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Recent upsurge in violence in Casamance region between security forces, separatists unlikely to sharply escalate – Senegal Analysis

Executive Summary

A notable surge in security incidents has been witnessed in Senegal’s Ziguinchor Region, which is part of the wider Casamance area, during June. The army’s attempt to relocate internally displaced persons (IDP) to villages that they left in the 1990s likely triggered this surge as armed groups within the separatist Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) feared that this would threaten their lucrative illicit activities developed over the past years in this area.

This does not seem to point to a revival of the MFDC’s independentist cause as armed factions seem to be focused on maintaining control over their respective territory to pursue their illegal activities.

Ultimately, the lack of coordination within the MFDC and similar patterns in previous years suggest that this sudden peak in violence will not drastically escalate. However, attacks may take place intermittently, and be used by the MFDC to keep de-facto control of certain areas in the Ziguinchor Region.

Those operating in the Ziguinchor Region are advised to maintain heightened vigilance due to possible instances of clashes between separatists and soldiers, while avoiding all travel off of the main roads due to the presence of landmines.


Since the 1980s, the separatist Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has led a rebellion against the Senegalese state demanding greater autonomy for Casamance, an area comprising Senegal’s southern Kolda, Sedhiou, and Ziguinchor regions. Casamance is geographically separated from the rest of the Senegalese territory, situated between The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. It is mostly inhabited by the Jola ethnic minority while also being the only areas with Christian majorities in the country. The MFDC has notably exploited the geographical remoteness as well as ethnic and religious differences of the Casamance region to build its platform in opposition to the rest of the country.

While the MFDC started by organizing acts of civil disobedience following its creation in 1982, the group has led an active armed rebellion against the Senegalese government since the early 1990s, mainly consisting of guerilla attacks, which led to thousands of deaths and displacement of over 60,000 people from villages in the Casamance region.

Divisions within the groups between the proponents of dialogue, mostly the MFDC’s Northern Front, and those advocating for a continued insurgency, affiliated with the Southern Front, as well as continued security operations have prompted a notable decrease in attacks over the past years. Several factions within the MFDC have, nonetheless, continued to launch attacks despite the signing of truces in 2004 and again in 2014. However, such attacks have remained relatively rare and sparse and are mostly acts of banditry against locals rather than organized assaults on security forces.

Current Situation

During the month of June, at least eight security incidents were witnessed in Casamance’s Ziguinchor Region. This notably included the explosions of landmines, which notably killed two soldiers in Niaguis on June 15.

Clashes between MFDC fighters and soldiers reportedly started after the attempted repatriation of internally displaced persons (IDP) who fled during the peak of the Casamance conflict from the area.

Reports from July 6 indicate that the army will postpone the full repatriation of IDPs in the vicinity of Bissine. The army reportedly intends to further secure the area and remove landmines before resuming the repatriation.

Meanwhile, the MFDC’s Northern Front, also called the Diakaye faction, stated its willingness to cease armed activities, robberies, and violence to facilitate the conditions for peace talks with the government, in a statement issued jointly with the civil wing of the MFDC on June 20. In exchange, they have reportedly demanded the cessation of all military activities in MFDC-controlled areas and the release of detained MFDC members.

Assessments & Forecast

A marked surge in attacks has been observed since mid-June in Casamance. While only four incidents were reported from early 2019 to the beginning of June 2020, at least eight security incidents have transpired since then. Several of the incidents involved landmine explosions that were labeled as accidental by the army. However, ensuing clashes between MFDC militants and soldiers suggest that the MFDC may have intentionally targeted the army. This would constitute a notable shift from previous years as armed factions of the MFDC have principally acted as a criminal organization raiding and looting villages for financial gains, notably surviving through the trade of stolen wood and cattle. Although violent incidents had almost ceased since 2013, a similar peak in confrontations was also witnessed in mid-2018.

This surge over the past month may foremost be explained by the army’s recent decision to proceed with the relocation of IDPs to the villages that they left during the peak of the crisis in the 1990s. By relocating the civilians, the army entered areas where MFDC rebels are more entrenched. Therefore, the soldiers may have activated mines that have been placed much earlier by the militants. It is also possible that the mines were placed recently to stop the army’s entry due to the planned relocation of IDPs. Such relocations likely seriously threatened the illegal activities of the separatists that have used the abandoned villages as sanctuaries and bases to sell stolen goods and cattle throughout the Ziguinchor Region.

Consequently, the recent uptick was likely caused by the threat posed by the relocations to the activities of certain radical fringes of the MFDC, rather than by a sudden revival of their independentist ideals. Such groups may be affiliated with the MFDC’s Southern Front due to the locations of the incidents, closer to the borders with Guinea-Bissau in areas mostly occupied by members of the faction. In fact, the MFDC’s Southern Front has been the main instigator of the violence in recent years, though the Northern Front has not disarmed despite constant open calls for dialogue. In this context, the call by the Northern Front demanding the cessation of movements of Senegalese soldiers from zones occupied by their fighters prove that their primary intention is to maintain direct control over their zone of influence, as they may fear a similar intervention in the northern parts of Casamance. Additionally, the Northern Front may have planted the landmine that injured eight soldiers on June 13 in Lefeu as the incident happened within their zone of influence in northern Ziguinchor, proving that they may still act violently despite their peaceful rhetoric.

Overall, neither of the groups seem to have, at least for now, overarching demands regarding the entire Casamance region. As their status has downgraded over the past years, their focus has likely shifted to ensuring that their illicit activities continue unhindered. The lack of cohesive leadership within the MFDC has complicated the efforts to set up an effective peace process, and possibly put in place a reintegration framework for combatants. Further, the removal of Yahya Jammeh from the presidency in The Gambia in 2017 likely further weakened the groups as the controversial leader had been an active sponsor of the separatist movement, notably the Northern Front, with certain leaders taking refuge in The Gambia.

FORECAST: Although a peak in incidents was witnessed in mid-June, attacks have ceased following the intervention of the army and the launch of a military operation to secure the area. Hence, the sudden revival of violence will likely remain limited to the areas in the vicinity of Bissine in Ziguinchor Region. Additional clashes between MFDC’s armed groups and the army may take place. Such incidents may notably happen if the army persists in their attempts to relocate IDPs to their former villages and enter MFDC-controlled zones. It also cannot be ruled out that elements within the MFDC further radicalize in case of continued army offensives and attempt to directly launch more attacks against the soldiers or government buildings in larger cities such as Ziguinchor. This remains unlikely, however, at this time as this would trigger a much larger response by the Senegalese authorities and further impede these armed groups’ ability to thrive economically.

FORECAST: Ultimately, the lack of coordination within the MFDC and similar patterns in previous years suggest that this sudden peak in violence will not drastically escalate. Attacks may take place intermittently and be used by the MFDC to keep de-facto control of certain areas. This will likely continue to complicate the return of IDPs in the region. Although certain fringes within the MFDC, notably the Northern Front, may continue to demand a ceasefire, it is unlikely that an overarching agreement will be reached in the near future, as the authorities may ask for a controlled relocation of civilians, which may not be entirely agreed upon by all the factions within the separatist group. In case an agreement is reached, it is also unlikely that all the parties involved will cease their lucrative activities and allow the free movement of Senegalese soldiers. Hence, the conflict in the area will likely remain at a low level, with landmines being the most serious threat for individuals operating in the area.


Those operating in the Ziguinchor Region are advised to maintain heightened vigilance due to possible instances of clashes between separatists and soldiers, while avoiding all travel off of the main roads due to the presence of landmines.

Travel to Dakar may continue while adhering to heightened security precautions regarding criminal activity.