The cease-fire agreement recently reached between the Senegalese government and rebel fighters in the southern Casamance region could have significant implications for all of those involved in the negotiations. The December 26-27 talks in the Gambian capital of Banjul, attended by Senegalese government representatives and spokespersons for the Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance (MFDC), were mediated by Gambia's Foreign Minister and delegates from neighboring Guinea-Bissau, including the head of Guinea-Bissau's military junta, Ansumana Mane.
The mineral rich region of Casamance, located to the south of where Gambia nearly divides Senegal in two, is predominantly controlled by Senegal's 6 percent animist and 2 percent Christian population. The MFDC has been in active revolt at least since 1983, when Senegalese troops were deployed in the region following confrontations between the rebel movement and the police. Sporadic fighting has continued since, with both sides accused of human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings and torture of prisoners, on the government's side, and kidnapping, destruction of property and killing of civilians, on the side of the MFDC. While the level of the conflict certainly does not compare to others in Africa in terms of people killed and refugees created, the Casamance rebellion has been a notable source of regional instability.
The region itself suffers from the conflict by being unable to reap the benefits of its own resources, while the Senegalese government no doubt likewise finds the economic potential of the entire country somewhat hampered by the rebellion, to say nothing of the cost of troop deployment. But the rebellion has also impacted regional politics as well. An increase in gunrunning through Guinea-Bissau, obviously partly as a result of the Casamance conflict, led to the dismissal of military leader Ansumana Mane. Mane, in turn, started a coup which, with the help of the MFDC, culminated in Mane's seizure of power this past May. While Mane has agreed to hand over power following presidential elections in January, his presence at the Banjul conference was a visible sign of the link between continued fighting in Casamance and political stability in Guinea-Bissau.
Gambia's place as a host and primary mediator in the negotiations is significant against the backdrop of the proposed union between Senegal and Gambia. The confederation of Senegambia was first founded in 1981, and, although it dissolved in 1989, no doubt in part because of the escalating rebellion in Casamance, the idea has continued to figure prominently in discussions between Senegal and The Gambia.
The two countries are linked by common Wolof ethnicity and language, as well as by a shared Muslim religious heritage often expressed in close-knit allegiance to prominent marabouts, or Muslim shaykhs. In his opening address to the conference, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, alluded to the common destiny of the two countries and called for peace in the Casamance. According to the Gambian Daily Observer on December 27, Jammeh said that peace in the Casamance was linked to "a positive dream" in "the subregion in general," in turn "leading to the radical transformation of the living standards of the people."
While the present cease-fire is the third signed thus far, Senegal's Le Soleil reported on December 27 that both the Senegalese government, represented in the negotiations by Interior Minister Lamine Cisse, and the MFDC had a positive reaction to the agreement. According to Le Soleil, the government attained its primary objective when the MFDC agreed to give up its claim to independence as a prerequisite to the negotiations, while the rebel movement was content with the series of development projects promised the Casamance region. Of primary significance for the MFDC is a newly proposed national Senegalese policy of increased "regionalization," which, in the words of Lamine Cisse, would "grant to each region the means to conceive and plan its development in terms of its own potential," as quoted by Le Soleil.
But it remains uncertain whether the agreement, and the attached dreams of regional stability, will hold. The BBC reported on December 28 that some of the rebels who were unhappy with the result of the negotiations had clashed with government forces near the Gambian border. But if the government can succeed in placating the majority of the MFDC, such obstinate rebels may find themselves increasingly isolated.
As the Casamance conflict perhaps draws to a close, those countries affected by the conflict -- Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau -- may finally have a chance to follow through on solving lingering domestic and transnational issues. The end of fighting in Casamance could be a signal of a new era of increased stability, unity and prosperity in the Senegambia region.
Zakariya Wright is a regular contributor to iviews.com