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The Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance and West Africa’s Hidden Conflict
Could a dormant insurgency be reemerging? That is a relevant question to ponder after the incident that took place on January 24th in Gambia.
On that date, a clash occurred between Senegalese troops and members of a group known as the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). The clash ultimately left two Senegalese soldiers dead. However, there are several key details to unpack to further understand the importance of this incident.
First is the location of Casamance, a region within Senegal, south of the border with Gambia along the Casamance River. It has been the location of a low-level insurgency since the 1980s which was launched by the Diolas as a popular protest against the domination by northerners of natural resources, which evolved into a guerilla war in 1990, with the ethnic-majority Diola seeking independence. According to a paper by the Atlantic Council in 2014, there are an estimated 1,200-2000 fighters in the group. However, in the author’s view, the group does not pose an existential threat to Senegal. Yet a low-intensity insurgency persists.
Several presidents refused to sit down with the insurgents for various reasons until 1991 when an effort to negotiate was conducted on a regional level. Ceasefires and a peace accord signed between Dakar and the MFDC in 2005 raised hopes for future stability. But further talks that were supposed to take place have dithered since as a result of actions taken by the Abdoulaye Wade government, which was handed an electoral defeat in 2012.
A report by Reuters in 2012 referred to the conflict as an unhealed sore for Senegal. The fighting has ebbed and flowed beginning with an offensive in January 2021 with the assistance of troops from Guinea-Bissau, resulting in the destruction of several insurgent camps, which was followed up by another operation in November 2021. That is when Senegalese troops launched their second offensive of the year, raising hopes that the conflict would soon end. These hopes were seemingly dashed following the January 24th incident.
One has to ask whether this is just an internal issue for Senegal? What is the insurgency’s impact on regional relations? The support offered by Guinea-Bissau during the offensive in January 2021 does suggest that other West African states are closely watching the conflict in Casamance, with a view to possible spillover or greater regional destabilization.
When discussing the role of Gambia in the Casamance conflict, there is one time period to focus on. That is the rule of former President Yaya Jammeh, who seized power after a coup in 1991 and ruled until losing an election in 2017. Something that has been overlooked is that the ousted president is a member of the Jola (Diola) tribe. This tribe also has a large number of fighters serving with the MFDC. The homeland of the Jolas just happens to be the Casamance region of Senegal and the adjoining area in Gambia.
When the government of Adama Barrow assumed power in 2017, one of the first charges they levied against supporters of the former president was that they were hosting members of the MFDC in an effort to destabilize the new government. Despite the change of the government in Banjul, many of the same roadblocks that led to the start of the insurgency such as poor development of the region still remain unaddressed.
It is worth thinking about if the January 24 incident premeditated operation or if was it a chance encounter. The reports that are emerging do suggest that this was not a planned raid by the peacekeeping forces, but a case of the latter being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Reports of the MFDC fighters hiding with vehicles carrying timber suggest that their sustainability depends on their influence in the trade within Casamance. Evidence also suggests that the group is involved with the cannabis trade. In June of 2021, Senegalese troops discovered several hectares of hemp fields, whose profits were feeding the criminal activity in the region.
In general, insurgencies can thrive in conditions of poor governance by those in power. Some movements have found success using criminal enterprises to fund operations, procure arms and pay members. The situation appears to be no different in Casamance.
Should we be surprised to learn of other incidents in the region? Probably not considering how the group has proven adept at avoiding peacekeepers and flying under the radar of those who monitor the traffic of illicit money and goods. We should expect to see increased monitoring of their activities in the near future.