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Non-International Armed Conflict in Senegal

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Senegalese government is engaged in a non-international armed conflict in Casamance, the southwestern limb of Senegal, with the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC), a non-state armed group.

The Senegalese armed forces are involved in a decades-old non-international armed conflict with the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC). In 1991, the military wing of the MFDC split into two factions: the MFDC-Front Sud and MFDC-Front Nord. Reports indicate that there have been further subdivisions within the military wing of the MFDC because of a limited ability to exercise command and control and a lack of political leadership within the MFDC.

The struggle for independence of Casamance began in the early 1980s through popular protests organized by the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC), which were brutally repressed by Senegalese police and military forces. C. Panara, ‘Casamance Conflict’, Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law (Oxford University Press, 2007), §§5-7; ‘An Introduction to the Casamance Conflict: Implications for Peacebuilding’, Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa, 29 March 2018; ‘Casamance conflict: hopes for an end to Senegal's forgotten war’, The Week, 12 August 2015; M. Evans, ‘The Casamance conflict: out of sight, out of mind?’ Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN), March 2002, at pp. 5-6. This led the MFDC to form an armed wing in 1985, which has been able to carry out intermittent attacks on state and military targets since 1990. See C. Panara, ‘Casamance Conflict’, Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law, (Oxford University Press, 2007), §§8-10; Amnesty International, ‘Senegal: Climate of terror in Casamance’, 17 February 1998, Index number: AFR 49/001/1998, at p. 4-5; D. Seyferth, ‘Senegal: An End to One of Africa’s Longest Civil Conflicts?’, Atlantic Council, 9 July 2014. The Senegalese government reacted by appointing a military Governor to the Ziguinchor region in May 1990, and deploying the army in large part of Casamance. D. Lewis, ‘Casamance conflict is unhealed sore for Senegal’, Reuters, 25 February 2012. Since then Senegal, which was seen as a bastion of stability in a fragile region, has been dragged into an armed conflict.

Over the years, the MFDC has fragmented into splinter facctions and the lack of a centralized command and control structure has been a barrier to peace. D. Seyferth, ‘Senegal: An End to One of Africa’s Longest Civil Conflicts?’, Atlantic Council, 9 July 2014. Several attempts to end the conflict – including the ceasefire agreements on 31 May 1991, 8 July 1993, 27 December 1999, 30 December 2004 and 2014 - were not effective nor durable. C. Panara, ‘Casamance Conflict’, Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law, (Oxford University Press, 2007), §11. This can partly be attributed to the fact that the more militant factions of MFDC have consistently been excluded from peace negotiations between the MFDC’s ostensible political leadership and the Senegalese government over the years. David Seyferth, ‘Senegal: An End to One of Africa’s Longest Civil Conflicts?’, Atlantic Council, 9 July 2014. The MFDC is now composed of several warlords and political leaders, with some armed factions acting independently from the political wing, complicating the situation in Casamance. Institute for Security Studies, ‘New Negotiations Brokered by Sant'Egigio: Hope for Peace in Casamance?’.

To this day, durable peace remains elusive, and the region remains plagued by occasional violent incidents and intermittent low-intensity fighting between the Senegalese army and factions of the MFDC. See ‘Closer to war than to peace in Casamance?’, The New Humanitarian, 18 September 2009; and D. Lewis, ‘Casamance conflict is unhealed sore for Senegal’, 25 February 2012. Moreover, as the MFDC moves back and forth across the borders of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, the Senegalese army has not been successful in decisively defeating them, even when it stepped up its pressure. Boundaries of Casamance remain blurred after 30 years of conflict’, The Guardian,  12 June 2012. As it will explained in the analysis below, a lull in hostilities is not sufficient to conclude that the NIAC has ended: IHL continues to apply until violence has completely ceased and there is no real risk of resumption. ICRC Commentary to Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions (2016), §488.


Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence, must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group, which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation meets the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our classification section.

While some sporadic violence existed in 1980s, a peak of violence occurred from 1990 onwards, with the MFDC acquiring new military resources and inflicting heavy losses on Senegalese armed forces. An Introduction to the Casamance Conflict: Implications for Peacebuilding’, Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa, 29 March 2018; ‘Armed Conflict, Senegal (1982-2005)’, Project Ploughshares, December 2005; and M. Evans, ‘Senegal: Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance(MFDC)’, Chatham House, African Programme, December 2004. The measures taken by the government included crop destruction, internment, summary executions and at times even ‘clearances of entire villages’. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’.

