1Mr S. spent 28 years in Gabon, most of the time employed on fishing boats. "Luckily, thank God, I came back legally. On the ship, I did all the jobs, cook, deckhand, assistant mechanic oiler, up to first mate which I learned on the job. It’s a matter of experience. I did 300 days at sea: 25 days at sea, 4 days ashore. We would set sail from Port Gentil as far as the frontier with Equatorial Guinea or the frontier with the Congo". Since he wanted to retire in Senegal, his home country, where his wife and children lived who had never come to join him in migration, he applied in 2016 in Gabon for a ‘certificat de vie’, the key document which would enable the old age pension office to check that the person they were to pay the pension to was still alive. After completing the necessary formalities with the Gabonese authorities before going back to Dakar, Mr S. received his pension for a year before it was suspended; after a change of management, the Gabonese pension office (CNS) now required the physical identification of pensioners. This is when the nightmare began. The months went by. A letter sent by registered post to the CNS and another entrusted in person to a fellow-countryman going back to Gabon went unanswered. According to the first secretary at the Gabonese embassy he met at Dakar, he had no other choice than to go in person to Gabon to prove his existence. "As I had no money or anything, I had to go to a microfinance agency and mortgage my house to get the ticket to go to Gabon: a house which cost 20 million, I mortgaged it for 600 000 francs [CFA]". He had to spend four months in Gabon, going back and forth between Port Gentil and Libreville to get the document validated. "Accommodation, transport, entry visas, exit visas, passes, fines, when I looked at all the costs, anyway it cost me nearly 1.250 million to get this paper that I had to hand in which didn’t cost me a penny". Mr S. spent the equivalent of his annual retirement pension (125,000 francs CFA  a month for the 25 years he had paid in) to get his ‘certificat de vie’ validated by the CNS in 2018.
2There’s nothing unusual about his story. In the course of his travels, he had the opportunity to meet other Senegalese at Dakar whose pensions had been suspended for several years, and in Gabon others who had been forced to sell some land in Senegal or travel back illegally to get their certificat de vie stamped in the pensions office in Gabon, the magic key to have any chance of getting their pension payments. "One of them, since he didn’t have the means, he was elderly, he had to travel overland from Dakar to Mali, Burkina, Benin to get to Gabon. As he didn’t feel well in Benin, he phoned some relatives in Gabon who put up the money to help him to get there". Hoping to help his fellow citizens to avoid this obstacle course, Mr S. set up a Gabon pensioners’ association as soon as he got back to Senegal. "God heard our prayers, a convention was signed between the two pension offices, the CNS in Gabon and IPRES in Senegal. It’s IPRES that sends the papers to Gabon. Then it’s up to the CNS to study the application and respond to IPRES and it’s IPRES that pays". This account gives us an insight into the difficulties of setting up a framework for cooperation that is effective and sustainable between two countries in the same continent of Africa  and into the negative impact of diplomatic turbulence on migrant populations. The convention between the two social security agencies was not ratified for several decades, making it difficult for retired workers to achieve regularisation and acquire social protection, among other issues. Since February 2019, an administrative arrangement dealing with "the modes of application of the procedure for approval of payment" was signed between the two social security offices, a measure that should make the process easier for Senegalese pensioners. The Senegal-Gabon joint commission which has authority over cultural and economic exchanges and examines the various agreement protocols passed in the framework of bilateral cooperation remained inert for several decades, without the pressure exerted by Senegalese migrants bearing fruit. Since 2012, it has been reactivated as has the legislation that underpins it in various sectors including employment: an initiative that is intended to make relations between the two countries more fluid and to facilitate the situation of Senegalese migrant workers and pensioners.
3If migrations towards central Africa have already been documented, the research has primarily focused on the movements - the most significant numerically - of refugees and African exiles, in relation with the growing ethnic and political tensions in the region (Cambrézy, 2001 ; Sindjoun, 2002 ; Guichaoua, 2004 ; Pourtier, 2006 ; Wali Wali, 2010), or has highlighted the processes of construction of xenophobic feelings (Loungou, 2003 ; Whitehouse, 2012) towards the African ‘brothers’. There have been fewer studies dealing with the arrival of West African nationals in the Congo basin and the processes of their integration in the host country (Balandier, 1982 ; Ba, 1995 ; Fall, 1999 ; Lompo, 2015) or their place in the labour market (Manchuelle, 1984 ; Pambou-Loueya, 2003).
4Initially under the control of the colonial authorities, then the state authorities of Gabon, the movements of West Africans to Libreville or Port-Gentil are today increasingly determined by motivations that are multi-faceted, more individualistic and deployed following an entrepreneurial rationale, unrelated to any work contract. Although the geopolitical realities have changed, we cannot however conclude in a definitive break between the patterns of movement of the past and those of today. In contrast to presuppositions defended by a certain African methodological nationalism, the departure of the European colons (settlers) at the time of independence did not free Gabonese society from the French presence nor that of their West African intermediaries. Many Gabonese subsidiaries of French companies have continued to recruit qualified Senegalese workers and the Gabonese ministry of education continues to select Senegalese graduates to teach in French in its secondary schools.
5At a time when salaried work is being transformed worldwide, leading to increased use of outsourcing, aimed at an increasingly flexible use of human capital, the Gabonese legislation relative to immigration has become tighter since the mid-1980s, while the former Eldorado was plunged into an unprecedented economic recession. The Gabonese authorities reaffirmed that it was never intended that labour migration would involve the long-term settlement of immigrants. The Gabonese political agenda was reformulated under public pressure, alternating measures of regularisation and deportation campaigns of foreign Africans, in place of the previous labour agreements.
6After reviewing the historical context in which the call for foreign labour in Gabon was organised, we will turn to an examination of the range of possible actions described by Senegalese migrants today, both to negotiate their place in Gabon at a time when migration policy is becoming tighter, and also to think about their future in Senegal. This reflection is based on empirical research undertaken between 2017 and 2019 among about forty migrants who had returned definitively from Gabon or who were back in Senegal on a visit. It is a follow-up to the first studies carried out in the mid-1990s on the pioneering role played by the Senegalese traders and diamond merchants in central African capitals, among them Libreville (Bredeloup, 2007). Life stories  recorded mainly at Dakar were completed by interviews with people currently in charge of the management of Senegalese from abroad or who have worked at the Senegalese embassy in Gabon. This research is part of a broader collective reflection undertaken in the Mixed International Research Laboratory MOVIDA , exploring the determinants of intra-African mobilities.
