By Janko Camara
The continued border impasse between The Gambia and Senegal, the latest in a series of such impasses, continues to cause much hardship to the populations of both countries. I would attempt to dispassionately discuss the matter focusing mainly on the impact of the border closure on the Gambian economy and the need to maintain good relations with an immediate neighbor, with whom the country has a lot in common.
Before proceeding any further, let me also put out the disclaimer that I am not a diplomat and I have never sat in any International Diplomacy class. However, common sense tells me that every country’s Foreign Policy is shaped mainly by two factors:
1) The national interest (comprising economic, security and political interests) and
2) The Image that a country wants to project to the rest of the world (International Community).
Therefore, it is in the light of the foregoing that I would like to discuss the frequent border closures between The Gambia and Senegal.
Border Closure – Is it in our overall national Interest?
In view of the fact that The Gambia is almost inside Senegal, one may be tempted to ask whether the frequent border closures between the countries is in the national interest of both countries. The answer, in my view, would depend on which side of the border one is and what interests one has on the other side of the border. Generally, however, frequent border closures between these two neighbours cannot be (and has never been) in the OVERALL interest of The Gambia, especially when viewed from both economic and political perspectives. I emphasise the word “overall” to indicate the balance of scale.
To understand the implications of the border closure on The Gambia, we need to refer to available data the country’s trade flows. Gleaning through existing statistics from the websites of the Gambia Bureau of Statistics and the Central Bank of The Gambia (readily available online) about The Gambia’s External/Visible Trade (trade in physical goods) and, by extension, the Current Account under the country’s Balance of Payments (BOP), the following stark reality is shown:
The Gambia has been running a chronic Visible Trade deficit (trade in physical goods) since 2009. In order words, the country imports more goods than they export. That is why the Current Account under the Balance of Payments has always been negative over the years.
On average, between 2009 and 2012, the re-export trade comprised about 61% of The Gambia’s total exports. By Central Bank’s accounts, in 2014, the re-export trade comprised a little over 84% of our total exports.
Of the total Re-export/Transit Trade done between 2009 and 2012, an average of 32.06% comprised goods re-exported to Senegal; 30.73% to Guinea Conakry and 3.96% to Guinea Bissau. This means that between 2009 and 2012, on average, 66.75% of The Gambia’s total exports were re-exported to only three countries in the Sub-region. It also reveals that Senegal is our main trading partner as far as the re-export/transit trade is concerned.
Of the total Re-export Trade that took place from 2009 and 2014, ninety percent (90%) of the goods was transported by road, with Senegal being either the destination country or the transit country to the final destination.
Given the above, it will be foolhardy for anyone to argue that the border closure is in The Gambia’s economic interest. In fact, any border closure is like damaging the economic life of that small country. Remember this is just trade captured formally. What about the informal trade across our borders, which, by my reckoning, is much bigger than what the formal sector figures indicate.
We must not forget that The Gambia used to be a hub for countries in the sub-region, including landlocked countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. With a comparatively more efficient port at the time, a relatively stable and friendly small country, coupled with the advantages derived from the misery of the warring countries of Liberia and later, Sierra Leone, and in the late 90’s Guinea Bissau, some of the businesses in these countries relocated to The Gambia, thus reinforcing The Gambia government’s deliberate liberal economic policy. Banjul became the melting pot of businesses ranging from textiles to construction materials. The textile industry was particularly thriving, even though the country never had a single textile-processing outfit. I refer to the textile business as an industry due to the allied services that were offered alongside the buying and selling of imported cloth and the number of people whose livelihoods depended on it. All these helped to provide daily jobs or otherwise to a teeming young population of The Gambia as well as to other nationals. The ferry services (GPA) were benefitting as much as the local banks were, in the lucrative trade that was taking place. Currency Repatriation (called Shipment) was a weekly occurrence in the banks and the volumes were ever increasing, under the framework of acceptable banking practices. For those who have experienced Banjul during this period, there is no doubt that Picton Street, Buckle Street, Hagan and Liberation Avenue today are shadows of their former selves. This is why in the scheme of things, Gambians must learn to see the bigger picture.
Until now, I have been talking about what used to happen under the formal sector as the statistics that has so far been shared is what was obtained from formal channels. However, to remain within the realms of objectivity, we must avoid conjecture and limit ourselves to statistics that is available and readily verifiable.
The effects of the incessant border closures
The legendary Kora player, Lalo kebba Drammeh, in one of his wisdom-loaded songs says “SONKA BAMBALOO KA KANOO BANG NEH”. Paraphrasing this in English, the near translation can be “constant squabbles diminishes love”. This is so apt in describing the Senegalo-Gambian bilateral relationship, these days. From 1995 to date, as far as I can remember, there has been not less than seven incidences of border closure between these two countries. The truth to drive home is this: even though Senegal gets affected anytime there is a border closure, over the years, they seemed to have benefitted more out of the closures than The Gambia. In fact, there has never been any short-or long-term benefit for The Gambia.
