The Gambia

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th April 1964.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pym]

4.4 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Cordle Mr John Cordle , Bournemouth East and Christchurch

I have been lucky today in having the opportunity to speak in this Adjournment debate, as indeed has been my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Matthews), who was able to introduce his most interesting Motion, much of which I am sure will interest West Africa as a whole, and not least the Gambia, which is the subject of this debate. I do not wish at the end of a hard week in the House to delay hon. Members for long and I propose to keep strictly to my notes about this important country.

Here is this little African country, the Gambia, linked with the British Crown for over 300 years, which could well become a show piece of British policy and assistance in a short while. The wind of change is blowing through the Gambia. It is a riverside area some 25 miles wide and about 200 miles long, surrounded by independent Senegal. Hitherto, the only political future has seemed to be union with Senegal, a territory formerly French, but the Gambia has long enjoyed the British style of administration, which it desires to keep.

Its ties are with London, with Her Majesty the Queen and with this House, and although there is a strong urge for independence it is evident that this political step cannot remove either the administrative or the economic difficulties of the people. The country is essentially agricultural and at present, in my view, primitive. The economy is based primarily on groundnuts, with rice as a subsidiary crop.

There is no doubt that the Gambia is not financially ready for independence. Its budget cannot be balanced without assistance from outside and the proposed merger with Senegal is, it seems to me, no solution, since Senegal is virtually bankrupt in its independence. Thus it is evident that the Gambia still needs our help and, in my judgment, we should not allow it to pass into independence without the provision of more adequate medical services, agricultural research and economic preparation for future prosperity.

The population is barely 350,000 and is mainly agricultural. Yet the Gambia's present education can produce only half-educated people who will look for the sort of jobs that the country cannot provide. They need to be educated for better agriculture. They need training in better hygiene and sanitation as well as child welfare. All this must be done by expatriate workers, who are leaving Africa at this time, and if we take no step now to help the Gambia its lot will be poor indeed.

We shall perhaps have betrayed our trust to a little Colony of three centuries standing. For Africa needs men who will slowly and surely teach soil conservation and soil fertility and who can diagnose the need for tracing element deficiencies and can guide crop improvements and pest control. Such work is, it seems to me, beyond the powers of the Gambia's partly educated people.

Medical and health needs are just as great. Those scourges of tropical Africa, bilharzia, malaria, hookworm and trypanosoniasis are widespread, while the high rate of infant mortality—l0 times our own—cries out for expert and patient research and training. Ultimately, the most important subject is education for at present illiteracy leads only to unemployment and prepares the way for Communism.

To tackle all these problems in the Gambia would not be costly either in money or manpower but the total value in the regeneration of a small territory would be quickly obvious to the whole of Africa, where all these problems are recognisably present and pressing.

It may be argued that as the Gambia is soon to become independent, we need not spend more money on it. But this would be most cruel and cheese-paring. When I visited the Gambia last year, with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Sir K. Thompson), we discussed the possible future that might exist for the Gambia in the years ahead. One possibility was fusion with Senegal. At the time of our talk it seemed that London considered such a solution the only one and afforded scant contemplation to an alternative. I also remember clearly the impression I got from several important and reputable sources in Gambia that political union with Senegal was by no means so foregone a conclusion as seemed accepted.

This was further borne out by talks which I had in January, this year, in Bathurst with several members of the Government. I believe that this opinion still stands. Every member of the present Government who refers to an alliance with Senegal makes it perfectly clear that this will happen only if Gambians show their willingness for it. I cannot believe that politicians who have only recently experienced freedom of decision and action would voluntarily give it up and see their country become a province of Senegal. They stated categorically that, whatever happened, Gambia would still remain Gambia, a phrase which did not exactly convey a willingness to jump into the arms of their neighbours.

I gather that a team of United Nations experts has been studying the problems which will arise if the Gambia and Senegal fuse. So far, no report has been published, but I assure Her Majesty's Government that it was made quite clear to me that, were fusion to occur, the Gambians would wish to retain their British type of civil service and judicial system. I believe that the sole reason which makes Gambia consider a merger with Senegal is its inability to balance its own Budget once it is independent. However, as I have said, Senegal itself is hardly solvent. A serious discrepancy of expenditure over income no doubt has to be met by Metropolitan France and continues to be met. This has made the Gambians seriously wonder whether a link between the two countries would really be of advantage to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walton and I formed a very high opinion of the Governor and Deputy Governor and the relationships which they preserved between themselves and the Gambians. It is quite apparent that the Governor is held in great esteem by these people. I believe that it will be all-important to the future of this loyal and happy Colony carefully to pursue discussions along lines which will give greater contemplation to the provision of independence with increased aid by Her Majesty's Government rather than allowing these warm-hearted and happy people to fuse with their neighbours, beginning their independence insolvent and with little hope of viability. The Governor might advise us further on this very important issue.

