1. Home
  2. West Africa
  3. Senegal

Between war and peace

Forgotten Conflicts - Casamance

Between war and peace Tom Burke/Flickr

Senegal has a proud musical heritage, but in the southern region of Casamance they too often sing of pain, suffering and conflict without end.

“Tell us, who brought this war?” sing Les Frères du Sud, a local band. “Why all this misery? Tell us, how have we gotten into this mess?”

Atrocities in nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone have stolen the regional headlines over the years, but the low-intensity separatist struggle in Casamance is West Africa’s longest-running civil conflict.

Three decades of on-and-off war have killed thousands of people, displaced tens of thousands more, crippled the rural-based economy and turned large tracts of territory into no-go zones due to landmines.

Casamance – geographically isolated from the rest of the country – is both achingly beautiful and agriculturally rich. Abundant in rice, citrus and cashew nuts, this fertile limb wedged between Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia should be Senegal’s breadbasket and fruit bowl. Instead, it is one of Africa’s spoiled beauties. Unexploded munitions have left crops unusable, smugglers make the lush forests their own, and the white sandy beaches that once promised a bonanza are largely devoid of foreign tourists.

The armed struggle may now be dormant, but economic and political grievances linger and the criminal and social legacies of the conflict make it hard for the region to move forward and prosper.

Caught in the crossfire, people fled – many, more than once – to villages not yet touched by the fighting. The luckier ones were welcomed by family and friends. The less fortunate were forced to resettle wherever they could find some space. There were no formal camps for the displaced.

Malang Sadio is 70 years old. The conflict forced him to move on three occasions, the first in 1992. "The second time was in 1998," he told IRIN. "The rebels took our belongings. They destroyed our crops and our cashew trees, which were our main asset." In 2009, the Senegalese army bombed his latest “home” village, targeting some rebels who had settled there.

Fishermen in Casamance, Senegal
Eduard Garcia/ Flickr
Fishermen in Casamance, Senegal

“All our houses were destroyed during the bombing,” Sadio said. “Finally, we took advantage during a lull and fled to Ziguinchor, leaving all our belongings behind. But when we arrived, there were no humanitarian structures to welcome us.”

Sadio and his family settled in a poor neighbourhood in Ziguinchor, the largest city in Casamance and the second biggest in Senegal after the capital Dakar. Living under what he described as “harsh conditions” for the past six years, there are no jobs to support them and little hope of ever being able to return to the rural existence they once knew.

Roots of resistance

The rebellion was born out of the resentment of the southern Diola people for Senegal’s dominant Wolof group in the decades following independence from France in 1960. The Diola, who represent only 3.7 percent of the population but 60 percent of people in the Ziguinchor region, have traditional beliefs that set them apart from other Senegalese groups.

But Martin Evans, a senior lecturer on international development at the University of Chester who specialises on the Casamance conflict, warns against viewing it simply through the prism of ethnicity. "It's about power, it's about politics, and most of all it is about history," he told IRIN.

When greater autonomy didn't materialise in the first decades after independence, separatist sentiment began to grow. Diolas accused the Nordistes (northerners) of failing to respect their traditions and monopolising jobs, property and land.

Events in 1980, including a violent student strike at Ziguinchor’s state college and outrage over their football team losing the Senegalese Cup due to supposedly unfair refereeing decisions, contributed to the growing tensions. Intellectuals spoke of a “second colonisation” and of the erosion of Casamance’s cultural identity.

"Casamance has shouldered a very heavy burden for over 30 years.” - Jean-Claude Marut, Casamance expert

The main figure driving the separatist cause was charismatic Roman Catholic priest Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, who reached a wide audience with provocative radio broadcasts. Tensions boiled over on 26 December 1982 when gendarmes opened fire on protesters who had removed the Senegalese tricolour on public buildings in the region's main city of Ziguinchor and replaced them with the white flag of Casamance.

Senghor was among those arrested in the ensuing crackdown. The following December in Dakar, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, along with eight other leading agitators of the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC in French).

Angry demonstrators marched into Ziguinchor a week after the sentencing, on 18 December 1983, armed with spears, machetes and hunting rifles. Security forces quashed the protest, but only at great human cost. Officially there were 24 fatalities and 250 arrests, but other reports put the death toll nearer 200. It became known as “Red Sunday” and was the seminal event in Casamance’s separatist struggle.

Rice cultivation in Casamance, Senegal
Eduard Garcia/ Flickr
Rice cultivation in Casamance, Senegal

A war in the shadows

The first years of the conflict were marked by a low-intensity guerrilla campaign by armed MFDC rebels, including retired Senegalese military officers and Casamançais veterans of the wars in Algeria and Indochina.

