January 23, 2006

Senegal tourist haven tries to shake off rebellion

By Daniel Flynn

CAP SKIRRING, Senegal (Reuters) - Soldiers lounge by a
sandbagged checkpoint and an army truck bearing a heavy
sub-machinegun trundles along the potholed road to one of West
Africa's premier beach resorts.

Most of the European tourists who flock to Cap Skirring in
search of winter sun only get a brief glimpse of the soldiers
as they drive from the airport to the pristine beaches and
manicured golf courses of the luxury hotels.

But for residents of Senegal's tropical southern province
of Casamance, the military presence is a reminder that a
rebellion, and one of Africa's longest conflicts, is not over

"There are many soldiers here but that is good ... because
they guarantee our safety," said Michel Diatta, 21, from
Kabrousse. "The people here just want peace. They are tired."

Rebels of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance
(MFDC) took up arms in 1982, accusing the former French
colony's central government of neglecting Casamance.

The rebellion has simmered since, reaching its peak in the
1990s. Hundreds of people have been killed and scores maimed by
landmines speckled across the countryside.

Tourism, the poor region's economic lifeblood, stagnated
after four French tourists disappeared in 1995 in the
rebel-controlled forests near the border with Guinea-Bissau.
But the industry began to pick up again as the violence waned.

The number of visitors to Cap Skirring hotels has risen by
more than 10 percent a year in recent seasons to reach 13,945
visitors for 2004 to 2005, according to the Tourism Ministry.

After a peace deal was signed in December 2004, there was a
period of relative calm but the roadside shooting of a
government official earlier this month and a burst of banditry
have cast a fresh cloud over hopes of a lasting tourism

The rebels said they did not kill the official and some
residents describe the shooting as an aberration.

"To talk about an increase in violence would be going too
far," said radio journalist Abdoulaye Sambou. "That would
require popular support for the rebellion, which is no longer
the case ... The peace process is irreversible."


The Diola people who cultivate rice among Casamance's palm
groves and mangrove swamps have a history of struggle. They
resisted attempts at subjugation by northern Mandinka tribes
and later by French colonialists, whom they fought into the

Casamance also rejected the spread of Islam, which swept
across the rest of Senegal. Its people are mainly Christian and
animist and its quiet villages are dotted with churches and
small fetish shrines.

The region -- home to some 800,000 people -- is a labyrinth
of tiny inlets and creeks of the river Casamance, sheltering
dozens of ethnic groups and languages.

Casamance's sense of apartness is enhanced by its isolation
from the rest of Senegal by tiny Gambia, which stretches inland
along the banks of the river Gambia, nearly bisecting the
larger country.

Under the 2004 deal, moderate leaders of the fragmented
MFDC agreed to lay down their weapons but remained committed to
greater autonomy for the region -- a demand the central
government is preparing to discuss.

The peace deal was signed by Father Diamacoune Senghor, a
77-year-old Catholic priest who is the MFDC's historic leader,
but some fugitive rebel leaders still want independence.

Nevertheless, the killing of Gorgui Mbengue, the deputy
prefect of the Diouloulou, in early January was not necessarily
intended as a warning shot to the government, Sambou said.

"This was an accident. The rebels did not mean to kill him
... but when his car was stopped he pulled out a gun and
started shooting," said the RFM radio journalist, citing rebel


Many businessmen in Casamance were cheered when President
Abdoulaye Wade took office in 2000 pledging to end the
rebellion. Wade's victory ended four decades of Socialist rule
-- an upheaval dubbed "sopi," or change in the Wolof language.

"Tourism suffered a lot during the 20 years of political
problems but after the 'change' things began to calm down and
tourism is taking off again," said Jean-Pascal Ehemba, owner of
the Kadiandoumagne Hotel in the regional capital Ziguinchor.

"The rebellion is no longer a worry," said Ehemba. "You can
see it in the street, at the airport, at the port, and with the
tourists who visit the villages."

A ferry has started bringing tourists directly from the
capital Dakar to the tree-lined streets and mildewed colonial
buildings of Ziguinchor, helping to ease the isolation.

The service began again in December, three years after a
ferry traveling the route sank, killing around 1,800 people.

"The rebels have understood that harming tourism is not
good for anyone: it's not good for the region," said Jacques
Jacquot, the owner of Cap Skirring's five-star La Paillote
hotel and the head of the regional tourism association.

"Generally, things are getting better. This year was better
than last and that was better than the year before," he said.

Others are more skeptical. Ziguinchor remains poorly served
by flights from Dakar: the service was recently suspended when
the twin-propeller plane hit a pig on take-off.

"People say tourism is taking off again here, but that's
rubbish! Look at the road between Ziguinchor and Cap Skirring
-- that should be one of the best roads in the country, but
it's terrible!" said Serge Sagna, a university student.