Is the Curtain Dropping on Africa’s Oldest Conflict? Senegal’s Offensive in the Casamance

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 21, 2021


Thirty-nine years of insecurity in Senegal’s southern Casamance region may be coming to an end after a Senegalese army offensive against the most intransigent elements of a heavily factionalized armed separatist movement, the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC – Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance). Launched on January 26, the offensive used superior firepower to overwhelm the rebels, some of whom fled across the border to Guinea-Bissau, though they were unlikely to find a warm welcome there. For decades the MFDC took advantage of friction between Senegal and its neighbors, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau to find support and refuge when under pressure from Senegal’s army. Conditions have changed, however, with new leaders in both states friendly towards current Senegalese president Macky Sall (Pulaar [Fulani]/Serer) and less sympathetic to Casamance’s separatist movement.

The Jola (or Diola) people (4% of Senegal’s population) dominate the MFDC and its armed wing, Atika, though Jola support is far from unanimous. The Jola are also found in Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, but they are a minority among the 1.9 million people of Casamance, where they live alongside groups of Mandinka (Mandingo), Mankanya, Pulaar (Fulani), Manjak, Balanta, Papel, Baïnuk, and a small number of Wolof. The latter are the largest of Senegal’s ethnic groups, comprising roughly 43% of the population, nearly all found north of the Gambia. Resentment against the Muslim Wolof, who dominate the government, is common even among those residents of Casamance who oppose separation.

Many Jola and other Casamance groups see the prolonged existence of the MFDC as a barrier to development and the resettlement of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the region. Religious differences exist as well, though they do not appear to be a large irritant in relations between the Christian and animist Casamance and Senegal’s majority Muslim population (92%).

Former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade promised to bring an end to the long-standing conflict in just 100 days in 2000; his successor, Macky Sall, promised to bring a swift end to the conflict in 2012 and repeated his pledge after re-election in 2018.


A movement for regional autonomy in Casamance began under French occupation in 1947 and continued through independence in 1960. Efforts to consolidate various movements into a single body resulted in the founding of the MFDC in 1982 under the leadership of Abbé Augustin Diamacoune Senghor (Jola, 1928-2007). The armed wing of the MFDC, Atika, was formed three years later. The discovery of significant oil and gas reserves off the coast of Casamance in 1992 led to an intensification of the struggle for control over the region.

When Abbé Augustin died in Paris in 2007, the MFDC split into several factions, most of which now favor the negotiation of a final peace accord ( [Dakar], February 24, 2020). Even the movement’s hard-line factions have observed a unilateral ceasefire since 2014, though incidents of violence have occurred and the forests of Casamance remain a dangerous place.

The Changing Roles of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau in the Casamance

The MFDC used to receive substantial assistance from Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, a Jola Muslim who took power in a 1994 coup d’état and maintained it through the deployment of death squads and the systematic use of torture. Jammeh’s depraved rule ended when he lost the 2016 presidential elections to Adama Barrow, and was followed by his flight to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. Adama Barrow, by contrast, is considered to be politically close to Macky Sall.

Revelations about Jammeh’s rule presented to Gambia’s ongoing Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) have shocked Gambians. Gambia’s strange situation as an Anglophone nation bordered on all sides (save the coast) by Francophone Senegal dates back to its former status as a British colony. Casamance was itself a Portuguese territory until 1888, when it was transferred by treaty to the French colonial administration of Senegal.

For Dakar, another promising development arrived last year when Umaro Sissoco Embaló became president of Guinea-Bissau in a disputed election. Embaló’s predecessors were generally supportive of the MFDC but the “election” of Embaló, another ally of Macky Sall, has allowed a new spirit of cooperation with Dakar.

Last November, a delegation from the Bissau-Guinean armed forces visited Ziguinchor to hammer out terms for a series of bilateral agreements designed to address security issues in the border region, including drug trafficking, illegal resource extraction, organized crime and cattle theft (SenePlus [Dakar], February 5, 2021). These meetings helped set the stage for the current offensive.

On February 4, the Maquis Casamançais warned Guinea-Bissau that if it allowed Senegalese troops to use its territory to attack the MFDC, the movement’s fighters would “grant themselves all the rights of pursuit of the Senegalese soldiers, wherever they are, into the interior of Guinea-Bissau” (Journal du Pays, February 4, 2021).

The shelling of areas close to the border with Guinea-Bissau carries some risk for bilateral relations; MFDC militants reported the shelling of the Bissau-Guinean village of Mankamounkou on January 27 by Senegalese artillery, leading them to speculate on the possibility of war between the two nations (Journal du Pays, January 29, 2021). Though this would be favorable to the militants (but ultimately devastating to Casamance), there seems little chance errant shelling will provoke such a conflict.

When President Embaló returned from a visit to Dakar on February 13, he announced the discovery of a plot to assassinate him, his Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defense. No further details or evidence were presented or made available from the ministries involved, suggesting the announcement was part of an effort to eliminate rivals to his still-contested presidency and consolidate power (E-global notícias em Português, February 17, 2021; Journal du Pays, February 16, 2021).

