Gambia: Cassamance The Untold Story (Part.4)

The lush landscape contrasts with the vast deserts that surround Senegal. The country brings in more visitors than any other country in the region. The physical environment in the south is somewhat different than the northern regions...

The lush landscape contrasts with the vast deserts that surround Senegal. The country brings in more visitors than any other country in the region. The physical environment in the south is somewhat different than the northern regions of Senegal. Largely as a result of higher annual rainfall the forest is much more considerable in the Casamance. Still the year has very distinct wet and dry seasons. The forest, as a result of the dry season, is more sub-tropical than jungle type forest, but still there are some areas with very large, old trees and areas with palm trees and vines, etc… The temperature in general is quite warm (between 30 – 40 degrees Celsius) though in Dec. and Jan. at night it cools off enough to need a light blanket.

The causes of the conflict and its perpetuation are complex. Factors often cited as contributors include historical factors, economic neglect, and lack of job opportunities for youth, land rights issues, and disrespect for indigenous cultural norms. The conflict has had negative effects on virtually every aspect of life in the Casamance: the environment has degraded due to uncontrolled exploitation or neglect, normal village life and social support systems have been disrupted, poverty has increased, the cities are overcrowded, schools and health posts have been closed or displaced, and investment and tourism have declined.

Senegal is a moderately decentralized republic dominated by the Socialist Party, which has held power since independence. President Abdou Diouf, who had been in office since 1981, was succeeded in early 2000 by the newly elected president, Abdoulaye Wade. In 1996 the Socialist Party won control of all 10 regional governments and many local governments in the country’s first sub national level elections, which were marked by credible allegations of widespread fraud and procedural irregularities, gerrymandering, illegal fundraising, and voter list manipulations. Due in part to the flaws in these elections, the Government’s decentralization program has had limited success in defusing the secessionist rebellion in the Casamance region.

The Casamance region is an important focus area for the economic development of Senegal due in part to its rich tropical environment. The region is centrally located to facilitate trade with neighboring countries and has some of the largest traditional markets in Senegal. At one time, Casamance was also well known as a major tourist destination in Senegal. Currently, a major constraint affecting development in the Casamance region is its armed separatist struggle that has lead to a sharp decline in the economic and social well being of the population.

In 1982, supporters of the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de la Casamance demanded that the Govern-ment of Senegal grant independence to the Casamance region, an isolated section of southwestern Senegal located between Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. This demand sparked a two-decade-long conflict, which only recently began to be resolved.

The conflict worsened in the late 1990s with the appearance of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. These landmines have adversely affected the population, agricultural activities and tourism, as well as hampering donor and NGO efforts in the region. No accurate information is available regarding the total quantity of landmines or the number of landmine casualties. Over the years, hundreds of villages have been abandoned and schools and health centres have closed. Hundreds of children and women have become victims of landmines and risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS has increased due to population displacement, the presence of combatants and increased poverty. The nutritional status of children has also deteriorated.

Fighting between the Government of Senegal soldiers and rebels for the Movement of Democratic Forces for the Casamance has adversely affected the potential of the Casamance to contribute fully to the economy of Senegal. It is estimated that the conflict has cut agricultural production by 50 percent. The tourism industry has been devastated by the conflict with many of its 16,000 employees being dismissed as a result of the continuing struggle. In addition, it is estimated that thousands of refugees have fled Casamance to neighboring countries such as Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

In 1997 a renewal of fighting in the Casamance area in the southern part of the country between the Government and the secessionist Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance (MFDC) caused many civilians to flee their villages.

While there were no confirmed reports of political or extrajudicial killings by government officials during the 1997 resurgence of violence in the southern Casamance region, government forces were suspected of responsibility for many civilian deaths. In August 1997 a leader of the MFDC, Sarani Badiane, was found murdered near Ziguinchor. While no group claimed responsibility for the killing and no direct proof of guilt has emerged, the Senegalese human rights organization African Meeting for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO) and Amnesty International (AI) attributed responsibility for Badiane’s death to the Government.

Although the leader of the MFDC, Abbe Augustine Diamacoune Senghor, remained free from house arrest in 1997, his movements were controlled by the Government. The Government reportedly blocked a trip by Diamacoune to France to meet with the leader of the MFDC’s external wing to coordinate policy in peace talks with the Government. After the killing of Sarani Badiane in August 1997, two of Diamacoune’s remaining lieutenants sought refuge with Diamacoune who remained in government custody at a church in Ziguinchor. The Government did not attempt to hinder their joining Diamacoune, but in October 1997 expelled them from Diamacoune’s quarters.

But using our voices, exercising our power and demanding action can help save lives in Cassamance NOW !!.

By: Saidina Alieu Jarjou

Blogger/Activist

In this article