Gambia: RED ALERT!! The non-opening bridge


Once again Jammeh has sacrificed the economic future of the Gambia for his personal short term interest – the opening of the border in return for a bridge that will limit access for boats to Yellitenda-Bambatenda

 I believe that Essa Bokarr Sey said on air some time ago that diplomacy is about negotiating national interests and arriving at a mutually beneficial agreement. It is in Senegal’s economic and political interest for the bridge to be built and has been on the table since independence. The Trans Gambia route has always been a vital lifeline to Casamance since Gambia literally divides Senegal in two parts, except for above Fatoto. In spite of Senegal’s actions to strengthen the road links with Casamance via Tambacounda and Welingara, it is an expensive and time consuming option. It is not the best option from their point of view and only a last resort. This should have been a strong bargaining chip for Gambia, but it has been thrown away for nothing. ECOWAS is by definition an organization to allow and develop trade between member states. It is our RIGHT to have an open border with Senegal under the treaty. Why did Jammeh and his government allow us to be forced into accepting a bridge design that is totally against our national interest and future economic development? No wonder Senegal hold us in contempt!

Gambia on the other hand does not need a bridge at Yellitenda-Bambatenda. It is convenient and desirable, but not essential. A good ferry service is all that is necessary. Gambia’s need is for the river to be fully navigable all the way all the way to Basse. The whole reason that the British negotiated with France for Gambia was to keep the river. In broad terms the deal was for the British to keep the river and about 50 km either side and create the colony called THE GAMBIA. As we all know Senegal and Gambia are one geopolitical unit, so why did the British want the river, and allow the French to have the much greater area now called Senegal (including Casamance)? Simple, they realized the value of a navigable river to the hinterland. Valuable for trade, irrigation and regional development. It still is, but our short sighted rulers cannot see this and have sold our national interests for nothing.

The absence of proper roads from Banjul linking the regions has always been a problem hindering our development. As Jammeh (in his better days) said “roads are to a country what arteries (blood vessels) are to the body”. They cost millions of US$ to build and maintain, and despite the efforts of both governments since independence we still do not have a good road network and can neither afford to build them nor maintain them. The river on the other hand is free and can be dredged and developed at relatively low cost. River transport is the cheapest and most cost effective method of transport. The Mississippi River in the USA is a prime example for moving heavy items, as is the Nile in Egypt. 

The big question is why was river transport was allowed to decline in the post-independence period. One reason was that roads were necessary due to time and other considerations. As the economy moved away from groundnuts it was no longer essential for the ocean going vessels to go up to Kuntaur and Kaur. The first road modernized was the Brikama-Mansa Konko highway opening up the Fonis etc. Followed by the extension to Basse, then the north bank highway via Farrafenni. The roads were and still are important but for heavy goods the river is still best the cheapest and best way. Older people will remember the Lady Wright and the Lady Chilel – essential transport to the provinces in those days, and a lovely tourist trip.

Our Tourist Industry is in severe decline, and due to ISIL led terrorism and other world influences may never return to previous levels. A strong economy should be built on domestic natural resources. The Gambia’s main resources are the river especially for transport and trading purposes. Although through Eastern Senegal, Western Mali, Guinea, Northern Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Liberia can all be accessed from Basse. This could be redeveloped into the trading hub it once was. The backbone of the Gambian economy was the re-export trade to some of these countries – notably Guinea. For this to happen it would be essential to keep the river accessible by large vessels, which the bridge in its current design does not allow.

Knowing how important the bridge is to Senegal, Gambia should have insisted on some non-negotiable points in return for building the bridge:

1) That it must open to allow the passage of ocean going ships, and that the channel be deepened and maintained as part of the bridge maintenance program

2) Port facilities be built on the Farafenni side as part of the bridge complex. This is to our advantage.

3) Senegal construct and maintain a 4 -lane highway from Karang to our southern border with Casamance, including any necessary bridges in Gambia. This would allow them easy access to Ziguinchor and lower Casamance which is their main need. 

4) A joint project be financed and built for a modern ferry service and facilities be built at the Banjul-Barra crossing. This would allow us the development of Barra and its surrounding areas as an alternative to the Kombos. It would benefit an important sector of our economy currently hindered by the lack of a reliable ferry service.

5) Senegal build good roads from Basse to Velingara and from Basse to Tambacounda.

5) A feasibility study be done to integrate the Gambian and Senegalese road infrastructure network. This would be in both countries long term interests since we are interdependent. For example feeder roads and additional crossings at Jangjang Burreh, Kaur and/or Kuntaur direct to roads from Kaolack to Tambacounda and Velingara to Ziguinchor. 

While these demands might seem excessive, they are in Senegal’s long term interests since they facilitate the development and exploitation of Casamance. 

As any gambler knows, push hard when you have a strong hand of cards. For all the talk by Senegal, the Trans-Gambia route cuts 2/3 of the distance from Dakar to Ziguinchor, and a good ferry link at Barra- Banjul cuts off 3/4. That’s a lot of time, fuel and money. Ziguinchor could be reached from Dakar within a day easily through a good ferry service at Barra-Banjul. Gambia would benefit from selling goods, fuel, accommodation etc to those travelling through. A win-win situation for all concerned, especially our under developed economy. 

The new or transitional government should insist on some or all of the above. There is still time to re-design the bridge to allow ships to pass through, but once built we will have to live with it for the next 50 years or so. Please, let’s wake up or the next two generations of Gambians will continue to pay for Jammeh’s misrule long after he’s dead and gone.

We have experienced diplomats, engineers and experts from all areas, but will our government ever listen to them and use their skills? 

In Jammeh’s world only he knows anything, but in the modern world leaders should listen to experts and formulate long term visions for future growth and development. This lack of separation between the political government and the civil service is the curse of too many African leaders. Political considerations should not block economic and social development!!

Written By A Concerned Gambian

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