The New Offensive

With no signs of a settlement in sight despite years of negotiation, Senegal’s military launched a new offensive in the Casamance on January 26 in its latest attempt to secure the region and return displaced communities. The offensive followed only days after 80-year-old MFDC leader Edmond Borra demanded new negotiations on the anniversary of the death of Abbé Diamacoune on January 20, though he acknowledged the difficulty of arranging talks while the MFDC remained divided.  (Sud Quotidien [Dakar], January 21, 2021). Borra appeared to oppose the continuance of armed resistance when the offensive began, saying: “We can’t continue to shoot each other without negotiating for 40 years” (AFP, February 11, 2021).

A statement from a Senegalese army spokesman described the operation’s objectives:

  • Neutralize armed elements abusing the local population
  • Combat the trafficking of cannabis and timber
  • Provide security support to local populations (RFI, January 30, 2021).

Over the past year, Dakar has also focussed on the resettlement of Casamance’s IDPs. Some communities have been unable to return to their homes for as long as 28 years due to the presence of landmines and gunmen who often accuse farmers of being informants for the army (SenePlus [Dakar], February 5, 2021; IRIN, August 26, 2009).

To carry out the offensive, the Senegalese Army deployed 2600 soldiers, 11 French-built Panhard AML-60-20 Serval armored reconnaissance vehicles, eight self-propelled guns, 14 Toyota 4x4s, two reconnaissance planes and two helicopters (Journal du Pays, February 10, 2021). Most of the army’s operations took place in one area of roughly 150 km² between the Bissine Forest south of the Casamance capital of Ziguinchor to the border with Guinea-Bissau.

The assaults were led by Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu Diogoye Sène commanding the 3rd Infantry Battalion based at Kaolack, and Lieutenant Colonel Clément Hubert Boucaly, leading the commando battalion from Thiès. Three Atika bases roughly 12 miles from Ziguinchor were overrun on February 3 after intense shelling and aerial bombardment, with the militants fleeing into the bush with their weapons and other goods (RFI, February 3, 2021). A further base was taken on February 4.

The first base to be taken was Bouman, where the commando battalion encountered “somewhat intense” resistance before the defenders fled at the sight of a reconnaissance plane (Seneplus [Dakar], February 17, 2021). The 3rd Battalion took Boussouloum and Badiong; rebel sources claimed the death of eleven Senegalese troops in the taking of Badiong, but the army admitted only to the much more likely figure of one soldier wounded (Agence de Presse Sénégalaise, February 11, 2021). The commandos then turned their attention to Sikoun, which also fell quickly (Seneplus [Dakar], February 17, 2021).

According to Colonel Souleymane Kandé, commander of Senegal’s military zone no. 5 (Ziguinchor), the operations against the MFDC bases were carried out with assistance from Guinea-Bissau’s defense and security forces (Guardian [Lagos], February 10, 2021). The Bissau-Guinean army moved forces up to the border to prevent the conflict from spilling over, though their resources are small and the border easily infiltrated. Armed MFDC elements accused Guinea-Bissau’s President Embaló of allowing Sengalese military units to use a corridor through his country to attack the MFDC from the rear, as well as allowing small Bissau-Guinean units to join in the assault, an action legitimized by the recent defense agreements with Macky Sall’s government (Journal du Pays, February 5, 2021).

The captured bases were barely worthy of the name, consisting of tin and wood shelters and a few very small underground bunkers (Guardian [Lagos], February 10, 2021). Among the weapons seized by the army were Soviet-made B-10 recoilless rifles, French-made FAMAS bullpup assault rifles and American-made M203 grenade launchers (Seneplus [Dakar], February 17, 2021). More common, however, were well-used bicycles, old mattresses and decrepit firearms of no value. Fields of cannabis were found attached to the bases. These are believed to have provided revenue for arms purchases and other MDTC expenses.

In the midst of the offensive, opposition politicians called for President Macky Sall to declare the MFDC a terrorist organization and cease all dialogue with the movement (, February 5, 2021).


Though veteran separatist Salif Sadio claims the leadership of the MFDC’s armed wing, his following has diminished greatly and there are several factions that do not recognize him. It is these that have been the main target of the army’s offensive. A spokesman for Salif Sadio insisted that the MFDC leader was not involved in the current fighting with government forces (VOA, February 5, 2021).

César Aoute Badiate (Le Quotidien)

The other factions include:

  • The Kassolol faction, led by César Atoute Badiate. Part of the so-called “southern front,” the faction operates near Senegal’s south-west border with Guinea-Bissau and does not appear to have been involved in the recent fighting. Badiate, a nephew of Father Diamacoune, does not support Salif Sadio. The two have been rivals for 20 years, with clashes occurring between their factions in 2006. César survived the 1998 purge and execution of some 30 of Salif Sadio’s rivals within the movement, though he suffered an eye injury when Sadio’s assassins attacked him at his refuge in Guinea-Bissau (Le Témoin [Ziguinchor], February 17, 2021; Dakaractu, February 5, 2021).
  • The Sikoun faction, based in the Goudomp department of the central part of Sédhiou region. Led by Adama Sané, this faction strongly opposes the return of IDPs. Sikoun was once the base of the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC – African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) during Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for independence from Portugal in the 1960s. Government artillery fire was directed at the staff headquarters of Commander Adama Sané and his Sikoun faction on February 2 and 3, with the base falling on February 4 (RFI, February 5, 2021).
  • The faction of Ibrahim Kompasse Diatta, leader of the Sikoun faction until April 2020, when he came under suspicion from other elements of the movement for contacts with Casamance politician and Macky Sall. His group ran bases 2 and 9, both of which fell on February 3.
  • The Diakaye faction (northern front), commanded by Fatoma Coly. This group supports the  Sikoun faction but does not appear to have been targeted in the recent offensive (Le Témoin [Ziguinchor], February 17, 2021).

