Senegal's government has launched an inquiry into the killing of 13 loggers in the southern region of Casamance. It's the first upsurge in violence in the isolated region in years.
Senegal is observing two days of mourning after 13 people were killed and 7 injured by armed men in a forest in the southern region of Casamance on Saturday, January 6, 2018. The region lies in a part of Senegal that is geographically separated from the rest of the country by The Gambia.
Survivors reported that the young men were in Borofaye forest, a protected forest, chopping wood, when an unidentified group of armed men stopped them and rounded them up before shooting them.
It's thought the assailants would have passed a buffer zone between the Senegalese army and the MFDC seperatist rebels, who started fighting in the region in 1982.
The fight for natural resources
While fingers were starting to point towards separatist rebels, a different hypothesis surfaced soon after the attack. On Monday, January 8, an influential collective of Casamance executives, made up of elected officials and scientists, announced that they believe that organized illegal logging is at the root of this tragedy.
The president of the collective, the architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, however, said that he still believed members of the separatist Movement of the democratic forces of Casamance (MFDC) to be behind the attack.
"It would seem that it was the MFDC that asked its members to see how they could stop the destruction of the Casamance forests. Apparently, there was a slip-up," said Atepa.
A faction of the MFDC quickly issued a statement condemning the acts.
For Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, the MFDC is a mafia organization behind the deforestation of the Casamanace forests. "The root of the evil is this mafia who settled in Casamance and who has been plundering forests for more than ten years. And if the prosecutor asks us, we will give him names," he said.
Casamance has been calm for several years since President Macky Sall took power in 2012, and though peace talks have failed to solve the matter, for Saliou Sambou, former governor of Ziguinchor the attack has come as a surprise.
"It was a surprise for everyone. This was a surprise because to the extent that the peace process was well advanced it was thought to be irreversible. We were surprised to hear what happened," he said.
The attack came a day after the army released two MFDC fighters following negotiations and peace mediation. This, some people intially speculated, could have angered other factions of the MFDC.
"We can understand that in a kind of competition concerning the peace process, some people are unhappy and they want to be taken into account," said Sambou. Of course, he added, this is a mere hypothesis.
After the attack, the army explained that the victims had come to cut wood in an area where the MFDC has bases, but where villagers had also promised to carry out justice themselves against illegal logging. Aliou Sambou Bodian, coordinator for the Convergence on the Development of the landlocked region (CDDC), believes this second version of events.
"If it had been elements of the MFCD that attacked military bases, one would have understood immediately what was at stake - which is this question of independence and the division of territory. But supposedly elements of the MFDC actually attacked people who had gone into the forest," he said.
Last May, the government announced that the country has lost more than a million trees since 2010 due to illegal logging.
According to Bodian, the peace process and protection of natural resources goes hand in hand. "Today we must review how to make the peace process sustainable and that means talking about the protection of mineral resources, which today are more of a source of tension than anything else," he said.
"If the state wants to guarantee peace, it should naturally commit itself to curb any logging operation. Legal or illegal," said Bodian.
Illegal timber sales from Senegal to Gambia are rampant according to the ministry of environment. Operators based in the Gambia pocketed have over 240 million US Dollars (201 million euros) since 2010 by exporting the wood to China.
"I am convinced, that what is happening is linked with the wood traffickers who have installed a base in this part of the forest," he said.
The inquiry into the attack continues. According to residents in a nearby village, shots were heard on Monday, January 8 close to the forest as the army entered the territory.