. Senegal want Gambia to raise tariffs to keep foreign goods from undercutting Senegalese producers. Banjul wants Senegal to open its markets and make it easier for Gambian re-exports to pass through.

There is very little middle ground, and the Gambians fear they will get the worst of any compromise. ``In any case, it is the Gambians who are going to suffer,'' said Camara, now an opposition leader.

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