The Propaganda War

Senegal’s government provided little information about the offensive once it was underway, allowing the MFDC to claim various small triumphs without official refutation. Indeed, only days before the offensive began, a senior government official, Aubin Jules Marcel Sagna, insisted in October 2020 that declared “the war is over in Casamance,” adding three months later that “there is less insecurity in Casamance than elsewhere because of the determination of the Casamance people to find peace” (Voice of Gambia, October 13, 2020; DakarActu, January 14, 2021).

Conversely, MFDC sources reported the death of three Senegalese soldiers in an ambush on January 30, with the bodies of two more soldiers discovered in the bush the next day by sniffer dogs  (Journal du Pays, February 1, 2021; Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021). On February 3, the MFDC announced the death of four Senegalese soldiers after their vehicle hit an anti-tank mine (Journal du Pays, February 3, 2021). Another MFDC report claimed the deaths of 12 Senegalese soldiers at the entrance to the Bissine Forest and the destruction of three AML-60-20 Serval armored reconnaissance vehicles on January 29 (Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021; Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021). Finally, Casamance media reported the defection of 21 Senegalese soldiers of Casamance origin with their arms and important intelligence to the Atika wing of the MFDC on February 16 (Journal du Pays, February 16, 2021). Most of these claims appear to be of dubious value, especially considering the ease with which Senegal’s military overran MFDC bases.

Timber: A Motivation for Conflict


Stocks of highly valuable rosewood, teak and other hardwoods in the forests of Casamance have helped fuel the conflict. As these woods have grown scarce worldwide, prices as well as demand have soared, especially in China, where rosewood is valued for shipbuilding and use in traditional hongmu furniture, China having depleted its own stocks of the high-value wood.

Economic hardship caused by the unresolved conflict fuels the search for lucrative hardwoods by a struggling population. The deforestation has diminished crop yields and forced local farmers to trade yet more timber for rice, creating a loop of environmental devastation. Locally-stationed Senegalese troops may also be facilitating the trade; the smuggling of trailer-loads of hardwood logs to Gambia over the region’s few roads is nearly impossible to conceal from any type of vigilant authority (, November 5, 2020). Despite having logged its own rosewood stocks to extinction several years ago, Gambia continues to be a main supplier of the wood to China, nearly all of it obtained illegally from Casamance (, November 5, 2020). [1] Chinese agents move the illegally cut timber through the Gambian port of Banjul. Despite formal agreements between Gambia and Senegal to end the trade, rosewood exports through the Gambian port of Banjul have actually increased in recent years, with the exception of a brief pandemic-related decline last year.

Though the MFDC has been implicated in the illegal export of valuable hardwoods from Casamance, Atika units have presented themselves as protectors of the forest, reporting the seizure of loads of timber from government water and forestry agents as well as timber traffickers who underwent “tough interrogation” to discover the names of the organizers of the illegal trade  (Journal du Pays, January 26, 2021). In the past, the movement has admitted to beating loggers and burning their vehicles as well as accusing the army of involvement (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24, 2020). It is likely that there is no common approach to the trade amongst the various MFDC factions, all of whom are in need of funding to prolong their existence. The MFDC is estimated to have earned $19.5 million from the illicit trade between 2010 and 2014 (OCCRP, March 27, 2019).

As a popular inducement to participate in the logging of local hardwoods, Chinese and Indian multinationals have offered motorcycles to young men willing to work in the forest. The motorcycles, in turn, are used for smuggling and drug trafficking between Gambia, Casamance and Guinea-Bissau (Sud Online [Dakar], January 25, 2021).

Turkish Military Involvement?

Turkey has been active in recent years in developing economic and diplomatic ties with both Senegal and Gambia (Daily Sabah, January 30, 2021).

MFDC sources claimed that Turkish troops were on the frontline of the assaults on their bases since January 31. On February 5, Atika reported that it was in a “strategic retreat” after ten days of attacks by Senegalese and Turkish troops (Journal du Pays, February 5, 2021). The movement points to the February 2 visit of Macky Sall and Umaro Sissoco Embaló to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul as proof of Turkey’s interest in regional offshore oil projects. The militants further claim to have learned from Turkish sources that new contracts were signed for the provision of arms and Syrian jihadists employed as mercenaries, similar to the pattern of Turkey’s intervention in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. According to these sources, the arms and fighters are due to arrive in Senegal in the last week of February (Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021).