When the Colonial Authorities Imported Senegalese Labour to Gabon
7The movements of Senegalese to Gabon are part of a long history, beginning with Muslim incursions in central Africa (Iyanga, 2003) and reported long before its colonisation by Europeans. A few Muslim merchants on their own initiative reached the shores of the Ogooué at the end of the 19th century seeking new commercial outlets. But the Senegalese presence there became more visible after the establishment of the French in Gabon and the opening of the trading post (comptoir) in 1843 by Commandant Bouët (M’Bokolo, 1981).
“Exile under Contract” 
8To better guarantee their security during the conquest of the country and the installation of the new trading post, the colonial authorities relied on labour recruited far away from the mouth of the Ogooué, from Gorée and Saint-Louis. Between 1839 and 1859, Gabon was at the time considered as a dependency of Senegal (M’Bokolo, 1981: 77). Laptots - sailors and labourers – recruited in Senegalese ports (Manchuelle, 2004) accompanied the first voyages of exploration before later making up the garrison on land at Libreville. In 1845, the trading post had some fifteen Senegalese workers. The following year, 89 labourers were also sent on board frigates from Senegal for civil engineering work (M’Bokolo, 1981: 86). To construct and defend the post and colonise the agricultural land, the French administration encountered difficulties in recruiting manpower among the coastal populations, considered as not ‘docile’ enough, numerically too few or already occupied with establishing themselves as traders with foreign trading companies. The local chiefs also found it more advantageous to continue to sell slaves in the Ogooué delta or to make them work for them rather than provide a servile labour force under the orders of this new trading post. In this context, instead of undergoing military training, Senegalese soldiers were put to work building earthworks or sewage systems, and as reinforcements Senegalese prisoners were sent to Gabon by the colonial administration (M’Bokolo, 1981: 87). It would appear that at this time Gabon inspired a certain terror in Senegal . Only workers who had been given an assurance that they would be able to come home to Senegal after six months spent in Gabon agreed at that time to be shipped there. As auxiliaries of French colonisation, Senegalese were employed in the following decades in the militia , allocated to tasks of surveillance or the control of local populations and mobilised to take part in repression operations (Challenor, 1979; Pambo-Loueya, 2003).
9Once demobilised, these laptots, like the soldiers, were just as likely to join French, British or German trading companies between Cameroon and Gabon, and to work there as servants, peddlers or traders before returning home enriched. In the 1870s, after thirty years of French presence in Gabon, the merchant companies had developed a well-defined structure and a strict hierarchy had been established with, in the front rank, the British establishments of Hatton and Cookson which had a Senegalese agent working for them and which exported three-quarters of the products of value from Gabon. At the bottom of the scale, small trading posts managed nonetheless to develop their commerce, one of them headed by a Senegalese (M’Bokolo, 1981: 216-217).
10Four categories of colonial workers may thus be distinguished: the militiamen, the administrative agents , the employees of concession-holding companies and domestic servants. Not all of them returned to Senegal. The presence of Chimère Diop at Port-Gentil (formerly Cape Lopez) at the westernmost point of the Gabonese coast was reported from 1919. Recruited from Senegal as a public works manager, he became a business agent, organising the circulation of merchandise between the trading posts newly set up by Europeans and the populations living in the interior of the country. Reading between the lines of his history shows how the same person, according to the constraints and opportunities encountered, might pass from one category to another.
11In the inter-war period, the valorisation of the colony of Gabon depended on forestry, made possible by the forced labour of local populations from the whole of the French Congo (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2001). But just after the Second World War, this labour force was no longer sufficient to meet requirements given the scale of the projects in operation and the exodus recorded for the construction of the Congo - ocean railway (Sautter, 1966). And the same scenario was repeated: the colonial authorities had no alternative than to recruit new generations of foreign workers: 12,662 African workers from Cameroon, Senegal, Liberia and Nigeria were thus recruited by means of the Investment Fund for the economic and social development of the Overseas Territories (Pambo-Loueya, 1999). This was the case for lébou or wolof workers, whose grandparents had already worked for the comptoirs (Maurel & Prom, CFAO) at Rufisque or Bargny and who went to work on the Libreville construction sites as tile setters, bricklayers or plumbers. These qualified workers changed their status on the labour market: instead of returning to Senegal, some of them, after the independence of Gabon , kept positions of responsibility in construction firms or worked for their own account as entrepreneurs or joined the administration as customs officers.
12These Senegalese workers, whose movements were initially controlled by the colonial authorities, were joined, at the end of the 1950s and the post-independence decades, by a free mobile labour force from the plantations of West Africa, lured by rumours of the boom in Gabon (Kayser, 1977). Wolof jewellers and tailors went via Abidjan and on as far as Gabon, determined to make their affairs prosper in this region seen as a new Eldorado (Ba, 1995). Diamond merchants from the Senegal river area, who sought a more permanent situation in central Africa, also left the banks of the river Congo to convert to the cloth trade in Libreville or Port-Gentil (Bredeloup, 2007). In contrast to the previous movements orchestrated by the colonial power, these migrations involved hazardous individual initiatives, undertaken by men who hoped to become rich during this stay in Gabon, reputed to be more peaceful and more prosperous than the neighbouring countries. These adventurers relied on the support of their fellow countrymen, colonial workers, to get set up.
