The Casamance conflict: out of sight, out of mind?
by Martin Evans April 2002

The separatist rebellion in the Casamance in southern Senegal is West Africa’s longest-running civil conflict. Yet, compared with wars elsewhere in West Africa, it is virtually unknown in the outside world. This article describes the humanitarian impact of one of the world’s forgotten wars.

Since 1982, the separatist Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) has been fighting for an independent Casamance, first through popular protest, then since 1990 through a guerrilla war. Despite ceasefires and accords throughout the 1990s and improved security conditions, durable peace remains elusive. The death toll directly due to the conflict is probably around 1,000, either killed in armed attacks, by landmines or as a result of human rights abuse. Many more have been displaced, either within the Casamance or into neighbouring countries. Patterns of displacement are complex, and reliable figures are difficult to obtain. A 1998 Caritas census gave a figure of 62,638, out of a total Casamance population of around 1.1 million. Ziguinchor, the capital of the western region of the Casamance, has received some 14,000, with a further 6,000 in other Casamance towns. UNHCR figures indicate that a further 10,000 people are refugees in Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

Denied access to their land, the livelihoods of many IDPs have been severely affected. Even for populations who have remained in place, the use of productive resources is restricted or prevented by fear of rebel attacks and landmines. For the Casamance population as a whole, the climate of insecurity, principally the danger of armed robbery on roads or in villages by rebels or bandits, together with failing infrastructure, stifle much normal economic activity, particularly the sale of agricultural produce and tourism. Instead, combatants on both sides, together with actors in neighbouring countries, are exploiting the Casamance’s natural resources, though with no benefit to most of the civilian population.

Screen Shot 2012-11-05 at 3.22.43 PM

Various agencies have been active in the Casamance. At times of significant displacement, assistance has included food and healthcare for IDPs by the Senegalese Red Cross, Caritas, the Agence des Musulmans d’Afrique and UNICEF. With most IDPs taken in or otherwise assisted with accommodation by their families, housing them in camps has not featured beyond the Red Cross reception centre on the outskirts of Ziguinchor, although UNHCR partners in The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau run camps housing some Casamance refugees. The psychological impact of the conflict is also starting to be addressed, with UNICEF training community leaders in psychosocial support for people traumatised by violence. Landmine awareness and rehabilitation of mine victims also form relatively small but significant aspects of relief in the Casamance, implemented by Handicap International and local NGOs. Since the beginning of the conflict in 1982, human rights abuses have been the subject of advocacy by Amnesty International and the Senegalese NGO RADDHO (Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme).

International neglect

The Casamance rebellion is much less well known internationally than other civil conflicts in West Africa, notably in Liberia and Sierra Leone. There are a number of reasons for this. First, it is on a relatively small scale. In Sierra Leone, for example, numbers of combatants, casualties and displaced people have all been an order of magnitude greater. Also, while brutal enough the conflict has not involved the same systematic mutilation of civilians, nor the forced recruitment of child soldiers – both attention-grabbers in the reporting of contemporary conflicts.

The second reason is the paucity of international, particularly multilateral, intervention. While The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau have both been involved in the Casamance peace process, the Casamance has not seen the concerted political and military efforts that have been made in Sierra Leone by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the UN; the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone is the largest UN operation in the world. Its specialist agencies aside, UN action on the Casamance has been limited to occasional statements encouraging dialogue. Political involvement by the former colonial power, France, has also been limited, with Paris seemingly regarding the conflict as an embarrassment in its relations with Senegal, an otherwise stable ally hosting a substantial French population and military presence. The MFDC has sought French and UN mediation and is keen to make its case to the outside world, but the Casamance’s isolation from the main centres of power and international communications in northern Senegal means that the Mouvement has had only limited success in attracting outside interest.

