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How We, Gambians, Lost Our Country to Senegal … and what we should do about it.

In a conversation about 20 years at GRTS Radio Gambia in Mile 7, The Gambia, the late, great Gambian radio broadcaster, Alhaji Lalo Samateh, said something to me that I’ll never forget. He said, “You know what’s wrong with this country?” I said, “What?” And he replied, “Nobody takes the country seriously!” Mr. Samateh’s observation still rings true today, and perhaps more so than ever.
Take our relations with Senegal, our blood relatives and neighbors, and the only country we have land borders with. We are so inter-linked that many doubted the viability of The Gambia after its Independence from Britain in 1965 (five years after Senegal obtained hers from France). Almost 57 years later, we are still standing — barely.
In many respects, The Gambia is a dwarf, when compared to Senegal. For example, Senegal’s is 18.4 times the size of The Gambia, which has an area of about 11 thousand square Kilometers. Similarly, Senegal’s population of 15.9 million (in 2018) is seven times that of The Gambia’s (2.2 million in 2020), and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $66.4 billion is 112.3 times the GDP of The Gambia ($5.4 billion). Indeed, 7 out of Senegal’s 14 Regions have a larger area than The Gambia, and Dakar Region has a population almost double that of The Gambia’s.
In view of the cultural, religious and family ties between The Gambia and Senegal, it is not surprising that the two countries have entered into various agreements over the years to strengthen those ties. For example, a mutual defense pact was signed between the two countries shortly after The Gambia’s Independence.
When a rag-tag group of Field Force troops launched a coup attempt against the government of Sir Dawda K. Jawara in July, 1981, he invited Senegalese troops to quell it. Following the abortive coup, Senegal and The Gambia signed the Kaur Declaration, leading to the formation of the Senegambia Confederation which, however, quickly collapsed in 1989.
Senegalese troops returned about 28 years later in 2017, as part of ECOMIG, the military contingent sent to The Gambia by ECOWAS, to force former President Yahya Jammeh to accept his defeat in the December 2016 presidential elections. In addition, Senegal trains the President Guards of The Gambia.
But Senegal’s penetration of The Gambia is much deeper than its contingent of ECOMIG troops. By design or default, Senegal has a profound influence on The Gambia, and the lives of people in the country. This influence is felt in diplomatic and international arena, the Gambian economy, infrastructure, as well as arts and culture.
Many countries and international organizations run their relationship with The Gambia from Senegal. While there are only 11 resident embassies in The Gambia, 27 of 44 non-resident embassies accredited to Banjul are based in Dakar. In addition, 20 UN organizations have their regional offices for West Africa in Dakar, while many international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as Institute for Security Studies, Amnesty International and CRS have their regional offices for West Africa in Dakar. These non-resident embassies and international organizations based in Dakar run their programs in, and relationships with The Gambia from Dakar, effectively turning us into an administrative region of Senegal.
Senegal has a far stronger representation in the international civil service. While Senegal was over-represented in the general and senior staff of four UN organizations (ICAO, ILO, WHO and UNESCO) in 2019, there were no Gambians in the staff of 10 UN organizations. Interestingly, all four organizations with over-representation of Senegalese in their staff have regional offices in Dakar. If you ever wondered why its important to have your nationals in the international civil service, look at Senegalese Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s Secretary General at the launching of the FIFA regional development office in Dakar.
Senegal also has a strong influence on the Gambian economy, with many Senegalese companies establishing subsidiaries in The Gambia. CSE, for example, has long been dominant in the Gambian construction sector, while Senegalese dominate trades such as tailoring, and auto mechanics. Indeed, The Gambia grinds to a halt when major Senegalese Muslim Brotherhoods (the Mouride of Touba, the Tijany of Tivaouane, and the Niassen of Kaolack) have their annual “Magals” (pilgrimages) or Gammo (celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad, PBUH). Disciples of these Brotherhoods (many of whom are Gambian) also cost The Gambia a lot of foreign exchange when they travel to Senegal for these events.
