Gambia: Brexit- Lessons for Gambia/Senegal relations


The UK relationship with the EU has striking similarities with Gambia’s relationship with Senegal; A union born out of economic need on the one hand but characterized reluctance to surrender sovereignty and become a wholehearted partner on the other. Brexit shows the danger and ultimate consequences of such attitudes.

By the 1970’s UK was feeling the economic impact of losing its colonies, increased competition from the emerging EEC, failure to invest in and modernize its infrastructure and industries and a wave of socio-economic unrest. Successive governments were unable to get the economy moving and the ultimate humiliation was to go cap in hand to the IMF. 

Having resisted joining the EEC since 1957 it was put to a referendum and finally joined out of pure economic desperation. National pride and the “special relationship” with America continued to be strong and in true British hypocrisy it was brought in gradually and unnoticed by most. So long as it remained only an economic union it was acceptable to the ruling elite, especially in the Conservative party (your Republicans) who broadly represented big business and industry which benefited greatly. Margaret Thatcher was a minister in the Conservative Heath government and campaigned vigorously to join. On becoming Prime Minister in 1979 she resented the terms of EEC membership and actively sought to cut Britain’s mandatory contributions. After one particular row in 1981 she returned from Paris to be told that she had to step down for the sake of the country and government. Tearful but unrepentant she handed over to John Major, but left behind her hardcore supporters who carried on her opposition demanding an in-out referendum with no compromises. To end this row, which continued to divide the Conservative, Party David Cameron agreed to their demand as a price for their support and party unity. Enter Brexit.

Gambia today has a paralyzed economy, high unemployment, terrible infrastructure and is deeply divided under a very unpopular government. It is also isolated politically with few allies and cannot pull itself out of its current pit. Senegal on the other hand has a vibrant effective democracy, a thriving economy and as someone put it is the darling of the EU and America. Just as Britain needed Europe back in the 1970’s Gambia needs Senegal to pull it out of the pit today. 

Senegal had been interested in some sort of union with Gambia from the early 1960’s and tried to do a deal with Britain just before independence. Britain believed Gambia to be unviable as a nation and wanted to sell Gambia to Senegal with a £2 million “sweetener”. Gambia thrived mainly due to the re-export trade, then tourism came along so it wasn’t important from Gambia’s point of view. The Jawara government paid lip service to the idea but made no attempt to pursue closer links as envisaged by the Senegalo Gambian Secretariat (SGS). Putting it crudely Gambia remained a finger up Senegal’s a*****, uncomfortable but not painful. Senegal’s opportunity came with the 1981 coup, which forced Jawara to change his attitude. In return for Senegal returning him to power Jawara agreed to meaningful movement towards closer union. Once back in power Jawara reneged on the deal and befriended Nigeria instead, signing various agreements for technical aid including the provision of Nigerian judges (YES!!!) military training and assistance.

Since Nigeria was much bigger, richer and more powerful Senegal was left frustrated but wiser. They focused on their own development, reduced their customs duties and created a free port to stimulate their own re-export trade. Their tourist trade was promoted and developed far beyond that of Gambia’s and thrives today. 

Jammeh aside, Gambia needs Senegal more than ever. Foreign aid and investment have dried up for geo-political reasons. Gambia’s most obvious savior is Senegal, but Gambia’s treacherous ways and lukewarm commitment continue to make this a difficult partnership. Gambians want the benefits of a close union with Senegal, but not the discipline and responsibility to make it work for the benefit of all concerned. This is a mirror of Britain’s relationship with the EU. We are a single geographical unit with the same tribes and cultures but with a different colonial legacy. The French mentality permeates Senegal: settle your difference by dialogue and work together seriously committed to the common good, even if the ideologies are different. The British have always thought they are smarter than the rest of the world, playing tricks and mind games to get what they want without serious commitment. The British mentality is to have your cake and eat it at the same time. It has become the Gambian mentality from top to bottom and is one of the reasons why we are in our present situation. The French pay off their opponents, the British try to outsmart them. Similarly the Senegalese will try to to a deal and honor it for their long term interest, while the Gambian is only interested in his immediate interest then run away. 

In the post Jammeh era Gambia may be forced to accept some sort of union with Senegal, which they have always wanted. How close that will be remains to be seen, but Gambia has a terrible track record of bad faith in Senegalese eyes. Senegal may push for a total political union based on a referendum as the price for lifting Gambia out its present situation. In desperation many Gambians might vote for it as an alternative to our present divided political leaders, but how long before the die-hards and opportunists try to undermine it and break it up for selfish gain? The British only like agreements as long as conditions favor their immediate interests. Gambians are no different.

The same conditions that forced Britain to join the EEC for economic reasons apply in Gambia today. The EEC was always intended to lead to an “ever closer political union”, with a single currency. Come the day Britain refused to join the Euro currency, and resisted a political union and the surrender of sovereignty to the EU and its parliament.

A similar choice may one day face Gambia with similar consequences.

If we are to unite with Senegal let it be a serious long term commitment to overcome our differences and work together for the COMMON good. If not, best we bite the bullet and solve our own problems. We may be able to fool other nationalities but the Senegalese know us too well. As the saying goes Wuh linga munn, def linga wuh. Boh teddeh goody nellew” – Say what you can do, do what you say and sleep well at night. 

Written By A Concerned Gambian British

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