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Western Sahara: a “hidden” colony

By Jacob Mundy
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    Western Sahara is not exactly on the front pages of newspapers—despite being Africa’s last colony. The continued occupation by Morocco with western acquiesces and the exploitation of their resources have pushed the Saharans to rebel.

The city of Al-’Ayun is normally very quiet, eerily so. The intensity of the desert’s sun and the panoptic eye of the Moroccan security apparatus make for an oppressive environment. Locals, whether native activists or Moroccan settlers, often speak in hushed whispers, especially when the conversation turns towards the political, towards the subjects of independence and occupation. Walking the streets, it is often difficult to believe that this is the site of one of Africa’s oldest conflicts. Yet one only has to scratch the surface to see that things are not as they might seem. In the privacy of his taxi, one local felt comfortable enough to confide in me, “I am a Western Saharan, not a Moroccan Saharan.” However, this May—seemingly from out of nowhere—Western Sahara erupted into widespread protest against the nearly thirty-year old Moroccan occupation. It all started out as a simple protest against the harsh and unjustified transfer of Saharan political prisoner Ahmed Haddi to southern Morocco. Two days later, tensions were fanned into days of confrontation by the violent response of the occupying authorities. The week following an initial confrontation on May 23 saw some of the most popular and pointedly anti-Moroccan protests ever witnessed in Western Sahara. Many Western Saharans have hotly contested Morocco’s claim on their country since Spain illegally abandoned it in 1976. The Polisario—a nationalist front first formed in 1973 to fight Spanish colonialism—waged a desperate guerilla war against the US-armed and Saudi-funded Moroccan army for fifteen years. In 1991, the UN instituted a cease-fire in Western Sahara and promised to organize a vote so that the indigenous population could choose between independence or union with Morocco. The vote has yet to take place, though the cease-fire still holds. Last colony Algeria, which has provided material and diplomatic support to the Polisario, is still home to nearly half of Western Sahara’s native population. Having fled the Moroccan onslaught in 1976, there they remain to this day in self-managed refugee camps, prisoners of realpolitik. In our post-colonial age, Western Sahara remains, ironically, Africa’s last colony. During the long desert war, Western Saharans living under Moroccan occupation looked to the Polisario for hope. Now that the “peace process” has dragged on for over a decade, and the Polisario’s exiled voice has become more and more internationally isolated, the Saharans living under occupation seem to be taking matters into their own hands. Toby Shelley, a journalist for the Financial Times and author of the recent Endgame in the Western Sahara, has argued that the situation in Western Sahara is not unlike that facing the Palestinians during the first Intifada in the late 1980s. In Endgame he makes a direct comparison between the two cases, where a political leadership “structure formed in exile” (i.e., Polisario and PLO) becomes eclipsed by “a popular and autonomous movement inside the occupied territories” (i.e., intifadas in Western Saharan and West Bank/Gaza). For now, the goal of the exiled Polisario and Western Saharan activists working under Moroccan occupation is the same—national liberation. The latter, however, is definitely receiving more international accolades. The late May 2005 intifada in Western Sahara drew significant attention from the international media, especially Spanish outlets, which were able to provide some of the only images on the ground. The internet has also played a key role in disseminating digital images and reports from activists. In comparison, a 1999 uprising produced very few images of either the demonstrations or the reportedly brutal Moroccan response. Acute repression However, once journalists lost interest in this summer’s protests, the Moroccan government decided to strike back. In the wake of the demonstrations, Moroccan security forces arrested over 100 Saharans; twenty were eventually brought to trial. Sentences varied from one to twenty years; most convictions were based on confessions, probably extracted under duress. Various international solidarity groups and European civil society organizations attempted to visit the territory and monitor the trials, only to be turned around by Moroccan authorities at the Al-’Ayun airport. Weeks later, Moroccan police singled out well known human rights activists for acute repression. Perhaps the most well known Western Saharan activist, Ali Salem Tamek was arrested upon his return to Morocco on July 18. Tamek—a vocal supporter of the Polisario and a union activist—had traveled to Europe to seek medical treatment following numerous hunger strikes while in Moroccan prisons. Following his arrest, another activist, Houssein Lidri, spoke to the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera on July 23 about Tamek’s detention. The Moroccan authorities quickly arrested Lidri and, according to Amnesty International, subjected him to various forms of torture along with fellow activst Brahim Noumria. As Amnesty recently stated, “They allege that