Posted On July 20, 2017 By In None With 87 Views

Peace deal eludes Senegal’s Casamance, 35 years on

Toubacouta, Senegal, July 20, 2017 (AFP)

In Senegal’s southern Casamance region, new houses dot a landscape once dominated by abandoned ruins full of bullet holes, though the spectre of a 35-year conflict still haunts its villages.
Separatist rebels of the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de Casamance (MFDC) began fighting for independence more than three decades ago but have long ceased once frequent attacks on the Senegalese army, which retains a visible presence in the area.
As residents return to previously unsafe areas, many are asking when a conflict that is technically ongoing, if all but invisible, will officially end.
“I fled to (regional capital) Ziguinchor in 1991, and came back in 2006. We aren’t frightened anymore. Peace has returned,” said Yaya Sane, as a new earthen hut covered by palm wood is erected in his village, Toubacouta.
Casamance is a culturally distinct area of Senegal, and daily life feels a long way from the conflict’s height when thousands were killed, maimed by mine explosions, or displaced by fighting.
Driving to Toubacouta from Ziguinchor, one still passes Senegalese army roadblocks along the edge of the area’s plentiful rice fields, but the troops have little to do these days.
“The last attack on the village was in 2000,” noted Lamine Sane, who lives in the same hamlet.
Other have stayed on in cities like Ziguinchor, lacking the money to move back to more rural areas and rebuild their lives.
– Development, tourism –
Those who have long negotiated for peace say there is little stopping the two sides from holding talks, but with a tentative detente, nothing formal progresses.
“Today, there aren’t any robberies, or clashes between the army and the MFDC,” said Moussa Cisse, a community figure involved in efforts for peace.
“There’s nothing left but to just sit down and negotiate… to come to a definitive peace deal.”
Dakar’s interest in ending the conflict has grown since the election of President Macky Sall in 2012, and with the involvement of Rome’s Community of Sant’Egidio, a charity with ties to the Vatican specialising in peace mediation.
The Community of Sant’Egidio was founded in Rome in 1968 and became involved in sponsoring peace negotiations in the 1980s after finding that humanitarian action in Mozambique — then in civil war — would be largely useless without peace.
The outlook for resolving Casamance’s situation permanently has also improved with the departure of Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh in January for a life in exile, experts say.
Jammeh — whose country is surrounded by Senegal — was long accused of harbouring and funding MFDC rebels, to Dakar’s extreme chagrin.
But his successor Adama Barrow, despite expressing a willingness to help resolve the conflict on a state visit to Senegal in March, has yet to establish contact with the rebels, according to leader of the MFDC’s most radical faction Salif Sadio.
MFDC officials travelled via Banjul to attend the last round of negotiations in Rome in 2015, Sadio said.
“Certain factions don’t see eye to eye,” a source close to the rebels told AFP, “but the majority of the MFDC has also shown willingness to bring together all of these factions and negotiate together.”
Meanwhile, the government is pushing development and tourism as a means of moving the economy forward.
– Peace ‘irreversible’ –
France, whose tourists visit other areas of French-speaking Senegal in droves, removed Casamance from its list of danger zones in October 2016.
A local official told AFP that road, education and agriculture projects were all underway, with more homes and businesses on the grid than ever before.
The momentum of peace, he said, was “irreversible”.
But despite the changes, rebels are still hiding out in the bush, preventing Casamance from returning to full normality.
“Two or three kilometres from here,” Lamin Sane said back in Toubacouta, “those who left have not come back.”
“We don’t dare to go in the forest,” he added. “That’s where the MFDC guys are, all of them armed.”

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