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Close ties between Senegal and The Gambia go back many decades. But the collapse of the Senegambia Confederation underscores one lesson among many: Every effort must be made to ensure popular support for cooperation endeavours.


For over four decades the history of relations between Senegal and The Gambia was dominated by an almost exclusive focus on ways and means of crafting ‘Senegambia’; that is, the integration of the two states of Senegal and The Gambia into a single state. The experience falls into six phases. First, the 1958 to 1967 period witnessed a concerted effort to work out the approach to and methodology for furthering cooperation, the purpose and objective of such cooperation and what precise modalities were to be adopted. Such discourse had been launched in 1958, even before either of the two countries gained full political independence. To assist in the process of defining the alternatives to cooperation United Nations expert assistance was secured but sharp differences in perspectives between the two leaderships resulted in a stalemate.

The all-dominant role of national politics and perceived national interests frustrated any rapid advances to integration. This first period was the most critical; yet it coincided with the most intense competition for political power, especially as successive constitutional changes brought the likelihood of independence nearer. The process had commenced since 1954 and became fiercely competitive by the end of the decade. A major reason was the emergence of the Protectorate as a political force to challenge the Colony-restricted politics; the introduction of universal adult suffrage contributed to these new dynamics. The political stakes were higher. The 1960 and 1962 General Elections confirmed this shift in the locus of political power from the Colony to the Protectorate, as did the attainment of self-government status (October 1963) and independence (February 1965).

In the circumstances, the issue of cooperation and integration between Senegal and Gambia was trapped in the maelstrom of national politics. By the end of the period, especially after the negotiations over the UN report in May 1964, it appeared that the functional methodology was the preferred option of The Gambia government. For the Senegalese government, on the other hand, instant integration was favoured. But, it decided to go along with the Gambian position in the expectation that, with time, the latter would be won over.

As it turned out, the second phase of cooperation, 1967 to 1980, was to be the halcyon days of ‘Senegambian’ cooperation. It saw the establishment of institutional infrastructures, particularly the Senegalo-Gambian Secretariat, mainly to service the political and technical bodies designed to intensify cooperation between the two states through a host of framework protocols and agreements. Consequently, substantive cooperation in a multiplicity of sectors was achieved and ‘Senegambian integration’ took on real meaning. Both in terms of scope or level, there was a noticeable increase in cooperation activities. Regardless of the measurement employed ‘transactions’ increased exponentially. In fact, it could be said that interactions at all levels and in all areas – the generality of the populations, technocrats and policy tsars, the political leaderships, professionals and business people etc. – became very natural. Occasional conflicts were amicably settled by appropriate machinery put in place by both governments.

The third phase spread over the 1980 to 1989 period. An attempted coup d’état took place in The Gambia at the end of July 1980; it was civilian-led but subsequently attracted military backing. Invoking the Mutual Defense Agreement between the two countries (1967), the government of The Gambia solicited Senegalese military assistance for its suppression. This was forthcoming – and successful. By mutual consent the Senegambia Confederation was created. However, serious differences in a number of areas, particularly in perceptions and expectations as to the end-goal of the new order, led to its dissolution in August 1989. To quote the Gambian president, the Senegalese saw the move ‘as a first step toward closer integration of the two states probably leading to a federation and ultimately leading to a unitary state of Senegambia’.

On the other hand he saw it as ‘an expression of the very special relationship existing between the two countries’. When to this is added such other factors as short gestation period, changing economic circumstances, security interests, fragile support base, and unequal distribution of opportunities, the smallest straw was likely to break the back of the Senegambia Confederation. This is precisely what happened. It was dissolved by mutual agreement on 29 August 1989.

The post-Confederation era incorporates the fourth and fifth periods. The fourth extended from 1989 to 2000. It saw the military take-over of the government in The Gambia in July 1994 and the end of the Presidency of Abdou Diouf in March 2000. Diouf had assumed power in Senegal, in 1980, a few months before the attempted coup d’état in The Gambia, and built on the foundations for Senegambian cooperation laid down by his predecessor, President Senghor, through the first and second periods. The end of the confederation meant a new era in relations; there was less preoccupation with cooperation and “integration” almost disappeared from the political lexicon. ‘Senegambia’ ceased to refer to a process of merger of the two states into one legal entity; it was now a matter of inter-state relations between two coexisting states as for any other two independent states. But, at the same time, given the ties that bind, as noted earlier, relations were now characterized as ‘special and privileged’.