Turkey’s economic and political overtures to Senegal have been countered by offers of assistance from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, a rivalry that has already played out as backers of rival sides in the Libyan conflict. US Senator Lindsey Graham has encouraged greater Turkish involvement in Africa as an alternative to China’s growing influence: “Nothing would please me more than to partner with Turkey to offer to the African continent alternatives to Chinese products and Chinese influence” (Anadolu Agency [Ankara], June 25, 2020).

Senegalese troops have been active in the Middle East for some time, having been deployed in Saudi Arabia since 2015 as part of the campaign against the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen. [2] Senegalese troops arrived on Yemen’s Socotra Island in October 2020 to support the construction of a United Arab Emirates military base in the strategically-located archipelago.


The occupation of their bases, the resettlement of unsympathetic IDPs and the denial of cross-border refuges or other assistance are squeezing out the last hard-line Casamance separatists. Reduced to being friendless fugitives in the forests of Casamance, it seems unlikely the armed resistance can make any kind of come-back. Dakar’s decision to take advantage of new political realities in the region and make a demonstration of force will compel the remaining and generally more moderate factions to enter immediate and sincere negotiations or possibly meet a similar fate. After 39 years, Dakar has identified endless negotiations as the facilitator of prolonged insecurity in what should be a prosperous part of the nation. The MFDC cannot bargain from a position of strength; its military weakness has been exposed and the movement has clearly lost any broad support it might have once enjoyed. In some non-Jola quarters, tired of insecurity, economic struggle and the decades-long dislocation of various Casamance communities, the movement has earned a reputation as nothing more than a tribal-based bandit group.


  1. Just 3% of Gambia is still forested; the remaining stocks are of low quality (OCCRP, March 27, 2019).
  2. See “Senegal’s Military Expedition to Yemen: Muslim Solidarity or Rent-an-Army”? AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report, July 30, 2015,

The Thirty-Six Year Rebellion: Salif Sadio and the Struggle for Senegal’s Casamance Region

Andrew McGregor

November 6, 2018

Salif Sadio (Dakar Actu)

Low-intensity conflicts can be among the most resistant to resolution. A case in point is the 36-year separatist struggle in Casamance, the southern region of Senegal. While the conflict has veered between ceasefires and flare-ups, one man, Salif Sadio, has dedicated himself to keeping the separatist cause alive through his leadership of Atika, the armed wing of the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC). The price of his struggle has been thousands killed and the devastation of the local economy.

The conflict in Casamance has much to do with its physical separation from the rest of Senegal by the small nation known as “The Gambia.”  The Gambia, which became independent in 1965, was a former colony of the UK, while the area surrounding it was French territory which became independent as the nation of Senegal in 1960. The region south of The Gambia is known as Casamance and was integrated with Senegal by an eastern land connection that left The Gambia surrounded by Senegal.

An attempt at union between Senegal and The Gambia in 1982 (the Senegambian Confederation) brought economic benefits to Casamance, but the local economy was hit hard when the confederation collapsed in 1989. Administratively, Casamance was divided by the government into the districts of Ziguinchor to the west and Kolda to the east in the 1980s in the hope of ending references to “Casamance.” [1]


The main peoples found in Casamance are Mandinke, Pulaar and Jola (or Diola). The dominant ethnic group in Senegal is the Wolof, whose central role in the administration is resented by many Jola, who make up only 4% of Senegal’s population.

By the 1980s, the Christian and Animist Jola people of Casamance began to speak of separation from an exploitative Musliim regime in the Senegalese capital of Dakar (Senegal is 92% Muslim). The Jola, representing roughly a third of the Casamance population, dominate the ranks of the MFDC, though many Jola see the movement as inhibiting development and have nothing to do with the separatists (Le Monde, June 19, 2012).

Salif Sadio and the MFDC are angered by Senegal’s planned expansion of its resource sector, which will include exploitation of oil, gas, zircon and other minerals in Casamance. The MFDC claim the proceeds of such work go directly to the national government in Dakar without any benefit to the people of Casamance. Sadio also claims these projects will cause environmental devastation, though his own movement is accused of partaking in the massive ongoing deforestation of Casamance.


The MFDC was founded in 1982 by Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, though a movement for regional autonomy had existed since 1947. [2] Atika was formed three years later in 1985. Oil was discovered offshore in Casamance in the early 1990s, emboldening the separatist movement, but bringing on massive government repression of separatist activities. [3]

The first split in the MFDC dates back to 1992, when northern elements were prepared to negotiate a settlement, but Jola-dominated southern elements, such as those led by Salif Sadio, were determined to offer armed resistance to the Senegalese state. [4] Dakar’s military response to the insurgency was to drive the MRDC into neighboring Guinea-Bissau with such intensity that it nearly created a border war with that nation, as well as creating alienation in the local population. [5]

Early Years

In 1998, Sadio crossed into Guinea-Bissau and joined the military rebellion led by Brigadier General Ansumane Mané. The Brigadier (then chief-of-staff) had been suspended on suspicion of trafficking arms from Bissau-Guinean arms depots to the MFDC separatists in Casamance. The MFDC had already been engaged in bloody clashes with Bissau-Guinean troops along the border in January 1998 and were ready to support a change of regime. In the civil war that followed Brigadier Mané’s June 1998 coup, the MFDC fought alongside the vast majority of the Bissau-Guinean army which sided with Mané against the government of President João Bernardo Vieira. Military intervention by Senegal and Guinea led to a ceasefire and formation of a government of national unity in February 1999, but President Vieira survived only until May, when a second coup overthrew him. In the meantime, Sadio’s support for the military rebels had solidified connections that would serve him well in the future.