When the Gabonese State Recruits Qualified Workers in Senegal
Seeking Specialised Workers
13At the beginning of the 1970, the extraction of oil became the driver of the Gabonese economy in place of forestry. Albert Bernard Bongo, president of the Republic of Gabon, then disposed of sufficient financial resources to simultaneously launch several large-scale projects (the Cité du 12 mars, road infrastructure, the iron ore cargo port at Owendo, etc.). For the construction of the Transgabonais railway alone, labour requirements were estimated at more than 3,000 workers. The Gabonese authorities took over the policy of recruitment conceived during the colonial period, this time in the name of migratory pan-Africanism. They launched an appeal to "African solidarity" aimed at attracting qualified workers and labourers both from West Africa (Senegal, Togo, Benin, Upper-Volta) and from neighbouring countries (Cameroon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea) (Pambo-Loueya, 1999). Once again, this recourse to foreign labour was intended to compensate for the low demographic density of the country to optimise the exploitation of the abundant local resources, following a similar economic orientation to that devised in a colonial context. Gabon thus developed itself into a country of immigration, signing agreements for the transfer of labour with a wide range of African states. Studies were commissioned and criteria defined to calculate the cost price of this foreign manpower, whose presence should not upset the ethnic and national balance sought by the Gabonese authorities (Rossantanga-Rignault, 1994). According to Claude Bouët, it is "necessary to recruit from a small number of ethnic homelands". In this post-colonial configuration where ethnic origins continued to be favoured to the detriment of nationality, the Wolof were in third place as potential candidates behind the Bamiléké from Cameroon and the Mossi from Upper-Volta (Bouët, 1973). Although presenting the required professional and language skills, as "people of millet and peanuts" their dietary adaptation would be considered as problematic and their geographical remoteness from Senegal would make the costs of their transportation too high for the Gabonese railway agency, the Office du Chemin de Fer Transgabonais (OCTRA). ‘Test operations’ were nonetheless organised and Senegalese workers selected by recruiters. The oldest of my interviewees remember this, and besides the national press reported it extensively.
14If objectively it would appear more costly to recruit Senegalese nationals than workers from neighbouring countries, this choice may be explained too by the fear that recruiting the latter might upset the stability of the country that is based on a subtle pattern of ethnic and regional balance (Mouafo, 1991). In the framework of this policy of ‘ouverture’ which corresponds in fact to an approach based on the management of the internal shortage of labour, the transfer of workers appears to be mainly negotiated by companies - most of them subsidiaries of French companies - before being endorsed by the Gabonese government.
“I remember I was here in Dakar. It’s the first convoy of Senegalese workers which went to Gabon, in May 1976. There were masons, there were electricians, there were jobbing workmen, a call from the Gabonese government officially, Socoba . It’s a Gabon construction company; they came to get their work force in Senegal. The construction trades, it’s the Senegalese, most of them Wolofs […] The contractual relationship between Socoba and the Senegalese at the time was a difficult relationship because there was a discrepancy between the promise given to the workers when they embarked here and the reality on the ground. The contracts were worthless. I saw the results and the impact in the field […]. The salaries were a pittance, it has to be said.” (Interview, 4th May 2018, Dakar)
16These operations were seen by some of my interviewees as predatory and a fool’s game. Pape Demba Fall, who in 1997 recorded the testimony of a Senegalese recruited directly from Dakar in 1973 by the company Socoba, then headed by a Frenchman, also emphasised the failure to respect the earlier contracts. Recruited as a sixth grade site foreman, the Senegalese worker was paid a fifth grade salary (he says nonetheless that he was very well paid). Although his fellow countrymen went on strike out of solidarity, not getting satisfaction he chose to resign three years later before being recruited by another construction company at Lambaréné (Fall, 1999: 107).
17Less than two weeks after the official visit to Senegal by President Bongo (February 1972), Socoba sent to Dakar one of its senior managers to recruit 90 workers (3 site foremen, 30 masons, 40 carpenters, formworkers, 6 joiners, 8 plumbers, etc.) for five months renewable under the cooperation agreements concluded within the framework of the OCAM  . A preselection was made by the Senegalese labour office (Office Sénégalais de la Main d’œuvre) (Le Soleil, 5 March 1972). In addition to a generous salary, the workers had the benefit of an expatriation allowance corresponding to 40 % of their salary and were housed free of charge in residences in the Lalala district. Once the construction project was finished and their contract had expired, the workers were supposed to go back to Senegal. According to the Gabonese law of 10th December 1962, subject to endorsement by the ministry of labour and social affairs, the employment of foreign workers required the drawing up of a work contract drafted and stamped by the labour office at Libreville. The agreement concluded at Dakar on 3rd September 1972 between the governments of Gabon and Senegal, was intended to facilitate the circulation, employment and stay in Gabon of Senegalese nationals, and, reciprocally, Gabonese nationals in Senegal, The following year, a second contingent of 243 workers were sent to Libreville and Port-Gentil to work mainly in construction firms. In spring 1975, it was the turn of almost 600 Senegalese nationals (site foremen, carpenters, joiners, masons, mechanics, sheet metal workers, turners, electricians, drivers, metal workers) to take the plane to work in the service of the development of the Republic of Gabon … or of private companies. They went to Gabon with a two-year renewable contract in their pockets. This time, a few wives went with them to do the cooking for the ‘Senegalese community’ and thus avoid the problems of ‘dietary adaptation’ encountered by the first contingent recruited (Le Soleil, 5 March and 18 May 1975). Again within the framework of these new bilateral agreements, five thousand Senegalese nationals were transferred to Gabon to work for the company Dumez, another French construction firm (Chouala, 2004: 99). A Senegalese ambassador was appointed at Libreville, a controller and a labour inspector were also supposed to be sent to Gabon. But the Senegalese authorities appear to have been caught short by the speed with which the construction companies organised the transfers of workers.
18This inter-State cooperation also extended to a myriad of sectors of the economy. In the same year, sixty young Senegalese, freshly graduated from the national hotel and tourism training school (École Nationale de Formation Hôtelière et Touristique) in Dakar, were sent to Libreville to take care of the opening and running of the first grand hotel there, Le Dialogue (Le Soleil, 7/02/1975). The construction of the Gabonese railway mobilised a large number of foreign workers. On the occasion of the press conference during his official visit to Gabon in February 1974, President Léopold Senghor reaffirmed his commitment: "We have 4 million inhabitants whereas Gabon has a population of 900,000. Gabon needs a qualified labour force. The latest requirement for the Transgabonais railway was for 3,000 workers. We shall take care to provide you with a skilled labour force" (Le Soleil, 4 March 1974).
19The Gabonese economy was prospering and the recourse to a qualified foreign labour force accelerated. The boom in oil at Port Gentil, added to forestry, called for an abundant labour force. During the decade 1975-1985, Gabon became "one of the major sources of jobs in sub-Saharan Africa" (Pambo-Loueya, 1999: 338). Jobbing labourers, artisans and traders were drawn by this new Eldorado and the migration policies of Omar Bongo encouraging the opening up of the country, the "dialogue between nations". They came to join the thousands of Senegalese workers already recruited in the construction industry by Gabonese subsidiaries of French companies, and also the hundred or so teachers employed in Gabonese secondary schools. According to the Gabonese ministry of defence, security and immigration, 5,368 Senegalese were living in Gabon in 1976 and in 1983, 5,400 Senegalese workers were recorded there (Chouala, 2004).
