ZIGUINCHOR, SENEGAL — As France's sphere of influence shrinks with every rebellion in Central Africa, the former colonial power is trying to keep its grip from slipping in the continent's west.
France has stepped into a civil war in Senegal in an effort to broker a cease-fire in the 15-year-old conflict between the government and separatist rebels in the southern Casamance region.
The move marks a shift in French policy, according to a US Embassy official in Dakar, the capital. Since the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) began fighting for a separate state in 1982, France has quietly assisted in putting down the rebellion. But last month, the official says, French policy changed. Four top rebels were escorted by the French ambassador to Paris, courtesy of the French Air Force. A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, while acknowledging the trip, denies the shift in policy. "France maintains close and confident relations with the Senegalese government," he says.
But to some it seems that the former colonial power was hoping that, with a cease-fire having more or less held for a year, it could start brokering a lasting settlement to the conflict.
Instead, fighting broke out while the rebel leaders were away.
Rebels reportedly attacked an Army camp and ambushed two patrols near the southern border. In the counterattack, the Army claims to have killed dozens of rebels.
France's peace initiative seems to have sparked the fighting. But why? Some say rebels on the ground felt excluded from the trip to Paris. Others claim the Senegalese provoked the rebels because they don't want France taking the lead in negotiations.
The move comes at a time when France is losing its grip in Central Africa. In 1994, Tutsi rebels in Rwanda - with the support of Anglophone allies - overthrew the French-backed Hutu government after the Hutu genocide of up to 800,000 Tutsis. And in Zaire, rebels have gobbled up half the country and seem on the verge of ousting another French ally, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Though there is little risk to France of losing its foothold in Senegal, a peaceful resolution to the Casamance conflict could strengthen France's stature on the continent. Senegal has maintained close ties with France since independence in 1960 and stands as a showcase for French cooperation. Most Senegalese are impoverished, but the nation boasts a multiparty democracy with no coup d'tats in its 37-year history.
Rebel leader Father August Diamacoune Senghor, who is under house arrest, said in a rare interview that he hopes that France will take a "flexible approach" to the separatists' claim. But analysts say France is not likely to upset its close ally.
And few believe that, as Senegal is mostly arid, it will let the fertile Casamance region go. Many there say they wouldn't want it to. "We would rather fight for fairer integration than a separate state," says a Casamance-born teacher in Dakar. "Our population isn't even a million. As a country, we would never develop."
Support for the MFDC seems more a response to perceived government neglect of the region than a desire for nationhood. But locals also accuse the MFDC of bringing more hardship, with armed holdups, cattle rustling, and pillaging.
The MFDC denies breaking cease-fires or attacking civilians. "Sometimes our men are so hungry they have demanded food," says Fr. Diamacoune. "But they would never terrorize the people they are trying to liberate." He claims the Army supports bandits who masquerade as rebels. Others say that attacks attributed to the MFDC may be feuds between the region's dozens of rival ethnic groups. One Casamancais says, if the rebellion in Senegal is ever resolved, "we will probably just start fighting each other."