Peace pact raises hope in Senegal

After 22 years, Casamance war is winding down
From Africa Renewal: 
page 14

As government and rebel leaders were gathering to sign a peace accord in Ziguinchor to end one of Africa’s longest civil conflicts, people in other parts of Casamance, Senegal’s southernmost region, were already experiencing the fruits of peace. With financing from the government, World Bank and other donors, some 35 kilometres of rural roads had been built over the past two years to 10 remote communities. Among a score of completed school projects, a new teachers’ college opened in Nyassa in September, along with a health clinic and a textiles and clothing manufacturing centre. In nearby Youtou, work has begun on a community cultural centre. In the village of Mpack -- once on the front lines of the war -- a new marketplace has been built.

In light of such tangible progress, Mr. Mamadou Mbodji, a representative of the non-governmental Forum Civil, saw the 30 December 2004 agreement as more of a shift than a new beginning. “At the economic level -- and the social level as well -- peace has come to Casamance. Even in the military sphere, there has been a halt to the fighting. The agreement today will formalize this situation.”

President Abdoulaye Wade (left) with Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, political leader of the Casamance rebels President Abdoulaye Wade (left) with Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, political leader of the Casamance rebels.
Photograph: AFP / Getty Images / Seyllou Diallo

The accord reflects high-level political commitment from both sides. President Abdoulaye Wade attended the ceremony, and the accord was signed by his interior minister and by Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, general secretary of the insurgent Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC).

To a cheering crowd of thousands, President Wade pledged that his government would negotiate the details of a definitive settlement. He promised CFA80 bn (nearly US$160 mn) from the government and donor agencies to continue reconstruction and development programmes in Casamance, as well as to reintegrate the MFDC’s ex-combatants.

Father Diamacoune called on all MFDC members and supporters to abide by the accord, which explicitly renounces armed violence and commits the movement to pursuing its aims by political means. That point was symbolized by the presence of a detachment of 99 members of Atika, the MFDC’s military wing, wearing T-shirts proclaiming “peace.”

“Peace will change many things in the region, especially for the economy,” commented Mr. Samba Sylla, a Ziguinchor businessman. “Now the region is economically asphyxiated because of its isolation. But once peace returns, we can hope for new opportunities.”

West Africa’s longest war

The war in Casamance was West Africa’s oldest and most persistent. Although it never approached the scale of many other conflicts in the region, it still caused significant suffering among the people of Casamance, and just across Senegal’s borders. Humanitarian groups estimate that up to 5,000 people were killed during two decades of fighting, that more than 60,000 have been internally displaced and that tens of thousands more have sought refuge in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia.

A definitive resolution of the Casamance war would further reduce tensions in the region. Peace has recently been restored in Sierra Leone and more tentatively in Liberia, but Côte d’Ivoire is divided by rival armed forces and neighbouring Guinea-Bissau remains politically unsettled.

One major factor in the Casamance conflict has been the region’s relative isolation from the rest of the country. It is physically separated from most of northern Senegal by the Gambia (see map). Besides this geographical divide, Casamance is socially and ethnically distinct. Nearly two-thirds of its people are Diola, while Wolof, who are the largest group nationally, constitute just 5 per cent of Casamance’s population.

Regionalist sentiment existed even before independence in 1960. But President Léopold Sédar Senghor managed to accommodate local aspirations to some extent by bringing prominent Casamançais into the government. Then economic austerity in the 1970s made it harder to create public jobs, while severe drought led more and more Wolof and other northerners to migrate to Ziguinchor and Casamance’s fertile countryside. This demographic pressure -- combined with an agrarian reform law that undermined traditional land rights -- heightened local resentments.

Repression provokes insurgency

In December 1982, hundreds of Casamançais, including many women, demonstrated in Ziguinchor. The authorities responded with widespread arrests. President Wade has acknowledged that the government’s crackdown on the peaceful women’s protest was a “mistake” that set the stage for the subsequent insurgency.

A year later, another large demonstration was held in Ziguinchor, with protesters and the newly created MFDC openly calling for Casamance’s independence. The army moved in with gunfire, killing two dozen civilians, according to the official toll, and possibly several times that number, according to other sources. Hundreds were arrested.

With the channels for peaceful protest closed off, a number of MFDC leaders who had escaped detention went into the forests and into exile to begin organizing an armed wing of the movement, Atika (“warrior” in the Diola language). They spent most of that decade recruiting, training and acquiring weapons, including from arms caches left behind by Guinea-Bissau’s former liberation movement and from purchases on the regional arms market.

In 1990, Atika began to attack Senegalese army camps and patrols systematically. The armed forces responded with large-scale deployments and sweeps. A 1991 cease-fire agreement with the MFDC’s Northern Front brought relative calm to the area along the border with the Gambia. But fighting raged sporadically elsewhere for the rest of the decade.

