The Senegalese government and separatist rebels in Casamance have signed a peace deal to end 22 years of conflict and revive the lush but ravaged southern region which was once the country’s bread-basket and top tourist destination.
President Abdoulaye Wade, most of the government and a bevy of foreign ambassadors and officials descended on Ziguinchor on Thursday, journeying the 450 km south from Dakar to the capital of this region wedged between Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
“This is not just one more peace deal,” Wade told a cheering crowd of thousands there, referring to ceasefire accords that went wrong in 1991 and 2001 and endless talks that have broken down in more than two decades of efforts to end the damaging conflict.
Ziguinchor’s 30 December deal to end the fighting was signed by Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom and a founder of the separatist Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, a 77-year-old white-robed priest.
Several groups in the faction-ridden movement refused to ink the peace accord, but it was unclear how much influence they wielded or how significant the snubs would be in the long run.
|Casamance is bordered by Gambia to the north and Guinea-Bissau to the south|
The Senegalese media as well as the crowds in Ziguinchor expressed high hopes that this time around Casamance would see lasting peace. Posters thrown up on city roads proclaimed “Long Live Peace” while radio and television broadcast the peace ceremony live, and the national press plastered the accord across their front pages on Friday.
Muslims and Christians - who form a large community in Casamance - joined in prayers for peace.
In a statement from its headquarters in Addis Ababa, the African Union pledged to support the process and hoped it would “usher in an era of reconciliation and reconstruction in the southern region of Senegal.”
Since the on-off separatist conflict broke out in 1982, it has displaced 50,000 people, left hundreds injured by land-mines and ravaged the once thriving economy.
Much of the fertile land in Casamance -- where paddy rice, cashews and mangoes used to flourish -- has been abandoned and its beach hotels built for wealthy Westerners lie half empty.
Peace means cash
With Casamance desperate to see better economic times, the peace accord will enable some 62 billion CFA francs (US$ 129 million) in funds from 19 international donors to be pumped into reconstruction schemes and there should also be fresh cash from the government in Dakar.
The government had been holding off on the launch of economic reconstruction in Casamance until progress was achieved on the peace front. The money is expected to go towards rebuilding roads and villages and developing the tourism, timber and fishing industries.
An economic upturn is expected to undermine the root cause of the rebellion by people from the Diola ethnic group who complained of being marginalised by Wolofs, Senegal’s dominant ethnic group. Secessionism moreover was facilitated by the physical separation of Casamance from the rest of Senegal, with English-speaking Gambia planted between.
Under the terms of the five-clause peace deal, the MFDC “solemnly decides once and for all to give up armed struggle and the use of violence.”
The government for its part pledged to give fighters an amnesty and integrate former combatants in paramilitary units on a voluntary basis.
The deal also called for demining as well as aid for returnees and the reconstruction of Casamance.
A peace monitoring committee made up of all parties is to oversee the ceasefire and another group will supervise the demobilisation of fighters and stockpiling of arms under the control of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the African human rights group, RADDHO.
Efforts to negotiate an end to the simmering secessionist conflict took a new turn after Wade was elected to office in March 2000. He opted for direct dialogue with the separatists and first met with long-time MFDC leader Diamacoune in May 2003.
Earlier under former president Abdou Diouf, Senegal found an unexpected ally in Casamance’s southern neighbour Guinea-Bissau, which had previously served as a safe haven for separatist fighters.
Kumba Yala was elected president of Guinea-Bissau in 2000 and put an end to the tolerance of the Casamance separatists shown by his predecessors. He sent in the army to chase them out of their bases on the Guinean side of the border -- a move which significantly weakened the rebels' military capability.
Thousands of people displaced by the conflict have been awaiting peace before returning home. Many have taken refuge in nearby towns and according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 7,000 have sought shelter in Guinea-Bissau. It has also registered 500 refugees from the Casamance in Gambia.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions