In February, as former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade fought (unsuccessfully) for a third time, the conflict in Senegal’s southern Casamance region seemed to be stagnant, or even to be getting worse. Reuters reported an uptick in violence in the run-up to the presidential elections, despite Wade’s renewed efforts at peacemaking. Both Wade and his predecessor President Abdou Diouf had grappled with the conflict, which began in 1982 – and whose political roots extend back to the time of Senegal’s first President Leopold Senghor. Rebels in the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) want the Casamance to secede from Senegal. Peace initiatives have repeatedly failed. The latest round of fighting began in 2009.
IRIN reported in February that the rebels seemed to be losing support among Casamance residents, but added that “separatists operating in the north, with a base across the border in Gambia [which lies between northern Senegal and the Casamance], are increasingly ‘radicalizing’ under their leader Salif Sadio.” IRIN said that at least five MFDC factions were present in the Casamance. Divisions inside the movement have grown since the death of its leader Augustin Diamacoune Senghor in 2007.
After coming to power this spring, new Senegalese President Macky Sall stated his intention, as Wade did when he came to power in 2000, of making peace with rebels in the Casamance. In late June, Sall stated, “We are ready to open talks with the fighters and actors involved in the peace process, religious leaders and men and women of good will…I extend a hand to Salif Sadio, Cesar Atoute Badiatte and the men of Ousmane Niantang Diatta,” the major factional leaders.
All three of these commanders have responded more or less favorably to Sall’s overture. In early July, Sadio expressed willingness to negotiate with the government under certain conditions:
Sadio said he wants Senegal’s government to agree to “sincere dialogue, to sit down with the MFDC on neutral ground, so outside of Africa” under “the mediation of the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio.”
The Sant’Egidio Community was founded in Rome in 1968 and got involved in sponsoring peace negotiations in the 1980s when it found that its humanitarian action in Mozambique would be largely useless without peace.
This week, Badiate also evinced interest in negotiations. Badiate outlined similar conditions to Sadio’s, including a desire for mediation by Sant’Egidio, but Badiate also mentioned that he wants the MFDC to resolve its own internal divisions before entering into negotiations with the Senegalese government. To Badiate, it seemed to make a difference that a new president is in power; he referred to Wade’s having “trampled” on the situation in the Casamance.
Diatta’s faction, RFI recently reported (French), also favors negotiations, although the movement demands that the government drop an arrest warrant against its secretary general.
I cannot predict the changes of success for this peace initiative, but it certainly bodes well for Sall that these rebel commanders have been willing to listen. To succeed, however, talks will probably have to address the key drivers of the conflict, including what Reuters calls a “low level ‘war economy’ which benefits combatants on both sides and centers on illegal logging, the cashew nut industry and illegal cannabis growing and smuggling.” Reuters also reports allegations of Gambian President Yaya Jammeh’s support for the MFDC, a factor that could further complicate matters. The solution, then, may require political subtlety and economic transformation.