Following the agreement of April 1992 in the Guinean-Bissau town of Cacheu, which was meant to consolidate the ceasefire agreement signed in 1991, the MFDC split into two factions: a more militant Front Sud (southern front led by Abbe Diamacoune); and Front Nord (northern front, led by Sidy Badji) which was organized as an alliance of several groups calling for further negotiation based on the 1991 agreement instead of full independence. See M. Evans, ‘Senegal: Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance(MFDC)’, Chatham House, African Programme, December 2004, p.5; and Chronology for Diolas in Casamance in Senegal, Minorities at Risk Project, 2004. Though both Front Nord and Front Sud claim to be the real MFDC and try to discredit the other, the Front Sud, which received backing from Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, a leading figure in the Casamance independence movement, and remains therefore the main military wing of the MFDC. Accordingly, most of the fighting between the Senegalese forces and MFDC occurred in the southern part of Casamance.

Apart from occasional lulls in the fighting due to the aforementioned ceasefire agreements, the conflict has been active since the 1990s and at times extremely brutal. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’. For instance, in September 1992, during a clash between separatist MFDC guerrillas and government troops at Kaguitt village (in Casamançe, near the Guinea-Bissau border), 50 rebels and 2 soldiers died, and sixty-nine people were said to have been wounded. University of Central Arkansas, ‘Senegal/Casamance (1982-Present)’. This incident marked the first outbreak of violence after the  signing of a peace accord in May 1991. Chronology for Diolas in Casamance in Senegal, Minorities at Risk Project, 2004. In June 1993, approximately 20 members of the MFDC were killed in clashes with the Senegalese army. University of Central Arkansas, ‘Senegal/Casamance (1982-Present).

The hostilities continued and on 10 February 1995, Senegalese aircrafts bombed MFDC targets in Guinea-Bissau, and later in the same year between October and November, the conflict claimed the lives of some 150 Casamance rebels. University of Central Arkansas, ‘Senegal/Casamance (1982-Present)’. In 1997, the Senegalese government troops launched an extensive military offensive against MFDC that resulted in significant losses for both parties as more than 30 soldiers and more than 100 rebels were killed in the hostilities. See Chronology for Diolas in Casamance in Senegal, Minorities at Risk Project, 2004; and University of Central Arkansas, ‘Senegal/Casamance (1982-Present)’. Since then, violence between the Senegalese troops and MFDC has never completely ceased.

The years 2009 – 2010 saw an escalation of violence in Casamance. A. Tandia, ‘When Civil Wars Hibernate in Borderlands: The Challenges of the Casamance’s “Forgotten Civil War” to Cross-Border Peace and Security’, in B. Korf and T. Raeymaekers (eds), Violence on the Margins: States, Conflict, and Borderlands, (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), at pp. 224-230. In 2010, government forces suffered a military set back as the rebels launched an important attack near the Gambian border; the Senegalese military subsequently claimed that MFDC had gained access to new weapons as heavy artillery, grenades and machine guns were used during the attack. See Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’; University of Central Arkansas, ‘Senegal/Casamance (1982-Present)’. From 2010 to 2014, there were fewer clashes between factions of the MFDC and the government forces; and following talks between the government and the MFDC in Italy, Salif Sadio, the leader of Front Sud, declared a unilateral ceasefire in 2014. Senegal's Casamance MFDC rebels declare a ceasefire’, BBC News, 30 April 2014. Nevertheless, over the past years there have been reports of violence between Senegal and the armed non-state actor. Furthermore, the Senegalese armed forces have been targeting rebel hideouts in Casamance region.  N. Haque, ‘Senegal: Army targets rebel hideouts in Casamance region’, Al Jazeera, 16 January 2018.

After a period of sporadic and low intensity violence, in February 2021 the Senegalese army launched offensive against three MFDC camps. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Senegal; ‘Senegal rebels face defeat as local back army offensive’, AfricaNews, 12 February 2021. The rebels have accused the government of having started a new wave of violence and to have violated the peace agreement signed in 2014 in Rome. ‘Senegal rebels accuse army of ‘re-starting’ war’, Eyewitness news, 3 February 2021; ‘MFDC afirma que confrontos na fronteira com a Guiné-Bissau são “manipulação e intoxicação”’, E-Global, 26 February 2021. In March 2021, different factions of MFDC met to find unity and harmonize their positions in order to sit together at the negotiation table with the government. I. Ndeye, ‘Le MFDC prend le cap de son unification au Cap Skiring’, Sud Quotidien, 29 March 2021. In April, representatives of the government and of the MFDC met in order to negotiate a peace agreement. At the end of the meeting, the parties declared their willingness to solve the armed conflict with dialogue. ‘Sénégal: rencontre entre des rebelles de Casamance et des représentants de l’Etat’, Le Monde, 13 April 2021; ‘Processus de paix en Casamance / Après Rome aven Saint’Egio, Praia s’en mele avec le Centre Henry-Dunant en recevant les deux parties’, Dakaractu, 15 April 2021.