Determined to exterminate the MFDC, the Senegalese military shelled Ziguinchor, the largest city in Casamance, in 1999, even though it could hardly be called a MFDC stronghold. The resulting civilian casualties and displacement of residents did little to encourage loyalty to the state.

The Casamance Rebellion

Diamacoune agreed to a peace agreement in 2004 that called for integration of MFDC fighters into the Senegalese security services and economic development in Casamance, but other factions of the MFDC rejected the agreement and continued their armed movement for separation. The agreement eventually collapsed in August 2006.

In early 2006, the leaders of other MFDC factions condemned Sadio for his unwillingness to join the peace process and threatened to “outlaw” him. [6] In the following year, Sadio purged most of the older commanders in his group, whom he suspected of moderate tendencies, and replaced them with more aggressive younger commanders. [7]

After several years of avoiding direct confrontations with the Senegalese Army, the MFDC stepped up attacks on the military in late 2006 after Moroccan troops arrived to assist in a de-mining campaign. The MFDC, which uses mines as an important part of their arsenal, suspected that Dakar had brought in the Moroccans to assist in an effort to capture Salif Sadio. [8]

MFDC Fighters (

In March 2006, the president of Guinea-Bissau, João Bernardo Vieira (who had returned from post-coup exile in 2005 to be re-elected as president), with the encouragement of his rival and military chief-of-staff General Baptista Tagme na Wale, decided that it was necessary to expel Sadio’s forces from Guinea-Bissau to help further peace efforts in neighboring Senegal. Though military operations succeeded in driving Sadio from his base in Guinea-Bissau, Sadio orchestrated an orderly withdrawal into Casamance, mining roads behind him and mounting attacks on Senegalese garrisons near the border to allow his men to retake old MFDC bases in the Sindian region of north Casamance, close to the border with The Gambia. [9]

The charismatic Abbé Diamacoune died in Paris in January 2007, but he had already lost control of the movement he founded, which split before his death into three major factions led by Sadio, Caesar Badiatte, and Mamadou Niantang Diatta. With fighting between the groups unsettling the entire region, the Senegalese military sent armor and heavy weapons to Casamance for an offensive focused on Sadio’s Atika faction, the most intransigent of the three. [10]

Sadio found refuge in The Gambia, ruled by President Yahya Jammeh, a Jola Muslim known for corruption and his use of assassination squads who took power in a 1994 coup d’état. In 2007, several MFDC leaders claimed the government of The Gambia was supplying arms to MFDC “hard-liners” such as Salif Sadio. [11]

Heavy fighting broke out around Casamance’s main city of Ziguinchor in August 2008 as the MFDC launched a series of raids to steal the bicycles, mobile phones and identity papers of local residents. Farmers were warned by the militants that if they returned to their fields they would be treated as army informants (IRIN, August 26, 2009).

After relations with The Gambia’s President Jammeh soured in 2009, Sadio shifted his base back to Guinea-Bissau, where he enjoyed a good relationship with a former comrade-in-arms, Captain Zamora Induta, the new military chief-of-staff and a veteran of the military rebellion of 1998-1999. [12]

A shipment of Iranian arms was found hidden amidst building materials on a ship that arrived in Lagos harbor in October 2010. Investigators believed the arms were intended to be shipped to The Gambia and then distributed to the MFDC. The incident resulted in Senegal recalling its ambassador to Iran (BBC, December 15, 2010). Other arms shipments might have made it through; Senegalese troops were surprised in December 2010 when MFDC forces using newly acquired equipment such as mortars, rocket launchers and Russian-made “Dushka” machine guns killed seven soldiers near the town of Bignona (RFI), December 28, 2010).

Fighting flared up again in December 2011, when at least 12 Senegalese soldiers were killed in clashes with the MFDC (SAPA, December 21, 2011). The election of Macky Sall as Senegal’s president in March 2012 opened new opportunities for a negotiated settlement of the Casamance issue. Talks with Salif Sadio’s representatives began in Rome in October 2012 under the auspices of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Vatican-aligned charity specializing in conflict mediation. Two months later Sadio’s faction released eight hostages in a gesture of good-will (AFP, November 10, 2013).

When Macky Sall became Senegal’s president in 2012, one of his first promises was to bring a swift end to the Casamance conflict. If the promise sounded familiar, it was because his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade had promised in 2000 to resolve the crisis in 100 days through a combination of disarmament, demining and large agricultural projects in Casamance (al-Jazeera, February 14, 2012).

