A Chicken and Goat Story
The recent eruption of fighting between Senegalese forces and Casamance separatists should make Gambians re-think their role in the conflict
This is chicken and goat story I think is worth recounting.
One day, a chicken, a goat, and a sheep were having a conversation in which the goat and the sheep lamented the war in the neighboring country. The chicken asked them why they should be bothered about a war in another country and between human beings.
The goat and the sheep replied that they were fully aware that the war was between human beings, and in a faraway land. Nevertheless, they argued, the loss of lives should be lamented by all — including animals. The chicken would have none of it, and insisted it could not care less about the war.
A few weeks later, some people fled the war the animals had discussed earlier, to seek refuge among their relatives. The following day, the animals overheard their owner saying to her husband: “What should I cook for our relatives who fled the war in their country?” The husband promptly replied: “You can kill the chicken to cook for them.” And so was the fate of the chicken sealed by a war it thought it had nothing to do with.
The chicken and goat story reminds me of a Wolof proverb: Ai dou emm chi boppi borom, which literarily means that the devastating consequences of a disaster (wars included) are never limited to those who cause it.
The chicken’s fate also reminds me of a conversation I had in April 1993 with some Gambian civil servants who attended a workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I asked them what, if anything, was The Gambia doing about the Casamance conflict which had flared up. “What can we do?,” they asked me.
I suggested to them that The Gambia should talk to the Senegalese government about sending a delegation of Gambian and Senegalese religious leaders to talk to the Movement of the Democratic Forces of the Casamance (Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance [MFDC]) rebels, to end the insurgency before it got out of hand. I added that it was our duty, and in our interest to help Senegal end the conflict in Casamance.
My suggestion was met with a yawn by my Gambian friends, in part because of a sense of helplessness. In addition, relations between The Gambia under President Sir Dawda K. Jawara and Senegal had soured, following The Gambia’s withdrawal from the Senegambia Confederation and its dissolution in August 1989.
In July 1994, President Jawara was overthrown in a coup d’etat led by a young Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh. During almost 22 years of brutal and dictatorial rule, President Jammeh had a checkered relationship with Senegal, mainly because of his belligerent attitude toward Senegal, and role in the conflict in Casamance.
Instead of mediating a peace between the Senegalese government and separatist rebels, President Jammeh literarily added wood to the fire. In part because of his ethnic affiliation with the MFDC fighters (who, like him, are of the Jola ethnic group), President Jammeh supported separatist fighters in Casamance, and reportedly recruited some of them into the Gambian army.
In addition, and probably more importantly, President Jammeh provided them MFDC rebels with a conduit for exporting highly valued rosewood timber (known locally as Keno) from Casamance through The Gambia. Thus, an estimated $325 million worth of illegal timber was exported from The Gambia’s port between 2010 and 2016. President Jammeh was paid $15 million by WestWood Gambia, Ltd., which he co-owned and provided a monopoly to illegally export Casamance timber via The Gambia.
Although President Jammeh’s regime ended in 2017, and the export of logs from The Gambia was banned in June 2017, the illegal re-export of Casamance rosewood through The Gambia continued. If anything, trafficking increased, and in 2019 The Gambia became the third largest source of rosewood, which had been declared extinct in the country since 2011. Furthermore, The Gambia exported 300 thousand tonnes of rosewood worth over $100 million to China between 2017 and March 2020.
While Gambian authorities reported exports of about 50 containers of logs, importers of timber from The Gambia reported that they received about 20,000 containers in 2018. Similarly, while Gambian authorities declared that the value of rosewood exports for 2017 and 2018 was $1.5 million, the value of imports declared by its trading partners was about $120 million. These discrepancies are not surprising because 99.7 percent of timber exported from The Gambia did not get an export permit from Gambian authorities.
The illegal export of rosewood from The Gambia is worth about half of the total exports of the country, about 10 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, and over 20 times the budget of the MECCNAR, the environment Ministry. However, the export of rosewood through The Gambia contravenes international law, and brings the country into disrepute. Export of Casamance rosewood funds separatist groups there, including the MFDC, which earned $19.5 million from illegal timber trade between 2010 and 2014. Illegally exported Casamance rosewood is thus called “conflict timber.”
The Casamance conflict, which started in 1982, has alternately raged and simmered for 39 years. Furthermore, the discovery of about 1 billion barrels of crude oil reserves in the region has increased the intransigence of the rebels. Although a peace agreement was signed between the government of Senegal and the MFDC in 2004, and the war was officially declared over in October 2020, the Senegalese military launched an offensive against the rebels in January 2021.
Early last month, Senegalese troops who are part of the ECOMIG contingent in The Gambia clashed with smugglers of Casamance rosewood into The Gambia. Two Senegalese soldiers, and one rebel died in the conflict, while 9 Senegalese soldiers, and two rebels were taken hostage. Many Gambians fled the conflict zone, while three Gambians were detained in Senegal by ECOMIG forces and later released.
The Casamance conflict has again been brought home to The Gambia, and Gambians are debating their options. In this regard, it is important to emphasize that the Gambia should under no circumstance, allow itself to be drawn into, escalate, or prolong the conflict. Rather, it should do whatever it can to bring lasting peace to the people of Casamance, Senegal, and The Gambia. The million dollar question then is: how?
A good start would be for the government to form a Task Force to chart a way forward. We should, for once, tap the huge pool of Gambian expertise by bringing them into a task-specific group to develop a national strategy for dealing with the Casamance conflict, and helping end it. After all, we have Gambians who have been at the forefront of Sengalo-Gambian relations ever since we had Independence in 1965. We would be foolish not to harness their expertise.
It is also important that the Gambia government urgently put a stop to illegal export of Casamance rosewood timber through our port. We cannot on one hand claim that we are relatives of, and partners with Senegal, and at the same time turn a blind eye to, and let corrupt Gambians enrich themselves through, the lucrative and illegal Casamance rosewood trade. That would be hypocrisy at best, and at worst detrimental to peace and stability between and within, respectively, The Gambia and Senegal.
We must also avoid being fooled into thinking that we can solve the Casamance conflict through military means. Although the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) has warned to both MFDC rebels and Senegalese forces not to use Gambian territory to attack each other, this statement should be seen in proper light. For one thing, the GAF might be hyping the situation to scare the government into buying them more weapons, and leading us down a slippery slope.
As I argued previously, the GAF should be disbanded, and our internal security left to a better-equipped and trained Police Intervention Unit that also has more personnel. Countries such as Cape Verde, Mauritius, and Costa Rica among twenty other countries, have no standing armies and it will be a long time before you hear of them having coups like those that happened in Mali in August 2021, a month later in Guinea, in Burkina Faso last month, and the failed coup-attempt in Guinea Bissau last week.
Whatever choice the Gambian government makes will have direct impact on the lives of people. A personal experience of mine brings this, and the chicken and goat story home. In 2013, I found a young man from Kanilai (former President Yaya Jammeh’s hometown, and near the border with Senegal) who was admitted, along with my nephew, at the EFST Hospital. He was admitted after he became paralyzed from a serious spinal injury he sustained when a tractor he was on hit a landmine around Kanilai. I’ll never forget finding him very excited one day because he finally could sit down! Although he did not start the Casamance conflict, he paid the ultimate price for former President Jammeh’s greed because some days later, he died. Enough said.