Gambia can be made viable. It can produce enough rice to meet its own needs. Al present, it imports, I believe, thousands of tons for its staple diet, but some 30,000 acres of land in low-lying marshy ground is waiting and ripe for rice development. With improved and up-to-date agricultural methods, rice and groundnuts can do much to put the economy on firmer ground. Other potential assets so far undeveloped such as citrus fruit development and good fishing grounds, can add a profit to the financial position.

Further revenue can be derived from tourism, for the Gambia, with its ideal climate and constant sunshine, tempered by cool breezes, provides an immediate place for consideration in this industry. The River Gambia itself provides attractions at every turn and the numerous creeks are fascinating to the bird lover and student of nature, and a host of brightly coloured birds, large and small, make their homes there. Hippopotami, crocodiles, dog-faced baboons and monkeys entertain the passing craft, as they play on the banks or up the palm trees. I believe that the prospects for tourism are good and should not be overlooked, but all these possibilities need not only careful research and "know-how", but finance.

I do not want to leave the House thinking that nothing is being done for the Gambia by Her Majesty's Government. On the contrary, our total contribution is about £800,000, but, regrettably, delays by the Colonial Office in approving items of expenditure have prevented a good deal of that money from being spent. The Bathurst port development, the modernisation and enlargement of the airfield at Bathurst, and much else is being held up. The country is being prevented from enjoying the benefits of the limited generosity which we have shown already. I believe that it would please the British taxpayers if they knew that such money as was being provided by Her Majesty's Government was finding its way into the pockets of British contractors who could undertake many of the civil engineering developments, rather than perhaps into the pockets of local governments in the neighbourhood who provide contractors.

Above all, the Gambians need expert guidance in working out British democracy within their own framework. Their principles are basically Christian, and they also need more help at this level. Before we cast this little vessel adrift on the tide of independence, we must do more to help her prepare effectively for the years ahead. This could be a shop window for British democracy and British generosity in an Africa which desperately needs to see these things being worked out in an ordinary sense.

4.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Thomson Mr George Thomson , Dundee East

We on this side of the House are grateful to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) for taking this opportunity to raise the subject of the future of the Gambia. Many of us are conscious that in recent years we in this House have not given as much attention to the Gambia as we might have done, and the problems which face it are becoming very urgent and certainly ought to receive careful consideration.

We feel that the Gambia is bound to move towards independence, just as other territories for which we were responsible in West Africa have done. Looking at the geography of the Gambia, I think that most of us feel that there is bound to be a form of association with Senegal, but the question is what form? I think that to begin with it ought to be a loose association, and that it should become closer very gradually. We all welcome very much the fact that the Government have co-operated with the United Nations in dealing with these problems of the future relationship between Senegal and the Gambia. We will be interested to see the report that is to be made. I hope that it can be made available in the Library of the House or elsewhere. We very much welcome this kind of approach.

I support what the hon. Member said about the importance of help for education. I would add to that the importance of giving assistance in building up the port of Bathurst. This is extremely important if the Gambia is to be associated with Senegal and if she is to go into this partnership, whatever its terms, on a reasonable basis of equality.

In echoing what the hon. Member said, I would merely add the hope that, whatever the final arrangements, we in Britain will continue to regard ourselves as having an obligation to what is one of our oldest Colonies. This is a somewhat similar situation to the one which we had recently in the Cameroons. I do not think that we did too well in relation to our obligations to what is now West Cameroon. I hope that, whatever form of association the Gambia may have with Senegal, it will be worked out in such a way that this country will continue to give all the help that it can to the people of the Gambia.

4.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Surbiton

I always think that it is a pity that the smaller Colonial Territories, unless they are trouble spots, are so seldom discussed individually in this House. It is three years since we debated the future of the Gambia, which is one of our oldest colonies, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) has initiated this short discussion. He has the advantage of me, as has my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney), because they have been there and I have not. Needless to say, I should love to go.

In my contacts with Gambian Ministers, including the Prime Minister, when they have visited this country, I have felt, as I think everyone has who has been out to the Gambia, the close ties of friendship between the United Kingdom and Gambia. I should certainly hate to see those ties weakened in any way. But, as my hon. Friend knows, it has for some time been the policy of both the Government of the Gambia and the Government of Senegal to consider the possibility of an association between their two countries. I believe that this is a sensible idea.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Gambia is entirely surrounded by Senegal, and in spite of the language and other differences, the boundaries between them are really colonial, and not natural boundaries, imposed by France and Britain. These two countries face not only this fact of geography but also the same economic problems. They are such close neighbours that I am sure that it is in the interests of both that they should also be very close friends.

In 1962, the two Governments together invited the United Nations to send a team of experts to West Africa to examine the constitutional, legal, economic and fiscal systems of the two countries with a view to a closer association between them. That United Nations team has now presented its Report, and this is being examined by the two Governments. In reply to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson), I think that I should make it clear that the Report is to the Governments of the Gambia and Senegal, not to Her Majesty's Government. It is therefore for them to decide if and when it should be published. I imagine that it will be published, but it is not for me to say.

