Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Border closure : Any lessons learned?

Gambia - Senegal border
It was Kofi Annan who, in admitting that national interest still often trumps the boarder interest, said what governments and people don't realize is that sometimes the collective interest - international interest - is also the national interest.  He was reflecting on his 50-year U.N. career which culminated in the Iraq War when he famously declared publicly that the war was illegal and the barrage of criticism that ensued from the United States and Bush's allies.

Of course, we are in no way equating the 3-month border standoff between The Gambia and Senegal with the Iraq war.  But all the elements sited by Mr. Annan, particularly the competing interests, (national and international) are at play here with the regional and international interests trumping the narrower national interest of Senegal.

We have come to learn that the effects of the 3-month border closure was being felt well beyond the borders of the two countries further confirming the importance of the bridge project in promoting regional trade and development.  Nigeria, Ghana and India - let me add China to the list -  were being affected by the closure and thus brought pressure to bear on Senegal.

It is public knowledge that there is lucrative but illicit trade in cashew and timber between Yaya Jammeh-controlled companies and India and China.  With the borders closed, shipments were halted threatening the trade. One of the explicit goals of the Senegalese Transport Union's boycott of the TransGambia route was to put the squeeze on Jammeh's finances for as long as possible.  An unintended consequence of such a union strategy was Jammeh's trading partners applied pressure on the government of Senegal to open the borders.

ECOWAS members states also got into the act and, by all indications, prevailed eventually upon the President Macky Sall of Senegal who is also the current Chairman of the regional body and who is about to host its Summit of Heads of State on June 4th.  It would be odd for the host to shut his borders to one of his guest - however petulant a character Jammeh happens to be.  Ultimately, Senegal succeeded in dictating the narrative, the pace and, in the process, reminded Jammeh who is in charge which is a triumph in Senegalese diplomacy, for now, at least.

Because Jammeh was desperate to have the borders reopened, he instructed the Gambian delegation to readily conceded to all of the 11-point Senegalese demands at great risk to the future relations with Senegal.  The Gambia River, the greatest natural endowment of the country that gives its name to the country, may also be at risk if the bridge design limits its natural capacity as a great transportation system.  The question remains as to whether the idiosyncratic and mercurial dictator will honor his word.  He has failed to honor bilateral agreements and ECOWAS protocols before. There is no reason to believe he will start honoring them now. Only time will tell.