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Western Sahara: Straight in the eye

Africa’s Last Colony

Tuesday 25 October 2022, by siawi3




Western Sahara

Straight in the eye

By Ramy Allahoum

Sahrawis are robbed of their agency by a zero sum game for influence between two regional rivals Morocco and Algeria.

Dakhla refugee camp in southern Algeria. Image credit Nick Brooks via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I am struck every time I meet a Moroccan. They are sympathetic, relatively easygoing, and extremely diplomatic (I can’t emphasize this last one enough). As a matter of fact, I am now convinced, as an Algerian, that we have a lot more in common than people care to admit. Unfortunately, the picture online could not be any more different.

Debates about the origin of a certain dish, music genre, or even work of art quickly degenerate into name-calling and insults (see here for the latest example). Before you know it, the issue of the Western Sahara comes up—and more often than not, it ends any semblance of civil debate.

So what is it about Western Sahara—a region that Rabat claims to be an integral part of its territory and whose right to self-determination Algiers has championed since colonial Spain relinquished control of it in 1975—that provokes so much tension, if not outright bellicosity, between two peoples that are nearly identical?

The crux of the problem lies in colonialism—or at least its legacy. France colonized Algeria in 1830 and turned Morocco into a protectorate almost a century later, in 1912.

Prior to colonialism, notions of a nation-state, sovereignty, and fixed borders were not as rigid in the imaginations of these two peoples. (This is not to dismiss the existence of a boundary that delineated the territories of these two “countries.”) Gradually, however, with the introduction of European thought in colonial territories—and, more importantly, at the outset of the anti-colonial struggle—such ideas could no longer be ignored. And beginning with the Algerian War of Independence in 1954, talk of borders became unavoidable.

Depending on who you ask, Algeria—which benefited greatly from the Moroccan kingdom’s support during its anti-colonial struggle—either did or did not give in to Morocco’s demands by agreeing to the transfer of a small chunk of Tindouf and Bechar provinces once the war ended.

The Algerians claim that, on the contrary, no such talks ever took place. Those generous enough to give Rabat’s claims any credence might agree that Algeria’s wartime leaders hinted at the possibility of negotiations—but no more.

It’s worth noting that Algeria’s wartime leaders were of the view that colonial borders should be left untouched. This was to avoid further bloodshed, which sounds noble but was probably also informed by the fact that Algeria’s leaders were about to inherit what was then the continent’s second-biggest country by area (it has become the biggest since Sudan split in 2011).

Fast forward to the autumn of 1963: an impatient Morocco—under the leadership of King Hassan II, unsatisfied with the pace of talks (or lack thereof)—declares war on Algeria.

Immediately, Algerians cry treachery. Morocco, they say, waited until the French were defeated—and the Algerians exhausted—to come and take what is not theirs. It’s not uncommon to hear Algerian officials claim to this day that the king had started the war to prop up his embattled credentials.

In any event, Morocco’s attempted land grab did not succeed, partially because Algeria, a staunch supporter of the nonaligned movement, had succeeded in mobilizing international support and direct Egyptian and Cuban military intervention.

And though the war had ended, and Morocco agreed to recognize modern Algeria as the latter’s leaders saw fit, the event would have a longstanding impact on bilateral ties.

Relations between Algeria and Morocco waxed and waned between 1963 and 1975. They were not exactly allies, but to call them enemies would have been a bit of a stretch. In fact, as the two most populous countries in North Africa (save for Egypt), they even flirted with the idea of creating a union of Maghreb states—what later came to be known as the now-defunct Arab Maghreb Union (which is, to be sure, a very problematic name).

But in 1975, a single event would again ignite tensions and have a colossal impact on Algerian-Moroccan relations: Spain’s decision to end its occupation of the Western Sahara.

King Hassan II promptly organized a Green March that saw some 350,000 Moroccans peacefully enter the territory and claim what they said was rightly theirs.

In Algiers, this was seen as unequivocal confirmation of Morocco’s expansionist ambitions. Algeria’s experienced diplomatic corps quickly began working on ways to advance the Sahrawi cause for independence, succeeding initially in getting neighboring Mauritania to relinquish its claim over the territory.

This was a way for Algiers to throw a rock in Morocco’s shoe, as it were: to irritate it and keep it busy with an issue that, in all likelihood, Algerian officials themselves did not anticipate would take this long to resolve.

The fact that many African countries were in favor of the right to self-determination, the cause célèbre at the time, did not serve Morocco’s interests. In fact, Rabat left the Organization of African Unity (the African Union’s predecessor) in protest after the latter admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic into its fold in 1982.

There is no telling where things are headed as of now.

Morocco, which had previously agreed to a UN-sponsored referendum to allow for the Sahrawi people to determine their own fate, has backtracked in recent years.

