Violence and the War of Words: Ethnicity V. Nationalism in the Casamance

By Lambert, Michael C. | Africa, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Violence and the War of Words: Ethnicity V. Nationalism in the Casamance


Lambert, Michael C., Africa


ABSTRACT

Since 1982 the Mouvement des forces democratique casamancais has been fighting for the independence of the Casamance region of Senegal. In 1989, when the Mouvement initiated a sustained military campaign, Senegal's official and independent press began to provide intensive coverage of its activities and objectives. This article documents the arguments for and against Casamancais independence as documented by Senegal's press in the year following the resurgence of this conflict. The Mouvement's leadership has consistently maintained that its efforts to win independence for the Casamance are legitimate because France created the Casamance. The French, it argues, never intended the Casamance to be administratively incorporated into Senegal. Conversely, those opposed to the Mouvement have attempted to delegitimise its activities by claiming that it represents the interests of the Jola, just one of the Casamance's many ethnic groups. It is argued that the Senegalese government and other opponents of the Mouvement have attempted to label the independence movement an ethnic movement because of a distinction in African political ideology between nationalism and ethnicity. According to this ideology, nationalism, and other legitimate forms of political mobilisation, should represent a plural constituency. Those that represent the narrow interests of a single ethnic group are not considered legitimate.

In the spring of 1990 the Casamance region of Senegal erupted with violence. Atika,(1) the military wing of the Mouvement des forces democratique casamancais (MFDC), carried out a series of terrorist attacks against government and public transport vehicles, and village shops. This round of political violence, which continued over the next seven years, was not the first the Casamance had seen. Eight years earlier MFDC supporters raised their flag over the Gouvernance in Ziguinchor, the regional capital of the Casamance, in an uprising ultimately suppressed in a violent confrontation with the Senegalese military.

Atika was formed in the wake of this event. Even though the movement restricted itself to sporadic and isolated incidents of terrorism throughout the 1980s, by the decade's end its military wing had become a well trained and disciplined army of an estimated 3(g)-600 soldiers. As the tenth anniversary of the 1982 uprising approached, the MFDC pressed its demands for the independence of the Casamance: in November of 1989 its leaders distributed a tract stating that they would declare the region's independence from Senegal on 25 December. Christmas passed without incident. But shortly thereafter the MFDC made its presence known through a vigorous and bloody military campaign.(2)

The ensuing violence has had a considerable impact on the region.(3) Hundreds of lives have been lost, and thousands of Casamancais have sought refuge in the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. The region's economy has been seriously affected. At times the violence has ground the lucrative tourist industry to a halt. It would be hard to find a Casamacais village that has not been directly touched by the conflict. When I returned to the Casamance in the fall of 1990 to visit the village where I had conducted research the previous year, I was assaulted with accounts of a nearby battle and the fear it had inspired. I also learned that, the night before my arrival, all the men in a neighbouring village had been detained by the Senegalese government. They were suspected of supporting the MFDC. The hardships endured by another village, Kaguith, in which the Senegalese government had established a military base, were also recounted to me in great detail. Two years later this village would become the site of one of the war's fiercest battles. After the 1989 Senegal-Mauritania conflict, a conflict in which roving Senegalese bands murdered at least forty Mauritanians and pillaged the homes and businesses of many others, a Joia(4) friend in Dakar told me that he slept with his bags packed, out of fear that the Joia would be next.

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