(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

No end to region’s longest-running war

[Senegal] Refugees from Casamance sheltering at an abandoned police station across the border in The Gambia. [Date picture taken: 06/09/2006]
Nicholas Reader/IRIN

Fighting has lulled again between the Senegal army and rebel factions in the restive southern Senegal province Casamance, but analysts say West Africa’s longest running conflict is far from being resolved.

Senegal’s army overran the main base of a faction of rebels it had been fighting since mid-August on 6 October, and there have been three further skirmishes between the army and rebels since then, army spokesman General Abdoulaye Fall told IRIN.

Some 5,247 civilians who fled across the northern border into neighbouring Gambia started receiving food handouts sufficient for one month on Monday, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

There have also been distributions of shelter materials, mosquito nets and jerry cans to refugees, and NGOs have made some distributions to host families in 46 villages that have taken in refugees.

The UN children’s agency (UNICEF) in The Gambia said it had started work on sanitation and education projects, and would also be running mine-awareness training for the refugees.

Edele Thebaud, programme officer at UNICEF in the Gambian capital, Banjul, said there might be more unregistered refugees in villages that have not yet been surveyed, and further distributions might be needed.

Local aid groups have estimated another 10,000 people have fled their homes inside Casamance.

The displaced people have said they will not return home until the Senegal army has left the region, which aid workers say they do not anticipate anytime soon.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated last month that the latest arrivals bring the total number of people displaced in Casamance since fighting started in the region in the 1980s to 64,000.

The fight goes on

According to historians, Senegal’s first president, Leopold Senghor, made a promise to Casamance’s leaders before independence from France in 1960 that if they joined Senegal for 20 years they would have their own independence afterwards.

When the government didn’t follow through on the promise in 1980, street demonstrations in the Casamance capital, Ziguinchor, turned violent.

The height of popularity of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) followed what human rights groups have said was brutal repression against demonstrators calling on officials to make good on Senghor’s promise.

Today, the MFDC has split. Salif Sadio, a hardliner who refuses all negotiations, and Magne Dieme, who signed a peace deal with the Senegal government in December 2004, are the reclusive leaders of each faction.

Bloody clashes between Sadio’s group and the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau armies in the south of the region in March saw Sadio’s faction routed. His rag-tag group, estimated at between 300 and 1,000 poorly armed and clothed men and boys, trudged through the dense forest to the north of the region, where Dieme’s faction is based.

By June, the two factions were fighting each other, as Sadio tried to win control of Dieme’s bases, according to local analysts.

In August, the Senegal army waded in and villagers started fleeing.

No reason to fight

Even amid the renewed fighting, analysts say no one, including the rebels, can say with confidence what the fight is about anymore.

“If people want anything these days, it is to achieve more equality with the rest of Senegal for Casamance, certainly not independence,” a prominent local journalist in Ziguinchor told IRIN.

Rebels only show themselves to fight, recruit unemployed youths from villages in the dirt-poor region, or to commit highway robbery before ducking back into the thick forest, local residents say.

There are no more political lectures or propaganda leaflets dropped in letterboxes damning the government in Dakar.

“Nobody has ever really been clear what the rebels want and it has all got obfuscated in historical detail,” said Martin Evans, an expert on Casamance at the University of Leicester who has conducted extensive interviews with MFDC rebels.

“When you talk with the rebels, you do get from some of them very hardline separatist discourse. Others have been prepared to compromise. There are shades of opinion ranging from those who are seeking better economic terms, and people who say independence or death,” Evans said.

Peace process on hold

While the academics grapple with the goals of the MFDC, the Senegal government has tried, and failed, to negotiate.

President Abdoulaye Wade made bringing peace to Casamance part of his campaign promise in 2000. After a hardline leader of the movement, Sidi Badji, died in 2003, Wade seized the opportunity and started another peace process, the region’s fourth.

In December 2004, Dieme’s faction of the MFDC signed Wade’s agreement in Banjul.

Richard Reeve, analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said Wade has never been as focused on problems at home as abroad.

“Wade has not been clear what he’s offering Casamance. He wants to stop the rebellion because he said he will stop it. He has signed several peace agreements but they don’t mean much. Ultimately, Wade has always been more interested in other countries than Casamance,” Reeve said.

Wade has recently risen to international prominence by trying to secure an entry for the UN into the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, and to bring an end to political instability in Cote d’Ivoire.

“He hasn’t given up on the diplomatic track (in Casamance), but he is not interested in negotiating with the harder core element. He wants a straight agreement with those people most likely to agree to his terms, and a military defeat of the hardliners,” Reeve said.

Claims of neglect

Meanwhile, local leaders in Ziguinchor have bemoaned what they say is the central government’s ignorance of their plight.

As part of the 2004 agreement, the Senegal government promised US $402 million in aid for reconstruction and demining of the region, and support for return and reintegration of the civilians forced to flee their homes.

But according to the terms of the deal, the aid would be provided only when “conclusive peace” materialises. So far little more than new roofs for some houses has been sent, local relief workers say.

“The real needs of the region have been estimated at CFA 100 billion (US $200 million),” said Koussaynobo Alphonse Diedhiou, coordinator of the National Agency for the Reconstruction of Casamance (ANRAC) in Ziguinchor.

“It is very difficult to realise a programme of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of the rebels, for example, without a peace process in place. There has not been a meeting between the MFDC and the government since 2004,” he said.

Evans at the University of Leicester suggested the absence of any valuable resources in Casamance might be what is keeping the rebels fighting.

“War economies have never been much of a driver as there are not high value resources in the areas. While there might be some vested interests, it is little more than gangsterism over the best orchards and timber, activities which fit into a pattern of underdevelopment and poverty, and have been seized on by some armed groups,” he said. “Some people feel that the peace process under Wade has become a bit of an end in itself, a way of spinning the process out and getting more resources.”

mad/nr/cs

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