The conflict has caused the death and displacement of thousands of people. Different reports estimated that the conflict in Casamance has resulted in the killing of between 3,000 to 5,000 people and close to 50,000 people have been displaced, and another 10,000 to 13,000 have become refugees in Guinea-Bissau or in The Gambia. Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Senegal: Information on the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC), 1 September 1997, SEN27863.E; C. Panara, ‘Casamance Conflict’, Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law, (Oxford University Press, 2007), §18; ‘Armed Conflict, Senegal (1982-2005)’, Project Ploughshares, December 2005; USAID, ‘Senegal Conflict Vulnerability Assessment’, Final Report December 2017, at p. 21; and Peace Insight, ‘Senegal: Conflict profile’, 2015. The conflict has also destroyed several villages and rendered thousands of hectares of arable land, suitable for producing rice, vegetables and fruit, unusable due to unexploded ammunition and landmines. See D. Lewis, ‘Casamance conflict is unhealed sore for Senegal’, 25 February 2012; and  USAID, ‘Senegal Conflict Vulnerability Assessment’, December 2017, at p. 21.

Based on the aforementioned considerations regarding the duration and intensity of conflict and type of armaments used, the number of casualties and displacement of civilians, and the destruction and looting of properties, the conflict in Casamance reached the threshold of intensity required under IHL arguably in 1990 and it either continues to be met since then or the applicability of IHL has at least not ended. Thus, in a report on its activities in Casamance in 2013, the ICRC has indicated that it gave some assistance to victims of the ‘armed conflict’ in Casamance. ICRC, ‘Senegal: Income-generating projects for displaced people in Casamance’, 2 May 2013.  Repeated negotiations between the parties during the course of the conflict leading to a number of temporary ceasefires, and oscillation of violence is not sufficient to suggest that the armed conflict has ended. For further elaboration on this issue, see L. Cameron, B. Demeyere, J-M. Henckaerts, E. La Haye and I. Müller, with contributions by C. Droege, R. Geiss and L. Gisel, ‘Article 3: Conflicts Not of an International Character’, ICRC, Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (ICRC 2016), §§492-496. Though the violence in Casamance has diminished, neither the hostilities have ended with a certain degree of permanence and stability, nor has a peaceful settlement been achieved. See ICTY, Prosecutor v. Haradinaj et al., Case No. IT-04-84-T, Judgment (Trial Chamber), 3 April 2008, para.100; and M. Milanovic, ‘End of application of international humanitarian law’ (2014) 96 International Review of the Red Cross 893, at pp.163-188. Indeed, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time. As specified by the ICRC ‘a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption will undoubtedly constitute the end of a non-international armed conflict as it would equate to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, even without the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a ceasefire, armistice or peace agreement.’ ICRC Commentary to Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions (ICRC, 2016), §488.

 

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, including the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; and/or the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

The MFDC was established as a political party in 1947 and later became a separatist movement. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal, Summary’. It has been organizing and arming itself since 1983 and has a military wing. See D. Sidibé, ‘Negotiating Seemingly intractable Conflict: The Case of Casamance Conflict’; and Chronology for Diolas in Casamance in Senegal, Minorities at Risk Project, 2004. The MFDC was able to recruit members and provide training on particular weapons as well as military tactics to its members by veterans of the Senegalese army. M. Evans, ‘Senegal: Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance(MFDC)’, Chatham House, African Programme, December 2004, p.9. According to several sources, among them the Senegalese intelligence services, the number of MFDC fighters can to be estimated at -between 2,000 and 4,000. M. Evans, ‘Senegal: Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC)’, Chatham House, African Programme, December 2004, p.9.  The MFDC has been able to conduct military operations. See C. Panara, ‘Casamance Conflict’, Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law, (Oxford University Press, 2007), §§8-10. The MFDC signed ceasefire agreements, demonstrating the capacity of the group to speak in one voice.

MFDC initially operated as a single armed group. Regarding its structure, in a research report published by the ICRC, the MFDC was categorized as a decentralized non-state armed group. ICRC, ‘The Roots of Restraint in War’, June 2018, p.46. But later, Sidy Baji and his followers accepted the ceasefire agreement of 1991, and left the movement in 1992 and formed the Front Nord. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘MFDC, Summary’. Even after splitting, the different armed factions of the group are structured according to a military hierarchy composed of at least four levels: the Major at the head, then followed hierarchically by commanders, lieutenants, and soldiers who execute the orders of their superiors. The principal competing factions are a more militant the Baraka Mandioka group; the Cassolol group; and the Diakaye group. A. Fall, ‘Understanding The Casamance Conflict: A Background’, KAIPTC MONOGRAPH No.7, December 2010, p.18.

