In a rare scoop, a Gambian reporter and videographer trekked on rarely trodden paths to meet the elusive leader of the separatist fighters in the Casamance, Salif Sadio. We reproduce excerpts from the 2-hour long interview.
Interviewer: Are we going to conduct it [interview] in Mandinka?
Salif Sadio: Yes I’d be happy to have it in Mandinka since that’s what I’m fluent in. I’m not fluent in English.
Greetings to you Salif Sadio, commander-in-chief of the MFDC [Mouvement des Forces Dèmocratiques de Casamance]. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk to you today. This is rare, for two years we have been working on having this but Allah decreed it will be today. Firstly, we will talk about the Casamance and then we touch on The Gambia.
Whichever pleases you.
It is going to be a question-and-answer format; questions will be asked and you may choose to answer or refrain from answering. That is your discretion.
First of all, who is Salif Sadio?
That is easy to answer. I am Salif Sadio of MFDC, Mouvement des Forces Dèmocratiques de Casamance. We have highlighted the distinction because in our war, Senegal propped up many movements that appropriated this name when their objectives are not in sync with ours. Father [Augustin] Diamacoune [Senghor] who was the secretary general of our movement is deceased and handed over the baton to me. I was his high commander, the war lord. When he died, I was his deputy and war marshal in a struggle in which I sought neither personal fame nor riches and in which I asked nothing of anyone except prayers to expel Senegal from our land [Casamance]. This will be the inevitable outcome -I don’t know whether I will be alive then – and even Senegal knows it will be a reality except Allah wills to the contrary. That is Salif Sadio.
Thirty eight years after the second MFDC uprising, you have not achieved your aim, will you ever realise it?
It is not about having our land, it is about a breakup because in the 1958 referendum of General de Gaulle, Guinea and Casamance voted no and demanded independence.
But historical annals show only Guinea voted no and asked for immediate independence, there is no mention of Casamance.
The reason is because the Europeans desired to keep Casamance. They front Senegal and then come from behind to suck dry other countries. Like for example, if they want to exploit The Gambia, they will send their Frenchified black Africans, the ones they have prepared, their slaves. This is the reality.
You claim that you own your land but there is no clean breakup. If Senegal decides to grant you independence like Sudan did to Southern Sudan, will you be able to govern yourselves?
Let me give you an example, if you can take care of four granaries, will you be unable to take care of one? Rice is here, aplenty. We feed both countries. We feed Senegal. Kaba – its scientific name is Saba senegalensis (laughs) – if you see anyone eating kaba, mango, baobab or even fish, it is either from The Gambia or Casamance. That is why you have Senegalese fishermen all over. They don’t have anything. Why do you think we would not be able to feed ourselves, is it because we are in the bush? (laughs). We are the fighters but it is the whole of the Casamance that demanded that we break away from Senegal.
Are all the people of the Casamance behind the MFDC and are they of one voice?
I can say all of Casamance are behind MFDC because the people have become exasperated with our relation with Senegal. If a king sends a slave to enslave other people, they suffer a worse fate than even the enslaving slave. After the MFDC was resurrected in 1982, the whole of Casamance rose up because of the massacre perpetrated by Senegalese forces. They ran armoured tanks over people alive; they cut open the stomach of pregnant women; poured petrol over people and set them ablaze and left them to burn to death; put living people into body bags; threw captured fighters into the sea on voyages between Ziguinchor and Dakar and buried people alive. Oh Allah! But conversely, such acts of barbarity strengthened our resolve. To quote the ancient kings, ‘Sané Bakari says a true man is one who defies with all his might and wiles what he abhors’.
In the ’80s, fighting flared all around, now things have shimmered down, is the war, in effect, over?
By Allah, the war is not over! We signed an accord. The first letters from the Casamance were sent to [first president] Senghor. He knew the truth. He accepted that Casamance is a separate country but [he was in a quandary] because if he rejected Casamance’s demands there would be war and if he granted them their wish, Senegal would die. So he stepped down and handed over to Abdou Diouf. Abdou Diouf said he had an iron first which he will use to subdue Casamance (laughs).
So the fighting has not ended?
It has not ended today and it will not end tomorrow. We will go the whole hog. The day the fighting will end is the day Senegal leaves the land of Casamance. Look at my beards, I think I am over 60 years but I have not married. I took an oath that I will not marry until we have redeemed our land.