Recruiting Senegalese Teachers for Secondary Schools
20Gabon was desperately short of teachers, to such an extent that it also recruited teachers abroad. According to the official statistics for 1973, out of 700 secondary school teachers, 400 were French, more than 200 Africans of various nationalities for around fifty Gabonese (Kayser, 1977 : 156). The first contracts for Gabon for Senegalese teachers were issued in France, "as if it were the French State that had managed this recruiting campaign" explained Ms S., who taught French in a high school in Moanda in the late 1990s. "One of my family who was one of the first to go there had a contract from France. He was there as an expatriate. When he was given a plane ticket for his holidays, he had to go via France before going home to Senegal" (Interview, 15 March 2019). By sending to Gabon French coopérants and by intervening in the recruiting of Senegalese coopérants in Gabon, in the guise of an aid policy, France was pursuing its cultural and economic soft power strategy in its former colonies (Guth, 1984; Grossetti, 1986).
21This Senegalese brain drain continued for several decades without the Senegalese authorities making any attempt to put a brake on the movement. The largest contingent arrived after 1985. The economic situation in Senegal was getting worse, and poorly paid teachers were looking for a way out. It was mainly material gain that was the attraction that encouraged them to apply. The Gabonese embassy unilaterally started hiring in the face of the flood of candidates. Recruiting was also carried out in Côte d’Ivoire, sometimes without waiting for the signature of an inter-governmental convention, and notably without fixing the conditions of the payment of pensions for teachers.
“At the time, Côte d’Ivoire was recruiting interim teachers in the physical sciences, in life and Earth sciences and in French. I applied and was accepted. I began teaching in 1979 in the provinces, in the west. I stayed there six years… Well, I wanted a change of air. I had the choice, to go to France, to go to Canada, to go to the United States, to continue my studies. Well my family had already grown, I had a wife, I had two children. I said OK, I’ll apply for Gabon which was recruiting teachers. I put in my application at the embassy in Abidjan. They sent me an air ticket. On 15th October 1985, I landed in Libreville and for 27 years, I stayed in Libreville working in high schools.” (Interview, 5th May 2018, Mr N., Dakar)
23In contrast to Mr N., the French teacher, a number of Senegalese teachers did not renew their cooperation contracts in Gabon, preferring to move on professionally in the United States or Canada from Libreville. Although the Gabonese state continued to recruit teaching staff beyond its borders, the conditions of work were becoming less favourable financially and expatriation contracts scarcer, following the policy of austerity which affected the country in the early 1980s. In 1995, only sixteen Senegalese teachers were officially recorded in Gabon as fonctionnaires en détachement (state employees on detachment) (including the two heads of Entraide, the association of Senegalese in Gabon founded five years earlier. Two years later, out of the hundred Senegalese teachers recorded in Gabon, only eleven had this status and had been recruited under the Senegal-Gabon agreements (Fall, 1999: 109).
24The category of expatriates includes fonctionnaires (state employees) on detachment from their ministries or other state sector institutions or management staff working in subsidiaries of private companies based abroad who benefit from advantageous pay and tax conditions if they agree to work abroad. In sub-Saharan Africa, the common understanding is that these assimilated expatriates are systematically considered as Europeans although they include a number of Africans, as in the situations described here (Fabbiano, 2016). Furthermore, there is considerable diversity in the administrative situations corresponding to distinct social and economic privileges. All cannot count on the expatriation allowances related to coverage of their expenses for travel, accommodation and residence (visas and residence permits). The largest contingent are recruited directly at Dakar and only sign a contract once they arrive in Gabon, with a local contract signed there, even less of an inducement from the financial point of view. Ms S. was one of about ten young Senegalese teachers hired between 1997 and 1999 without an expatriate contract.
“Our generation, when we left here (Senegal), we thought we’d have an expatriate contract. When we went to the educational authority there, we realised there would be difficulties in getting settled. […]. Anyway, in my case in particular, it was when I arrived that I understood that it was a local contract. When I left, I’d bought my air ticket, they didn’t refund me. But they did give us the residence card, which at the time was worth more than 2 million ; in any case, they took good care of us. I had accommodation at the school where I was sent to teach, the school gave me support for everything to do with food.” (Interview, op. cit.)
26The term local contract does not seem appropriate when the salaries paid to the Senegalese teachers were twice those of their Gabonese colleagues and the Gabonese state was involved at the beginning of their teaching career, even though some of them had already established a degree of professional and family stability prior to their arrival (married with children). In contrast to the French coopérants, the Senegalese teachers kept up regular relations with the other members of the Senegalese diaspora who had brought them over, who they brought over or who had long been settled in the country. Nationality seemed to prevail over standards of living in their day-to-day exchanges.
27Not all these work migrations come exclusively within the framework of the official channels of circulation and the government schemes for the regulation of movement. New systems have developed, no longer only driven by the States or European companies, but also at the initiative of the Senegalese themselves. So it was that in 1982, Mr G, a physical education teacher, went to teach in a secondary school at Woleu-Ntem (more than 400 kms from Libreville), with one of his younger brothers after their elder brother, a jeweller by profession and an already well-established middleman in Gabonese state circles, was able to negotiate a work contract for the two of them. In 1973, Mr G. visited his elder brother during his holidays after getting his teacher’s diploma without however having decided to try expatriation. A decade later, thinking anew about the financial advantages in Gabon, compared to his modest financial situation as a teacher in Dakar, he changed his mind. His air ticket and residence card were directly paid for by the Gabonese government. Then he was sent to teach in a technical high school in Libreville. Not only did his wife, an accountancy assistant in Dakar, come to join him with their two children to open a tailoring workshop, but two of his brothers-in-law also took the opportunity to come and work there, one as a tailor, the other as a shopkeeper. Later they brought over their wives. Mr G. resigned from his Senegalese state employment and every two years the Gabonese government paid for air tickets to Senegal for his whole family as part of his paid leave and for his accommodation in Libreville. The residence card was paid for by Gabon as was its renewal every two years. The family lived free of charge for five years at the Rapontchombo hotel right in the centre of Libreville, before being accommodated in a house of their own. Mr G. taught physical education in Gabon for 25 years, extending his family before returning definitively to Senegal. His younger brother soon gave up teaching sport to become a construction industry entrepreneur and continued to work in Gabon, as did their elder brother, whereas their respective wives and their children went back to Senegal. New patterns of family circulation were thus being established between Gabon and Senegal.
