The recent 12-week-long border standoff between The Gambia and Senegal, mediated by the Economic Community of West African States, is a part of the contentious, ongoing Gambia-Senegal border issue. There have been six border closures since 2000, all of which have posed a serious challenge to the stability and economic relationship between the two countries.
Gbenga Oduntan argues in International Law and Boundary Disputes in Africa that “many border tensions arise from the actions of private persons and groups. Senegal and Gambia had problems involving transport unions that were at loggerheads with one union wanting borders between both states closed.” Oduntan’s argument holds true as each time an unfavorable decision is made by the Gambian government, the powerful Senegalese Transport Union swiftly reacts by closing the border.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh said he would not negotiate with a government that closes its border with his country, especially since such decisions adversely affect people from both countries. However, many commentators criticized Jammeh’s unilateral decision to increase ferry tariffs since it directly led to the recent border closure. Consequently, truck drivers were forced to take longer routes around The Gambia to southern Senegal and their fares nearly doubled. The increase in travel time from six to 48 hourscaused frozen vegetables and other goods to perish and created economic hardship for women traders.
The Trans-Gambia Highway runs from the northern to southern border of The Gambia and is considered the country’s most important road. The highway, known as the N4 Road in Senegal, is also economically important for Senegal since it connects two parts of the republic that are divided by The Gambia. However, the highway is divided by the 875-yard-wide Gambia River and can only be crossed by ferry. Many argue that the construction of a bridge over the river would solve the Gambia-Senegal border issue.
Graced by the prime minister of Senegal and vice president of The Gambia, the Trans-Gambia Bridge Project was officially signed in November 2014, but was not launched until this February. Two companies have been contracted to work on the project, JV Corsan Corvian of Spain and Arezki S.A. of Senegal, and the project is expected to take 36 months to complete.
The construction of the bridge and tolling facilities is “supposed to address the bottlenecks arising from the present mode of crossing the Gambia River by ferry,” said Gambian Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy. “The pre-stressed concrete bridge, which is 942 meters [1030 yards] long, has half a kilometer [0.3 miles] of access road through the swamps on either of the riverbank. In order to preserve the navigability of the river, a navigation channel of 70 meters [77 yards] wide and 16.5 meters [18 yards] high has been allowed for in the bridge design,” she said.
A joint technical committee with members from The Gambia, Senegal, and the other 13 ECOWAS countries has been constituted to monitor the project. Two joint border posts will be constructed at border villages of Keur Ayib-Keur Ali and Missera-Senoba in accordance with ECOWAS protocols for trade and transport facilitation. The construction and operation of these facilities will also follow protocols and rules, the vice president added.
Shortly after the launch in February, Gambian pro-government Daily Observer wrote that the bridge would facilitate trade and free movement not only for The Gambia and Senegal, but also the rest of the sub-region. It would “reinforc[e] the economic cooperation and integration between The Gambia and Senegal and ECOWAS community as a whole.”
Geographically, people from both countries often say, The Gambia and Senegal are destined to live together as they are both named after rivers that share the same source in the Futa Jallon Highlands of Guinea. Abdourahmane Dia and Nadege Sinarinzi argued in BBC Africa this April that “of all the artificial borders drawn up in Africa by the colonial powers in the 19th century, one of the most ridiculous has to be that between Gambia and Senegal … On either side [of The Gambia and Senegal], people share the same culture and local languages but those who have been to school are divided by the language in which they were instructed. And the tiny Gambia is always keen to remind its much larger neighbour of its independence.”
Coexistence remains a challenge for the two countries, even though their peoples are fated to live together. Whether the construction of the Trans-Gambia Bridge heralds a step toward enduring stability between the two countries and pushes the integration agenda further is a question that people are still asking today.
Sanna Camara is a Gambian journalist and blogger, and a former teaching assistant at Gambia Press Union School of Journalism. He is currently living in exile.
[Photos courtesy of NBroekzitter86]