On the day after Christmas, Senegal’s Casamance region achieved a dubious milestone: Its insurgency hit the 30-year mark. It is one of the longest-running conflicts in Africa. At issue is a demand by the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) that the area be granted independence.
CSO and the U.S. Mission in Dakar have launched an intensive effort to help the Government of Senegal negotiate an end to this struggle. “We believe that we have a window of opportunity,” says Rebecca Wall, who is guiding CSO’s engagement.
That opportunity stems in large part from newly elected President Macky Sall’s decision to reopen the door to high-level political negotiations and invite international partners to support his efforts. This is a marked departure from his predecessor’s approach. Another encouraging sign is the new willingness of the most powerful MFDC faction to enter into talks with the government under the mediation of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization in Rome with experience in helping parties resolve conflicts.
Geography is a critical factor in this conflict. Casamance is the southern-most portion of Senegal, but another country, The Gambia, runs east-to-west between the region and the northern regions of Senegal. (Casamance’s short eastern border does adjoin Senegal.)
On October 1, following a CSO assessment and a request from Embassy Dakar, CSO dispatched retired Ambassador Jim Bullington to Dakar to serve for eight months as the Casamance advisor. In February he was joined by Sue Ford Patrick, a retired senior Foreign Service officer who, like Bullington, has many years of experience in Africa. “We can’t bring peace to the Casamance,” says Bullington. “Only the Senegalese can do that. But we can provide political and material support for the peace process.”
President Sall’s diplomatic advisor told Bullington that his appointment affirmed former Secretary Clinton’s offer of support during her July 2012 visit. Another vote of confidence came from the leader of a local peacebuilding NGO, who said that U.S. involvement increases the rebels’ faith in the process and improves the likelihood for an agreement.
To build on the momentum, Bullington is coordinating with our embassy staff and other U.S. government officials to ensure a focused, interagency approach—and to keep this issue on the radar screen despite competing priorities. Bullington speaks regularly with the Government of Senegal and Sant’Egidio, and he is encouraging regional neighbors, especially The Gambia, to cooperate in the peace initiative. “The UN and other international partners also see the opportunity, and they are making important contributions,” he says.
Instability in the Casamance has placed an economic choke-hold on what should be Senegal’s breadbasket, limiting growth, crippling an important tourist industry, and reducing government revenue. One promising way to boost the region’s economic prospects is to build a bridge across the Gambia River, which runs the length The Gambia and is a major barrier to commerce. Senegal has been urging construction since 1978, but the project has been delayed repeatedly by The Gambian government
The money is available, thanks to the African Development Bank. “We think this project is now on track,” says Bullington, “and dirt should turn by year’s end. I am absolutely determined to keep this moving.”
There has also been progress in the negotiations. In December the MFDC released eight Senegalese soldiers who had been held hostage for a year. “Another encouraging sign is that a de facto ceasefire that began in the fall has held, even on the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict,” notes Bullington.
The U.S. Ambassador to Senegal, Lewis Lukens, points out that the State Department is only one of the agencies playing an important role. “Guided by QDDR principles and led by a unified country team approach, many of the agencies at post are involved in facilitating progress and development in the region,” he says. “USAID, USDA, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation all coordinate on their projects to leverage our government’s investments. The Defense Attaché Office provides important military analysis and support for Senegalese forces, and the Peace Corps is opening up operations again after a long hiatus for security reasons.” CSO expects to receive approval to devote $1 million to the Sant’Egidio negotiations, demining, and other peace-building activities.
“This U.S. initiative furthers our strategic interests by potentially enabling Senegalese armed forces to leave the Casamance and deploy to regional hot spots such as Mali or in UN peacekeeping missions worldwide,” Wall explains. “Of course, we also welcome the chance to help promote a peaceful future for Senegal and to enable the Casamance to realize its considerable economic potential.”
CSO sees this engagement as a model of deploying the right person to work on a particular conflict when U.S. interests intersect with our ability to make a difference. While there is no guarantee that this initiative will succeed, the combination of analysis and resources may provide valuable lessons in how a modest investment can pay significant and multiple dividends.
The work builds on the role that CSO played in the 2012 elections. A team of nine provided legal expertise and other assistance to promote free, fair, and transparent elections.