On the day after Christmas in 1982, the first shots were fired in Senegal's Casamance rebellion. Thirty years later, the insurgency continues, making it one of the world's longest-running conflicts. On Thursday, March 28, President Obama sat down with Senegalese President Macky Sall to discuss democracy, economic growth, and this conflict.
Thanks largely to President Sall's leadership, there is a chance that this will be their last conversation on the conflict. After his election last spring, the president immediately opened the door to negotiations with the Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance (MFDC), the insurgency rebel group. The State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Embassy Dakar, and the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) seized this opportunity. In October, CSO deployed Jim Bullington, a retired U.S. ambassador with significant Africa experience. In February, he was joined by Sue Ford Patrick, a retired Foreign Service officer, who is his deputy.
Ambassador Bullington has brought a focused, high-level, and inclusive approach that maintains the momentum of the peace process. He speaks regularly with the Government of Senegal and Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay organization in Rome that serves as a mediator. There are clear signs of progress, including a de facto ceasefire. Another step forward was the rebels' release of several government hostages. The government is in talks with the most hardline rebel faction, under the auspices of Sant'Egidio, and is negotiating with another faction in neighboring Guinea-Bissau. "We can't bring peace to the Casamance," said Ambassador Bullington. "Only the Senegalese can do that. But we can provide political and material support for the peace process."
To advance these efforts, CSO has provided support to elevate humanitarian demining activities, and to jumpstart disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts. USAID, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Agriculture are also major contributors to the peace process. Senegal's ambassador in Washington has said that support for peace in the Casamance is the best gift the United States could give to his country.
This initiative is advancing the United States' interests in Senegal. The conflict hamstrings economic growth and ties down the Senegalese military, one of Africa's most professional. As a result, these troops are unable to fully participate in peacekeeping operations in Mali and elsewhere. The nascent peace has already resulted in several tangible economic benefits for the country. The Department of Commerce and the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs facilitated a signing by the Senegalese Foreign Minister of an agreement with a U.S. company on March 28 to establish a special economic zone for processed fruit exports, based on a successful model in Sierra Leone.
Abdou Sarr, a leading member of the Casamance civil society, praised Ambassador Bullington's work and emphasized the need for continued U.S. government support. "Before you arrived," he told Ambassador Bullington, "we lacked coordination. There was no one with the influence to interact with decision makers at the highest level. We have that now, and it is greatly helping to promote peace."