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On October 14th, 2013 an important meeting was held between representatives of the Government of Senegal and those of the MFDC (irredentist group in Casamance, Senegal). The meeting was facilitated by the Community of Sant’Egidio. This important meeting resulted to a common framework for peace negotiations to end one of the most protracted conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. While promising, the process is threatened by factors and choices that have doomed previous peace processes.

On December 26, 1982, the tension in Casamance, Senegal erupted in a pro-independence demonstration, which was staged in the regional capital, Ziguinchor. The demonstration led to the arrest of several leaders of the Casamance separatist movement, known as the MFDC (Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance). Subsequent government’s responses triggered an ongoing armed conflict. The conflict in Casamance is one of the Africa’s longest running civil wars. Although not as lethal as some of the intractable conflicts on the continent, this low-intensity conflict (sporadic fighting and attacks using light weapons and land mines) has nonetheless cost the lives of approximately 3,000 – 5,000 people between 1982 and 2010. The current situation in Casamance remains that of “no war, no peace” tainted by sporadic but deadly attacks from both the government and some rebels factions. This situation has stymied development in the region, created a fertile ground for banditry, localized communal conflicts and illegal trafficking of all kind of products ( illegal drugs, timber, small arms and other commodities); furthermore, this economy of war is fueled by the instability in Guinea Bissau, which has become an international platform for narco-trafficking. The local population is trapped in a conflict system that engulfs Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau.

Despite the regional threats that the Casamance conflict represents, there has not been a sustained and collaborative effort by the international community to support a peace process in Casamance.

Maybe this time around, things are about to change!

Since 1982, there have been multiple attempts to bring about peace in the Casamance. Furthermore, there have been multiple cease fires since 1991. Gambia and Guinea Bissau facilitated some of the cease fires. The first cease fire was signed on May 31, 1991, in Cacheu, Guinea Bissau. However, the Southern Front (one of the factions) of the MFDC never accepted the cease fire agreement. This partial cease-fire held until 1993. Many cease fires followed until the last partial peace accord signed in December 30, 2004 by only one faction of the MFDC. The 2004 accord did not bring peace or a solution to the conflict either.

Given the fractionalization of the MFDC, most of these peace initiatives never received the support of the entire movement, thus defeating the purpose of each of the agreements or initiatives. The MFDC is not the only player at fault, as the Government of Senegal has also failed to support viable paths to peace because of the lack of coordination and follow-up of political and economic commitments.

However, the recent mediation process started in October 2013 and facilitated by the Community of Sant’Egidio carries the promise of a resolution. There seems to be a momentum toward peace, created by several factors, namely: the war fatigue among the population, sustained informal meetings and peace initiatives by various stakeholders both at local and national level, the changing political landscape in Senegal with the election of President Macky Sall, who has promised to bring this conflict to an end; and the return of some international development agencies. These macro trends are also supported by concrete actions such as: The decision by the government of Senegal to cancel the arrest warrant against Salif Sadio one of the leaders of MFDC; also the release by the MFDC of the 09 mine clearers held hostages; and the active role of mediation been played by the Community of Sant’Egidio.

This new momentum for peace in Casamance is not immune from the ills that have plummeted previous peace processes:

Lack of holistic approach by the Government of Senegal (GoS) – The risk for the government of Senegal is two-fold: lack of a comprehensive approach and the use of multiple emissaries. President Macky Sall has made no secret of the fact the peace in Casamance will be part of his legacy. So far, the promise and hopefully the implementation of the development plan of 35 millions euros funded in part by the World Bank and prioritizing agriculture, road and other critical sectors, will help address concrete development issues and grievances that have fueled the conflict for so long. But in the absence of a political framework and way out, the leadership of the MFDC may not be encouraged to genuinely pursuit peace. In looking for political avenue, the GoS should avoid the frame of “National Unity or nothing” Vs. “Independence or nothing”; instead reframe the issues in terms of participative governance and decentralization. This frame opens more options than the simplistic dichotomy of independence vs. territorial integrity of Senegal.

One of the key strategies to address the conflict under President Abdoulaye Wade was the use of emissaries that reported to him directly. These individuals were also called “Monsieur Casamance” by the general public and were supposed to conduct pre-negotiation talks with various factions of the MFDC. They were given important financial resources with no clear scope of work or obligation to justify their use of funds. The use of emissaries has raised a lot of concerns due to high risks of corruption and embezzlement of this strategy. For the moment, former mayor of Ziginchor, Mr. Robert Sagna is leading the discussions on behalf of the Government. He should be supported and empowered to be the only lead negotiator on behalf of the GoS.

The risk of continued fractionalization of the MFDC – The fractionalization of the MFDC has always posed a challenge to previous peace initiatives. The rapprochement between Ousmane Niantang Diatta and César Atoute Badiate in the Southern front is a good sign. But the rift that opposes the Southern front (Diatta and Badiate) and Northern front (Salif Sadio) is a major threat. The latter wants to negotiate directly with the Government of Senegal and the first wants an inter-MFDC dialogue before any negotiation with the government. If in the past, the GoS has used the fractionalization of the MFDC to its advantage, this time a less divided MFDC supportive of peace may be to the advantage of peace.

The risk of talking to radicals and sidelining the moderates – The discussions in Rome started with Salif Sadio, head of the most radical of the MFDC factions. The Community of Sant’Egidio must have probably operated under the old saying that you “negotiate with your enemies not your friends”. The result has been a growing frustration of the moderate Southern Front of Cesar Batoute and Diatta. It is time to bring into the process all the factions and also neighboring countries of Guinea –Bissau and Gambia. As I have argued before, the Casamance conflict is the engine of a conflict system that stretches from Banjul in Gambia to Bissau in Guinea Bissau. So, neighboring countries are part of the problem as well as the solution.

These are complex challenges, addressing them will require creativity and leadership from all stakeholders involved! I hope the people of Casamance will finally see an end to this protracted conflict.