The army was accused by Amnesty International and local human rights groups of torture and summary executions of suspected MFDC supporters. The rebels were blamed for attacking civilians and for laying landmines that caused hundreds of serious injuries and deaths. Because of the general insecurity, about 230 Casamançais villages were abandoned, while the area’s agricultural production and tourism were severely hurt.

Guinea-Bissau connection

One early advantage held by the MFDC was its ability to operate from rear bases across the heavily forested border with neighbouring Guinea-Bissau. The presence of large numbers of Casamançais refugees, as well as ethnic and family ties with local communities, facilitated the MFDC’s movement through that country.

In time, the MFDC’s presence became a destabilizing factor within Guinea-Bissau. A government attempt to dismiss an army commander accused of selling arms to the MFDC precipitated a brief but intense civil war in 1998–99. While fighters from the MFDC’s hardline Southern Front joined the opposition forces, Senegal dispatched 2,500 troops to support the government.

Thanks to regional peacekeeping efforts, a semblance of peace was restored in Guinea-Bissau, although the political situation there remains uncertain. The end to the civil war led to a shift in Casamance’s own conflict, since it brought the expulsion of most MFDC forces from Guinea-Bissau in 2000–01. That military setback -- combined with an erosion of the MFDC’s public support in Casamance itself -- eventually spurred most segments of the group to move away from armed struggle.

Meanwhile, the Senegalese presidential election in 2000 brought the national political opposition, led by Mr. Wade, to power. In one of his very first speeches, President Wade proclaimed that ending the conflict in Casamance would be his government’s “priority of priorities.”

Conflict in Casamance

Some of the government’s initial attempts to negotiate with the MFDC bogged down, in part because of splits within the movement’s political and military wings. But gradually, other segments of Casamançais society -- women, youth associations, artists and musicians, civil servants and traditional leaders -- started holding meetings, street marches and other actions to demand that both sides sit down at the peace table. This put further pressure on various MFDC leaders to renounce armed struggle, and paved the way for the 30 December accord.

Because of such internal political dynamics, the peace process in Senegal has been primarily homegrown, in contrast with most other recent agreements in Africa. Although the neighbouring countries of Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia contributed to improving conditions for peace, no outside mediators were involved in the actual talks. “There is no foreign government or organization acting as a guarantor,” commented Mr. Pape Samba Kâne, editor of the independent newspaper Taxi.

Development high on agenda

Although the MFDC originally proclaimed independence as its goal, Mr. Robert Sagna, the mayor of Ziguinchor, noted that in his discussions with the rebels they most often complained about being excluded from the region’s economic and political development and wanted to be “recognized as full Senegalese.”

As cease-fire agreements took hold, the government and various donor agencies began addressing the region’s relative marginalization. The entire cabinet convened in Ziguinchor in July 2003 -- the first time it had ever met outside Dakar, the national capital -- to discuss how to allocate some CFA67 bn that had been pledged by donor agencies for Casamance’s reconstruction and development. Plans included construction of a regional university and a second high school in Ziguinchor, restoration of ferry service between Casamance and Dakar, rehabilitation of the road network, construction of a bridge across the Gambia River and improvement of two local airports, as well as the establishment of special funds to revive Casamance’s tourist services and finance women’s small-scale business enterprises.

Young volunteer helping rebuild a Casamance village destroyed in the war A young volunteer helping rebuild a Casamance village destroyed in the war.
Photograph: AFP / Getty Images / Seyllou Diallo

The government also encouraged youths from throughout the country to volunteer for reconstruction activities. Working alongside troops from the regular army, dozens came to Casamance to refurbish damaged infrastructure and to rebuild houses for displaced people returning home.

In such ways, the rebels and the wider population could see the concrete benefits of peace -- and the advantages of working with other Senegalese to advance the region’s development. Most prominent MFDC leaders have stopped calling for independence and now seem open to a different political status for Casamance.

A month after the signing of the accord, government and MFDC negotiators met again for the first in a series of talks on the details of a comprehensive settlement. The two sides agreed to set up committees consisting of government, military and MFDC figures to oversee the disarmament and demobilization of former insurgents, as well as their reintegration into productive activities or into the regular army and police. Progress has also been made in establishing programmes for demining operations and the return of refugees and displaced people.

“The work of consolidation, through ongoing dialogue, remains,” emphasizes Mr. Alioune Tine, head of a national human rights group. “Disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and social reintegration must succeed. We have to reinforce everything that destroys the economy of war, in favour of an economy of peace. We must ensure that the glimmer becomes a flame.”