Much the same prevailed in the fifth period, 2000 to 2012, denoted by the coming into power of President Wade’s government and its demise. The basis of relationships changed to a heavier focus on national interest; and, for Senegal, the priority of priorities was the resolution of the Casamance problem. For dealing with this preoccupation, it was in the interest of peaceful coexistence that cooperation continues, even if not with the same intensity as in the second and third periods. The institutional architecture for organizing such cooperation was of the leanest; in fact, it was non-existent until the formation of the Ministerial Commission and the Consultative Commission. Perhaps it was because of the new form of relationship that the crises that emerged since 2000 were not easily resolved: these included border incidents over transit charges for Senegalese vehicles, the football ‘war’ between the two national teams, shipment of military hardware from Iran, harassment of Gambian nationals at Dakar airport, etc.

As seen in any map of the area, the Casamance region in Senegal is cut off from the rest of the country by Gambian territory. This, in addition to other realities, gives it an identity more akin to adjoining parts of The Gambia than to Senegal. Since 1984 there has been a sustained civil conflict against the Senegalese government, which has invested considerable resources in its containment; secessionist military forces have spearheaded the movement for secession.

President Sall assumed power in April 2012, marking the sixth and current phase in Senegalo-Gambian relations. Like its predecessor regimes, the new government recognizes also that, in the framework of inter-state relations with Gambia, the Casamance issue remains central. Even before the run-off presidential elections in Senegal in March 2012, which resulted in his accession to the presidency, Sall had declared that The Gambia and Guinea Bissau would be the first countries to visit officially if he were victorious. It could be reasoned that this was in line with the African tradition which dictates that when one moves to a new home it is imperative to first visit the immediate neighbours, the logic being that: ‘It is better to have good neighbours than distant relatives, as when problems arise in your home they will be the first to be summoned before the relatives get wind of it.’

Going beyond that, and as stated by the president-in-waiting, in the instance of the Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau there were additional grounds for good neighbourliness. To begin with: these countries are our immediate neighbours and we share everything in common, blood ties, culture, language history and everything. Hence, peace and cooperation should exist between and among us. [1]

Then also: ‘This (Casamance) is Senegal’s greatest problem. It’s lasted 30 years; 30 years of destruction, death and spilt blood. It’s high time to mobilize all our resources to achieve a sustainable peace in Casamance. I will make my number one priority the creation of the conditions that can produce a national dialogue between all the parties concerned: the guerillas, Senegalese civil society, and friendly neighbouring countries who are in fact caught up in the conflict because their territory is being used by the rebels, either in Gambia or in Guinea Bissau’. [2]

And again: ‘Senegal has a serious and difficult problem in its Casamance region. For 30 years we have been fighting there and I intend to appeal to The Gambia and her President, and Guinea Bissau if I assume office, for them to help in the process of finding solutions that will bring about lasting peace and in this part of Senegal’. [3]

Finally, economic development, which is conditional on there being peace in the Casamance area, will follow: ‘We’ll do everything possible with goodwill to ensure that peace returns. In parallel with the peace efforts we’ll speed up our development efforts in the Casamance. We’ll try and open up the region to overcome Senegal’s geographical split between north and south, where to get to Casamance you have to cross sovereign Gambia. We have to resolve this territorial rupture. In one phase, we want Casamance to find peace again within a united and indivisible Senegal’ [4].