To keep the peace, President Wade supplied the MFDC factions with cash and rice. Sadio was reported to have used the money to buy weapons rather than distribute it to his fighters as intended (, April 10, 2015). Nonetheless, by May 1, 2014, Sadio was ready to declare a unilateral ceasefire, still officially in place today.


The MFDC in The Gambia

Back in The Gambia, President Jammeh’s long run as president came to an end with an election loss in December 2016, but Jammeh refused to step down to allow Adama Barrow, the surprise winner of the election, to take power.

After his election loss, Jammeh was reported to have recruited mercenaries from several West African regions, including MFDC fighters, to prepare for an expected intervention to remove Jammeh by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (Liberian Observer, January 19, 2017). Senegal took leadership of the ECOWAS operation and Jammeh fled Gambia on January 21, 2017.

As relations between Senegal and The Gambia improved under President Adama Barrow, Omar Sadio, a son of Salif Sadio who had served in the Gambian Army since 2005, was relieved of his rank and arrested (Gambia Echo, October 12, 2017). His detention appeared to have been part of a sweep of suspected Jammeh loyalists in the military, many of whom were brought in by the ex-president from neighboring states in the belief they would be personally loyal to the president and not identify with Gambians.

Slaughter in the Forest – A Battle for Resources

The ceasefire was threatened this year by the January 6 execution-style killing of 14 alleged loggers in the Bayotte Forest of Casamance. Many of the hardwoods found in the forests of Casamance, such as teak and rosewood, are of high value. Much of the wood taken illegally is shipped through The Gambia on to China, where it is highly prized (AFP, January 24).

Casamance Timber Headed for Export (Daniel Glick)

Two armed men were killed by security forces in separate clashes shortly after the massacre as Senegalese troops rounded up suspected militants. Sadio promptly denied any involvement by his faction of the MFDC. In an interview recorded at his forest base near the Gambian border, Sadio insisted “The killing was only a pretext that served the Senegalese army to trigger military operations in Casamance.” He demanded the release of “innocent civilians” detained in the sweeps and warned that the MFDC’s unilateral ceasefire might end if the operations continued (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24).

Sadio, who has accused the army of cutting timber in protected areas, admits his men beat loggers and even burn their trucks, but insists they have never killed loggers (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24). Sadio rejects allegations that he cooperates with The Gambia to extract valuable hardwoods from Casamance (, January  24).

An emerging irritant is the plan by Australian firm Astron Zircon to dig out sand dunes on the Casamance coast to remove deposits of zircon, a gemstone with many applications. Locals fear the removal of these natural barriers to the sea will result in the salinization of farmland and drinking water (DakarActu, June 27) The government in Dakar insists the Zircon extraction will provide economic benefits to Casamance, but Sadio has warned that “the exploitation of zircon represents a declaration of war. Many times we have agreed with Senegal not to touch anything and wait for the settlement of the conflict.” [13]


Salif Sadio’s faction of the MFDC constitutes a destabilizing force in the Senegal/Gambia/Guinea-Bissau region. Prospects for a negotiated settlement in Casamance have grown remote with the split of the MFDC into three mutually suspicious factions. A military solution without coordinated regional cooperation is just as elusive, with MFDC fighters currently slipping across international borders whenever they are pressured.

Senegal’s government has tried different means of dealing with the MFDC, including pay-offs and military repression, but little effort has been put into addressing the social, economic and environmental underpinnings of Casamance separatism. Without such efforts, hardliners like Salif Sadio will continue to draw support from disaffected residents, particularly amongst the Jola ethnic group, whose culture and grievances have attracted little attention from government officials tasked with dealing with them.


  1. Aïssatou Fall, Understanding the Casamance Conflict: A Background, KAIPTC Monograph no. 7, December 2010,
  2. Ibid
  3. Michael E. Brownfield and Ronald R Charpentier, “Assessment of the Undiscovered Oil and Gas of the Senegal Province, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, Northwest Africa,” U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 2207–A, October, 2003,
  4. Wagane Faye, The Casamance Separatism: From Independence Claim to Resource Logic, Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, Monterey California, June 2006,
  5. Ibid
  6. “MFDC Murders Casamance Deputy Prefect: Are Hardliners Trying to Sabotage the Peace Process?” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR43_a, January 6, 2006,
  7. “Deterioration in the Casamance,” US State Department Cable 07DAKAR275_a, February 2, 2007,
  8. “Casamance: Escalation in Rebel Attacks,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR3016_a, December 27, 2006,
  9. “Casamance: Chief Rebel Stronger than Anticipated,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR1005_a, April 26, 2006, Three years after the offensive against Salif Sadio, the rivalry between General Na Waie and President Vieira proved fatal. The general was assassinated in a bomb attack on March 1, 2009; the next day, Vieira, who had turned his nation into a “narco-state,” was hacked to pieces by machete by troops loyal to the general (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 7, 2009l; see also Anders Themnér, Warlord Democrats in Africa: Ex-Military Leaders and Electoral Politics, London, 2017.
  10. “Casamance: The 2004 Truce Has Ended,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR2012_a, August 21, 2006,
  11. “The Gambia: Further Strains in Ties with Senegal over Casamance,” US State Department Cable 07BANJUL250, May 15, 2007,
  12. “Senegal: War and Banditry in the Casamance,” US State Department Cable 09DAKAR948_a, July 27, 2009,
  13. “Le MFDC réitère sa menace de reprendre les armes ,”August 30,


This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Senegal’s Military Expedition to Yemen: Muslim Solidarity or Rent-an-Army?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

July 30, 2015

With Yemen’s Shiite Houthi movement now in control of most of Yemen, a Saudi-led military coalition continues to carry out air attacks on Houthi fighters and installations. Despite the participation of a number of national air forces, the total impact has not been enough to shake Houthi resolve.