We will talk about that.
So the fighting is not over. There is a lull in fighting because of the negotiations we are engaged in Italy. Even though the Senegalese are violating what we signed in Rome, we are persevering because each side has its modus operandi. Senegal acts clandestinely. They have told you many times that I was dead but I am here. That is why I did not wear combat boots to this interview and wore casual flip flops lest they claim I have lost my legs (laughs). Nothing but lies!
Your fighters have been accused of laying landmines all over the bushes…
(Cuts in) Mandinkas say he who flees war, renders a false narrative. Women forage and collect firewood and the Senegalese themselves fell these tall rosewood trees and cart them away, so where are the landmines?
But we have heard of stories where people riding on carts have been blown by landmines and died.
Look, I’m a warlord and what I say is what I have seen or experienced. The Senegalese are black-hearted just like their French masters. Anytime they realised that the MFDC has overpowered them, they will devise a new strategy. They have televisions and radios and we don’t have them. The only times our voices are amplified is when journalists like yourself come to meet us. Then you would realise the propaganda is different from the reality. Their soldiers would shoot people and claim MFDC shot them. As the Mandinkas say, anytime a little goat is missing, fingers would be pointed at the hyena. But there are two-legged hyenas as well (laughs).
You are accused of felling and selling rosewood to Gambians to underwrite your war cost and sustain your economy.
Glory be to Allah. What economy?
The Ecomig forces stationed at Bwiam seize all logs being transported on the grounds that they belong to MFDC.
How come then they have not seized the MFDC people and the MFDC vehicles involved? It is a lie. The Gambia government must pay attention so that Senegal will not drag The Gambia into imprudent politics. I fear for that. To put Casamance and The Gambia against each other, two people born of the same parents. There is no autochthonous Gambian, whether you are Jola, Mandinka, or Fula whose roots are not in the Casamance. For example, who is a Jola here? Because when you say Jola, some think you refer to only the Adjamat? No, no, no. Bainunka, Karoninka, Manjago, Adjamat, Foñinkas are Jolas. Tell me which person will not travel to Casamance during the ceremony for the rights of passage to manhood? For us, the people of Boulouf, unless you undergo such a rite, you cannot take a wife. To do otherwise will be sacrilegious, catastrophic.
So you are categorical that MFDC is not involved in the illegal rosewood trade?
Absolutely, if we are involved, it will be done in the open. It is our grandparents who planted or protected these trees [so we’ll not engage in their random exploitation]. We signed an agreement against the illegal exploitation of Casamance’s resources but Senegal is still actively doing so. MFDC has no hand in the felling and trade of these logs. We allow people to fell some trees to roof their mosques, churches or schools and even then we attach monitors. We do not allow people to fell the trees even for the construction of their houses.
Do you have any international recognition?
France which brought Senegal here were the first to recognise us in 1958. But that was yesterday. Now, when the Catholic Pope visited Senegal, he came to Casamance. The Pope only visits capitals. So what does that signify? In 1949 after the end of World War II, the French put up one monument in the capital of each country and one was put up in Ziguinchor.
Yahya Jammeh was accused of supporting MFDC with guns, ammunitions and other things.
Even after we released the prisoners of war to Yahya Jammeh, he never sent anyone to thank us, only the Red Cross would come to encourage us to treat the prisoners of war with compassion. I released eight prisoners. The Senegalese were so elated, they dispatched a plane comprising eight ministers – a minister for a prisoner (laughs) – to thank Yahya Jammeh. So if you are talking about helping, Yahya Jammeh helped Senegal not MFDC. If you are talking about help from The Gambia, it is that from the time of Jawara, The Gambia had given sanctuary to refugees from the Casamance and Gambians regard Casamançais as their relatives. My advice to The Gambia is to be very wary of Senegal. Senegal had always said that it is The Gambia that stokes up the flames of the separatist insurrection in the Casamance. So Senegal’s grand scheme is to delete Casamance from the map because they feel that is the only way they could have sustained peace in the Casamance. Senegal believes if we attained independence, it will enter into a confederation or federation of the 3Bs, namely Banjul, Bignona and Bissau. But think of it, if such a thing is in the best interest of the three countries, and since we are harping on African unity, it should be initiated somewhere. It won’t spoil anything. If that is what the people want, it will happen whether they [Senegal, France] like it or not. The war in Casamance is not over as long as I am not dead, exiled or incapacitated. Tell that to whoever cares to listen. I decreed a ceasefire so that we walk the path I suggested. I am fighting for the future generations of my people because I do not want them to suffer. My desire is not to retake our land during a strife and we have to expel all Senegalese. Then the Europeans who divided Africa will gloat. I never thought leaders like Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall will be so brainless as not to see this vision.