Successive Senegalese governments have realised that the Gambian economy was thriving at their expense because of inherent structural inefficiencies. They have always looked for opportunities to reverse this trend and they never had any until our “Soldiers with a Difference” entered the scene. What advantages did we have over Senegal?
1) In the past, the Port of Banjul used to be much more efficient than the Port of Dakar, in terms of turn-around time to clear cargo as well as the cost of clearing such cargo. Thus, it became the centre of activity in the Senegambia region.
2) Before the unified ECOWAS tariff system came into existence, The Gambia was more competitive than Senegal in terms of Customs duties and related charges and fees.
3) Gambia’s strategic location enabled businesses in Senegal and elsewhere to import through The Gambia on transit to Southern Senegal and other destinations, thus saving enormous operational costs.
Despite these advantages, the frequent border closures, which in some cases last for up to three months, have led to the following:
Relocation of businesses to other destinations: a good number of our businesses have taken the rational decision to relocate to Senegal and other destinations thereby getting closer to their customers in Senegal and the other landlocked countries. Senegal, on their part, realised the need to rationalize operations in the Port of Dakar and thus worked on improving efficiency in terms of both turn-around time and cost of clearing cargo. Ironically, whilst Senegal is getting more and more efficient and giving concessions to businesses, The Gambian port is becoming an eyesore for our citizens. Not only does it take much longer to clear goods, but also one has to pay through one’s nose to get a single item cleared at the Banjul Port. This is where our Senegalese counterparts understand the concept of patriotism than some of us in The Gambia. I say sorry if I sounded harsh but this is the truth. Generally, people do not realise that actions like these are not only a turn-off but they drive away business from our shores. This takes me to my next point on the border closure – Is it in our security and/or political interests?
Border Closure – Is it in our overall Security and/or Political Interests
I have never served in the armed and security forces of The Gambia. However, I can never be convinced that incessant border closures between these two countries are in our national security interest. We must learn to differentiate between the security interest of a country and that of an individual. The Gambia is almost inside Senegal. With the exception of a few border posts manned by our security personnel, a vast area of our borders remains porous and thus potential entry points to anyone or group with intentions to jeopardise our national security. In fact, it will be foolhardy for any such invader to attempt to pass through official borders. No! Similarly, smugglers and/or those dealing in contrabands may not find official border posts attractive as entry points into The Gambia. Yes, we do agree with the rhetoric that The Gambia is an independent sovereign state and that sovereignty should always be maintained at all cost. Yes, we do agree. However, it must be pointed out that border closures are not the surest ways of ensuring that. In fact, we do hear claims that non-Gambians, mainly people from Gassamance – a bonafide region of Senegal, are given Gambian national identity cards, allowed to join the Gambia armed and security forces, or even armed to deal with supposed enemies of the Gambian Head of State. If these claims are true, there is nothing that so erodes our national security than such nefarious acts purportedly conducted by individuals and/or groups acting under state authority and protection. Who said these same non-Gambians we befriend today will not turn against us tomorrow? Senegal as a country knows there are international laws governing state-to-state relations and such laws cannot be flimsily set aside for individual Senegalese leaders’ vaulting ambitions to invade a country like The Gambia. So clearly, border closures are not in our national security interest. Therefore, it goes without saying that anything that is not in our economic and security interests cannot be of any interest to us politically.
Any wise Gambian leader should know, upon assumption of duty, that there is need for them to place a premium on relations with Senegal – a country in which his own country is nestled. It is common sense, even though I admit common sense in not common in some quarters. The small kingdom state of Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by South Africa. There is no access to Lesotho without passing through South Africa, even by air because the South Africans will have to allow one enter their airspace before one reaches Lesotho. However, we do not hear these two countries closing their borders every other month.
Border Closure – does it serve to project our good image to the rest of the outside world?
Like I said earlier, countries’ Foreign Policies are also guided by the desired image they want to project to the world. Jammeh can afford putting on display his macho posturing in Banjul. However, when dealing with the rest of the world, a more sober approach is the most sensible choice. Force and emotion are not the right tools. Rather knowledge, intelligence and pragmatism are the preferred tools when dealing with the rest of the world. I keep saying we do not have a Foreign Policy per se. The course of action is determined by the mood of the country’s leader – His Excellency, The Sheikh, The Professor, The Baabili Mansa and The Life President of The Gambia. Even Hastings Kamuzu Banda of blessed memory cannot compare with the Sheikh. The Gambia is being pulled out of global organisations by the mere word of mouth of The Professor. In order words, when The Professor professes it is Law. Our global image, under The Sheikh, is anything but desirable. The border closure with Senegal only adds to the negative publicity.
Finally, I believe guaranteeing the free movement of people and goods can only improve our economy and thus bring prosperity to our people.