As anybody knows, the map of Africa and its countries doesn’t look logical. Have the peoples of Africa craftily decided to separate themselves neatly, creating straight-line separations of thousands of kilometers in length? No – we know that these borders are artificial and have been created far away from Africa and without any involvement from the Africans affected by them.
One of the strangest of these countries, at least from the look of it on the map, is the Gambia, that tiny sliver of land alongside the banks of the Gambia river, sticking into Senegal’s side like a long thorn.
A bit of reading reveals that this area has a long, unhappy history. The geography of the country itself is a stark reminder of the centuries of slave trading, for which forts were established by the European powers on West African shores. This was no small thing: hundreds of thousands of slaves were taken from Africa via the forts on the Gambia river. This tragedy was brought to live in the book ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley, portraying the live of the enslaved Kunta Kinte, who was born in Gambia.The country today is basically the mouth of the river (where the great majority of the population lives) and a small strip of land on either side of the river, for the most part not more than 40 km wide. Total population today less than two million, life expectancy at birth is under 60.
Historically, Gambia as a separate country makes sense not only from the point of view of the colonial slave trade. The Europeans always did have a sharp eye for local divisions and if they could use them to their advantage, they would. Thus, the country that is now Gambia roughly corresponds to an enclave of Mandingo speakers within Senegal. The majority of the people who live in the Gambia are Mandinka, descendants from the proud Mali Empire, which existed in the region up until around 1600.
Strangely enough, the boundaries of Gambia would not have to be changed too much to make the country more coherent from an ethnic and linguistic point of view. One could think of a country of Mandinka speakers, that would encompass a large part of the current Gambia, plus parts of the Casamance region of Senegal and even parts of Guinea Bissau.
It would also be thinkable to have a country which could encompass all or most Mandingo speakers, a group of more than 30 million people. (Probably, one of the largest languages which do not yet have a Wikipedia, even though a common language exists in N’Ko). Such a country, with an outlet to the sea in what is now Gambia and a large hinterland in what is now mostly Mali and Guinea might be economically much more feasible and would have much better chances of development than the current separate countries.
It would be much more unified culturally, making communication easier and making it easier to institute a modern system of checks and balances. People could more easily identify with such a country. Thus, such a country, although in itself not a solution for all problems, would be much closer to the aspirations of the people living in the area and would have much better chances of success than the current artificial countries, inherited from a colonial system that 150 years ago was more concerned about preserving the positions the colonial powers had built up during the slave era than in anything related to Africa’s development.
Area where Mandingo languages are spoken
Now, let’s return to Gambia itself. The President of the Gambia, since he staged his coup back in 1994 at age 29, is Yahya Jammeh, one of Africa’s remaining long-serving Presidents (officially: his Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Addul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa). One of the parts of Gambia that is best developed is its army (yes, Jammeh is also Commander in Chief). Jammeh has some claim to fame in the West because of his outspoken anti-homosexual beliefs.
When Jammeh came to power, he was not any richer or poorer than any other Army Lieutenant. Now, he is a wealthy man, with property in the US and elsewhere. Some allege that part of his wealth has come from smuggle of tropical hardwood and drugs from the Casamance region in neighbouring Senegal. At any rate, Transparancy International ranks the Gambia 127 out of 177 – it is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Jammeh is not Mandinka: he is Jola – a very different ethnic group. As in many other African countries, he relies on the people closest to him for his support. So Jola people get government posts, Jola children get scholarships etc. etc. In addition, the movement for Casamance independence from Senegal is Jola led and supported by Jammeh. (See, for example, this editorial in the Senegambia Times.)
So, what do we see here? We see an institutionally weak country with little internal coherence and a low level of development. In such a country, a young army lieutenant can come to power by use of force. He then makes himself and those closest to him very rich, develops his home town – and does little or nothing for the country as a whole. Because of his divide and rule tactics, he manages to stay in power for decades – until, perhaps, one day the situation explodes and the people remove him by force (unleashing, as one can already fear, a backlash of violence against anything Jola).
This pattern is not new, nor is it unique to Gambia. It has been repeated several times in any number of African countries. Mostly in African countries. Predominantly in African countries. But why?
Is this caused by the level of development? But then why didn’t this also happen in Botswana, or in Bangladesh? Is it because the former colonial powers are scheming behind the scenes to make this happen, in a sinister conspiracy to protect their own interests and keep Africa poor? But then why didn’t they manage to keep Indonesia or Vietnam equally poor and divided?
My thesis is that this pattern is due in large measure to that great design flaw that Europe has imposed on Africa: the problem of its illogical borders. In most cases, these borders completely disrespect the ethnic realities on the ground. When there were decided, around 1880, there were 15 independent countries in Europe. Today, two world wars later, in the same area, there are 27 countries. Over the past century and a half, Europe has had to come to grips with how to work together – but how, at the same time, to respect ethnic and cultural diversity. What to do jointly, what to do separately. Even today, in countries like Belgium, Spain, the UK and Ukraine, that discussion is still very much alive and far from being over.
In Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa, we do not see such a debate. Separatist groups abound, but they seem to be forced to resort to violence and they are dominated by different types of extremists and fundamentalists. “Tribalism” (I dislike that word) is seen as evil and something that has to be fought. In short, there seems to be a taboo on this subject in civilized discourse about and by Africans. This taboo, I think, should be challenged. Call me Euro-centric if you will, but I think the fact that there is such a taboo itself can be explained largely by looking at Europe’s history – a history which is related to, but still different from African history. How is this, you may ask? That might be the topic of a future post.
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness