Why Mine Action Matters: Landmines, Casamance and the End of a Thirty-Year WarPosted: April 29, 2013
In the last few months, some very positive news has emerged from Senegal suggesting that the thirty-year long conflict between separatist rebels in the southern Casamance region and the central government in Dakar may be near an end. The Casamance region separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia which rests along the southern and northern banks of the Gambia River. This physical separation is part of the reason for the conflict, but there are other issues at play including political and economic isolation (which probably weren’t helped by the geography). Since his election in 2012, Senegalese President Macky Sall has emphasized efforts to bring peace to the region with the assistance of international and national mediators between his government and the separatist factions known collectively as the Movement of the Democratic Forces of the Casamance.
The heightened prospects of peace have brought a new focus on mine action in the Casamance region, from demining to risk education to victim assistance. But in addition to the immediate benefits of mine action activities, work around landmines has aided in the cause of peace and provided indirect benefits that may secure a permanent peace in this troubled region.
Direct Benefits of Mine Action in the Casamance
Mine action provides direct benefits in terms of increasing physical security of persons living in mine-affected regions, increased economic activity in mine-affected areas and provision of rehabilitation and reintegration services to victims. Over the three decades of conflict, roughly 1,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines, but this number has been declining since 1997 when over 200 landmine accidents were reported. In 2008, only one accident was reported, but in 2011 32 people were killed or injured by mines and in in 2013, 3 people have been killed in two separate incidents (IRIN News; The Monitor). But the general trend has been positive due to heightened awareness through mine risk education and extensive clearance efforts.
Those clearance efforts were started by Handicap International (HI) which surveyed the portions of the Casamance under the control of the Senegalese government. HI also engaged in clearance activities, but in recent months, demining activities have been led by Denel Mechem, a private South African firm, and Norwegian People’s Aid, an international non-governmental organization. Between the three groups, over 600,000 square meters of land have been cleared representing half of the known contamination. This has led some to suggest that Senegal will definitely meet its Mine Ban Treaty deadline of March 1, 2016 for clearance of all anti-personnel mines (IRIN News).
In addition to reducing the number of landmine injuries, the clearance of former minefields is allowing refugees who fled the Casamance for safety and peace in the Gambia to return to their homelands. Senegalese refugees poured into the Gambia 10, 15, 20 years ago and have been living in Gambian villages and communities ever since, putting strains on local agricultural resources. But, with the clearance of mines from the Casamance and the increased prospects for peace, many of these refugees are returning to their home villages in Senegal. These returns are accompanied by increased agricultural outputs from southern Senegal and therefore increased economic activity overall (All Africa).
Senegal, through the national mine action center (CNAMS) and a variety of national and international NGOs strives to provide victim assistance services to those injured by landmines. Since 2011, the availability of services has increased, but many barriers to access remain. The complete range of victim assistance services, from emergency medicine to psycho-social counseling, is available in the Casamance region, but services are provided by different organizations and many are centralized in the regional capitol, Ziguinchor, making them inaccessible for survivors elsewhere. This is an area in which the government could improve its response, but the fact that services are available at all is notable (The Monitor).
The Indirect Benefits of Mine Action in the Casamance
While harder to quantify, the indirect benefits of mine action are sometimes more important than the direct benefits described above because they can impact the entire country, not just the persons living in mine-affected regions. In Senegal, landmines are being used as an entry point into peace negotiations; mine action is building confidence and goodwill in the residents of Casamance towards the central government in Senegal; and it provides the basis for long-term economic development.
There are two international organizations actively engaged in the negotiating process between the government of Senegal and the MFDC. Under official auspices, the Sant Egidio community, a Catholic lay community based in Rome has been mediating negotiations between the political wing of the MFDC and Macky Sall’s government. Sant Egidio has been involved in a number of peace negotiations, including the one that concluded the twenty-year civil war in Mozambique, and have a strong reputation within the international community. Their involvement is supported by the US State Department and has been welcomed by both parties to the conflict.
However, long before the entry of Sant Egidio, the NGO Geneva Call entered into negotiations starting in 2006 with the MFDC with the hope of getting the MFDC to sign a deed of commitment to ban the use of anti-personnel landmines. Geneva Call’s deed of commitment is modeled on the Mine Ban Treaty and has served as an opportunity to engage with non-state actors to reduce the humanitarian impact of conflict. But, it also provides the opportunity to build rapport with rebel groups, identify leaders and put Geneva Call in the position to facilitate and mediate peace negotiations between parties to a conflict. Thus, using landmines as the entry point, Geneva Call has been able to facilitate humanitarian demining in Casamance while also engaging with the military wing of MFDC (Geneva Call; IRIN News). This relationship feeds into the negotiations mediated by Sant Egidio.
The thirty years of conflict and repeated promises by Senegalese leaders have left the people of the Casamance politically apathetic and generally feeling forgotten by Dakar. In 2000, the newly elected Abdoulaye Wade promised to resolve the conflict in 100 days and the fact that he failed to do so (by some 4000 days), led to very low turnout in the 2012 election by people in the Casamance. After years of unmet promises and thousands of victims, “forgotten Casamance… has been dying a slow death” (African Arguments). But the renewed engagement by Macky Sall’s government, which has established a de facto cease fire and, and the continued demining has allowed refugees to return to the region as described above. Those returns, and the demonstration of belief that those returns represent on behalf of the people of Casamance, shows that Dakar has not abandoned the region.
And the conflict is not just receiving attention locally. Macky Sall met with US President Barack Obama in March 2013 to discuss the Casamance conflict, a meeting well publicized in Senegal, which reflects the high level of interest concluding this conflict has in both Senegal and internationally. And it starts with landmines. By supporting demining, the US and Senegalese governments have shown to the people of the Casamance their interest in the region and their desire for peace. Through this strategic investment, the US has been able to buy trust among Casamance civil society to be able to send a high level delegation to the region to put pressure on the Senegalese government and the MFDC to negotiate (State Department).
Last, poverty has become endemic in the Casamance. Between people fleeing the violence and agricultural lands abandoned due to landmine contamination, what was once the breadbasket of Senegal had been allowed to run fallow. “For us the demining represents a return to normal life. This will allow people to escape from the poverty into which the landmines plunged them” (All Africa). But in addition to alleviating poverty through cultivation, trade across the borders with the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau can resume. Roads that had been closed due to fears of landmine contamination will now be opened allowing trade within the Casamance. The World Bank estimates that 0.1% of contamination by landmines results in a 0.5% decrease in GDP. For every field freed of landmines, the economy of the whole will grow.
This will also improve relations between the states and within the region. While the Gambian president has pledged his support for peace (All Africa), he has been suspected of aiding the MFDC which has soured relations between the two countries. Once peace is consolidated in the Casamance and the mines are cleared, the rest of the refugees in the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau can return to their farms and enter productive cultivation and not rely on support from host governments as refugees. Once the conflict in the Casamance is resolved, the Senegalese army can join regional peacekeeping units instead of being forced to fight in their own backyards. And it starts with landmines; or rather it starts by using landmines to address the larger issues of isolation, poverty and political exclusion. That’s why mine action is important. Because it’s not just about landmines; it’s about development and the consolidation of peace.
Michael P. Moore
April 29, 2013