By Mustapha K. Darboe
BANJUL, Gambia (AA) - A bridge crossing west Africa’s Gambia River could herald the greatest improvement in relations between the nation that shares the waterway’s name and neighboring Senegal, according to officials and analysts in the region.
Gambia, a former British colony that is one of Africa’s smallest states, has had a checkered history with Senegal, which engulfs its neighbor apart from a stretch of coastline where the 1,130-kilometer (700 mile) river meets the Atlantic Ocean.
However, there are hopes the Trans-Gambia Bridge will stabilize the often rocky relationship. When it is completed, the bridge will link two sections of highway crossing 25 kilometers (16 miles) of Gambian territory to join the bulk of Senegal in the north with the southern Casamance region.
Plans to span the 800 meter (875 yard) river, which is currently traversed by ferry, have been on the table since the late-1970s but arguments over the cost of the ferry and wider disagreements saw nothing happen until last year, when the bridge’s foundation stone was laid.
Work stopped in February amid a blockade by Senegalese truck drivers.
“The Trans-Gambia Bridge is the biggest success story of Senegambia relations and is a symbol of west African integration because the bridge not only links Senegal’s north and south but other countries like Guinea and beyond,” Hassoum Ceesay, a leading Gambian historian and social commentator, told Anadolu Agency.
“The bridge has been discussed since in the 1950s but there were no agreements… It is something that Gambians should be proud of and it offers hope towards easing the movement of people, goods, services and even ideas.”
The two countries are long-standing political and economic partners and were a single entity -- Senegambia -- until separated into two colonies by Britain and France in the late 18th century. This arrangement was resurrected in 1982 as a loose cooperation confederation that was dissolved seven years later.
- ‘Absurd border’
“The Senegal-Gambia border is perhaps the most absurd of all the artificial borders in Africa demarcated by colonialists,” Ceesay said.
“Since 1889, the issue of the boundary between Senegal and Gambia has been work-in-progress… Colonialists who drew the Senegal-Gambia border ignored all the characteristics which should have been considered when drawing a boundary. For example, you have a village being cut into half or pieces with one side in Gambia and another in Senegal.”
The border has seen people who share the same culture and local languages divided by both a frontier and the language of officialdom -- English in Gambia and French in Senegal.
These divisions have surfaced regularly since Senegal gained independence in 1965 and Gambia achieved the same five years later in the form of squabbles over border villages and resources, such as timber that Senegal claims Gambia is illegally logging in Casamance.
Gambia also accuses Senegal of harboring dissidents while Senegal says the government in Banjul is not assisting the fight against Casamance insurgents.
Over the last 22 years, the border has been closed on at least eight occasions, the most recent in February when Senegalese drivers blockaded the frontier in a protest over a 100-fold increase in the charge to cross Gambian territory.
The dispute ended last month and restarting work on the bridge was a Senegalese pre-condition for reopening the border.
Citing official sources, the AllAfrica.com news website reported at the end of May that equipment and building materials had arrived at Banjul’s port for work to resume on the bridge.
The closure had forced travelers to make a 10-hour detour around Gambia to reach either Senegalese capital Dakar or Casamance and saw prices in Gambia rise dramatically as shortages of everyday goods hit consumers.
- Bargaining chip
The government in Dakar is eager for work to be completed within the projected 36 months to improve links to Casamance, a fertile region that has been wracked by conflict since 1981.
The $90 million bridge, which is being funded by the African Development Bank, would achieve this aim by reducing the journey time between Dakar and Ziguinchor, Casamance’s main town, to around five hours.
However, many Senegalese suspect Gambian President Yahya Jammeh does not want to lose his main bargaining chip over Senegal.
“Lots of trucks that cross the river carry perishable agricultural products and some of these get spoilt after spending so much time at the crossing point,” a senior Gambian official said on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to the media.
“With the construction of the bridge that will be history and the running cost of the trucks will minimize incredibly.”
The official blamed hold-ups on construction on Senegal’s insistence on joint ownership and management of the bridge.
“This bridge was in the middle of the Gambian territory… So it was a question of sovereignty,” he said, adding the revenue from the toll to cross the bridge would go to Gambia’s coffers.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is a strong supporter of the project because of the benefits it will bring to west Africa.
“The public and the business community applaud the government on the building of the bridge,” Alieu Secka, executive director of Gambia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said. “It will ease free movement of persons and goods which are fundamental pillars of ECOWAS.”
With this freedom of movement, many Gambians and Senegalese separated by an arbitrary line drawn on a map more than a century ago hope to re-establish ties with their neighbors.