Casamance: West Africa’s Smallest (but Longest) War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because three decades is too long for anything, especially war.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Part of an OZY series on little-known wars.
War, so easy to start yet so difficult to stop. Take Afghanistan; what was supposed to be a quick in-and-out just entered its 14th year. And Vietnam, well, that was almost two decades of daily body counts. But have you ever heard of a war lasting 33 years? You’re about to.
That’s how long Senegal’s civil war has lasted. Many people aren’t even aware that an armed conflict is going on in Senegal.
Casamance is West Africa’s quiet, sporadic and longest-running civil conflict.
It’s a little-known fight between the pro-independence armed groups in the southern region of Casamance and the central government. The Senegalese state “has chosen to let the conflict rot,” says Jean-Claude Marut, Casamance expert and studies director at Paris’ School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. That means not crushing the rebellion via military, but rather “just weaken[ing] it by all means so as not to have to negotiate.”
People in this region — largely separated from the rest of the country by the Gambia River — has long felt disenfranchised from Dakar. Southerners, who are mostly Christian or animist, accuse northerners — who are mostly Muslim and belong to different tribes — of exploiting their resources with little regard for their interests. Trouble began in 1982, when leaders of the Casamance pro-independence movement were arrested, which sparked a vicious circle of violence that only intensified in the following years. By 1990, the war was full-blown, with hundreds dying and thousands fleeing. By 2000, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the number of internally displaced at around 40,000, with almost 13,000 others having fled to Guinea-Bissau or Gambia. A truce was signed by both sides in 2004, but it was broken two years later.
To be sure, things have calmed down significantly since then. Martin Evans, a senior lecturer on international development at the University of Chester and an expert on the conflict, says that support for the rebellion has decreased in the past decade and that rebel strongholds are now limited to a few pockets. Yet sporadic violence continues, as does crime — rebel groups have developed a habit of carjacking and mugging locals for cash. In Casamance, as in most wars, it is the civilians who suffer the most: Beside the various threats of violence, the region is peppered with mines. According to the National Center for Mine Action in Senegal, these deadly souvenirs from the ’90s have cost the limbs and lives of roughly 1,000 people and crippled the area economically.
Senegal President Macky Sall, who took office in 2012, has promised to make stability in the south one of his top priorities. Peace talks between the government and Sadio (one of the main rebel groups) are underway in Rome with a Christian group and American diplomats. But efforts at peace could actually be a trigger for more clashes. As Marut points out, other rebel groups could restart the violence from fear of being marginalized.
So … no pressure.