Closer to war than to peace in Casamance?

On a recent morning in Ziguinchor, the main city of Senegal’s Casamance region, pre-school children sang the national anthem in a bright blue classroom as artillery fire sounded from several kilometres away.

Neither war, nor peace.

Recent clashes between the army and separatist troops in Casamance have underscored that the 27-year conflict is not over, and observers warn that recent years of relative calm must not be taken for granted.

After years of fighting in which tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes, the government and the rebel Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) signed a peace accord in 2004; yet the region remains plagued by occasional violent crime, political killings and bouts of fighting between the army and the splintered MFDC.

Landmines continue to claim lives and limbs and block access to farmland.

In the most recent unrest, beginning with a clash on 21 August, some Casamance residents once again got a taste of the upheaval seen during the height of fighting in the 1990s.

“People have the impression they are reliving the onset of the crisis,” said Lucien Gomis, president of the rural council of Boutoupa-Camaracounda, a community about 30km southeast of Ziguinchor. He said some families who recently returned after several years worry they will have to flee again. 

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Nouha Cissé, deputy coordinator of Alliance for Peace in Casamance, told IRIN: “After years of relative calm when the people had just started to believe that things could remain stable, people have plunged back into a psychosis.”

“Desperate to return”

Despite the uncertainty in recent years, families have returned to their home villages and are working to rebuild their lives.

“These are people impoverished by exile but really desperate to return,” said Martin Evans, international development lecturer at the University of Chester, who frequently travels to Casamance for research.

The number of internally displaced (IDPs) – most of whom live with relatives – is uncertain. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in 2008 put the number of IDPs at “10,000 to 70,000”. Thousands of Casamancais are also living in neighbouring Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.

Given the sporadic nature of violence in the region, many people regularly shuttle between where they sleep and where they farm, eager to resume their livelihoods but unable to fully resettle in their home villages. 

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
A woman and her children among hundreds who fled Diabir, just outside Ziguinchor, after clashes between the army and separatist troops

Why now?

Local media pose a question many Senegalese are asking themselves: Why the resumption of violence in Casamance?

Residents, intellectuals and civil society leaders say there is consensus on a few points: The current impasse is unsustainable, and the government and MFDC have had no strategy to overcome it; division in the MFDC is a considerable barrier; and fresh negotiations are indispensable.

“The protracted conflict stems from absence of a clear and committed political engagement,” Evans said. “This comes from a lack of vision and coherent policy on the part of the Senegalese government, and chronic fragmentation and lack of a clear political structure on the part of the MFDC.”

The government has repeatedly pointed to division in the MFDC as precluding dialogue.

Researcher Vincent Foucher of the Centre d'études d'Afrique noire, Bordeaux, questions this argument.

“The Senegalese state does not seem to really want negotiations on the core issues – the status of the region – and does not really acknowledge the MFDC, arguing that it is too divided,” Foucher told IRIN. “The division of the MFDC is a real problem, but this is a troublesome argument because the divisions in the MFDC owe something to the government’s policies.”

Divide and rule?

Critics say the government’s way of dealing with skirmishes has been to dole out money to this or that MFDC faction. The Collectif des cadres casamançais, a coalition of Casamance civic and business leaders, in a 5 September communiqué called it “an ignoble strategy, consisting of dividing and weakening the adversary through the magic of money”.

But Foucher said those in the MFDC accused of taking government money do not necessarily abandon the group’s cause.

“In examining the recent clashes one should not miss the fact that even among those MFDC combatants who have taken money from the government to abide by a de facto ceasefire, some still want independence or at least believe that since the government is not amenable to real negotiations, war should resume so as to force Dakar at least to grant some form of recognition.”

In a 4 September communiqué Caesar Badiate, head of an MFDC faction, said ‘Atika’, MFDC’s military wing, prefers negotiations but in recent clashes had reacted when provoked by the army.

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
A woman in a village near Ziguinchor, Casamance

President Abdoulaye Wade on 7 September in an address to the nation said he “deplored” the recent violence and that he would pursue "peace efforts" with the MFDC. Wade is scheduled to meet with the Collectif des cadres casamançais on 19 September.

Residents of Casamance told IRIN there is no substitute for renewing talks.

“We do not know the precise cause of these clashes and we have no idea what tomorrow holds,” said Ndeye Marie Sagna Le Caer, programme manager for the women’s conflict resolution group Kabonketoor (“let us forgive ourselves and one another” in the Diola language). “Right now the most important thing is to sit at the negotiating table to work towards a definitive peace.”

Robert Sagna, ex-mayor of Ziguinchor and former minister in charge of Casamance affairs, said it is also important to recognize the initiatives of local organizations that are "moving things forward to save Casamance and Senegal."

Ibrahima Badji, who lives in the neighbourhood of Lyndiane on the outskirts of Ziguinchor – hit by recent fighting – told IRIN the MFDC seems determined to ratchet up the conflict. “Perhaps they want to show the international community that the war is far from over here.”

However, Casamance-based journalist and author Oumar Diatta said there is reason for optimism: "The current situation is destructive but at the same time it has reminded people of the dangers of war, which spares no one."


Observers say any solution must take into account Gambia to the north and particularly Guinea-Bissau to the south. The political situation in these countries has heavily influenced conditions in Casamance.

Photo: BBC

One factor favouring the recent attacks is the change in Guinea-Bissau since the assassination of army chief of staff Tagme Na Wai, who used to control the MFDC’s southern front and force it to abide by a de facto ceasefire, researcher Foucher said.

Hours after the army chief’s death, President João Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. “With the new leadership in Guinea-Bissau that country’s stand regarding Casamance is still uncertain.”

If violence escalates…

Casamance residents told IRIN that if violence were to escalate waves of newly displaced would stream into Ziguinchor, whose population is already poor and resources are strained. The recent unrest has disrupted farming, and at a critical time for rice, maize and groundnut cultivation.

“Families who are being displaced now [and blocked from their plantations] will have nothing to eat next year,” said Kabonketoor’s Sagna Le Caer. “People will not be able to send their children to school.”

Abdoulaye Diallo, technical adviser for GTZ-Procas, a Germany-funded development organization, said: “Everyone is hanging on to the hope that the government and the MFDC will come together and work this out for the sake of the people of Casamance.”

“We are more than ever in a state of neither war, nor peace,” Sagna Le Caer told IRIN. “But today we are closer to war. That is why everyone involved must sit down and talk.”