they were suspended in contorted positions with their hands tied and their eyes blindfolded, beaten on sensitive parts of the body and that a chemical substance was poured on them and they were burnt with cigarettes and open flames.” Also arrested was Aminatou Haidar. Having spent years in secret prisons as one of Morocco’s “disappeared” Saharans in the late 1980s, she is now one of the leading voices of Saharan resistance. Most of the arrested activists had been members of the Sahara Branch of the Truth and Justice forum. Chartered after the 1999 uprising, the Sahara Branch was granted official status during the political “opening” that followed the death of King Hassan and the ascension of his son, Mohammed VI. In 2003, however, the Moroccan government banned the organization, which had worked on the over 500 outstanding cases of “disappeared” Saharans. Now these activists work without official Moroccan recognition as the Collective of Saharan Human Rights Defenders. Western Saharans fighting the Moroccan occupation have their work cut out for them. Not only are they face violent repression, but they must also fight against the US government’s interest in the continued stability of Morocco’s pro-Western monarchy. Morocco’s former King, Hassan II, invaded Western Sahara in order to bolster his unpopular regime. At that time, key US policy makers like President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sided with Hassan against Spain and the Western Saharans. Like Indonesia’s Suharto in East Timor, the interests of Morocco’s monarchy—a valuable proxy in Africa and a backchannel in the Arab-Israeli conflict—were much more important than the Western Saharans’ right to self-determination. During the war for Western Sahara, the Reagan administration provided Hassan’s losing army with enough military and economic aid to turn the tide in Morocco’s favor. Indeed, baring Egypt and Israel, only Jordan has received more aid from the US—$5.27 billion versus Morocco’s $3.2 billion. In Africa, only Ethiopia and Sudan—under earlier pro-Western regimes—have broken the two billion dollar mark. Since the United Nations started mediating the Western Saharan conflict in 1988, the US—along with France—has used its position on the Security Council to protect Morocco. In 2000, when it appeared that the UN’s proposed referendum would lead to independence, the US and France pushed for an alternative settlement to the conflict. Former US Secretary of State James Baker was called in to negotiate that alternative. In 2001, Baker proposed a referendum that would allow Moroccan settlers to vote. Although Morocco initially accepted the proposal, a 2003 version tempered the number of Moroccan setters allowed to vote. While the Polisario accepted Baker’s second proposal in 2003, King Mohammed quickly rejected it. Baker resigned from the process in 2004. Fishing grounds Given Baker’s close ties to the Bush family, and Algeria’s improved standing in the War on Terror, some expected George W’s administration would be willing to put pressure on King Mohammed to accept the 2003 proposal. Instead, the US government did nothing, though it later declared Morocco a “major non-NATO ally” and signed a bilateral free trade agreement the following year. The only concession made to the Saharans is that the goods coming from the Moroccan occupied territory would not be included in the free trade agreement. Though it is mostly desert, Western Sahara is home to some of the world’s richest fishing grounds and phosphate deposits. It also has potential offshore oil and gas deposits, which the Oklahoma City-Based Kerr-McGee Corporation has illegally contracted with the Moroccan government to explore. Other corporations, like France’s Total, have also looked into exploring for oil offshore, yet a concerted international grassroots campaign has shamed most companies out of Western Sahara, all except Kerr-McGee. Saharan activists must also deal with the fact that Moroccan settlers in their own land outnumber them, by as much as two-to-one. These settlers, which started arriving shortly after the Moroccan take-over in 1976, receive substantial state subsidies on services, goods and income. Many of these setters are active soldiers in the Moroccan army, perhaps as many as 150,000, most of whom guard a long sand wall that now bisects the territory. Though Morocco’s grunts suffer in boiling tedium, monitoring Polisario movements on the other side of the wall, Morocco’s generals are getting fat off the billions of dollars being harvested from the Sahara’s oceans. It is these same generals that the Moroccan Association of Human Rights described as a “lobby” against democracy. They are also one of the biggest reasons King Mohammed now has little reason to budge on the Sahara. It now seems that the only hope for change in Western Sahara are the efforts of the activists putting their lives on the line. Yet in a world where genocidal African conflicts go largely unnoticed, one can only hope that the Western Saharans will not have to start dying by the hundreds or thousands for the international community to notice. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jacob Mundy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco (1999-2001) and is a co-author of the forthcoming Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution in Northwest Africa (Syracuse University Press, 2006) with Stephen Zunes. He helps maintain the website