Senegal’s Casamance region eyes new start under oppositionTue, 19 Mar 2024 14:21:58 GMT

Mourtalla Diouf is part of the crowd in a small town in southern Casamance waiting to welcome the return of a man in whom all his hopes for Senegal’s future rest.After seven months behind bars, opposition figure Ousmane Sonko is back in his home region after being released from jail last week.”He’s the man who can change everything, who carries within him the hope of a new Senegal, sovereign and internationally respected,” 27-year-old pastry chef Diouf said, wearing the national football team’s shirt.But Sonko is not standing in Sunday’s election.The popular 49-year-old opposition leader was barred after a string of legal convictions which he condemns as politically motivated.In his stead, ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was released from prison with Sonko late on Thursday, is running.But in the Casamance regional capital Ziguinchor as in other towns, it is the charismatic Sonko who is in the limelight.”I believe in his plan, so I believe in Bassirou Diomaye Faye,” Diouf said.Casamance is a political stronghold for Sonko — he grew up there and two years ago became Ziguinchor’s mayor.The restive region — mired by an armed separatist rebellion for four decades — saw deadly unrest in 2021 linked to Sonko’s stand-off with the state.For some, the belief of having paid dearly for supporting Sonko just adds to longstanding feelings of neglect by the powers that be in a distant capital.- Urgency -Thousands have turned out to see Sonko since he began campaigning in the south on Saturday. Many say they see him as their saviour from poverty.”You’ve seen Dakar? Have you seen Casamance? Nothing compares. Everything costs more here. The roads are worse. There’s no industry,” said Boubacar Diedhou, 23, who stopped studying English to become a bricklayer.”Our hope is Ousmane Sonko. He will bring us work and development.”Bassirou Diomaye Faye has pledged to urgently address the problems facing the region, which lives off farming, fishing, forestry and tourism.At Ziguinchor’s port, 49-year-old Nafissatou Gueye calls for the resumption of a ferry service between the capital Dakar and the city.Suspended since renewed unrest last June, the link is key for many who can’t afford the cost of a plane ticket.No reason was officially given for halting the ferry, fuelling suspicions authorities just wanted to punish the region.Trader Gueye, who sells oysters, shrimp, palm oil and cashew nuts, condemned the “unjustifiable political decision” which has hit her earnings.In the empty street, her stall displays images of Faye and Sonko.”When the boat went by, it was crowded and we used to send our goods to Dakar,” she sighed.Not everyone agrees the opposition has all the answers. President Macky Sall — who is not running for another term — is the “president who has done the most for Casamance since independence,” said Seydou Sane, head of the ruling party’s electoral committee in the area.- Built, upgraded -Under Sall’s presidency, a hospital has been built in Casmance and schools and the Ziguinchor fishing port overhauled.Roads were repaired, bridges constructed, the maritime fleet expanded and the local airport runway upgraded.Sall helped get the Senegambia bridge built over the Gambia River, facilitating trade and travel by linking isolated Casamance to the rest of Senegal.He also oversaw the signing of peace agreements with the pro-independence rebels in Casamance.”You’d never have believed we’d be here in 2024, it was so difficult,” Sane said.”Today, people live, move about, travel. That’s peace.”He acknowledged that people in Casamance “love” Sonko but says he will not resolve joblessness.Moustapha Sy, a clothes’ seller for around 30 years, says the local bridge built under Sall’s administration has changed residents’ lives.”I believe Macky Sall has proved himself and succeeded in his mission,” he said.However, he said he still plans to vote for Faye because the candidate is young and has a “vision” for Senegal.