28Not only were Senegalese teachers able, outside the official system, to have access to well-paid jobs in Gabon, by relying on relatives who were already established artisans or traders, but they also played a role in creating migratory networks. They were able to take advantage of their official status to enable relatives or fellow countrymen to come to a country with high economic potential.
When the Senegalese Networks Get Organised
29As the result of direct encouragement by the Gabonese State, of the process that Chouala (2004) rebaptised "the migratory exhortation", networks that were both corporation-based and family- or village-based prospered, contributing to the boom in Senegalese migrations to Gabon. So it was that networks of jewellers developed following a process that was partly comparable to that introduced by the Gabonese construction companies: recruiting from Senegal, paying for a one-way air ticket and for the administrative documents.
30Mr B., then aged 21, the second son of a jeweller, was solicited in 1982, the same year as Mr G., the physical education teacher already cited, to go to work at Libreville with an important Senegalese jeweller to whom he was related . It was decided by the family that Mr B.’s elder brother would remain in Senegal to train his little brothers in the jewellery business. Mr B. was recruited at the same time as another young apprentice. The two of them took the plane to Gabon, accompanied by the jeweller’s brother-in-law who took care of all the administrative formalities (air ticket, entry visa and residence card at a cost of 80,000 francs CFA). Mr B. shared a room with other young jewellers in their boss’ house and went to the workshop every day. Two years later, when he went to Rufisque for his first paid holiday, the air ticket was this time at his own expense. He had saved enough to buy his first piece of land. When his wife who he had married in Senegal came to join him in Libreville in 1987, it was his turn to offer rooms to his fellow countrymen in a large house that he had rented and for his wife to take care of running the house. Mr B. was now working for his own account. He returned home definitively in 1992 with enough savings to consolidate his professional situation, set up a jewellery shop in the centre of Dakar and build a family house. A few jewellers have thus rapidly become rich in Gabon, transmitting the technique of filigree work, and as a real bridgehead for this migration, they have enabled generations of Senegalese to start or consolidate their career.
31But over the years, the villages of Kanel, Aoré, Oréfondé, Guidilogne and the Agnam, in the central Senegal river valley, became the most important source of migrants for Gabon thanks to the initial settlement there of a few pioneers. Generations of traders could thus find their place in the merchant circles in Gabon and conserve them despite the repeated administrative hassles to which foreign African traders were subjected. Henceforth, most of the Senegalese in Gabon were self-employed for a minority of them, still recruited under the inter-state cooperation system or by entrepreneurs in the public sector (education, health) or private sector (banks, forestry, mining, fisheries). According to a survey carried out at the end of the 1980s, 46 % of private companies (4,950) belonged to West African nationals, 14 % to immigrants from central Africa while 31 % were owned by Gabonese (Chouala, 2004).
When Migration Leads to Transnational Commerce
32Estimated at 15,000 people in 1995 before the great deportations and today at more than 30,000 people , the Senegalese community in Gabon includes a majority of haalpulaaren businessmen, originating in the départements of Matam and Podor, of male sex, with highly disparate life histories and very variable outcomes. Turned away from Libya or Equatorial Guinea, or shoeshine boys in Abidjan or Pointe Noire, the most recent arrivals experience precarity on a daily basis, having to cope with an increase in identity checks in the public space. These young men, with limited education and professional experience, are mainly peddlers in the streets or markets of the Gabonese capital. Others, who have a wider range of skills and who came to settle in Libreville in the good years, have been able to prosper, working in the catering sector, passenger transport or import-export. They have managed to develop solid links with local society, and associate with Gabonese businessmen to acquire accreditations and import permits. Some only spent a few years in Gabon, soon going back to Senegal or continuing their journey to Africa, Europe or America; others on the other hand spent virtually the whole of their life as migrants there, bringing their wives over and extending their family there. Those who married a Gabonese woman are rare.
33Furthermore, the best-established international migrants become transnational entrepreneurs, who have no hesitation in travelling all over the planet to supply Gabonese consumers with food products or textiles. The late Amadou Konté, a native of Sadel (département of Matam, in the central Senegal river valley), a cousin of President Macky Sall, was one of the most remarkable figures. Originally from the central Senegal river valley, he arrived in Gabon in the middle of the 1980s and started out as a street peddler and then a dish-washer in a restaurant. His rise was rapid: ten years later, he became a powerful business operator in a market where the Gabonese remained virtually absent . Like the soninke merchants who had arrived in Libreville in the colonial period who had been the first, with the Haoussa, to sell cloth bought in Nigeria (Manchuelle, 2004) or the big merchants described by Samir Amin in the 1970s (Amin, 1969), he made a fortune in the import-export of wax cloth, setting up partnerships with Singapore, Malaysia then with China. "It was when he began to do import-export with China that his business really took off" explained one of his friends. "His Gabonese partners gave him a leg up, gave him a boost". Thanks to his Gabonese network, Amadou Konté opened three shops which are today managed by his children, all born to Senegalese mothers. Numerous Senegalese and Malian businessmen established in Gabon, like Konté, benefited from the entry of the People’s Republic of China into the WTO and the rise of its world factories to move up the chain and buy manufactured products directly from the source, from the mid-2000s, instead of stopping in Dubai or Bankok. Relying initially on other Senegalese, the first to be established in Guangzhou, then dealing directly with Chinese factories, they quickly developed their business without fear of competition from Gabon (Bertoncello & Bredeloup, 2009). Few Gabonese invested in transnational trade although a ‘Gabonisation’ of jobs and entreprises had started in the mid-1980s to mitigate the impact of the economic crisis. The economic advantage of the Senegalese was less due to their belonging to a specific ‘community’ than to the fact that they were among the first to seize the business opportunities in Thailand then in China, and to their capacity to negotiate their protection in Gabon and acquire trading permits.