The core military force of MFDC i.e. Front Sud is a well-organized group which has operated south of the Casamance River with its rear bases mainly along both sides of the Casamance’s porous forested border with Guinea-Bissau. M. Evans, ‘Senegal: Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance(MFDC)’, Chatham House, African Programme, December 2004, p.5. The dominant group in the Front Sud is the Front Sud-Sadio, named after Salif Sadio. The other moderate group is called Front Sud-Sagna, named after Léopold Sagna. A. Fall, ‘Understanding The Casamance Conflict: A Background’, KAIPTC MONOGRAPH No.7, December 2010, p.18; and Martin Evans, ‘Senegal: Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance(MFDC)’, Chatham House, African Programme, December 2004, pp.5-6. This group was able to acquire weapons including 82mm mortars, B-10 82mm recoil-less guns and DShK-38 12.7mm heavy machine guns. E. Farge, ‘Senegal rebels issue warning over Astron's mineral sands mine’, Reuters, 28 September 2018. The Senegalese military has also claimed that MFDC had gained access to new weapons such as as heavy artillery, grenades and machine guns were used during attacks. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’.

Accordingly, the Front Sud, which represents the largest part of the MFDC, fulfils the level of organization required under IHL for conflict classification, and hence, is a party to a non-international armed conflict. However, concerning the Front Nord, while it could possibly meet the organization requirement, publicly available facts do not seem to justify that the level of intensity of the violence has reached the required threshold.

Foreign interventions

Throughout the conflict, the Senegalese government has accused Gambia and Guinea-Bissau of supporting the rebels and allowing them access to their territory. A. Tandia, ‘When Civil Wars Hibernate in Borderlands: The Challenges of the Casamance’s “Forgotten Civil War” to Cross-Border Peace and Security’, in B. Korf and T. Raeymaekers (eds), Violence on the Margins: States, Conflict, and Borderlands, (2013), at pp. 223-224. Though Guinea-Bissau has continuously denied the allegations, there are numerous reports indicating the opposite. For example, in 1998, Ansoumane Mané, a high-ranking officer in Guinea-Bissau’s army, was accused by the president of Guinea-Bissau of illegally trafficking arms to the Senegalese rebels. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’. Mané subsequently staged a revolt, and temporarily the whole focus of the Casamance conflict shifted to its southern neighbor, with the Senegalese government sending troops to support the sitting government, whereas hundreds of MFDC rebels fought on the side of Mané. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’. The main winner of these events appears to have been the Front Sud-Sadio faction, which according to a number of reports, was rewarded by Guinea-Bissau president Mané through substantial military aid until 1999. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), ‘Senegal: Casamance, Summary’. The Front Sud also maintains military bases inside Guinea-Bissau. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Senegal: Questions about the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques (MFDC) in Senegal’. After the change of regime in Guinea-Bissau, the government of Guinea-Bissau seemed to have changed positions and its troops attacked Casamance rebels in southern Senegal on 18-19 March 2006, resulting in the death of one rebel; though the current relation seems uncertain. University of Central Arkansas, ‘Senegal/Casamance (1982-Present)’.

The Senegalese government also accused former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh of allowing the MFDC to maintain bases in The Gambia and support cross-border timber trade, in particular by illegally taxing companies operating in the timber trade. See e.g., I. W. Zartman (ed.), ‘Casamance: Understanding Conflict 2016 Conflict Management and African Studies Programs Student Field Trip to Senegal’, John Hopkins University Report, 2017, at pp. 194 ff; and  ‘Razing Africa: Combatting criminal consortia in the logging sector’, ENACT, 20 September 2018. While the conflict has been concentrated in the Casamance region, it has have spillover effects in the neighboring countries of The Gambia and Guinea Bissau. A. Tandia, ‘When Civil Wars Hibernate in Borderlands: The Challenges of the Casamance’s “Forgotten Civil War” to Cross-Border Peace and Security’, in B. Korf and T. Raeymaekers (eds), Violence on the Margins: States, Conflict, and Borderlands, (2013), at pp. 223-224.

Although for a long time Gambia and Guinea-Bissau have been accused of supporting the rebels, Gambian and Guinea-Bissau’s presidents (who were elected respectively in 2017 and 2020) are considered to be close to the Senegalese President Macky Sall. ‘Senegal rebels face defeat as local back army offensive’, AfricaNews, 12 February 2021.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.
Though Senegal is also a party to the 1977 Additional Protocol II applicable to non-international armed conflicts, as the MFDC did not exercise such control over a part of Senegal’s territory that would have allowed it to implement Protocol II, the requirement for the applicability of Protocol II is not met.

Furthermore, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict.  Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Senegal is also a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Furthermore, it is bound by customary human rights law. Under these human rights frameworks, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State party

  • Senegal

Non-state party

  • MFDC, Front Sud
Last updated: Monday 19th April 2021