As the global media focused on an historic transition of power in Washington D.C. last week, an even more dramatic presidential transition took place in the West Africa in The Gambia, with the support of its neighbor, Senegal. This historic transition has both promoted democracy in The Gambia and raised the bar for Senegal to act now to end its own decades-old armed conflict and advance a broader peace in West Africa. We urge Senegal to take up this crucial opportunity.
After The Gambia’s authoritarian president, Yahye Jammeh, refused to step down after losing the national elections in December, Senegal led an unprecedented regional effort to oust him and help usher in The Gambia’s democratically elected new leader, Adama Barrow. Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, mobilized a West African military force, including troops from Nigeria, Mali, Togo and Ghana, to force Jammeh to cede power. It took four tense days and a military stand-off, but the Gambian crisis ended peacefully when the defeated dictator left the country on January 21st and Barrow was inaugurated in the safety of the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
This gives The Gambia a new chance for democracy to take root. But the fall-out from the crisis is renewing fears of a fresh armed struggle just over The Gambian border in Senegal’s southern Casamance region, where a civil conflict has simmered for 34 years.
Now, Macky Sall has a choice to make: will he use this moment to cement regional stability by ending the ongoing conflict in his own country by jumpstarting the peace process in the Casamance, or will he let this opportunity pass amid fears that hostilities in the Casamance will escalate?
Background: Linked geography, linked conflicts
Casamance is a long finger of land across Senegal’s southern border that’s largely cut off from Senegal’s northern regions by The Gambia (which juts into the country and is surrounded by Senegal on three sides). For decades, many citizens of Casamance have felt disconnected from the rest of Senegal and neglected by their government. Casamance is the breadbasket of the country and yet local communities felt their concerns were often ignored at the national level—with little money, power or resources directed their way. In 1982, armed rebels emerged in the Casamance fed up with this treatment, and over the next three decades, they have fought a brutal guerilla war.
Originally, the rebels fought for independence and more equitable society. Over time, they turned violent against the very population that supported them: looting villages, raping women and terrorizing their neighbors. Meanwhile, the Senegalese state arbitrarily detained and reportedly tortured and disappeared those suspected of supporting rebel activity.
The conflict in Casamance is linked to The Gambia’s political crisis because the former Gambian dictator, Jammeh, long supported the most violent of the rebels with cash, weapons and a home base within his border. When Senegalese troops crossed into The Gambia during the political crisis last week, the main resistance they met was from the Casamance rebels, who were among the few that defended Jammeh in an effort to prevent his fall.
Now, as the rebels filter back to the Casamance region —freshly armed with weapons from Jammeh’s stockpile—many fear that the dangers for the border population will only increase. Locals on the Gambian border predict that the rebels, after potentially losing Jammeh as their main financial backer and, most likely, their Gambian sanctuary, will resettle back among the beleaguered Casamance population, demanding food, shelter and support. The chances for renewed violence are high.
A renewed need for peace
When Sall came to power in 2012, a key election promise was to restart a formal peace process to end the conflict. Throughout his first term he has failed to deliver.
The cost of his inaction is felt acutely on the Casamance—Gambian border this month. In recent weeks, the impoverished rural Casamance community has taken in the thousands of Gambian refugees who streamed across the border to escape the military crisis. Many households have swollen to 20 or more people, sharing their limited food supplies amid a dry rainy season—so far with no Senegalese government support. And they now face the fear that the rebel forces will turn on them again as the rebels try to survive now that Jammeh has gone.
President Sall deserves credit for his leadership efforts to protect democracy in The Gambia—especially at a time when democratic values are under threat around the world. Now he has an opportunity to extend that leadership at home. Not only could a formal peace process stop the current crisis in the Casamance from degenerating further; the peaceful resolution of this decades-old conflict would be another major advance toward regional peace and stability.
We urge Macky Sall to double down on the admirable commitment to democracy he demonstrated in aiding the Gambia in its electoral crisis—and forge a peaceful and just resolution to the war that has long divided and ravaged his own nation.
Henry Ndecky is the Coordinator of La coordination sous régionale des organisations de la société civile pour la paix en Casamance (COSPAC), the Casamance peace movement comprised of 176 grassroots groups.
Tracey Gurd is the Senior Director for Civil and Political Rights and Advocacy for American Jewish World Service, who was travelling in the Casamance at the time of The Gambian crisis.