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Senghor, Augustin Diamacoune 1928–2007

Augustin Diamacoune Senghor 1928–2007

Priest, political leader

Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, known as Abbé Diamacoune, was a Roman Catholic priest who also served as the longtime leader of an independence movement in Casamance, a heavily Roman Catholic province of Senegal. His death in 2007 at the age of seventy-eight left a leadership vacuum within the separatist cause, which remains one of the longest-running conflicts on the African continent.

Served as Priest and Teacher

Senghor shares the same surname as the longtime poet-president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who ruled from 1960 to 1980, but the two are not related. Born on April 4, 1928, Augustin Diamacoune Senghor came from Senghalène, a village in the Oussouye district of Casamance. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1956, taught literature in Ziguinchor—the main city of Casamance—and served as director of the Saint-Louis Seminary during the early 1970s before becoming involved in the separatist movement.

Senghor was of Diola heritage, one of the main ethnic groups of Senegal and its two neighbors, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. During the colonial era, this part of Africa had been divided among the Portuguese, French, and British, with Casamance belonging to Portugal. At a conference in Berlin, Germany, in 1885 the European powers agreed on colonial boundaries that would give each of them more clearly defined spheres of influence in Africa. As a result of that agreement, Casamance changed hands from Portugal to France, and, along with Senegal, became part of French West Africa in 1895.

However, a quirk of geography kept Casamance separate from the rest of Senegal. The province was cut off from Senegal by a sliver of land that took its name from the major river that ran through it into the Atlantic: The Gambia. The Gambia remained a British possession until 1965. Because Casamance was so distant from the rest of Senegal, the region retained much of its unique identity as a predominantly Roman Catholic area. It was also much more fertile than the rest of the country, and came to be known as the breadbasket of Senegal for its bountiful annual rice crop. Later in the twentieth century, Casamance's Atlantic coastline, particularly the area of Cap Skirring, became a tourist destination for Europeans, and even boasted a Club Méditerranée—better known as Club Med—tourist resort.

Jailed for Separatist Activities

Senghor became involved the Casamance separatist movement, the formal beginning of which was marked by a series of demonstrations for independence in 1982. The protests quickly evolved into armed struggle between the Senegalese military and fighters of the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de la Casamance, or the Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance (MFDC). Senghor became the MFDC's unofficial leader, “calling for his region's independence, not from Senegal but from France,” noted an obituary prepared by the Africa News Service. “Citing arcane administrative documents as proof that Senegal's former colonial power had never made Casamance part of Senegal, Diamacoune claimed the post-colonial government in the capital Dakar did not have jurisdiction over the region.” To avoid arrest, Senghor never made statements that advocated violence in the struggle for Casamance's independence, but he was taken into custody and imprisoned twice as the public face of the movement. In December of 1983 he was sentenced along with thirty-one other separatists, and was released in 1987. He was jailed again in Senegal during the early 1990s, and remained under virtual house arrest for a number of years after his release.

Senegal, meanwhile, emerged as a beacon of democracy for the African continent over the next decade. New election laws brought legitimate multiparty participation, and free and fair voting made it one of the few places on the continent where elections were relatively peaceful affairs with impressive voter-turnout numbers. Casamance and its separatists remained Senegal's one serious issue, and most moderate Casamançais called for a referendum on autonomy. The MFDC increased its military actions during the 1990s, due in part to an influx of Soviet-made weapons purchased on the black market. Landmines also became cheap and readily available, and killed scores of soldiers, civilians, and international aid workers, with Casamançais civilians bearing the heaviest death toll. Others fled by the thousands to The Gambia or Guinea-Bissau.

In 1997, when Senghor was still under house arrest, a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Elizabeth Blunt, reported that a Roman Catholic church official from the city of Saint-Louis in Senegal, Monsignor Pierre Sagn, visited him several times to convince him to open negotiations with the government. Blunt noted that Sagn and other Roman Catholic leaders in Senegal attempted to convince Senghor “to moderate his demands, to negotiate on the basis of greater autonomy and more development for Casamance rather than insisting on full independence,” wrote Blunt.

In 2000 Senegal's new president, Abdoulaye Wade, came to office and began a concerted effort to quell the Casamance crisis. Negotiations ensued which resulted in a December 2004 peace agreement, signed by Senghor and Senegal's Interior Minister, Ousmane Ngom. Thousands turned out in Ziguinchor's city center to cheer the announcement of the agreement, but optimism quickly faded as several MFDC factions refused to lay down arms, and instead turned against MFDC forces who supported the peace agreement. Fighting in northern Casamance continued and escalated further in 2006 after a renewed effort by the Senegalese army to vanquish the guerrilla army.

When Senghor's health began to fail, he traveled to France for treatment. He died at the Val-de-Grâce Military Hospital in Paris on January 13, 2007. A resolution to the Casamance question became even less likely with his passing, for with his absence the movement now had no clear leader. “On the ground all you have are rebel fighters that do not have his political sense,” Babacar Justin Ndiaye, a political analyst, told the Voice of America, “nor his following, nor his personality.”

At a Glance …

Born April 4, 1928, in Senghaléne, Casamance, Senegal; died January 13, 2007, in Paris, France.

Career: Ordained Roman Catholic priest, April 1956; professor of literature in Ziguinchor; Saint-Louis of Ziguinchor Seminary, director, 1972-75; Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance (MFDC), leader, 1987-2007.

Sources

Periodicals

Africa News Service, January 15, 2007.

Africa Report, March-April 1993, p. 59.

Financial Times, February 2, 2005, p. 5.

Guardian (London, England), June 24, 1998, p. 13.

Times (London, England), December 20, 1983, p. 6.

Online

“Casamance Independence Leader Dies at 78,” VOA News, January 14, 2007, http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-01/2007-01-14-voa9.cfm?CFID=234850618&CFTOKEN=32657133 (accessed November 15, 2007).

“Despatches: Africa. Liz Blunt. From Abidjan,” BBC News, November 10, 1997, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/despatches/africa/29086.stm (accessed November 15, 2007).

“Senegal Rebel Leader Priest Dies,” BBC News, January 15, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/africa/6262943.stm (accessed November 15, 2007).

—Carol Brennan

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