Casamance: political will is needed to address the situation of IDPs

Published: 30 May 2014
By: Djibril Balde

For thirty two years, the armed conflict in Casamance, which has pitted the government of Senegal against separatist rebels of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), remains unresolved and the civilians displaced by it remain vulnerable. The MFDC rebellion, which is one of the oldest in Africa, is calling for the independence of Casamance. The conflict has led to repeated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including attacks on civilians, killings, burning of villages, carjackings on the National Highway of Ziguinchor (the capital of the southern region) and the laying of landmines. These violations have contributed to the forcible displacement of 40,000 people within Senegal and driven 17,000 to neighbouring countries such as the Gambia and Guinea Bissau.

Internally displaced children are often particularly vulnerable; many have been abandoned by families due to poverty and are exposed to child labour or forced to beg. In addition, these children, and others in less extreme but still difficult social circumstances, face difficulties in school and an elevated drop-out rate. Even those that are able to stay in school face administrative challenges to continuing their studies. About 9,000 displaced children under seven don’t have birth certificates, which are compulsory for enrollment in school. Although at times, children are allowed to enrol despite the requirement, they often find that this special exemption is not extended to the registration for the final primary exams, thus preventing them for gaining that qualification.. National law stipulates that primary education is obligatory in Senegal, and the government should take proactive measures to facilitate access to primary education by ensuring that all births are registered. Mechanisms that should be put in place to increase registration include mobile birth registration centres to enable those IDPs settled in isolated villages to register births and increased awareness-raising among IDPs on the importance of birth registration.

Anti-personal mines have been used since the beginning of the crisis, claiming many victims. In addition, hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of landmines, making it difficult for IDPs to access farmland in their host localities.

Despite the various peace agreements signed over the years, peace does not prevail. Making matters worse, the MFDC has fragmented leaving the government with little clarity over with whom it should negotiate.

Thousands of internally displaced persons yearn for a lasting and just resolution to this crisis, which has deprived them of access to land and has deeply impoverished the region. The government must set up an inclusive framework of dialogue and consultation in which all parties to the conflict are represented as well as religious and traditional leaders of the region, displaced persons, civil society organisations, victims and representatives of each ethnic group in order to find a lasting solution to this crisis. Involving neighbouring countries, such as the Gambia and Guinea Bissau, in the peace negotiations may also be useful given that many MFDC rebels are suspected of sheltering there.

The Senegalese army and the MFDC rebels should be held accountable of the consequences of landmines in Casamance. The MFDC rebels admitted laying landmines in 1997. Besides, a number of merchants in Casamance have been arrested in possession of landmines. According to a report of the Rencontre Africaine Pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO) in 1998, many former soldiers of the Senegalese army have confirmed that army has laidmines in this region, even though Senegal has ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines.

A comprehensive peace will require, among other things: a comprehensive disarmament and reintegration programme; accountability for the perpetrators of violations of human rights against the civilian population and mine clearance of affected areas to facilitate the return of the displaced to their places of origin. In addition, no amnesty should be included in any peace deal. This will contribute to the fight against impunity and avoid frustration on the part of the population which could lead to further conflict.

Until such a peace can be achieved and the IDPs can return, the government must do more to mitigate their suffering and poverty and that of their host populations. Such an effort should begin with an in-depth study of the IDP population assessing both their numbers and their needs. Special efforts should be made to ensure that those who have not been recognized have their birth registered and are given the appropriate identity documents. The government must establish development programs and build schools in order to absorb IDP children into the education system.

While the IDPs’ needs are many and complex, and the government must show renewed will to protect and assist them. Although it would not be a panacea, a good first step and show of political will would be the ratification and implementation of the AU Convention on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in Africa.

Regions: Western Africa, Senegal
Type: IRRI Blog