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Ousmane Sonko’s support highlights waning separatist sentiment in Casamance

Instead of preparing for another Monday as a school administrator, 36-year-old Hatousouaré Bodian began her week at the front of a crowd of hundreds of people, drumming on a calabash, facing off with armed soldiers.

In the distance, black smoke billowed through the tall palms that frame the governor’s office in Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance region of southern Senegal. Bodian, along with a group of women, led the crowd in a call-and-response chant: “Rise up Casamance, rise up for Sonko!”

The recent protests in Senegal, and the government’s response, have shaken the image of the country – which is already dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated economic impact – as a beacon of democracy and human rights in the region.

However, in the Casamance, which has long had a complicated relationship with the government in Dakar, the protests show the abandonment of the separatist struggle and the degree to which the region has integrated into the rest of the Country.

The Casamance, separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia, has a unique regional identity based on a romanticised vision of rural farmers and fishermen connected to their ancestors through sacred forests.

A separatist movement that played on these sentiments and feelings of neglect emerged in the 1980s and was met with a brutal crackdown, including extrajudicial killings and torture. While the rebellion waxes and wanes, fragmented groups of fighters still use forest hideouts to grow cannabis and engage in illegal timber harvesting, as evidenced by the government’s recent seizure of bases earlier this year.

Until recently, many Casamancaise complained that Senegal would never accept a national political leader from the region – and this complaint fuelled the separatist sentiment. The most recent campaign for the presidency by a politician from the region was led by Robert Sagna in 2007, and fell flat when he received a paltry 2.5% of the national vote. Enter Ousmane Sonko.

He was raised in the Casamance by his parents, who were from the region, but he and his supporters are quick to point out he was born in the centre of the country and his maternal grandmother is from northern Senegal. Like President Macky Sall, Sonko and his supporters use his multiregional background to claim a non-ethnic Senegalese identity.

While Sonko has amassed a national following, his support is strongest at home in the Casamance. In the 2019 presidential election he won around 60% of the votes in the region. Even today, walking through Ziguinchor’s cobblestone streets, roadside shops are still covered in campaign posters. “Many people, young people especially, have become interested in politics because of Sonko,” says Bodian, the school-administrator-turned-calabash-drummer.

“In the past, many Senegalese in the north did not trust people from the Casamance,” says Abdoulaye Dabo, a professor and organiser for Sonko’s Pastef party in Ziguinchor. “But now people understand you can be from Casamance and be a president of all Senegalese.” After Sonko was arrested for “disturbing the peace” on his way to court last week – where he was meant to answer to rape charges he describes as politically motivated – frustration over his treatment turned to anger, and not just among Sonko supporters.

In Bignona, a sleepy town 40 minutes’ drive north of Ziguinchor, near Sonko’s father’s birthplace, protesters barred the road with burning tires and set fire to the Total service station. Security services fired on the crowd, killing three people and injuring about a dozen.

“He did not have a voting card and was not a member of Pastef,” says Abdou Coly of his nephew Cheikh Coly, the first person to die in the recent unrest. “He was protesting because of the injustice of the arrest.” The family is now demanding an inquiry and justice for Coly’s death.

Like Coly, many of those protesting are not necessarily Sonko supporters. Last Friday hundreds of people, led by women draped in Senegalese flags, marched down the main road in Ziguinchor. While most protests were peaceful, small groups targeted the Orange/Sonatel store and the Total petrol station.

An image that spread widely on social media shows a young man on top of the peace monument at the centre of town, stabilising himself by holding the dove on top with one hand and waving a Senegalese flag with the other.

“It’s a very beautiful image,” says Ndeye Marie Diédhiou Thiam, the Director of the Platform of Women for Peace in Casamance. “This was a moment when people could show their support for the rebels, but no one has done that. They want change, but no one has expressed their support for separation. Instead they were singing the national anthem.”

Following Sonko’s release on Monday, life returned to normal in Ziguinchor. By that afternoon people were sweeping detritus of burned tires from the streets and picking up broken glass outside the Orange store.

However, for women like Bodian, the protest was not yet over. Along with around two dozen other women, she spent Tuesday afternoon marching from government building to government building singing protest songs and invoking the sacred forest to secure the release of protesters who had been arrested over the last week.

“We are Casamancaise and Senegalese, I carry this flag with pride,” says Bodian, running the green, red and yellow fabric through her fingers. “We’ve no interest in independence, we just want human rights and democracy, like every Senegalese.”

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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