“Je viens de la Casamance” (I am from The Casamance): on a recent trip to Senegal, this was the answer that I received roughly three quarters of the time when I asked staff members at hotels, guides, and people who approached me on the beach where they were from in Senegal. Throughout my ten days in the country, the word built up on aura of notoriety and awe in my mind – like something beautiful and dangerous, inaccessible yet desirable. The next words would usually inform me that the Casamance is the true heart of the country, where the luscious beauty of Senegal lies, and where people know how to have real fun. But the actual history of the Casamance region paints a different image from the one that I had built up in my mind based on local accounts.
The Casamance has long been a region in limbo, caught between worlds: today trapped between Senegal and The Gambia, it was subject to both French and Portuguese colonial efforts before the border was negotiated in 1888 between the French colony of Senegal and Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) to the south. The settlement resulted in Portugal losing possession of the Casamance, which was at the time the commercial hub of its colony. To this day, the region has preserved its local variant of West African Portuguese-based Creole, known as Ziguinchor, and the members of its deeply rooted Creole community carry Portuguese last names like Da Silva, Carvalho, and Fonseca. Ironically, interest in the Portuguese colonial heritage has been revived of late in order to solidify a distinct identity, particularly in Baixa (“lower”) Casamança. Such an identity is also aided by the presence of people from Bissau-Guinean, who have entered Senegal as expatriates, immigrants, and refugees fleeing the poverty and political instability that has affected Guinea-Buissau.
Unfortunately, the Casamance region has seldom been stable, its instability stemming from Senegal’s very independence. Indeed, Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, allegedly promised the region’s leaders that if they joined Senegal for 20 years they could subsequently have their own state if they wanted it. When the government failed to follow through on the promise in 1980, street demonstrations in the Casamance capital, Zinguichor, turned violent. The main impetus behind the separatist drive is the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), created in 1947 as a political party, before turning to outright separatism in the 1980s. The MFDC gained widespread local popularity following brutal repression against demonstrators who were calling on officials to make good on Senghor’s promise.
Beyond these historical factors, the separatist movement also has economic and geographic origins. First, the Casamance region is the richest in the country by virtue of its lush vegetation and vast natural resources, which has earned it the title of national granary. Peanuts, Senegal’s main cash crop, are particularly important in the region. The exploitation of these riches, which often bypasses the local population, has fostered a sense of victimization among the Southerners, many of whom grieve the systematic plundering of their region for the benefit of other regions, particularly Dakar. Religious differences exacerbate such tensions. Whereas the vast majority of the Senegalese people are Muslims, many residents of the Casamance are Christians or animists. The prevailing sentiment in the region and among the locally dominant Diola (Jola) ethnic group is that they do not benefit sufficiently from their region’s wealth and that Dakar, the capital, reaps most of the profit that is rightfully theirs.
Another factor is the Casamance region’s geographical isolation from Senegal due to the existence of The Gambia. Indeed, the region is poorly connected to the rest of the country by a long, and often nearly impassable road that passes through the eastern Tambacounda region. It is possible, however, to travel from central Senegal to the Casamance by way of the sea or though the territory of the Gambia, but neither option is easy. As a result of such isolation, the Casamance sometimes seems cut off from the rest of the country, and the frustration caused by this alienation fuels a fierce desire among some of its inhabitants to free themselves from the rule of Dakar.
When I visited Senegal this past December, I was told how most Senegalese convoys get across The Gambia. The only way to go to the Casamance without taking a detour all around the Gambia, which would take days, is to cross the River Gambia itself. However, there is no bridge that would make this traversal easy. Indeed, the only current way to get across is a ferry, whose ownership was shifted from the Gambia Public Transport Corporation to the Port Authority in 2001. The authority is eager to maintain its monopoly, and reluctant to allow the construction of a competing bridge. As a result, trucks line up for up to 5 days to get across the river, generating a huge loss of efficiency and profitability, especially for trucks carrying perishables.
Although the Senegalese government has made some efforts at a bridge initiative, the Gambian ferry company has done everything within its power to prevent the implementation of this project. Recently however, The Gambia has paired with the Taiwanese government to enhance the ferry service, which has been highly hazardous. Taiwan is not the only East Asian country interested in Senegal and the Gambia. According to our guides, the Chinese are building soccer stadiums in all major Senegalese towns and cities, ostensibly ‘for free’ but actualy in exchange for fishing rights in the bountiful waters off the coast.
On top of the lack of accessibility, the Casamance faces a major problem in drug trafficking. Drug traffickers take advantage of the local isolation and instability to expand their business, turning the border that the Casamance shares with Guinea Bissau into a hub for the illicit trade. The rebel leaders therefore have a very profitable business in hand and are unlikely to accept anything less than a very favorable settlement. Unfortunately, the Senegalese government is seemingly unwilling to seek a resolution to this issue. While hundreds of Senegalese soldiers are present throughout the Casamance, they have made little headway against the rebellion, and there are growing concerns about human rights violations and the disabling of local economic development. Concrete negotiations with the separatists have not happened for many years. It now seems clear that neither party in really seeking to bring the other to the table for open discussion. Finally, there has been an unfortunate lack of media attention on this conflict. The Senegalese government has also failed to provide information. Indeed, since the inception of the conflcit, no concrete or official figures have been released regarding the number of victims. Some sources, however, claim that up to 5,000 people have lost their lives over the past several decades of fighting.
To add insult to injury, the death toll has been severely exacerbated by the lingering presence of landmines scattered across the region, which has also lead to the abandonment of many villages by former inhabitants. A reported 800 people have lost their lives due to mines since 1988, and the lack of action from the Senegalese government has meant that the demining work has largely been left up to a select group of NGOs. Although a few initiatives have been launched, such as the DDP “disarmament, demining, and ‘projects’” put forward by former President Wade, these peace initiatives have been largely unsuccessful. However, with a recent acceleration of violence, support for the separatist rebels has been dwindling among many locals. In an interview with the IRIN, Moussa Sagna, a trader and resident of Zinguinchor, explains: “The rebels must stop creating violence in the region; they must understand that it is their parents who have suffered now, for 30 years. They shouldn’t fight for the independence of Casamance and at the same time make people suffer in Casamance.”
If Senegal wants to experience genuine economic development in a near future, it will need to monbilize all the assets that are in its possession. However, it is doubtful this will happen in the absence of its potentially richest region. The Casamance not only has substantial natural resources, but also has great potential for tourism. There can be no question of the urgency for Senegal of the Casamance problem. Economic opportunities remain unrealized, the drug trafficking virus keeps spreading, and the death toll seems to have maintained a steady pace since the early 1980s. With Senegal’s newly instilled biometric visa regime and entry fee for tourists, as well as the discontinuation of the famous Paris-Dakar rally, tourism has experienced a serious hit over the past few years. The government will thus need to find another means to revive its economy, which has not had the same impressive growth rates that many African countries have experienced over the past few years.