The Gambia: Hope and Limitations

The Gambia has an uphill struggle ahead, but unique geographic factors could prove beneficial for the small country.

With former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh out of the picture, the new Gambian government under Adama Barrow is reversing many of his isolationist policies. Barrow cancelled the country’s withdrawal process from the International Criminal Court, and is on the verge of rejoining the Commonwealth of Nations. Barrow has also eased relations with neighboring Senegal, a sharp turn from Jammeh’s policy of supporting separatists in that country.

On the economic front, Barrow has not had much time to implement policy, but it seems that he seeks to diversify Gambian agriculture and attract investment. The legalization of gambling, which had been banned by Jammeh, may lead to increased tourism and government tax revenue.

Barrow’s reforms will still be limited by the geography of the country. The Gambia is one of the smallest nations in Africa and has one of the smallest populations, at around two million people. The limited land area will naturally limit the space available for commercial farming while the low, impoverished population will hamper any sort of consumer-led growth.

Still, The Gambia has a few major resources that can set it up for strong development, if used right.

The Gambia River

The Gambia surrounds its namesake river, putting it in a unique position for trade.

As arduous as developing The Gambia will be for the Barrow administration, it would be nearly insurmountable if not for the Gambia River. Unlike many of Africa’s rivers, the Gambia is navigable by seagoing vessels for up to half its length (this length increases if one uses shallow boats). This lowers transportation costs and makes the development of The Gambia’s interior more viable. It also could provide a space for Senegal and other countries in the region to export their goods, bringing The Gambia more trade benefits.

The usefulness of the Gambia River as the major trade conduit in the region has not been lost -the British denied the river to the French for this very reason during the colonial era. Today, with Jammeh removed from office international investors are awakening to its potential. China and France are competing for the rights to develop The Gambia’s port at Banjul, the country’s capital. Banjul sits at the mouth of the Gambia River, along the Atlantic Ocean. Developing Banjul’s port would allow The Gambia an opportunity to control regional trade through the river and act as a trade point along West African-European shipping lanes, a very advantageous position.

Gambia is nonetheless seen as a key transit country for reaching remote areas of Guinea, Mali and Senegal that are easier to access from Banjul than from the countries’ own ports and capitals. -Reuters

The English Language

English is still the dominate language of business and trade, which puts any country with an English-speaking population at an advantage in terms of attracting investment. The Gambia is not only an English-speaking country, it is the only English-speaking country in its region.

Francophone countries are in blue. The Gambia is in red. Source: Wikipedia.

The Gambia’s position as the only English-speaking nation, on top of having a navigable river, could make it a magnet for investment from the U.K. and U.S.A., particularly for businesses seeking greater engagement with the region. That The Gambia is only an hour difference from the United Kingdom’s time zone is another benefit to the country.

The Senegalese Threat

Surrounding The Gambia on land, and with around 7x the population, Senegal is the major threat to Gambian soverignty.

The significant danger for The Gambia, internationally, is Senegal. Senegal envelops The Gambia on three sides and dwarfs it in terms of population and size. Though the international community was unified in opposition to Jammeh, it was Senegal that provided the ground forces necessary for his removal. Having dealt with a hostile Gambian regime that supported separatists in its country before, Senegal will seek to ensure that this Gambian government is as amicable to its interests as possible. Being responsible for its existence puts Senegal in a strong position from the start, and already the country has integrated itself into The Gambia’s energy network.

Just as tellingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) extended its military mission in The Gambia by one year due to security risks in the country. Of the soldiers to remain, the Senegalese contingent will be the largest. This extension may be longer than that, as reports have surfaced of possible Jammeh loyalists who have deserted from the Gambian Army, making preparations to attack the Barrow government in hopes of reinstalling Jammeh. In addition, anti-ECOWAS protests and violence in the Foni region of the country, which borders Senegal’s restless separatist regions in the south, have put further pressure on the Barrow government. The country is already reliant on Senegal for its security as it purges its defense and intelligence forces of Jammeh loyalists. It’s very possible that Senegal could use these security threats to entrench its position in The Gambia.

Protecting its own stability by securing their shared border and promoting mutually beneficial economic cooperation are valid reasons for Senegal’s vested interest in a stable Gambia. But events from the recent past might have increased Senegal’s anxiousness to tightly hold Gambia’s hand for as long as it can. -World Politics Review

A Strategic Balance

The Gambia has a few imperatives it must meet if it is to thrive. It must find ways to leverage its unique geographic position to develop its economy, mainly by developing port and river infrastructure and signing trade agreements with neighbors that could use the Gambia River. It also must avoid become a Senegalese protectorate while at the same time acknowledging Senegal’s relative strength, and avoiding any provocative action.

To do either of these things, it must develop stable institutions and security forces to both attract investment and deny the Senegalese a casus belli for intervention. Against the possibility of low-level insurgency from Jammeh loyalists or angered minorities, and Senegalese troops active in the country, this will be no easy feat. But if done right, The Gambia could establish itself as the gateway to the region.