34Some teachers also went into business, as a sideline or replacement for their teaching work, like Ms S. previously cited, who relied on relations developed with the local elite to open a private school and become the owner of a fleet of taxis. Specialised workers or artisans also became business entrepreneurs thanks to networks of relations developed long term, like Mr F., who had first worked as a tailor in Libreville for more than twenty years, before becoming a contractor and construction site manager at the scale of the continent.
“When you set out to look for money, you have no trade, you end up being a cook, you become a tailor, you don’t even know when you leave your village what kind of work you’re going to do; for us, that’s what we call an adventure […]. I found in Libreville an elder brother with the same father, he’s a tailor, and I knew about sewing; he asked me to replace him, he was going back to Senegal to get married. So I replaced him and finally I became a tailor. I even did some shows. For more than 28 years, I was a tailor. But I wasn’t that interested in it […]. My visiting card as a tailor made me develop. I had nothing, I went into entrepreneurship. Finally, I saw the construction market, it was then that I began to get my head above water, because I got huge deals. I built things. It was that that made me what I am. I completely stopped tailoring, I’ve got deals in Gabon, in Congo, contacts in Angola, Zaire, Côte d’Ivoire, I got the deal to build a girl’s high school, the fire brigade barracks.” (Interview, 28 March 2018)
36In the face of massive public debt, the poor management of forestry and oil resources, endemic unemployment and the spread of xenophobic discourse and actions, the Senegalese living in Gabon have had to constantly reassess their situation, especially those selling retail goods in the markets or who are still working as subordinate employees in companies.
When Gabon Reassesses Its Policy for Welcoming African Workers
The “Gabonisation” of Jobs and a Reassessment of the Conditions of Hospitality
37From 1984, a policy referred to as the ‘Gabonisation of managers’ was launched, consisting in progressively replacing foreigners by Gabonese in executive, managerial and decision-making roles in public or private sector companies. The ‘Gabonisation of business’ was also deployed the following year, fixing the cost and mode of attribution of permits for traders, businessmen and artisans. But its impact was considerably limited by the fact of foreigners engaging in corrupt practices and seeking the mediation of Gabonese nationals to mitigate the scope of these new decrees. On the other hand in the industrial sector, the competition between Gabonese nationals and foreigners led to a weakening of the working class.
38In addition to this government policy for the promotion of economic activities for the Gabonese, there was the announcement of an amendment of the rules concerning immigration. From 1986, seeking to control the massive influx of populations from countries at war (the Biafran war, Equatorial Guinea) seeking refuge and the continuous flood of nationals from West Africa and neighbouring countries, the Gabonese authorities tightened up their legislation. A new law introduced an entry and exit permit for all foreigners. Any stay of longer than three months meant that migrants had to pay for a residence card, the cost of which was calculated according to the applicant’s nationality. During the application process for the first residence card, payment of a deposit to cover repatriation was required, intended to facilitate the return of undesirable immigrants. In addition to the residence fee payable every two years, an exit visa was required for each departure from Gabonese territory; anyone who had not been able to renew their residence permit within the deadline was considered to be breaking the law and was subject to a fine calculated according to the time overdue. Seeking to restrict the mobility of the least wealthy and limit the residence and settlement rights of the best established, these new rules had however only a limited scope, given the venality of the staff allocated to the controls, their insufficient number given the length of the borders and the still deep-seated idea in the imaginary of African migrants that they could find lucrative work in Gabon. The effect was the opposite of that sought: the high cost of the residence cards encouraged migrants to live illegally, to prefer to fall prey to racketeers every day rather than to seek to regularise their situation.
39To eliminate illegal immigration and better control foreign workers, the Gabonese authorities then adopted a more radical solution: deportation - a measure they justified by the alleged ‘demographic invasion’ of foreign origin the country was prey to  and the ‘economic despoliation’ carried out by the foreigners who had been admitted to valorise Gabon’s resources (Loungou, 2010). In 1995, the operation baptised ‘Tonnerre’ (Thunder) resulted in the deportation of 65,000 foreign nationals. Of the 15,000 Senegalese then living in Gabon, including 12,000 in possession of residence cards, more than 2,000 were ‘repatriated’ (at their own expense) while a minority managed to regularise their situation.
40It was thus an opportunity for the Gabonese authorities to consolidate their ‘migration revenue’. Let us recall that at that time the residence card cost 700,000 francs CFA for a Senegalese national, its renewal 50,000, the visa 35,000 and the legal repatriation deposit fee 396,240 francs CFA. A few employers did nevertheless agree to regularise their foreign employees’ situation, like the President of the National Assembly and head of a timber company who spent ten million francs CFA to do this (Walfadjiri, 20 February 1995). This considerable financial manna filled the coffers of the Gabonese State and, as the geographer Serge Loungou pointed out, it was not purely by chance that the three most extensive deportation and forced regularisation operations, deployed in 1992, 1995 and 2008, preceded major political events, requiring heavy financial investment (Loungou, 2010).
Between Voluntary Repatriation Requests and Strike Action in the Libreville Markets
41The last generations to arrive illegally soon found themselves trapped in Gabonese territory. They did not have the means to pay for a return visa and were less and less capable of coping with the "existential insecurity" (Whitehouse, 2012) caused by the general hostility of the Gabonese populations and the recurrent signs of discrimination and arbitrary detention. In 2005, the Senegalese ambassador in Gabon organised the voluntary repatriation of "destitute" Senegalese. Over the years, the proportion of Senegalese in irregular situations  and living in precarity in relation to the whole population of Senegalese nationals living in Gabon tended to increase. In 2015, the Gabon immigration authority, the Direction Générale de la Documentation et de l’Immigration (DGDI), launched new deportation operations of undocumented foreigners ("sans-papiers"), this time invoking the terrorist threat of Boko Haram. The situation became further envenomed after the death in non-elucidated circumstances of a Senegalese taxi driver under arrest, then the prolonged incarceration of 70 Senegalese nationals, arrested at their work place for not being in possession of a residence permit. In the age of social media, it was the Senegalese NGO Horizon sans Frontière (horizon without borders), relayed by the website Ferloo and the Senegalese media, and not Entraide, the federation of Senegalese associations established in Gabon, which raised concerns about the silence of the Senegalese diplomatic authorities. The NGO accused the Gabonese authorities of ill treatment and demanded the setting up of a legal enquiry. It was a delicate situation which has led the Senegalese government to demand that full light should be shed on the conditions of detention of their fellow citizens. The following year, it was the turn of 900 Senegalese nationals based in Libreville to apply at their embassy for voluntary repatriation to Senegal, since they could neither meet the Gabonese legal requirements nor financially afford their return to Senegal.
