The Trans-Gambia Bridge: A Symbol of Senegambian Unity or a Source of Discord?
Going by the inaugural speeches given by President Macky Sall of Senegal and the Gambian leader Adama Barrow during the opening of the Trans-Gambia bridge, one would think that the relations between Gambia and Senegal is a good example of ‘Entente Cordiale’ between two West African countries seemingly working for the realization of our founding fathers’ dream of a borderless Africa united towards a common goal.
That dream resonated well with the inaugural speech of the Senegalese President who said and I am paraphrasing; “We can be proud to have turned this dream of several generations into a reality”. However, the relations between Gambia and Senegal had been punctuated in the past with inordinate political interference, creating the hardest of border squabbles, the climax of which was reached in 2016 when all the borders were closed for months affecting businesses, transport of goods and the free movement of people.That dispute was sparked by the unfair increases in the tariffs charged on Senegalese trucks using the ferry crossings. The Senegalese Transport union reacted by blocking all vehicles with Gambian number plates from entering into Senegal. The situation lasted for months and unfortunately, affected the progress of work at the Senegambia Bridge.
Gambia is a sovereign independent country surrounded on all sides by Senegal which makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of any political discords with our neighbor. The opening of the bridge albeit for only light traffic for the moment must be accompanied with a bilateral agreement spelling such terms as what fee or toll to charge for using it, the institutional arrangements to settle disputes unambiguously and a common customs policy on taxes of goods crossing the borders especially for re-export to other countries in the sub-region.
The reality of discord was paradoxically manifested the same day the inauguration of the bridge was taking place. Just few kilometers away from the bridge, long queues of cement trucks slammed with new tax increases as part of measures introduced by the Gambian authorities aimed at ‘promoting and protecting’ factories involved in the production of cement in the country, were denied entry unless they can pay the D121.75 for every bag of cement imported from Senegal.This unfair and discriminatory trade practices led to shortage of cement in the country. But this time the cordial relationship between the two West African leaders averted a potential border dispute that could have serious economic impact on not only our re-export trade, but most of the common foodstuffs we consumed from Senegal. Any change of leadership in the two countries could spat a border war.
Who should manage the Trans-Gambia Bridge?
The Gambia Ferries Service and the National Roads Authority are fighting over who should manage the revenue at the newly inaugurated Senegambia Bridge. Both agencies are under the Ministry of Transport, Works and Infrastructure. It is reported that the line Ministry has fashioned out an ‘interim’ arrangement between the two agencies who are now jointly collecting toll fees for crossing, to generate revenue to fund the maintenance of the bridge and keep the infrastructure as passable as possible.
One very important component missing from the design and implementation phases is the involvement of private company(s) to ensure private sector participation in the management and sustainability of the road. In view of the size and cost of the whole program and the timetable required to recoup the huge investments made, it would have been realistic to set up part of the project as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), engaging the private sector to extend the perceived quality of private management to the delivery of public services as well as ensuring an appropriate allocation of risks and returns between government and the private firms, thus allowing government funds to be redirected to other important socioeconomic areas.
Operating the bridge without any bilateral treaties in place makes it vulnerable to disruption and controversial discrimination in fees charged. This narrow Corridor strategically linking the north and south banks of the River Gambia, as well as connecting those traveling the 400km from the north of Senegal to its southern region of Casamance could be the battlefield for endless trade disputes, irreconcilable policy differences and unfair toll charges. It is conceivable to have a trade agreement with Senegal averting disputes that could make Sene-Gambian unity harder to achieve.
Even as the border conflicts seem to have abated for now, a chasm still exist between the two countries as the cement crisis remains unresolved. Once the bridge is completed to include trucks and buses, we still have to confront the reality of our geographical and political differences with harmonized and enforceable legal instruments to safeguard our national interests against the sort of crisis that happened during the time of Babilla Mansa.