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Rebels in search of peace
– by Allen Yéro Embalo
Guinean soldier decorating the “peace fountain” to commemorate the casualties of civil strife in Bissau, the capital city.
In the Casamance in Senegal’s south, conflict has been raging since 1982. Several thousand people were killed. Many have fled to the neighbouring Republic of Guinea-Bissau, which shares 338 kilometres of border with Senegal. Most refugees have settled within 50 kilometres of the border in Guinea-Bissau’s Districts of São Domingos and Varela. Tensions with local people have repeatedly boiled up, and in 2006, there was even armed conflict in São Domingos.
In find a livelihood, many refugees build wooden boats and catch fish. In the eyes of the locals, however, they are infringing upon traditional norms that protect the forests. Among the Diola, the region’s dominant ethnic group, it is forbidden to make fire or to cut down holy trees. Every kind of tree serves a specific purpose and has spiritual relevance. The silk-cotton tree is a homestead of spirits, the caïcédrat provides people with wood, and the palm tree delivers wine and is useful for building houses. Refugee fisher folk, however, use the trunks of silk-cotton trees and caïcédrats to make dug-out canoes. The women, moreover, use twigs and palm leaves to smoke fish.
“Djemberem di Cumpu Combersa” means “mediation pavilion” in English. The NGO of this name has been active in northern Guinea-Bissau for several years. It is cooperating with Germany’s non-governmental Weltfriedensdienst (World Peace Service, WFD, see box) in the context of the educational project Mom ku Mom (MkM), which means “hand in hand”.
One goal is to reconcile refugees from the Casamance, most of whom are fisher folk, with the local people of Varela. The people who live here trust the DDCC and the MkM, and so do the people on the Senegalese side of the border. The activists know the different ethnic groups well, so they understand their traditions, customs and livelihoods.
The MkM project eventually managed to ease tensions between the migrants and the local people. There is no conclusive solution to the trees dispute, but the various population groups now interact with more mutual respect and some understanding.
This kind of work is quite challenging however. Ever since the coup in 2012, all donors have discontinued their support for the government of Guinea-Bissau. The impact is felt by NGOs and grassroots organisations too, even though some still get support from abroad. The MkM project is one of the few projects that have not been discontinued in the border region.
Its approach to mediation has become generally appreciated. Even armed rebels have asked this NGO for help. Since 2010, the DDCC has been striving to bring peace to the border region of the Casamance, after rebels of the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) invited it to do so.
The conflict in Senegal is quite complex. Accordingly, the DDCC is initially focussing on re-uniting the fragmented factions of the MFDC. To make peace in negotiations, the government of Senegal needs a competent partner. “We don’t want the movement to be split when talks with the government begin,” says Yuri Nafantcham-na, the chairman of the DDCC and coordinator of the MkM project.
Distrust among the competing factions is intense, however, so they need an experienced and skilled mediator. The DDCC differs from other initiatives in having established close relationships with all factions. “We began our work in 2010, and got in touch with all groups within the MFDC,” Nafantcham-na recalls. “Back then, we did not know yet what approach would win their trust.”
To build peace, he says, one needs a solid foundation – just as if one were building a house. The foundation, in his eyes, is participants’ willingness to negotiate. He points out that it takes “patience and confidentiality” to foster such willingness. “Our capital consists of our determination to do things well and in people’s trust in our organisation.”
As it did in Guinea-Bissau, the DDCC is relying on what is called “focus group discussions” in regard to the MFDC. Staff members prepare the groups individually for non-violent debate. They are doing their best to prepare the right kind of environment for direct personal interaction, in which it will be possible to tackle sensitive topics and even taboos. For this purpose, DDCC runs surveys among the people affected by the conflict and collects data. Such focus group data serves good reasoning.
“We worked for an entire year before there was a glimmer of hope,” Nafantcham-na reports. “We held several separate meetings to prepare the various factions for talks, dealing with them one by one, before we passed on to the next phase.”
In the meantime, results are becoming evident. Several parties have explicitly stated that they want to meet their adversaries more often. There is hope that they will eventually overcome their quarrels. “Their divergence will become less relevant,” says Nafantcham-na.
Preparing youngsters for peace
The first generation of independence fighters has long retired. Today, the militias are made up of people who joined their ranks at a rather young age or who were even born into them. These youngsters have neither any school education nor any vocational training. The region where they live does not offer them any real opportunities. That is true on both sides of the border.
“Nature did not let us be born in the right place,” complains Jorge Mendes, the chairman of the Young Floup. The Floup are a Diola tribe in the Cacheu region. “Why isn’t anything being done in a region with so much potential? Our fields are fertile, and there is plenty of arable land.” The truth, however, is that the land is not being managed well. The cultivation methods are outdated, and the fields are only used for three to four months every year. The roads are so bad that, in the rainy season, both sides of the border region are cut off from the rest of the world.
A spirit of perseverance at any cost is common among the youth organisations however. Nobody is waiting for a helping hand anymore. People understand that they have to build everything by themselves, in piecemeal efforts.
The crisis in the Casamance started in 1982 when the formerly non-violent Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) took up arms. Its members demanded equal opportunities for their region. They wanted to see the same kind of public investments as were made in Senegal’s other regions. The conflict escalated into a war of independence, with rebels trying to achieve total autonomy. Thousands of people fled to Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
The MFDC, however, has fragmented into many factions. They are not only fighting the government, but also waging war against one another. They live on both sides of Senegal’s border to Guinea-Bissau. Combat occurs in both countries. Matters are made more difficult by the fact that Guinea-Bissau itself is politically instable. For many years, the Senegalese government believed that Guinea-Bissau was causing the trouble in the Casamance.
Things have calmed down a bit since Senegal’s President Macky Sall took office last year. Sall said he wants to bring peace to the Casamance. Currently, there is neither war nor peace in the region, but peace never seemed so close in the past 30 years as it does today. For peace to prevail, however, reconciliation of the rebels among themselves is needed too.
Allen Yéro Embalo is a journalist and works as a correspondent for Radio France Internationale and Agence France Presse in Guinea-Bissau.