What is factual and will always remain true is that the two strips of land on either side of the majestic river Gambia are of indispensable strategic importance to Senegal. Having those two strips of land being a different independent sovereign entity that divide your country into two is a nuisance that any nation would like to be rid of. The mechanics of modern international relations, international law, geopolitics and obligations under international charters makes the options for containing such a nuisance volatile at best.
There are consequences for breach of internationally agreed upon conventions, more so breaching international borders. So how would Senegal go about solving the problem of little Gambia that is in fact a giant pain in the rear of Senegal’s economic activities?
To get from southern Senegal to northern Senegal and vice versa, the shortest and most cost effective route had always been to cut through the sovereign territory of The Gambia. This bottleneck had always been a headache for commerce within Senegal. The unreliable ferry services and the lack of bridges across the over 300 km river until very recently have always been lamented by Senegalese drivers who carry goods from one part of the country to another.
Attempts by at least two administrations to forge closer ties between The Gambia and Senegal have failed because such agreements have always been heavily tilted in favor of Senegal. The boldest agreement since independence was the Senegambia confederation, an agreement whose terms were highly unfavorable for the Gambia collapsed as did many other bilateral agreements. Relations worsened under Yahya Jammeh, who always maintained that Senegal does not give her much smaller neighbor the due respect she deserves as a sovereign nation; despite cultural similarities, geopolitical interests have left these two closest African nations apart for the most part.
Thanks to former President Jammeh’s belligerence and refusal to relinquish power after he was defeated at the polls in December 2016 and threatening bloodshed, the West African bloc (ECOWAS) took the bold step of ensuring the mandate of the Gambian people was respected and so deployed a military coalition to deter and forcefully remove Jammeh if it came to that. This of course presented Senegal with a golden opportunity to lead that force of the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) both as a key member of the bloc and her proximity to The Gambia.
Three years after Jammeh was sent into exile, that force still remains in The Gambia with the greater task of Gambia’s national security falling to them while the much touted Security Sector Reform aimed at reorienting and restructuring Gambia’s security forces took a nose dive into unconcern.
Unrest in The Gambia is absolutely, without doubt going to cost Senegal a great deal even when they do not get directly involved. In the 1981 military uprising, Senegal intervened to thwart the attempted overthrow of then president Jawara and lost many of its citizens who took part in that military operation.
In 1994, when the Gambia National Army rebelled and successfully overthrew Jawara, Senegal took a seemingly non-aligned position. But to many observers, the aftermath of the 1981 putsch left a bitter taste in the mouth of Senegal, a grudge they held against Jawara that they were determined to get him back for. Later evidence would reveal that Senegal expected too much in return for their part in thwarting the rebellion, a demand that Jawara viewed as unfavorable to Gambia’s sovereignty and did not yield to, hence the collapse of the Senegambia federation.
In fact, later revelations from sources within the corridors of power stated that in 1994 with Senegal’s reluctance to intervene, help was sought from Nigeria and then President Abacha was determined to send troops but Senegal denied the Nigerian contingent access to The Gambia via Senegalese airspace.
All these point to evidence that Senegal wanted a bigger hand in directing affairs in The Gambia in a bid to ensure economic stability and security within its own borders.
When they intervened to thwart an armed rebellion in 1981, and then stood by and let another succeed in 1994 when they could have foiled it, Senegal was signaling to The Gambia that it has power and influence enough to determine the outcome of events in The Gambia. With that status established, Senegal could hope to hold a bargaining chip over The Gambia in any future negotiations.
That prospect seemed very likely in 1994 with the overthrow of the more seasoned Sir Dawda who was replaced by mutinous soldiers. All but 29 years old, inexperienced at state craft, naïve and power hungry; Senegal saw an opportunity yet again to have her way with The Gambia, but the youngsters turned out to be more of a thorn in the side of Senegal than anticipated. Not only was Gambia a thorn in the side of Senegal with Jammeh at the helm of Gambia’s affairs; Senegal’s own sovereignty was threatened by Jammeh’s open support for the rebellion in southern Senegal. Besides the oppressed Gambians, no one was more eager to see Jammeh out of power than Senegal.
In 2016 Gambians took it upon themselves to vote Jammeh out, but being the tyrant he was Jammeh was determined to not leave power in peace. This presented Senegal with a third opportunity and this time, they are determined to play their cards right.
To be continued…