Sant'Egidio Playing Vital Role in Effort to End 30-Year Conflict in Senegal

Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
November 25, 2014

The insurgency in Senegal’s Casamance region is one of the longest-running conflicts in the world—and one of the least known. It began 32 years ago when the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) demanded that the area be granted independence. Geography is a critical factor in this standoff. Casamance is the southern-most portion of Senegal, but another country, The Gambia, runs east-to-west between the region and the northern areas of Senegal.

In January 2011 President M. Abdoulaye Wade stated his willingness to engage Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay organization in Rome with experience in helping parties resolve conflicts:

A few weeks later, the military wing of the MFDC agreed to participate. Little happened, however, until Macky Sall was elected president in 2012 and injected new energy into the quest for peace. “We saw an opportunity for the State Department to promote peace,” said CSO’s Rebecca Wall, who proposed that her bureau send a senior official to provide diplomatic support and international partner coordination for the peace process.

That official was retired Ambassador James Bullington, who had 12 years of Africa experience in hot spots such as Chad and Burundi, a great respect for local leadership, and plenty of Chattanooga charm.

“We can’t bring peace to the Casamance,” Ambassador Bullington said in late 2012, after his arrival in Dakar. “Only the Senegalese can do that. But we can provide political and material support for the peace process.” To build on the momentum and to keep this issue on the embassy’s radar screen despite competing priorities, Ambassador Bullington coordinated with Embassy Dakar staff and other U.S. government agencies to ensure a focused, interagency approach. He began speaking regularly with the Government of Senegal and Sant’Egidio, while encouraging regional neighbors, especially The Gambia, to cooperate in the peace initiative. In late 2013, Sue Ford Patrick served as the U.S. Casamance advisor, and in 2014, the State Department’s Africa Bureau deployed Ambassador Mark Boulware to continue this role. The UN and other international partners also made important contributions.

Sant'Egidio contacted MFDC leader Salif Sadio, and high-level delegations from MFDC visited the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome three times between January and July 2012 to prepare the negotiations. “Sant’Egidio understands that negotiations take a long time and that relationship-building is the key to the ultimate success of a peace process,” said CSO’s Wall, who helped secure U.S. government funds to enlist Sant’Egidio.

The first round of talks between representatives of the MFDC and the government of Senegal took place that October. Sant’Egidio asked Sadiò to release eight hostages as a humanitarian gesture and as an act to promote a favorable climate for negotiations. On December 9, in Casamance, Sadio delivered the prisoners to an international delegation. At about the same time a de facto ceasefire took hold, and it remains in effect.

“Interreligious and ecumenical dialogue between Christian and Muslim community leaders and the political leaders promoted and created a positive synergy that is favourable to reconciliation,” Sant’Egidio said on its website. Negotiations in Rome and Senegal continue, in hopes that before long this conflict can be considered at an end.