We depend on Senegal as a backup for our Internet infrastructure, and supply of critical resources. The most recent demonstration of this is the on-going crisis caused by a cut on the ACE fiber optic cable which connects The Gambia to the global Internet. As usual, we fell back on Senegal to provide us backup connectivity which itself failed for 8 hours, plunging us back into the dark ages. Similarly, Senegal is a major source for our cement imports, and we are relying on them to supply us petroleum products during our fuel-supply crisis which has been going on since last November.
Senegal managed to convince us to build the Senegambia Bridge without a barrage, while they have the Diama Dam on the Senegal river. Result: 85 thousand Ha of land east of the Diama Dam which stops saltwater intrusion are irrigated year-round, while the Senegambia Bridge cannot provide us such use in The Gambia. Furthermore, the Senegambia Bridge has effectively killed the possibility of developing significant inland ports like Kaur, and Senegal’s new $1 billion port at Ndayane will give Banjul’s pathetic port tough competition.
Senegal is the Emergencies ward for rich Gambians who can afford the cost of medical treatment there. The medical school of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD) was established about 103 years ago in 1918, and some 82 years before the establishmeant of University of The Gambia (UTG). Senegal thus has a more advanced health care system, and as such, it is not uncommon to hear of Gambians going to Dakar for medical treatment. And why not, if the Gambia government would rather spend D776 million or 3.3% of our 2022 national budget on a useless military than on developing our health care services?
As Carter G. Woodson, the great historian and second African-American to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard University, said “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.” Now, more than ever, Senegal can control the thinking of Gambians by virtue of its domination of the Gambian artistic, cultural and religious landscape.
Although many Senegalese musicians (including Youssou Ndour) who are now world famous learned a lot of their art from Gambians (e.g. the Super Eagles) and in The Gambia, there is no doubt that Senegal, musically, now has the upper hand. Senegalese music also dominates Gambian airwaves, especially radio programs. As such, many Senegalese musicians (Youssou Ndour included) visit The Gambia regularly (see collage of posters above) to perform, and make a lot of money.
Senegalese TV channels (e.g. TFM) also have a large audience in The Gambia, and Gambians cannot get enough of Senegalese music programming and drama. It is thus not surprising that Senegalese Dior Dior Wolof, which has practically extinguished Saloum Saloum Wolof in Senegal itself, has a strong hold, if not a stranglehold, on Gambian Wolof. Many Gambians now say “Lou nga xaman teh neh” as the Senegalese say, instead of the Gambian Wolof “Loh xam neh.”
All of these tendencies are being re-enforced by the Internet and social media, and the gross negligence of the Gambian government. While the Senegalese government has since the early 1970s’ issued decrees on the Wolof alphabet and orthography, and the Centre de Linguistique Appliquée de Dakar (CLAD) sets the Wolof language standards, the Gambia has been asleep. For this reason, the Wolof Wikipedia and translations of computer applications into Wolof are based on CLAD standards.
What now? We Gambians need to re-think our weak national identity, and how to strengthen it. For a start, our education system (from primary to university level) needs to be revamped to produce Gambians with a sense of belonging to our nation, and a sense of purpose as Gambians. In the same vein, Gambian artists should be supported, and arts and culture given the attention they deserve in our national development agenda.
Gambians, and the rest of the world, should understand that the World needs a Gambia. So much so that if there was no Gambia, we would need to create it. In a world which had 54 conflicts between states in 2019, there is need for a country like The Gambia to show that, Yes, it is possible and desirable for people with varied languages, cultures, and religions to live together in peace and harmony. It is for this reason that it is especially important to redouble our efforts to strengthen the Gambian identity and multi-cultural and multi-faith ethos. The question now is: can we, you, and I take this task, and our country seriously?

Katim S. Touray, Ph. D.

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