Can SeneGambia be Realized?

Senegambia, integrated ECOWAS region; United States of Africa; these all sound beautiful and we should strive more and more to realize that goal. At best, this would be a union of equally sovereign republics maintaining some degree of autonomy; a federation of sorts like it obtains in the United States.

USA may be one country but the various states of the union have varying degrees of autonomy and different state laws. Those state laws reflect the values of the people of that state that may not always align with the federal outlook on things. For example marijuana legalization does not apply across certain state line; the issue of same sex marriages is also contentious in other states despite federal recognition. Native American reserves have an almost entirely different degree of autonomy in managing their affairs, mainly centered on heritage and culture

Borders in and of themselves aren’t really the issue. The trade-offs are the main hold ups around which the reluctance to unite is centered. Size, economic status, political culture, social dynamics etc. all play into factors considered for union. Who dominates?

The Gambia and Senegal may share much in common, and the ills of colonialism and European expansion and domination may have dealt us a very bad hand. But over the years, since independence the two have evolved distinct political cultures and unique sociocultural identities. We may speak variations of the same exact languages but as political and economic entities, the two countries stand apart. That is not to say a union is not likely or should not be attempted, but a lot will have to factor into it.

Despite its much smaller size and unique geographical disadvantage, The Gambia is a sovereign republic and MUST be treated as such; will the much larger Senegal accord us that level of equal status respect in a potential union?

Senegal itself has major internal issues along the lines of social dynamics which are at the center of the over 30 years Cassamance conflict. People generally do not like playing second fiddle to others; be that culturally, economically, politically or through any power factor consideration. We simply do not like to be dominated. Northern Senegal to a large extent gives Senegal its identity. Up to this day, despite being one country we still say Senegal AND Cassamance as if they are two separate entities. THAT fact, more than any other factor speaks to the challenges we will need to surmount.

We seem to diminish individual cultural identities as if they are unimportant but they are central to everything we do. It simply is in our nature to embrace and celebrate who we are and are automatically drawn that which we can identify with. Deny nature all you want but it cannot be suppressed and the consequences for any such attempt are inevitable. When we say Senegal, the north is what immediately comes to mind. Cassamance is almost like an annexed territory with separate socio cultural realities that does not seem to be reflected or adequately represented in Senegal’s national outlook, at least on the surface of it.

The Gambia is unique in that respect and is leagues ahead of Senegal when it comes to representing all on the national stage. We are a perfect example of a pilot country for greater African union. In The Gambia, we recognize the various ethnic groups, their unique cultures and proceeded to have them be in the national spotlight. I am not sure about GRTS TV today but GRTS radio used to cater to all; if not in daily news cast and other cultural programs, then at least weekly magazine programs to cater to all. Kenelaayen was a weekly Serer program; Betchi Manjago; Kayone Kalong (Karoninka); Hirrdeh Pulaar; Gobe Garr (Wolof), N’fansung Jamano (Mandinka), programs in Serahule, Bambara, Aku. Daily news broadcast in English, Mandinka Wolof, Fula, Jola Serahule etc. During these programs, those who identify with these cultures own the national airtime and boy is that a good feeling of inclusivity? We even had a Gambia National Troupe to showcase our various cultures musically. When we sing in our national anthem “…and join our diverse people…” we truly seek to showcase that diversity.

Granted, 99.9% of Gambians (born and raised) will understand what is said if the speaker spoke in Mandinka and whatever he said is translated into Olof. Majority of Gambians are Mandinka and Olof dominates the urban areas due largely to trade (majority of our vendors and craftsmen are Senegalese, so that adds to that too). Like Senegal, Gambia too can choose a dominant language as the national language but it should NEVER be at the exclusion or marginalization of smaller groups.

It can be frustrating and seems time consuming to say the same thing is 5 different languages when two could suffice, but it is more than mere understanding that we seek. I remember vividly at Gambia’s Independence anniversary celebrations last year when Modou Joof explicitly told the Senegalese commentator “fee nee lenye ko deffeh” in response to the man’s impatience when he attempted to translate the goings on in Mandinka and then handed the mic to the other guys for coverage in Fula and Jola. Olof dominates in Senegal and everyone is expected to understand and speak it; in and of itself there is nothing wrong with that (we’d rather Olof than French or English) but if it comes at the exclusion of others then it engenders a sense of marginalization and exclusion. The slightest window of opportunity to be heard will be exploited as a means to feeling a sense of belonging.

In the United States, a closer look will indicates attempts at such diversity in the national outlook. We already highlighted the autonomy of Native American tribes and their heritage; Cinqo de mayo is to celebrate Hispanic culture, Chinese New Year, Black History Month and bringing cultural figures into national prominence such as the just concluded Martin Luther King day which is a national holiday in the US are examples. It is gradually becoming a tradition to have Muslims invited for iftar at the White House and steps are being taken to recognize Muslim holidays as federal holidays. This makes Americans of all shades feel a sense of belonging and ownership of America because they feel elevated and represented. Even though English dominates, all Americans feel proud of America because of that sense of ownership although there is still some room for improvement.

Senegal has already shown a disposition to promote homogeneity at the expense of other smaller groupings. Economically, those who travelled to Senegal will tell you the rigors they go through at the border. There has always been some degree of animosity/suspicion between our various national political leaders. This new bromance between Macky Sall and President Barrow seems to aim at undoing that.

A union between the two is doable, but the question is, what will Gambia give up and what will it gain in a union with its much larger and only neighbor Senegal?


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