Senegal MapThough there is an apparent need to deploy ground forces to restore the administration of president-in-exile Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, most members of the coalition are reluctant to deploy ground forces in any significant number, being well aware of the difficulty of maintaining foreign forces in Yemen’s mountainous and ambush-friendly terrain. It was thus intriguing when Senegal’s foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye announced on May 4 that the West African nation was sending 2,100 ground troops to Saudi Arabia in response to a request from the Saudi government. Surprisingly, the deployment marks the second time Senegalese troops will have served in Saudi Arabia; 500 Senegalese soldiers were deployed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The mission was marred by a deadly plane crash in March 1991 in which 92 soldiers died.

Despite the government’s claim that the jamdars (Wolof – “brave men,” the popular local term for Senegalese troops) will be protecting the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, it is expected that the Senegalese will join the coalition attempting to secure the Kingdom’s southern border with the Houthi-held regions of northern Yemen. A spokesman for Senegal’s leading opposition party, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS), declared that government suggestions that the deployment was intended to protect the holy cities “were baseless because the geo-strategic role of the Middle East is more complex than the protection of Islamic religious sites” (Xinhua, May 11, 2015).

Social media in Senegal has questioned the deployment and some observers have noted the recent Saudi commitment to provide much of the funding for a broad government development scheme known as Programme Senegal Emergent 2035 (BBC, May 5, 2015). With an estimated cost of over $16 billion, the initiative remained badly underfunded until the Saudis stepped in. Senegalese president Macky Sall is relying on the programme’s success to return him to office. Senegal is a traditional recipient of Saudi aid, which funds many important development projects, but has never signed a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. France continues to have a military presence in Dakar, but in line with a 2010 defense agreement between France and Senegal, this deployment has been scaled back from 1,200 troops to 300 (RFI, April 18, 2012).[1]

Senegal is not the only African state to join the Saudi-led coalition – Sudan, Egypt and Morocco have also contributed troops – but Senegal is the lone member that is not part of the Arab League. Sudan, a major recipient of Saudi aid and investment, has contributed four Sukhoi SU-24M “Fencer” attack aircraft that have reportedly flown missions against Houthi forces in Yemen (DefenceNews, April 1, 2015).  Other members of the coalition include Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a surprise decision, the parliament of Pakistan, a Saudi ally, voted against contributing forces to the coalition. Lacking a UN mandate, the Saudi-led coalition remains open to criticism that its intervention in Yemen lacks a legal basis.

NowgassGeneral Mamadou Sow “Nowgass” – Chief of the General Staff of Senegal

While President Sall insists the deployment is intended to “deal with the threat to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic holy sites to which the kingdom is home” (a fairly obvious effort to enlist the support of Senegal’s powerful Sufi brotherhoods), opposition figures have pointed out that neither the Kingdom nor its holy cities are under threat (The Star [Johannesburg], May 22, 2015). The administration does not appear willing to dissent on this issue; a May protest planned by Bou Jambar Dem (No to Sending Soldiers), a coalition opposed to the deployment, was banned by authorities.

Further government attempts to suggest the deployment will be fighting “terrorism” did not quiet opposition criticism; Yemen’s Houthis are an armed social/political/religious movement rather than a terrorist group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State movement, neither of which are targets of the coalition despite having a strong presence in Yemen.

Since independence, Senegal has joined military interventions in Zaire (1978), Gambia (1981) and Guinea-Bissau (1998). Senegal’s military has also made significant contributions to peacekeeping missions in Côte d-Ivoire, Darfur, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. Both the United States and France provide equipment and training to the Senegalese military, which has gained a reputation for professionalism reinforced by its traditional reluctance to insert itself into the nation’s political sphere.

A report from the Saudi Press Agency on May 10 claimed that Malaysia had sent military forces to join the Saudi coalition, adding that the Saudi Ministry of Defense was planning to merge the Malaysian and Senegalese forces (al-Arabiya, May 10, 2015). However, Malaysia’s defense minister quickly corrected this report, noting that Malaysia was only sending humanitarian assistance and the personnel and equipment (including two Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130 “Hercules” transport aircraft) necessary to evacuate Malaysians working or studying in the Kingdom (The Star [Kuala Lumpur], May 11, 2015; The Diplomat, May 12, 2015).