So you are emphatic that the government of Yahya Jammeh never did anything for MFDC?
He has never done anything for MFDC.
In The Gambia, there is the TRRC.
What is TRRC?
It is a commission set up to probe the torture, disappearances, killings and human rights abuses of the past government…
(Cuts in) You mean truth and reconciliation commission?
Yes. Like the ones South Africa and Sierra Leone had. A certain man called Edward Singhatey appeared before the commission…
(Cuts in) Yes we heard his name on the radio in the news bulletins.
When Yahya Jammeh took over the country, he appointed a man called Ousman ‘Koro’ Ceesay as a finance minister…
(Cuts in) I’m hearing his name for the first time.
One day in 1995, people woke up and found him dead and burnt in his car around Sukuta.
(Cuts in) Glory be to God!
He was the finance minister in charge of the country’s funds.
(Cuts in) Did they suspect him of absconding with money?
In fact he had no money with him.
(Cuts in) God forbid!
When Edward Singhatey who was among the people with Yahya Jammeh who carried out the  coup appeared before the commission to testify in 2019, he claimed that US$250,000 was sent from Libya by Gadaffi to Yahya Jammeh and Jammeh gave it to Koro to deliver to you [MFDC] and that it was because of that money that Koro was murdered. He said he suspected that it was because of that money that you killed Koro.
Who killed Koro?
The MFDC of Casamance. He was questioned how MFDC killed Koro, he said your men travelling in a gèlé-gèlé were supposed to meet Koro near Sukuta and in his opinion your men killed him and burnt him in his car.
Was he [Singhatey] afraid of death or was he out of words to say such a thing? Who did he say killed the man? Maybe it is the members of the MFDC set up by Senegal. I told you even the prisoners of war we captured whom we could have killed and nobody would have known, we did not kill, moreso go and kill someone’s son over there because of money. Of what use will that money be? If the Senegalese hear of this they will laugh and tell you whoever says that does not know MFDC and Salif because if you tell Salif come and fight he will agree but if you tell him come and I gift you money, you will never see him again. You are journalist and if you had come and proposed to offer me money to do so and so, maybe today would have been the last time we would meet. And if anyone comes and asked to be given money, know that he is not one of my people. Look, I don’t even need that money? Of what use will US$250,000 be to me? It is all a lie and an empty accusation calculated to sow mistrust between the people of The Gambia and the Casamance. This smacks of political chicanery and we are not involved in the domestic political matters of The Gambia. If at all we are going to be involved, it will just be to offer advice. And that advice will be for The Gambia government to be very cautious in its dealings with Senegal and France because they do not mean well. They [Senegal] are your friends and we are fighting them so you might think it is because of that I am saying this. Wherever Senegal penetrates, it is as if France is there. Even if the French are sitting here, I will tell them. Look around the world, wherever the French are, there is confusion. The French are scheming to make sure the peoples of the Casamance and The Gambia, are not in good terms. That is why I relocated to this base. At a point I overwhelmed them, I was too stubborn for them. They went and selected some men around that end and gave them uniforms together with those traitors who abandoned the war and settled in towns in Ziguinchor and Guinea Bissau. Those are the ones they armed and brought to attack us and they made that appear as if we were fighting Guinea Bissau. God endowed me with special war skills, so I told my men, Casamance is vast, let us relocate and join our troops [near The Gambia border]. They wanted to force us to point our guns somewhere [we did not want to]. They wanted to see Casamance fighting Guinea Bissau so that there will not be unity and peace between us tomorrow. It will be imprudent to be on strained terms with all these people [Gambians and Bissau-Guineans].