42Like all trades people in Libreville, the Senegalese are also increasingly subject to harassment by the municipal authorities which hope to collect new taxes to better cope with the economic recession. In October 2019, West African traders  working on the markets at Libreville, who in the past would just lie low, closed shop for three days, at the same time as the Gabonese shopkeepers, to denounce the extortion of funds and police repression  which they too were victims of. Not getting satisfaction from the Gabonese authorities, they organised demonstrations in front of their diplomatic representations. There too the associations which defend the interests of Senegalese migrants failed to put pressure on the Senegalese government. A diplomat who had lived in Gabon remarked: "The issues have always been raised and put before the Senegalese administration, but realpolitik, raison d’État, all that, meant that the small Senegalese trader at Libreville was sacrificed for a raison d’État, to please the Gabonese administration".
43Given the worsening of the economic situation in Gabon and the shared knowledge of the impact of the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire on the condition of migrants, the Senegalese nationals were reassessing their future. If those most well-established in Gabonese society were determined to tighten their belts, "flamber moins and invest usefully" in Senegal (Dimé, 2015), the most vulnerable had to find other ways out, since they could no longer count on getting a pension.
“We don’t go home to get involved in politics, but it’s politics that makes you go home”
44At the end of the 1990s, instead of the traditional notables, the wealthiest Senegalese living in central Africa began to play an unprecedented role in the transformation of the local political life of Ourossogui, a village in the central valley of the Senegal river, that had become a fully-functioning municipality (commune de plein exercice) (Bredeloup 1997; Sall 2004). The first mayors of the municipality were then chosen among the former emigrant diamond merchants seeking to establish a new deal with external partners and to develop new business activities locally. But it was above all starting with the presidential elections of February 2012 that immigrants from Africa and, in particular, from Gabon, played a determining role in Senegalese electoral history. Not only did they fund the campaign of the candidate Macky Sall , but it was also their intention to play a more direct role in the renewal of political debate in Senegal. From now on, these migrants saw their village or home country less as a place to retire to, than as a place that was economically viable. This handful of business operators, influential if ageing, reinvested in the townships of the Senegal river valley, set up factories, hotels and large scale agricultural projects there. Homecoming migrants and not pensioners, they positioned themselves as mayors and developers (maires bâtisseurs). Although the electoral results confirm the idea that the diaspora does not necessarily have a decisive influence on elections (Smith, 2015) because, on one hand, it represents only a modest proportion of the electorate (3.6 % in 2012 and 4.6 % in 2019) and on the other hand the rate of participation remains lower than for the country as a whole (46 % in 2019 against 66 % for the whole of Senegal), nevertheless by their political and economic involvement the most well-established immigrants from Gabon have contributed to the emergence of new forms of civic responsibility and the redeployment of economic activity in this deprived and remote region.
“Emigration to Gabon, it’s the home first”
45For those who have been salaried workers in Gabon at some stage, but without having the benefit of proper expatriate contracts, the situation remains more problematic. Even those who have been able to pay in to the Gabonese social security system for 20 years, like Mr S. whose story was outlined in the introduction to this article, or the electro-mechanic who had developed his expertise on the hydroelectric dams since 1976, there are many obstacles to overcome before they can obtain a retirement pension. Not only do they have to physically justify their existence annually to the Gabonese authorities, but they also have to open a bank account in Gabon to be allowed to receive their pension in Senegal. As for those who have worked in Gabon for less than 15 years, as salaried workers in the public or private sector, theoretically there is the possibility of getting their annual contributions refunded in one lump sum. But the majority of the people we met, whether it was bank employees, cooks in shipping companies, an electrician who had worked at the Gabonese social security office, or teachers who had turned to teaching in the private sector when their public sector post was ‘Gabonised’, have not to date been reimbursed.
46The Senegalese remain foreigners in Gabon. The majority of them refused to take Gabonese nationality and do everything they can to make sure that their children go back to live in Senegal, thus sheltering them from the Gabonese life style that they consider to be too permissive. The Senegalese migrants make a point of repatriating their savings. Their first priority is to build a house for the family in Senegal; real estate is the best guarantee for the future, the best retirement solution. Organisations set up by the Senegalese State (Banque Sénégalaise de l’Habitat), supported locally by Senegalese migrants associations, acting as guarantors (L’Entraide des Sénégalais au Gabon, Fedde Fuuta), or microfinance companies also encourage them in their projects. This is how Mr S subscribed for twenty years to PAMECAS  before being offered a villa in the suburbs of Dakar that he had to mortgage temporarily. This too is how Mr F. had to sell his to finance his return from Spain to Gabon, or Mr G., once the house was built, first repatriated his children there, now young adults, before definitively living there himself with his wife. Collective actions were also undertaken and several hundred lots were allocated to Senegalese in Gabon after being made viable and built, first at Mbao (suburb of Dakar) and Rufisque and more recently near the new town of Diamniadio, opening up new perspectives for speculation.
47"In Gabon, the doors are always open to all Africans who seek to play a role, without ulterior motives, in its economic and social progress […]. When a foreigner offers us his labour, let us offer him our friendship in return" proclaimed President Omar Bongo Odimba on the occasion of a speech to the nation in 1974. Looking at the genesis of the Senegalese migratory movements in Gabon has enabled us to better understand how new fluxes have emerged following the first migrations managed and controlled by the colonial State, then by the Gabonese State. First dispatched on the orders of the French colonizers to assist in the ‘mission civilisatrice’ (‘civilising mission’), later invited by President Omar Bongo to construct the country when the oil was flowing freely, today the Senegalese migrants, like all African foreign migrants, are accused of illegality and transformed into scapegoats. Since the sharp decline in the economic situation in the country, the Gabonese authorities have proved incapable of ensuring a more equitable distribution of the wealth of the country. If the patterns of migration have changed considerably over the centuries as public and private sector salaried employees have been replaced by cohorts of traders, small- or large-scale, the migratory process would appear nevertheless to perpetuate earlier geopolitical asymmetries constructed during the colonial period. If the patterns of mobility today reflect a greater degree of individual freedom, they are nonetheless not exempt from constraints ; they are deployed in a troubled economic and political context where the African agreements regarding freedom of movement have proved inoperative and national preference has been privileged. To cope with increasing insecurity in Gabon and to be able to look forward to a less uncertain future, the Senegalese rely on their personal and family resources rather than on inter-state cooperation, which has barely got off the ground. Deploying discreet strategies, they invest in Senegal, in real estate for those of modest means, in politics for the better established. If the renewal of the dialogue within the Gabon-Senegal joint commission might lead to an improvement in the situation of Senegalese pensioners who have a long career in Gabon behind them, it is not certain that it will succeed in calming the political passions that have fragilised Gabonese national unity.
