Senegal's separatist conflict smoulders on

West Africa’s longest running separatist conflict has already claimed as many lives as the Troubles. In a new departure, rebels have brought the conflict to Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance state. By Tom Rowe.

A boom rang through the trees as Moise pointed out the mangoes and cashew fruits growing everywhere in the village. I started and stopped in my tracks, causing him to laugh and ask if I was afraid. I was. The noise was ferocious and sounded very close, in the trees ahead. I had no interest in getting caught in the crossfire of the Casamance conflict. The sound was that of the Senegalese army firing their heavy artillery at the rebels who have been fighting for independence for 20 years. Moise told me not to worry, it was not close. The firing continued sporadically for a few minutes, then died down. 

The village where Moise lives is named Dajabir, near Ziguinchor, the sleepy capital of the state of Casamance in southern Senegal. Bordered by Guinea-Bissau to the south, and geographically separated from the rest of the country by the intrusion of The Gambia to the north, Casamance has a different flavour to Senegal’s other dry and dusty states. Physically it has more in common with the neighbouring countries than the rest of Senegal which centres around Dakar, a sweltering ten hour journey to the north on severely potholed roads. The southern region is tropical, with palm trees, mangrove swamps, heavy rainfall and forest and the wide Casamance River flowing through it. The region is the breadbasket of Senegal, and a particularly strong rice and grain producer.

The people of Casamance also have more in common with their neighbouring countries than Senegal. The majority here are Diola, an ethnicity comprising only 5% of Senegal’s population, but with familial ties in Guinea-Bissau. The Diola have a strong tradition of resistance, to slavery and French colonial rule. The last Diola rebellion was in 1943, led by Aline Sitoe Diatta, a priestess whose name now adorns the new ferry that travels between Ziguinchor and Dakar. The ferry is a replacement for the Joola which tragically sank in 2006, taking almost 2000 lives with it.

This feeling of separation from the rest of Senegal, the tradition of rebellion and an impression that central government neglected and exploited Casamance led to calls for independence in 1980. Political leaders in Casamance wanted the government to honour an agreement supposedly made by Leopold Senghor, the first President of Senegal. The secret deal was to grant Casamance independence if it first joined Senegal for 20 years after liberation from French colonial rule, which occurred in 1960. Regardless of whether this deal was made, many in Casamance thought it existed. Peaceful street demonstrations calling for independence were brutally quashed by the central government, and leaders of the Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance (MFDC) were imprisoned.

Subsequently, some elements of the movement took to the forests and swamps, gathering arms. Attacks on government forces began in 1990, allegedly with the support of the Guinea-Bissau army, a historical payback for the support of the Casamance people in the 1960’s and 70’s given to Guinea-Bissau rebels fighting against Portuguese colonial rule – the rebels there had been unofficially allowed to retreat into southern Senegal when needed.

The MFDC based themselves across the borders and launched attacks, often in urban areas, using the buildings of the towns and villages as cover. The army responded by setting mines near the homes where rebels were firing from, resulting in entire villages being abandoned by the local populace. The rebels in turn set mines, especially along the borders, to discourage the pursuit of the army. The laying of mines has stopped, but hundreds remain under the earth, near homes and in farmlands, leaving farming communities too scared to enter their lands, unable to produce enough food to live.

Many have become internally displaced in Senegal, going to Ziguinchor where they remain on the edge of society, unable to find work, unable to return home. A study showed 93 localities affected by mines, with 90,000 people directly affected. Thousands of refugees have also fled across the borders to Gambia and Guinea-Bissau to flee the fighting over the years. Some have returned, but have such fear of being caught up in the war that they still flee their homes if clashes occur, if only for days at a time, according to Christina de Bruin, UNICEF Bureau Chief in Zighinchor.

The economy of the region has suffered dramatically over the years of conflict. What was once a significant tourist destination now comes with warnings to travelers in guidebooks or government foreign affairs departments. While tourists are unlikely to be targeted specifically, some factions of the rebels have become little more than bandits, carrying out hold-ups on the roads, stealing cars, cash and mobile phones.

Investment in the region has dropped off, unemployment is high, agricultural output has halved and the continuous militratisation of the region creates an oppressive atmosphere, with soldiers, heavily armed, constantly visible on the streets and heavy artillery poking out from the trees. The neglect of the Casamance by the government - the very reason that the rebels fight - worsens. Electricity is intermittent, roads are little more than series of potholes and the capital is in disrepair, in sharp contrast to the glittering capital Dakar.

Various ceasefires have been negotiated between the rebels and Senegal’s government. The most significant was in 2004 when Abbe Augustine Diamacoune Senghor, leader of the MFDC, negotiated a treaty with President Wade. But West Africa's longest running violent conflict always manages to flare up again, usually due to splits in the rebel movement and lack of action on the part of the government to meet rebel demands. The main grouping of the MFDC continues to negotiate, but other factions have little contact with the authorities beyond violent clashes.

Currently, the war is undergoing one of its periodic flare-ups, but with a difference. The rebels seem to wish to bring the fight closer to the capital, goading the army and pressurising the government into action. In 2010 alone four soldiers have been killed in the vicinity of Ziguinchor, whereas past clashes have usually occurred away from the capital. People here say that rebels are now actually living in the city itself, among the general population. Fighting closer to Ziguinchor can only increase the death toll - already 3,500 lives have been lost, a similar number to of people were killed in the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Moise’s village Dajabir is completely surrounded by the Senegalese army to protect it from the rebels, but also because it is a Diola village, and the army wants to separate to rebels from potential support for the movement. Moise and his friends say they do not support the rebels, and indeed recall a recent incident where fighters entered the village at dawn to steal from the local shop. But their solutions to the problem seem similar to that of the rebels – more support, more money, more jobs for Casamance from the government.

Nobody in Dajabir seems to want independence, think it will never happen and would not work if it was granted. Everybody wants the sides to negotiate, but it is hard for a government that would prefer to ignore an intractable problem to talk to faceless soldiers hiding deep in the forest.