"For the majority still displaced, it remains to be seen whether peace will prove durable enough to give them the opportunity to rebuild their lives in their rural homeland.” - Martin Evans

President Abdou Diouf made overtures with the appointment of four Casamançais ministers to his cabinet, but his carrot-and-stick approach also saw the government accused of repression, including the torture and killing of political prisoners.

The conflict stepped out of the shadows when the armed wing of the MFDC, known as Atika (warrior in the Diola language), attacked a security post on the Gambian border on 20 April 1990, killing two customs officials.

Clashes between the rebels and the Senegalese security forces, particularly along the Guinea-Bissau border, where tens of thousands of people were displaced from their villages, became regular events.

The 1995-1998 period saw fighting escalate as the rebels secured sophisticated weaponry through allies in The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. In July 1995, 23 soldiers were killed at Babonda near the Guinea-Bissau border after being captured in an ambush. Two years later, in August 1997, 25 soldiers were killed in another ambush, this time just southeast of Ziguinchor.

The carpeting of the territory with anti-personnel mines from 1997 onwards, by the Senegalese military as well as the rebels, remains one of the worst legacies of the conflict. Large areas of prime agricultural land were effectively written off and the mines remain a major issue to this day.

Over the decades, the separatist struggle has become entangled in the web of criminal enterprises that straddle the region’s porous borders. Rival rebel factions vie for control of the lucrative cashew and cannabis industries, while army units profit from the illegal logging trade.

For the most part, the separatist struggle in Casamance has been fought in a media vacuum. International attention has focused on other, more immediately troubling conflicts with bigger bombs, larger death tolls, and more terrible atrocities.

Amnesty International, however, did draw attention to the extrajudicial killings, disappearances and flagrant human rights abuses in an influential February 1998 report.

Casualty figures are hard to determine, though 2004 estimates put the death toll at somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 – comparable, in terms of the scale of human loss at least, to Northern Ireland’s 30-year “Troubles”.

Children in Casamance, Senegal
Eduard Garcia/ Flickr
Children in Casamance, Senegal

The displaced

According to the Association for the Development of the District of Nysassia (APRAN), a local NGO that has been working to help the displaced return home, 78 villages in Lower Casamance were completely destroyed during the fighting and more than 150,000 people lost their homes.

Thousands of civilians remain internally displaced by the conflict, including some 6,000 in Ziguinchor, and at least another 10,000 refugees are split between The Gambia or Guinea-Bissau, many still harbouring deep resentment for Senegalese authority.

Demba Keita, secretary general of APRAN, told IRIN that many people want to return home but feel conditions are not right to allow them to do so.

“Their villages were wiped out and now they have no means for reconstruction," he said. "The state of Senegal does nothing to help them. We cannot convince donors to engage in reconstruction, because they feel the peace process does not move forward.”

In 2005, the government created the National Recovery Agency in Casamance (ANRAC) to help the displaced either rebuild their homes or resettle. But the program is often not funded and many of the few hundred mud homes that were built in 2013 and 2014 simply collapsed during the first rain storms.

A 2007 study by Evans examined the lives of internally displaced persons (IDPs) uprooted by fighting in rural areas along the Guinea-Bissau border in the first half of the 1990s.

"The sudden, large-scale, unplanned movement of people into Ziguinchor, coupled with the poor economic state of the region, has stretched normal socio-economic structures beyond their capacity to provide adequate and reasonably remunerative employment in urban sectors," he wrote.

"Instead, IDPs are stuck in poorly-paid and precarious semi-skilled or unskilled work. Their situation, and that of the town generally, provide very little opportunity for them to extend their skills into new forms of work or to invest in their own businesses. The hardship of IDPs is thus exacerbated relative to that of ordinary townsfolk, who are themselves impoverished."

Amy Sane, who fled to Ziguinchor 10 years ago from the southern village of Trankille, said that for her family to survive she has to walk seven or eight kilometers every day to fetch wood or wild fruits in the bush to sell back in town.

“It’s only a return to our village that can end our suffering, but unfortunately this is not possible with the current situation, because, like all those who have fled their villages, we have nothing to rebuild our house with," she told IRIN.

Those who do decide to return to rural villages and resettle on their own have the odds stacked against them.

"They are going back to areas that have been abandoned for a couple of decades," explained Evans. "Everything has more or less disappeared under the trees and scrub. So there's a lot of physical effort that has to go into clearing and reconstruction."

