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Rebel conflict in Senegal's Casamance region far from over

Davide Lemmi | Marco Simoncelli
January 9, 2023

Casamance, a region with a culture distinct from the rest of Senegal, is the site of Africa's longest-running separatist revolt. But some locals want to move on.

A former MFDC fighter, chest bare, looks at the camera with a serious expression
Casamance has been wracked by a separatist rebellion since 1982Image: Marco Simoncelli

Four decades of fighting between separatist rebels from the MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance) and the Senegalese government has left 60,000 displaced people and nearly 5,000 victims — including hundreds of deaths due to land mines.

Charles Ndeeky lost a leg after a land mine exploded in an area of Casamence which had been deemed "safe."

"I had just returned to the village after some years spent abroad because of the war," said Ndeeky. "At that time, authorities told us that the area was safe. But they were wrong. The MFDC and the military have left mines everywhere."

Charles Ndeeky wears his prosthesis in his home in the village of Boutoute. He is one of hundreds of victims of landmines that are scattered across large areas of Casamance
Charles Ndeeky is one of hundreds of victims of the land mines that have been scattered across CasamanceImage: Marco Simoncelli

Casamance lies in a part of Senegal that is geographically almost totally separated from the rest of the country by Gambia. Some 1.5 million people live in the region, in an atmosphere of "neither war nor peace."

MFDC factions hide deep in the forests

Despite numerous attempts to negotiate peace, the conflict continues. After the 2007 death of its leader, Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, the MFDC was divided into factions whose members now hide in the thick forests. These days, they seem more committed to the lucrative wood-trafficking business than to achieving independence.

Amidou Djiba, who presents himself as the current MFDF spokesman, said that since the start of the fighting in 1982, Senegal's presidents have employed different strategies in an attempt to resolve the conflict, "from the hard hand of military operations, through corruption, to the promises of development, but no one has ever achieved its purpose."

Amidou Djiba, a former MFDC fighter, poses in front of the group's seal with the inscription 'Free Casamance'
MFDC spokesman Amidou Djiba is convinced that most of Casamance is on their sideImage: Marco Simoncelli

And if Djiba and the veteran rebels are convinced that most of Casamance is on their side, it just takes a motorcycle taxi ride to nearby villages to notice how the will to move on seems to prevail among the local population.

'There is no more talk of conflict'

The call for peace has not only come from politicians. Music artists, such as By Mic, also want an end to the conflict.

"When I was younger, like other songwriters, I also wrote songs to promote peace. Now the movement has changed its theme. There is no more talk of conflict. The situation has evolved because the environment is different," explained By Mic, the first rapper to perform in the Manjak language.

"We need to think about the future and we have to give a great role to the culture in our movement. We should be able to promote a change in society," he said. 

Separatists fund fight with illegal wood trade

The conflict is largely financed by an illegal economy which benefits the local communities. In order to end the fighting, activists have said they need to change the mentality of the people who benefit from the smuggling of wood from rosewood trees.

The MFDC has always used border areas to find refuge, but in particular to finance itself with smuggling. The rebels are directly involved in the production of Indian hemp and in the illegal trafficking of the precious rosewood to Gambia. 

In 2012, the West African rosewood tree was declared nearly extinct in Gambia. But the country has remained one of the largest exporters of the species to China.

A rosewood tree that was recently cut down by illegal 'coupeurs' in the Djinany forest area
Senegal has lost more than 1 million trees since 2010 to the rosewood trafficking business Image: Marco Simoncelli

Much of the rosewood being sent through Gambia hails from Casamance — which is far closer to Gambia than to major Senegalese ports like Dakar.

Fossar Dabo, a 36-year-old physics teacher and environmental activist, is well aware of the illegal loggers who are present in the wooded areas near the Gambian border.

"Trees are cut secretly at night or in broad daylight showing fake permits. Then the wood is moved just across the Gambian border from where it is exported to China," he said.

Together with other volunteers, Dabo founded the Green Sedhiou, an organization that denounces illegal timber trafficking.

Since 2010, Senegal has lost more than 1 million trees to the $10 billion (€9.36 billion) wood trafficking business. Gambia — with a territory of only 11,300 square kilometers (4,300 square miles) — has exported an estimated 1.6 million rosewood trees since 2012, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency.

A young fisherman travels down the Casamance River riding his pirogue in Ziguinchor, southern Senegal
Many local people want to move on from the long-running conflictImage: Marco Simoncelli

"Every month we come across dozens of trees destroyed. In this way our land risks deforestation and desertification," said Dabo. "As Casamancesi we cannot lose this priceless wealth."

Fossar argued that his generation understands this type of challenge better than the previous one. According to him, people born during the conflict want to move away from the past.

"I was born Senegalese and my children are and will be born Senegalese. I want them to find a better Casamance than I did," he said.

Edited by: Keith Walker