President Obama was in Senegal last week, the first stop on his three-country visit to Africa. The trip kicks off Obama’s efforts to deepen the United States’ engagement in Africa focusing on trade and investment, democratic institution-building and economic opportunities for young people. The president is traveling with a team of economic advisors and representatives from the private sector and will be speaking with members of civil society and judicial leaders.
Why Senegal Was Chosen
The US ambassador to Senegal affirmed that Senegal was selected because of its political stability and democratic record. Indeed, the Senegalese people are the pride of West Africa because last year they peacefully elected as president an opposition member in a highly contested presidential race. The country plays an important diplomatic role in francophone Africa. It is a large contributor of troops to international peacekeeping missions and a strong US ally in fighting transnational security threats including terrorism, drug trafficking and maritime piracy.
We were thrilled to see Senegal host President Obama and it was a moment to celebrate his homecoming to the land of Teranga (hospitality).
While Obama praised Senegal and President Sall for maintaining a peaceful democracy during a major election, he did not fail to encourage Senegal’s president to restart the peace negotiations in the conflict-affected region of Casamance. AJWS was delighted to hear Obama leverage his visit to call for peace in Casamance.
The Conflict in Senegal
You wouldn’t know it from reading the news, but Senegal has been dealing with 30-year internal conflict in its southern region of Casamance, which is geographically isolated from the rest of the country. A separatist rebel movement has been opposing the national government, seeking independence in this region where AJWS focuses its grantmaking. Acute clashes have decreased over time, but the conflict has led thousands of people to flee their villages and take refuge along the borders of southern Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea Bissau, leaving behind farmlands, cattle and other livelihoods assets.
The prolonged nature of the conflict also led to a normalization of the situation at the national and international level, while people from the region continue to live in a state of “no (open) war, no peace.”
Last year, the new government has shown great interest in addressing this conflict by reaching out to the rebel movement and working with civil society leaders. However, there has yet to be traction to begin peace negotiations
On May 3rd, when we were learning about the news of the president’s visit, a faction of the rebel movement took twelve landmine workers as hostages. AJWS’s partner Plateforme des Femmes pour la Paix en Casamance, a coalition of women-led organizations, organized a silent protest to demand the release of the hostages. Three women were released three weeks later but nine other people remain hostages to this day.
The US government through USAID has been supporting community-led peace-building and reconciliation programs in the region. Much more is needed, however. The people of Southern Senegal continue to experience insecurity and marginalization.
Obama’s Commitment to Peace
We are grateful for Obama’s push for peaceful negotiations, and we hope that representatives from the Casamance region will be included. If given the chance to be a representative, our partner, Construire la paix par le Développement Economique et Social, based in Sindian, an area considered to be a ‘high risk zone’, would ask Obama to stand in solidarity with the people of Casamance by supporting the following priorities:
- Peace negotiations between the government and the rebel movement that is inclusive of civil society to put a definitive end to this conflict;
- Rebuild infrastructure including roads, schools and health centers to enable displaced people to return to their homes and rebuild their lives;
- Develop food sovereignty by promoting sustainable farming practices in order to spur job creation for youth and rural women
A handshake with the people and civil society organizations of Casamance will make visible the largely forgotten conflict in the region and give power to the voices of the people of Casamance to build peace and security and development.
Rosalie Nezien is a Program Officer for Africa at American Jewish World Service.