Casamance encircles The Gambia and if trouble flared between us and we closed all the borders, how will The Gambia survive? Are we going to allow our brothers and sisters and our children to starve? This is why if your government [officials] are here, I’d have advised them that we should all refuse bad blood between us. It is not good for the Casamance, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea and even Mauritania. We know what transpired between them and Mauritania. After the conflict they resettled the refugees in Tambacounda. Tambacounda is part of Casamance. I will give you another example. In 2018 or 2019, a helicopter crashed in Toubakouta near Kaolack. Even the Senegalese journalists reported that the crash happened in the Casamance and the crash did not happen in the Toubakouta near Oussouye. So if we are to tell the truth and even as attested to by European records, The Gambia never shared a border with Senegal, the only country The Gambia shares border with is the Casamance. Ask the British, the French, or any other authentic source, let them check in their archives.
So this allegation [MFDC killing Koro] is false and designed to pit us against each other. I don’t know anyone in your government.
Still on allegations, witnesses at TRRC said two Gambians, Mahawa Cham and Saul Ndow, who fled to Casamance, were arrested by your men and handed over to the government of The Gambia who killed them.
God forbid. First of all, we do not even know these people. The government of The Gambia and MFDC of Salif Sadio have never seen, met or complimented each other. You people call me a rebel, but I am a freedom fighter and during the period of my struggle, the government of The Gambia has never come here to do this or that or say this or that. They have never even made an attempt to know us or build a relation with us. I am like a corona (laughs), a corona virus! People run away even from a person who is infected with a corona virus. These [allegations] are empty talk. We have never detained any person and handed them over to Gambian authorities…
This is a photo (shown a copy of The Standard newspaper).
Where is he from?
He is a Gambian.
Who is he?
Omar Sarjo. He is a soldier, hails from Kabekel and has been dismissed from the army and they said he is your son.
(Cuts in laughing) You have given my men something to laugh at me about! Look at them laughing!
They said he [Omar] is your son and you took him to The Gambia and through Yahya Jammeh got him enlisted in the army and now he has been dismissed. Omar has now taken a lawyer and is fighting the matter in court. He has spoken out and said…
(cuts in) Before you say anything, let me say what I have to say so that it would not appear as if you are putting words in my mouth. If at all a child can be sired by mere imagination, then maybe you can say it happened. Since my birth… Firstly I joined the Casamance war when I was very young. By then I had not even grown a beard. I have never had a girlfriend with whom I have a child, outside wedlock. And I have never married a woman. I have said I will never marry a woman until I take back my country. I do not see the essence of marrying and siring offspring to raise them in servitude. I will never, ever do that. I never recant on my vow. That is why Senegal is exasperated [with me]. If I make a promise, only Allah can break it and people will know I strived but God did not will it. I do not have any child. The offspring of my siblings are out there married. My sisters have children but no one can say that is Salif Sadio’s child. Gambians should be careful. They are pushing The Gambia into the cauldron of tribalism and ethnicism by saying this person is a Jola, that one is a Mandinka. That is what the Europeans are luring us into. They want us to clash and then we would have to turn to them. That’s havoc that is being wreaked in Libya, Iraq, Mali and Cameroon. They can only overcome us if we adopt European politics. Whatever hurts The Gambia would affect the Casamance, Bissau, Conakry and Mali. Whether Gambians like it or not, you are one people.
How can you say he [Omar] is my son and he is not here aiding his father? What is he doing in The Gambia while his father is warring here? If you hear of an army it is about war. (Looking at a photo on The Standard). He looks like he is a grown up. He even spots a moustache! (laughs) I think he can sling a gun. Because even now, his father likes a bazooka (a man-portable recoilless anti-tank rocket launcher). If he was my son he would be here with me. My brothers and sisters have children, some grown up, but Salif Sadio has no child! You cannot have a child by just seeing a woman and say I love her very much and then she conceives. That never happens. It is a lie. I did not have a child while I was at school, and I did not have child while I am in this bush. I have never been married and I am at least 60 years of age. I do not even have the liberty of leaving here ever since I have been laden with this responsibility. I do not have the time to follow amorous pursuits. It does not cross my thinking. I have no child in the Casamance or anywhere else within the four corners of the earth. It is better for one to shut up if one does not have anything to say.
(Translated and transcribed from Mandinka by Sheriff Bojang).