Third, there are obstacles to disseminating information about the conflict. This is perhaps surprising, since the conflict is probably less difficult to investigate than most. Senegal has no particular habit of suppressing undesirable information, and the country has a vigorous, largely free press. Senegal also has a strong academic tradition, with good links to Western academia. The Casamance itself has been largely accessible during the conflict. However, the area is a long road journey from Dakar, where most media are based, and the trip involves a troublesome crossing of The Gambia. Ferry services are unreliable, and flights are too expensive for most Senegalese. Reporters in the Casamance risk falling foul of one side or the other in the conflict; journalists have in the past been arrested for their reporting on the conflict, and legal proceedings have been initiated by the government against Dakar newspapermen. At an international level, Amnesty’s reports have helped to keep the human rights dimensions of the Casamance conflict visible, but most journalistic and academic coverage is in French, keeping the crisis out of sight of much of the English-speaking world. Senegal is a popular holiday destination for the French, but most tourists will have little or no contact with the Casamance crisis.

Fourth, the record of donor commitment to the Casamance, and hence the need and ability to bring the conflict to the attention of the wider world, has been mixed. The start of widespread seeding of landmines by the MFDC in 1997 provoked the withdrawal of a number of key donors from the Casamance, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the African Development Fund and, most importantly, USAID. Their departure abruptly ended a number of large projects, especially in agricultural development, and resentment is still evident among NGOs in Ziguinchor. However, donors have started to return in response to the improved security situation; in 2000, USAID began a three-year $10m programme in support of peace and reconstruction. Multilateral donors and agencies, including the World Bank, the European Union, the UN Development Programme and UNHCR, are also supporting the peace process financially, or are present as observers.

The need for a regional approach

The relative obscurity of the Casamance conflict is the result of a combination of political, geopolitical and geographical factors. The physical separation of the Casamance from the centres of Senegalese power is critical. Together with most of the country’s policy-makers, media workers and intelligentsia, the national (and sub-regional) headquarters of foreign donors and agencies are in Dakar; all may thus suffer from a degree of ‘Casamance-blindness’. Whether accidental or instrumental, the resulting poor outward flow of information about the conflict, while it may suit some Senegalese political interests, is not to the benefit of most Casamançais.

How might this forgotten war be brought to greater prominence and – hopefully – swifter resolution? One way may be to integrate it into a wider, sub-regional approach to addressing conflicts and their effects. Conflict in West Africa tends to be equated with the Liberia/Sierra Leone/Guinea nexus, but these conflicts have wider linkages, including with the Casamance, particularly through arms- and drug-trafficking networks. The need for an integrated approach to West Africa’s conflicts was stressed to the UN Security Council in December 2001. This is part of the mandate of a UN office to be set up in Dakar, which will collaborate with other regional and sub-regional organisations, including ECOWAS. Such integration could be mirrored by the three countries whose former colonies are implicated in the conflict – France, Britain (The Gambia) and Portugal (Guinea-Bissau). In recognising its transnational dimensions, these countries may better coordinate their bilateral political efforts in supporting the Casamance peace process. This may involve a politically tough stance in highlighting the destabilising tendencies and predatory elements in the Casamance’s neighbours.

A greater sub-regional overview in aid agency activities could also be helpful, and in this respect it is regrettable that UNHCR is to close its offices in Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, even if its local partners will continue their refugee-related activities. More damaging, though, was the flight of donors in 1997, which stymied development in the Casamance and weakened the credibility of aid activity. Now that the situation is calmer and a political peace process (however troubled) in place, sustained donor commitment to the Casamance is needed.

Martin Evans works in the Geography Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His e-mail address is: me14@soas.ac.uk. This article is based on fieldwork conducted in the Casamance, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Dakar during 2000 and 2001.

The author would like to thank the numerous Casamançais who agreed to be interviewed, including many agency and NGO staff, and the SOAS Scholarships Fund for a Research Student Fellowship and Additional Fieldwork Award in support of doctoral research.

References and further reading

Amnesty International, Sénégal. La terreur en Casamance (Paris: Éditions francophone d’Amnesty International, 1998).

Martin Evans, The Political Economy of War in Casamance (London: Humanitarian Policy Group, forthcoming 2002).

Margaret Hall, The Casamance Conflict 1982–1999 (London: Africa Research Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1999). Available at http://files.fco.gov.uk/info/research/casamance/casamance.pdf.

Handicap International, Les Victimes de Mines en Casamance (Sénégal) 1988–1999 (Lyon: Handicap International, 2000).