One franc CFA = 0.0015 Euro.
Regional integration is even more difficult to envisage when the two countries do not belong to the same communities and have not negotiated agreements for the free movement of migrants. Senegal is a member of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) whereas Gabon plays a role as Leader and Censor in CEMAC (Central African Economic and Monetary Community), jeopardising the very process of regional integration by its refusal to sign on to the procedures relative to free movement (see Zogo Ndaka, 2011).
The majority of Senegalese who have worked in Gabon have resettled in their home regions (mainly in the districts (départements) of Matam and Podor in the central Senegal river valley). During previous studies, returned migrants in the small towns and villages of Ndioum, Ourosogui, Matam, Kanel, Bokidiawé, Oréfondé were questioned about their life stories. Access via the associations (Entraide des Sénégalais du Gabon, Fedde Fuuta, Association des Retraités Sénégalais du Gabon) was preferred from 2017 so as to be able to contact migrants returned from Gabon scattered throughout Dakar. Then, although the networks of 'veterans of Gabon' were rather loose, it was possible on the basis of these first contacts to diversify the corpus and question former teachers, bank staff, jewellers, entrepreneurs in the construction industry or returned traders. It was on the other hand more difficult to question the new mayors who had returned from Gabon because they were highly mobile along the roads of Senegal. Two Senegalese currently in Gabon and involved remotely in the Senegalese elections were contacted by Whatsapp. Finally, the consultation of Senegalese news archives (over a 60 year period) offered an insight into the reactions of Senegalese migrants and their leaders to the recruitment of labour then to the various deportation operations deployed by the Gabonese authorities.
Mobilités, Voyages, Innovations et Dynamiques dans les Afriques méditerranéenne et subsaharienne (mobilities, journeys, innovations and dynamics in Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa). The aim of this platform is to contribute to changing perspectives on African migrations.
In reference to the work of S. Guth, 1984.
It was also the period when the French authorities had no hesitation in imprisoning in Gabon, far away from their West African homelands, those who were opposed to colonisation. Thus it was that Almamy Samory Touré, the Guniean resister, was imprisoned at Njolé in 1898 and died there in 1900. Shaykh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride Sufi fraternity, was also exiled at Mayumba and at Lambaréné for 7 years between 1895 and 1902. Far from tarnishing his popularity, this captivity enhanced his saintliness and his exile was transformed into a mystical experience. He is commemorated each year on the occasion of the Magal, which brings together hundreds of thousands of followers in the holy city of Touba. Pilgrimages are organised in Gabon by the Mourides.
Georges Mazenot (1970: 125), on the basis of the archives (AN-SOM Gabon-Congo, AEF series), reported that 25 Senegalese left Brazzaville on the orders of a French captain in March 1897 to punish 'Bonga people' accused of murdering a 'brutal Frenchman' who ran a trading post.
Blaise Diagne, who became the first black African member elected to the National Assembly in Senegal, was a customs officer at Libreville in 1898.
Independence, 19 August 1961.
The company SOCOBA-EDTPL was the first Gabonese construction company founded in 1964.
Founded in 1965, the Organisation Commune Africaine et Malgache (African and Malagassy Community Organisation) included African states, mainly French-speaking, with the aim of activating economic, cultural and social cooperation between its members. It ceased its activities in 1985.
2 million francs CFA, or the equivalent today of about 3,000 Euros.
The Senegalese jewellers were originally members of the caste of artisans. The craft was handed down from father to son and the master jeweller was often a member of the apprentice's family. In this milieu, marriages are endogamous.
According to the Gabon Direction Générale de la Documentation (national documentation service), there were 5,368 Senegalese in 1976, 10,933 in 1985 and 15,000 in 1993, including 3,000 undocumented migrants. The number of Senegalese in Gabon is estimated at 29,057 according to the 2013 figures of the United Nations Departement of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), far behind Gambia and Mauritania; according to the latest Senegalese general population census (RGPHAE for 2013), 34,354 Senegalese were in Gabon, the same number as in Côte d’Ivoire. Europe has become the main destination for Senegalese (49.7 %) ahead of the continent of Africa (47 %).
The Société des Textiles du Gabon (SOTEGA) which specialised in the manufacture of wax fabric (pagnes) stopped business in the late 1990s owing to its uncompetitiveness, the obsolescence of its equipment and its unsatisfactory management. While a few shops selling wax and cloth belong to the wives of Gabonese political personalities, the majority are owned by foreign businessmen, Lebanese or West African.
The difficulties of carrying out a census of the population of Gabon are recurrent, which does nothing to prevent the authorities from artificially boosting the number of foreigners and also exaggerating the size of the Gabonese populations.
According to the Senegalese embassy at Libreville, in 2012, two Senegalese out of three were in an irregular situation in Gabon, and "were involved in a daily game of hide-and-seek with the Gabonese police" (Wal Fadjiri, 14 February 2012). This is the opposite ratio compared to the preceding decades.
In the paper Infogabon of 18 October 2019, it was a question of "expatriate businessmen".
A young Gabonese trader set fire to himself to protest against the confiscation of his goods in the big market at Mont-Mbouet.
Whereas during the presidential elections of 2019, President Macky Sall was beaten by the whole of the opposition, everywhere else in the world, in central Africa (78 %), West Africa (59 %) and southern Africa (53 %), he came first. In Gabon he won almost 74 % of the recorded votes.
PAMECAS = Partenariat pour la Mobilisation de l’Épargne et le Crédit au Sénégal (partnership for the mobilisation of savings and credit in Senegal). The purpose of this structure is to develop savings and credit cooperatives and to mobilise the financial potential of the Senegalese, whether or not they are migrants.