International aid?

International aid organisations abandoned large projects in Casamance after the widespread laying of mines in the late 1990s, but reconstruction efforts received a timely $10 million boost from USAID in 2000.

Agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNICEF have been resettling families, conducting vaccination drives, improving health care and trying to regenerate agricultural communities. Handicap International and the South African group Mechem have spearheaded a successful, if incomplete, demining campaign.

"Local people don’t even dare to go into the bush anymore. It is the army and MFDC who exploit the forests. There’s wood and there are cashews. It has become a real goldmine.” - Youssouph Coly, former rebel

But efforts so far have been piecemeal, and without a serious attempt to tackle the social and economic roots of the problem, little progress has been made.

"Reconstruction and development have been uneven and lopsided in some way: not particularly well judged in providing opportunities for local people," Evans noted.

A "nest of issues" around education and opportunities for younger people has left many in the region still feeling marginalised, he added.

“Hundreds of NGOs have worked for the development of Casamance. But if you drive through Casamance, you don’t see any development,” said Abdou Elinkine Diatta, who fought with Atika in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming a rebel spokesman. “Maybe it has helped develop Dakar. But there has been no development in Casamance."

Robert Piper, then UN humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, admitted last year that the situation in Casamance presents a real “dilemma” for the international aid community.

“On the one hand, there are very real needs here, particularly food insecurity. On the other hand, we also need to recognise that this is a well-endowed part of Senegal that should not have a humanitarian operation.”

Peace efforts

The previous Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, promised peace within 100 days of his 2000 inauguration. A much-heralded agreement signed four years later crumbled quickly amid accusations of misused patronage.

"The problem with Wade was that he always felt that the conflict could be 'bought off,' either through reconstruction/development goods to Casamance or through a divide-and-rule approach to the MFDC," Evans noted.

Peace became ever more elusive with the death in 2007 of Senghor, one of the few interlocutors who could claim to speak with some authority for the different factions of the MFDC.

Wade’s successor in 2012, President Macky Sall, breathed new life into the process, speaking of a “peace of the brave” and proposing a “Marshall Plan” for Casamance.

Senegal President, Macky Sall, addresses the European Parliament plenary
European Parliament/ © European Union 2013
Senegal President, Macky Sall, addresses the European Parliament plenary

Sall’s efforts bore fruit when prominent rebel leader Salif Sadio announced a unilateral ceasefire last April following negotiations led by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Roman Catholic peace group.

"Sall seems prepared to be more patient and has at least, through facilitating mediation efforts, recognised that the conflict is underpinned by political and social issues, even if sight of them has been somewhat lost in 32 years of conflict," Evans told IRIN.

The biggest impediment to finding a comprehensive and lasting solution is that the MFDC has splintered into several factions based in three countries – Senegal itself, and the refugee communities in Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

"Trying to get some sort of unified peace deal I think remains problematic," said Evans. "I think it's very hard. How do you get all these people around the table? How do you incorporate all these diverse elements, particularly some of the ones in neighbouring countries?"

Many of the people the MFDC leaders represent have become very embittered, especially refugees who have raised families abroad and have now been away for a generation or more. "A lot of them are living in a sort of folklore of exile: that they fled persecution from a very oppressive state," Evans said.

Many of the protagonists are widely seen as too invested in the criminal benefits of the status quo to seek change.

“Who profits from the conflict? Everybody,” said former rebel turned MFDC negotiator Youssouph Coly. “Local people don’t even dare to go into the bush anymore,” he told IRIN. “It is the army and MFDC who exploit the forests. There’s wood and there are cashews. It has become a real goldmine. You think these people want it to finish? No way.”

Despite noting the recent progress achieved by Sall, those who have been studying developments in Casamance for a long time remain unconvinced that a lasting peace is on the horizon.

"There are still enough hardcore elements in the MFDC who are committed to independence or death for them never to be prepared to negotiate anything less with the government; and those for whom the conflict is a way of life, of sorts," said Evans.

"For the majority still displaced, it remains to be seen whether peace will prove durable enough to give them the opportunity to rebuild their lives in their rural homeland."

French historian Jean-Claude Marut, another keen Casamance observer, agreed, but he also told IRIN, “There is no point indulging in fatalism. It would be good to be proved wrong. Casamance has shouldered a very heavy burden for over 30 years.”

After verses of anger and pain, there is a final note of optimism from Les Frères du Sud. “It is not too late,” they sing. “It’s up to us to decide.”

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.