Thus, at the beginning of the present phase of relations Casamance remains very prominent on the radar. The immediately preceding phase (2000 to 2012) had been more dominated by non-institutional inter-personal contacts than structured broad-based formal interactions. In a sense, this is not surprising given the immense ‘environmental’ changes that have taken place in the two countries. At the same time, though, the argument can be made that in this present emerging stage the Casamance problem can be more effectively resolved only in the framework of close collaboration in functional areas, as existed in the earlier 1958 to 1989 period. Without venturing into the intricacies of functionalism and neo- functionalism as approaches to regional integration, there is evidence that during this long era, inter alia, spillover within any one sector for cooperation and between sectors took place during this period. Undoubtedly, some elements of David Mitrany’s ‘working peace system’ were established. [5]

The common ties of blood, culture, languages, religion, pre-colonial history - what I have referred to elsewhere as the unities and disunities in background variables – still constitute the logical basis for the closest cooperation between the two countries.6 In actuality, these ties can be said to be more powerful integrating forces now than before, due partly to the extensive network of sub-systems for cooperation built in the 1958 to 1989 period. The seeds planted in those decades have yielded fruit and the two countries are now more integrated than they have ever been – even without political structures and formal arrangements for managing and directing the processes involved.

In accordance with the above argument, it is noteworthy that in the course of the last few years initiatives have been taken by the two governments to reactivate Senegalo-Gambian cooperation. The work of a Consultative Commission, jointly chaired by the Gambian Vice President and the Senegalese Prime Minister, has resulted in the re-establishment of the Senegalo-Gambian Permanent Secretariat and the appointment, in February 2012, of an Executive Secretary (Senegalese) and Deputy Executive Secretary (Gambian). Initial areas for cooperation have been identified, namely, road transport, economy and trade, customs, criminal justice and judicial matters, and defense and security, and follow-up implementation actions have been formulated.

Particularly at this early stage it is imperative that the lessons of experience serve as a guide to current and future action. Some of these are as follows. First, a thorough and extensive assessment of the earlier experience should be undertaken, coupled with a review of the circumstances that dictate a re-launch of organized and structured inter-state relations. Second, the process of restructuring cooperation should not be speeded up just to take advantage of any momentum such as the entry into the scene of a new government in Senegal. Third, unfavourable circumstances in one country, such as an increase in military attacks in Casamance, should not be exploited to advantage by the other party. Fourth, from the outset policy goals and the strategic objectives of cooperation should be fully discussed and all parties concerned must be on the same wavelength. Finally, minimum national interests as they relate to Senegalo-Gambian cooperation must be thoroughly discussed and understood by all sides.

As mentioned in the discussions above on the third phase of cooperation, there are several other conditions, which contributed to the collapse of the Senegambia Confederation to which serious attention should be devoted. Among these, I single out one, that is, every effort must be made to ensure that there is mass popular support for and involvement in cooperation endeavours. In most cooperation schemes throughout Africa the populations are mere spectators; this was definitely so in the case of ‘Senegambia.’ Policymaking was the exclusive domain of State and formal institutions of government, to the almost-total exclusion of the populations. Even within the government bureaucracies, information flow tended to be restricted only to officials directly involved in decision-making on the subject. In the new dispensation this wrong must be righted.


The ‘Senegambia’ experience has not received the attention it deserves, both from academic researchers and national policy makers. The experience is of theoretical import mainly because of its relevance to the functional and neo-functional analytical frameworks; it also demonstrates the limits of confederalism, in theory and in practice. Granted, there are no two countries in Africa that are in a geographical, cultural and historical situation similar to The Gambia and Senegal. Perhaps, when all is said and done what is really essential is that this is a case of establishing a modus vivendi between countries with different colonial-inherited systems.

As regards policy, the benefits of closer attention to the ‘Senegambia’ case are multiple and cut across the totality of the experience; among these is the fact that it points to the pitfalls that should be avoided in policy-making and the ways and means of successfully managing the integration process, in the face of different colonial inheritances, as is the case in Africa. With these in mind, this briefing has given a glimpse into diverse aspects of the ‘Senegambia’ experience which will be a basis for continued research and policy-development.


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* Jeggan C. Senghor is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.
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[1]. “Macky Sall to make maiden visit to Gambia”, Daily Observer, Wednesday, 28 March 2012, p.2).
[2]. “President Macky Sall’s First Press Interview”, Freedom Newspaper Online:, p.3
[3]. “Macky Sall to make maiden visit to Gambia,” loc. cit.
[4]. “President Macky Sall’s First Press Interview,” op. cit., p.2
[5]. David Mitrany, A Working Peace System Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1966
[6]. See Jeggan C. Senghor, The Politics of Senegambian Integration, 1958 – 1994, Oxford: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2008, pp. 17- 44.