Gambia, except for a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, is an enclave
surrounded by Senegal. It is a strip of land 15 to 20 miles wide on either side
of the Gambia River and extends for 295 miles into the interior.
The Gambia River begins in Guinea-Conakry, then flows through Senegal before reaching the country of The Gambia. The nation’s unusual size and shape are a direct result of nineteenth-century territorial compromises between Britain and France, and in particular the Anglo-French Convention of 1889, which officially established the borders between the two colonies.
Prior to independence in 1965, there was some discussion of establishing a political union, or at least a closely cooperative alliance, between Gambia and Senegal in order to increase the economic prosperity of both countries. One of the reasons Great Britain agreed to the colony’s eventual independence was the belief that The Gambia would amalgamate with Senegal.
A treaty of association was signed in the early 1960s, but no serious progress was made toward closer association besides a mutual defense treaty signed in 1967. The ruling Gambian party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) feared domination by French-speaking Senegal, with its very close ties to France.
In addition, with the improvement in The Gambia’s economic outlook in the late 1960s, there was no urgency for closer union with Senegal. The Sahelian drought of the 1970s hit Senegal much harder than The Gambia, further contributing to The Gambian reluctance to move toward closer integration.
Continued smuggling from The Gambia, where prices were lower, into Senegal benefited The Gambian traders, but it did not cause a serious rift between the two countries. Occasionally, border searches were increased, but the smuggling continued, and there were no confrontations between the two nations.
Relations between the two countries were dramatically altered in July 1981 when a coup against President Jawara was initiated by a group of self-proclaimed African Marxists. The rebels briefly took control of the government, and Jawara fled to Dakar. Jawara, citing the 1967 defense treaty, was restored by Senegalese troops. President Abdou Diouf of Senegal, who had come to power only one year before with the resignation of Leopold Senghor, feared the creation of a radical Marxist regime in The Gambia.
The coup in The Gambia, if successful, likewise posed a threat to the Diouf regime.
By December 1981 Senegal and The Gambia had signed an agreement to create the Confederation of Senegambia, which went into effect in February 1982. A joint executive was declared, with Abdou Diouf as president and Jawara as vice president. The confederation was a clear victory for Diouf and Senegal, although the coup had encouraged some Gambians to consider the prospect of a closer union with their neighbor more favorably.
The confederation agreement was an ambitious document, creating the theoretical infrastructure for a single government. A common federal legislature was planned, with Senegal controlling two-thirds of the seats.
A Senegambian council of ministers, dominated by Senegalese, and the confederal assembly met for the first time in January 1983. The two nations agreed to recognize and respect the unique aspects of each country. They also pledged to consult and cooperate on economic, defense, communications and foreign affairs policies. A gendarmerie equipped by France and trained by Senegal replaced the defunct Gambia Field Force.
Other attempts at integrating defense and security forces mainly resulted in an increased Senegalese military presence in The Gambia. The proposed economic and financial integration was slow in forthcoming, with each side blaming the other for lack of progress.
A Guest Editorial