Meantime, in the light of the information provided by the report, the two Governments will very shortly begin discussions together about their future. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, Ea it and Christchurch—I think that I correctly quote his words—said that the proposed merger with Senegal is no solution. But I think that there may be a slight misunderstanding here, because I do not think that integration or merger is really the issue. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dundee, East is right about this.

It has not, as far as I know, been suggested that the people of the Gambia would wish for a complete fusion between the two countries. Indeed, the Prime Minister of the Gambia has made it quite clean, I think publicly, that in any association with Senegal his Government would wish to retain responsibility for the internal administration of his country—matters such as the police, the Civil Service and the legal system, to which my hon. Friend particularly referred, would come within that—and that it would also wish to maintain close ties with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. That general approach by the Prime Minister of the Gambia has been accepted by the Government of Senegal Therefore, my hon. Friend need not be unduly apprehensive on that point.

What is important is that these two countries in their own interests, have a close and friendly association. But these natters are for them to decide for themselves. I saw in an article in The Times recently a statement that we are putting a good deal of pressure on the Gambia for this closer association. That is not true. The Government have not and will not put any pressure at all upon the Gambia to enter any form of partnership with Senegal. Our position is that we believe that a closer association between them is a very sensible policy and we will therefore support any move towards it, but it is for the two countries themselves to decide what their future should be, and we shall certainly await with great interest the outcome of their talks which will take place shortly.

I ought perhaps to add, as the hon. Member for Dundee, East and my hon. Friend mentioned it, that my right hon. Friend will be making a statement very shortly about the holding of a Gambia constitutional conference in London. My hon. Friend has referred to the financial assistance which we give to the Gambia, which he thinks is insufficient. Of course, any Colonial Office Minister would agree with him, not only about the Gambia but also about almost all our Colonies. But we still have 40 of them and many independent countries in the Commonwealth also expect financial help from us. We do the best we can within the funds available.

I think that the Gambia gets a fair share. On a total budget of £2·6 million our grant-in-aid was over £600,000 in 1962 and is still running at about £500,000 this year. The British and the Gambian Governments are anxious, of course, to reduce this if possible, because an annual deficit of these proportions is clearly a source of weakness in a country which is on the verge of independence.

Our aim is to reduce the deficit to £300,000 by 1966 and we are sending out two experts in the near future to examine the structure of the Civil Service and to make recommendations as to the level of services which the Gambia can reasonably support. In addition to grant-in-aid, we are giving £800,000 a year for development from C.D. and W. Funds and about £75,000 a year under the Overseas Aid Scheme. For a small country of about 300,000 people this is not an ungenerous level of assistance. It works out at about £5 per head per year.

Clearly, this cannot be cut off on independence. We shall continue thereafter to help the Gambia to maintain a reasonable rate of development and a reasonable standard of living. After independence, this can no longer be done through C.D. and W. funds, but it can be done through the Commonwealth Grants and Loans Vote as in the case of Kenya and, presumably, when the time comes, of Malta.

My hon. Friend has mentioned delays in approving expenditure and I am afraid that there are delays, inevitably, when my own Office and the Treasury are considering the scope of a new development plan and the recurrent costs which it may involve. These things have to be looked into very carefully, and if they were not the Public Accounts Committee of the House would rightly have something to say. But I think there may be some misunderstanding about the particular examples of delays which my hon. Friend has mentioned. The British Government, in fact, met the full cost of reconstructing the runway at the airport, and this work has now been completed. Additional equipment is to be installed and a new control tower is to be built out of C.D. and W. funds, but the enlargement of the airfield, to which my hon. Friend referred, is not, in fact, a part of the Gambia's present capital programme. There is no delay on that because it is not in the programme at present.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the port. An expert from the Ministry of Transport has been to the Gambia recently with a view to making plans for improving the harbour and his report is at present being considered by the Gambia Government.

Lastly, my hon. Friend, has, rightly, stressed the need for continued expatriate assistance from this country over the next few years. We are in this position, that with full internal self-government the introduction of an executive Public Service Commission we had to introduce a compensation scheme in the Gambia as elsewhere, and inevitably a number of overseas civil servants have retired as a result of this. But many are staying on contract, and agreement has recently been reached for increased inducement allowances.

Irrespective of independence, the British Government have agreed to continue until 1971 to pay, under the Overseas Aid Scheme, the difference between the basic local salary and the overseas market rate in the case of expatriate officers. There is no reason why the British health, educational and agricultural experts, and so on, should not continue to be recruited here for service in the Gambia for as long as they are needed. The Department of Technical Co-operation will provide this sort of advisory staff at the same level as at present and their salaries will be borne by the British Government.

I hope that what I have said about this technical assistance and about the financial help we give to the Gambia, and also about the possibility of a closer association between the Gambia and Senegal will have done something to reassure not only my hon. Friend but also those in the Gambia who will, I know, be grateful to him for his interest in their problems and for raising them in the House of Commons this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.