The recent release of eight Senegalese hostages by the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has refocused attention on the separatist movement, which has struggled for independence from Senegal since 1982.
The soldiers were released almost 30 years since the MFDC’s fight for independence for Casamance, a region in southern Senegal, began. Salif Sadio, the leader of the main faction of the MFDC, said the soldiers’ release “does not mean the end of our battle – and even less the abandonment of our option of independence”.
During the early years of the Casamance independence movement in the 1980s, the MFDC capitalised on the grievances of the local population, who largely supported the movement. But over the years, the MFDC has altered its tactics and objectives. The movement has escalated the violence not only against the state – but also against locals. Now many civilians in Casamance, whom the MFDC is claiming to fight for, are suffering more from the rebels than from the Senegalese state.
The Casamance conflict has cost thousands of lives, military and civilian. Although no accurate figures exist, thousands of people have been displaced and made refugees. The Gambia, for example, is said to be hosting about 7,000 refugees who fled the fighting in Casamance.
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While the insurgency has not reached the level of violence seen in other conflicts in Africa, it has left Casamance – a fertile, beach-fringed chunk of land wedged between Gambia to the north and Guinea-Bissau to the south – cut off from the rest of Senegal and suspended between war and peace.
One journalist in Casamance, Pape Kadialy Badji, notes the contradiction between claiming to fight for independence while looting from and killing one’s own people. “Is that the way people struggle for independence?” asks Badji rhetorically.
In early December, Badji said, some men came to a village called Simbandy near the border between Casamance and Guinea-Bissau, and attacked and robbed people living there.
Although Badji said he could not be sure whether the attackers were rebels or armed robbers, he says the rebels are nevertheless to blame for region’s fragility.
In another case in 2012, some armed men claiming to be part of the MFDC looted most of the businesses in the village of Baghagha, 25km east of Casamance’s capital Ziguinchor, and forced local men to carry their stolen goods to their base.
Amadou Bamba Drame, a fourth-year sociology student at the University of Ziguinchor who is researching the MDFC’s claim to independence, said some rebels told him they loot and steal in order to fund the contributions the MFDC are making to free Casamance.
But if the MFDC is truly struggling for the independence of Casamance on behalf of its people, residents would not need to be forced to contribute: they would have given them cash or food without being asked. But that has not been the case.
We don’t want the independence they are fighting for
According to Drame, if there is to be a referendum on indepedence in Casamance, more than 90 percent would vote “no”, in favour of remaining part of Senegal.
Ibrahima Diakite, who is from Casamance but works at a local newspaper in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, people in Casamance do not talk about independence. He said the MFDC’s conflict only adds to the problems in people’s daily lives.
The MFDC ought to enter into talks with Senegal’s central government about developing the region and launching projects that would create more jobs. The MFDC’s initial grievances in favour of Casamance’s independence focus on the area’s underdevelopment and the Senegalese government’s seeming lack of interest in the region’s economic wellbeing.
Jean Mari Francois Biagy, a former MFDC rebel leader, said he is now no longer interested in the fight for independence. Instead, he says Senegal and Casamance should remain one, and that the government should spend on developing the region and bring employment generation projects for young people.
Today the MFDC is split into several rival factions. The most hardline wing is led by Sadio, while the leader of the other main military group, Nkurumah Sanneh, is based in France. If Casamance were to win its independence now, which of these competing factions would rule the country? The leadership issue could provoke war if the region were to become its own country.
Even if military conflict did not occur, civil conflict would emerge as the two major ethnic groups in Casmance, the Jolas and the Mandinkas, would each want to lead the country. The other tribes may also want to lead as well.
As it is now, it seems the independence of Casamance is an elusive dream by the MFDC and probably among very few people in the region. But as the conflict continues, more and more people living in Casamance will be killed, raped, abused, or stolen from by the rebels and armed bandits benefiting from the instability.
The Senegalese government’s efforts to address the conflict over the years have proved futile.
Modou S Joof, a Gambian journalist and publisher of The North Bank Evening Standard, said the creation of a new South Sudan in Casamance is not likely to happen soon. Many lives have already been lost, and many people – including women and children – displaced.
But while the fighting continues sporadically in Casamance, the international community has showed little interest in addressing this conflict as it has in other African countries, said Joof.
Lamin Jahateh is a Gambian journalist and the editor and publisher of Gambia News Online.