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Home > About Us > Senegambian History

Senegambian History


Senegambian Confederation
Confédération de Sénégambie


Location of Senegambia in Western Africa.
Capital Dakar
Languages Wolof
Government Confederation
Historical era Cold War
- Agreement signed 12 December 1981
- Established 1 February 1982
- Disestablished 30 September 1989

Senegambia, officially the Senegambia Confederation, was a loose confederation between the West African countries of Senegal and its neighbour the Gambia, which is almost completely surrounded by Senegal. The confederation came into existence on 1 February 1982 following an agreement between the two countries signed on 12 December 1981. The federation was intended to promote cooperation between the two countries, but was dissolved by Senegal on 30 September 1989 when the Gambia refused to move closer toward union.


Senegambia, as a political unit, was created by dueling French and English colonial forces in the region. Competition between the French and the English began in the 16th century when both started to establish trading centers in the region – with French trade centered on the Senegal River and in the Cap-Vert region and English trade on the Gambia River (although there was some overlap in their areas of influence).[1] This region became more important for both growing empires because West Africa allowed for a convenient way station for trade between Europe and their American colonies and a warehouse for the African Slave Trade. As colonialism became more and more lucrative, both France and England took greater measures to define their spheres of influence. From 1500 to 1758, the two powers used their naval power to try to remove each other from the region. In 1758, the British were successful in capturing major French trading bases along the Senegal River area and formed the first Senegambia – a crown colony.[1] The unified region collapsed in 1779, when the French recaptured Saint Louis and burned the major British settlement in the Gambia region, leading to the end of the unified region in 1783.[1]

The Treaty of Versailles (1783) (signed along with the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the American Revolution) created the current Francophone-Anglophone balance in the region: Saint Louis, l’île de Gorée, and the Senegal River region were restored to France and the Gambia was left to the British.[1] In the 1860s and 1870s, both nations began to consider a land trading proposal to unify the region, with the French trading another West African holding for the Gambia, but the exchange was never completed.[2] While the areas were in separate, competing hands, an official border between the French and British Senegambian colonies did not appear until 1889 when the French agreed to accept the current border between the two countries and remove its border trading posts.[2] This choice left the future Senegal (which gained its independence in 1960) and the Gambia (independent in 1965) with a large problem: how to successfully maintain two separate countries in a region with shared yet diverse cultural values and an international border which wedges one country into the middle of the other.

Problems with Senegambia's border

For each country the lock and key border situation has posed unique problems for international relations, especially in trade and control of regions surrounding the Senegal–Gambia border. For both countries one of the greatest problems is the ease with which violence could spread through the region. With shared ethnic communities on both sides of the border, a successful coup in one country could lead to a group of sympathizers in the other, bringing danger to the democratic regimes of both countries. This fear became reality during the 1981 coup attempt to oust President Jawara of the Gambia.[3] Senegal’s pro-Western stance increased its security worries since its neighboring countries might use either the Gambia, secessionists in the Casamance region (the region of Senegal south of the Gambian border), or other dissident groups to destabilize the Dakar government. Special threats came from Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, Mali, Ahmed Sekou Touré's Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya.[4] While some of this worry was speculation on the part of the Dakar government, Senegal would later (towards the end of the Senegambia Confederation) have border skirmishes with Mauritania.[5] After the coup attempt, it became clear that the government’s military forces were not adequate to stop, or prevent, political upheaval. Security of the region was becoming more and more difficult to maintain.

Since the end of colonization, the Senegalese government maintained trade barriers which provided for preferential treatment for French goods imported into the country while the Gambia had virtually no trade barriers. The opposing trade policies fueled a large black market around the Senegal–Gambia border that brought cheaper manufactured goods into Senegal.[6] The black market also caused an export drain into the Gambia. The Senegalese government began to institute a delayed payment system with its groundnut (peanut) farms. When farmers sold their harvest to Dakar, they would get a voucher, known as a chit, which they could turn into cash after a three-month waiting period[7] Not wanting to wait for the Senegalese marketing system to pay them, a larger number of farmers began to smuggle their goods to Banjul, where the Gambian government paid in cash; by 1990, estimates show that 20% of the Gambian groundnut market was from smuggled Senegalese crops.[8]

 Birth of the Confederation

In the short term, the Senegambia Confederation was a pragmatic union based on a mutual security interest. As previously mentioned, the Senegalese government had a fear of national instability caused by uprisings in either the Gambia or the Casamance region. This fear nearly became reality on 30 July 1981 when Gambian leftists attempted a coup d’état against President Sir Dawda Jawara. At the request of President Jawara, the Senegalese army entered The Gambia and successfully put down the insurrection.[3][9] However, this new possibility of forced regime change, so close to home for both Banjul and Dakar, promoted the unification ideas which had been developing in the region. Léopold Sédar Senghor, first President of Senegal, was one of "les trois pères" ("the three fathers") of Negritude — a literary and ideologically socialist movement which encourages Africans throughout the Diaspora to embrace their shared culture.[10] Senghor’s belief in Negritude not only informed a sense of the possibility of unification between Senegal and the Gambia, but it seems to have fostered the belief that unification would happen as an organic process.[11] Senegal and the Gambia commissioned a United Nations report to study the possible plans and benefits of unification between the two countries in the 1960s.[12] Despite the short-lived union, the Senegambia Confederation was one of the longest-lived African unions of the period.

 End of the Confederation

Throughout the integration process support came primarily from the two governments and their social elites; neither the Senegalese nor the Gambian public were really interested in integration.[13] Once the threat of political instability began to dissipate, both sides began to move back to their traditional fears and stereotypes of the other. The Gambian government (and the Gambian people), once the coup was social and politic rear view window of the country, began to fear losing their own power and identity through Senegalese engulfment.[13] Hughes and Lewis, in their Senegambia analysis, list many problems with unions which often lead to failure, which this union shared.[14] In this context, one of the most salient is a pragmatic vs. an ideological foundation for union. Since the union was forged because of mutual security concerns, the Confederation’s momentum began to die once people at all levels of both Senegalese and Gambian government began to move back and move on. This situation is best exemplified in the unilateral removal of Senegalese troops from the Gambia once Senegal was threatened by Mauritania (see Problems with Senegambia's border above).[14] The main platform on which union had been forged marked the beginning of the end. The official end came on 23 August 1989, when President Diouf decided it was best that the Confederation be placed aside after fruitless talks about a customs union.[14]