Islam in Senegal

While Senegal is over 90% Muslim, its typical form of religious practice differs significantly from the Salafist Islam of Saudi Arabia. Both nations are majority Sunni, but Senegalese Islam is still largely based on membership in Sufi brotherhoods, a form of Islam generally despised by the Salafists, who claim Sufism incorporates pre-Islamic traditions, involves intermediaries in the relationship between God and man (usually in the form of deceased or living Sufi shaykhs whose spiritual power is hereditary) and encourages pilgrimage to shrines other than Mecca and Madinah, thus rendering Sufism a type of Islamic heresy in the eyes of the Salafists.

Senegal Great MosqueGreat Mosque in Touba, Senegal

Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods include the well-known and internationally-based Tijaniya and Qadiriya brotherhoods, as well as two smaller local brotherhoods, the Muridiya (a.k.a. Mourides) and the Layenes. Both the latter orders originated in the 19th century. The Mourides are common to both Senegal and Gambia and promote pilgrimage to the Senegalese city of Toumba rather than Mecca. The Layene Brotherhood is a particularly unorthodox movement native to Senegal. The Layene’s founder and his successor claimed to be reincarnations of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ respectively and the group consequently mixes elements of both Islam and Christianity in its rituals.

The Jama’atou Ibadou Rahman (Jama’at Ibad al-Rahman) movement is a Saudi-supported Islamic reformist movement founded in 1979 by Shaykh Touré in which piety is expressed through the veil, Arab-style clothing and close observance of orthodox Islamic ritual. The Ibadou are extremely critical of Sufism and the marabout[2] system in Senegal and of Shi’ism in general, but do not espouse violence in their opposition. On a more general level, the term “Ibadou” is used by Senegalese Sufis “to refer to any veiled woman or bearded man.”[3]

Al-Falah is a Saudi-influenced “apolitical” Salafist movement whose Senegal branch was established in 1967.[4] Salafism and related forms of reformist Islam have a wide following in Senegal’s universities. At lower educational levels, there is a parallel system of government-run French-language, Western-style schools and Arabic-language Koranic schools that have little if any government regulation.[5]

Most notable among Senegal’s small Muslim extremist community is Imam Mamour Fall, leader of the Parti Islamique Sénégalais and a bitter opponent of Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods. Deported from Italy in 2003 after an 11 year residency following his public support for al-Qaeda and attacks on Italian military personnel, Fall continued to advance extremist views once back in Senegal, claiming to have fought in the Bosnian War and to have been a companion of Osama bin Laden during the latter’s stay in Sudan in the 1990s. The Imam described Bin Laden as “a great man, a great strategist, a great Muslim, and that is what interests us and not the fact that he is accused of killing people” (Reuters, December 8, 2003). The Salafist/reformist view of Senegalese Sufism was summed up by Imam Mamour Fall: “Senegal is the capital of polytheism after India. If Hindus worship cows, Senegalese love the corpses of their marabouts… Here, 99% of people live on magic; they love magicians and they waste all their money to buy ‘talismans’.”[6]


Any foreign military deployment runs the risk of violent retribution, but in this sense Senegal is relatively fortunate in its choice of an enemy – the Houthi movement does not exist outside of Yemen and its host Zaydi Shiite community has displayed little ability or even interest in mounting attacks outside of Yemen. There is a small community of Lebanese Shiite traders in Senegal and an even smaller number of native Senegalese Shiites, none of whom are likely to have any connections with the Houthi movement, whose Zaydi “Fiver” Shi’ism has more in common with the Shafi’i form of Sunni Islam practiced in Yemen than with the “Twelver” Shi’ism of Iran and Lebanon (the “fiver” and “twelver” distinctions refer to the number of imams each movement believes succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as spiritual and political leaders of the Islamic community). However, Senegal might become a target for Sunni extremists due to its alliance with the Saudi government, which is reviled in turn as an ally and partner of the West by groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Such groups might recall Senegal’s participation in the French-led military coalition that expelled foreign jihadists from northern Mali in 2013, an earlier deployment that had far from universal approval within Senegal. Unpopular military deployments in other parts of the Islamic world could have the unwanted result of encouraging domestic extremism, particularly amongst alienated urban youth.

Renting state troops in Hessian fashion may not be necessary in the future if oil exploration work in Senegal turns out as expected. Scottish oil firm Cairn Energy is embarking on a major drilling operation it believes could result in the discovery of more than a billion barrels after promising results from initial offshore drilling (The Scotsman [Edinburgh], May 12, 2015).[7]


[1]  For Senegal’s role in France’s Operation Barkhane, see Andrew McGregor, “Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, July 24, 2015,

[2] Arabic marbut or marubit; used in practice to denote an Islamic scholar of the Maghreb and Sahel regions, usually with personal followings that rely on the marabout for religious instruction, advice and the dispensation of supernatural powers through the production of amulets and talismans, a common practice in Africa, but one that is decidedly unorthodox.

[3] Cleo Cantone: Making and Remaking Mosques in Senegal, Leiden, 2012, p. 261.

[4] See

[5]  “Overview of Religious Radicalism and the Terrorist Threat in Senegal,” ECOWAS Peace and Security Report 3, May 2013, p. 5,

[6] Shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Fadlallah Mamour (Imam Mamour Fall): “Ya Asafa,” February 26, 2009,

[7] See