Algeria’s public stance has not changed much. It continues to push for a referendum while careful not to allow for a conflict to erupt. Former US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara—in exchange for the latter’s normalization of ties with Israel—has hardly impacted Algiers’ posture.

If anything, it seems to have emboldened it. In August 2021, Algiers cut relations with Rabat over a spying scandal and Moroccan support for a negligible Algerian separatist movement.

Algeria went a step further a couple of months later, announcing that it would stop selling gas to Morocco, a loss of revenue that Algerian officials did not mind foregoing.

The truth is, both countries stand to gain a great deal more if they cooperate and look the truth straight in the eyes: the Western Sahara can no longer stand in the way of their political and economic flourishing.

This, of course, says nothing about the sorry state that the Sahrawis find themselves in. Not only are they robbed of their agency in international fora, but their legitimate grievances—though officially recognized by the United Nations—are cast aside as the two regional rivals and their international backers battle out a dispute that both view as a zero-sum game.

Ramy Allahoum is a freelance journalist. He has written extensively on Middle Eastern and North African politics.





Western Sahara

Africa’s Last Colony

By Oscar Rickett

Western Sahara is the only non-self-governing territory on the African continent awaiting decolonization.

A solidarity event held for Western Sahara’s people at Spanish football club, Athletic Bilbao. Image: Western Sahara, via Flickr CC.

Earlier this year I flew to the Algerian military town of Tindouf, as part of a Vice News crew, to help make a documentary and write an article about the struggle for an independent Western Sahara. Tindouf sits outside a network of five camps housing Sahrawi refugees from the war between Morocco and Polisario, the Sahrawi liberation movement fighting for a referendum in the region. The war lasted from 1975—when Spain, with Franco on his death bed, ceded one of Africa’s last colonies, the Spanish Sahara, to Morocco and Mauritania—to 1991, when the UN brokered a cease fire, confidently and erroneously predicting that they would bring about a referendum within six months.

Twenty-three years later, the Sahrawis are still waiting for that referendum and the UN doesn’t even monitor human rights abuses in occupied Western Sahara. In fact, Spain’s ceding of the territory is not recognized by international law, making Western Sahara “the only non-self-governing territory on the African continent still awaiting the completion of its process of decolonization.” With Western Sahara, it’s easy to get bogged down in international legalese. On the ground, the life lived by the 100,000 or so refugees is one of desert exile, a limbo that prevents them from either putting down roots where they are or returning to their land, in which many of their fellow Sahrawis suffer under Moroccan rule.

The camps are run on aid. There are few jobs and fewer education programmes. People worry that if they spend too much time making their temporary home nice, it will become their permanent home. Depression is common in a place caught between a past defined by betrayal and a future that seems to promise only stasis. On an afternoon at the hospital for victims of the seven million landmines littering the desert, the air hung thick with the heat as we spoke to a man who had spent the past thirty years in the same bed, his legs destroyed. As I sat in a patch of shade in the courtyard, it was easy to see his existence as a metaphor for the whole situation.

From the refugee camps, we headed into the wide, barely inhabited stretch of desert given back to the Sahrawis by Mauritania in the late 1970s. We were joined, in our 20-year-old Land Cruiser, by a Polisario commander and six of his fighters. In an area increasingly used by Jihadist groups to smuggle drugs, the Polisario tell us they remain in charge, even guarding the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara’s (MINURSO) desert base, which blinks multi-colored in the night like an oil rig, a testament to human impotence. Warming his hands in front of a fire, the commander of one of Polisario’s nightly anti-smuggling patrols tells us that they believe Morocco control the drugs trade in the region.

The Kingdom of Morocco calls Polisario terrorists. They say Polisario have enslaved the Sahrawi people, keeping them in refugee camps (or “gulags”, as Moroccan spies refer to them) in order to profit from the conflict and the largesse of their main sponsors, Algeria. Polisario has had the same leader since the 1976, members of its high command are said to own large houses in Spain and the military regime in Algeria is using them as part of its proxy war with its hated rival Morocco, but the vast majority of people we spoke to in the camps see no differentiation between Polisario and the Sahrawi cause. Out at their desert bases, surrounded by ancient meteors and fossils, Polisario took us through their network of tunnels and showed us some of their military hardware, much of it dating from the Cold War. One commander showed me an Apartheid-made cannon: in the 1970s and 1980s the Polisario would capture South African-made weaponry from the Moroccans and send it down to their revolutionary brothers in the ANC.

Back at the refugee camps, I think of how Polisario relates to successful African liberation movements like the ANC. I think of those other movements that turned sour once they were realized, of Russia post-1917, ZANU in Zimbabwe and the EPLA in Eritrea, of South Sudan and its troubled birth. No-one could say that an independent Western Sahara, sitting in an unstable region, surrounded by rivals and hated by Morocco, might not suffer a similar fate to those places, but there is no good reason why Western Sahara shouldn’t be granted the same right to decide on its freedom that has been granted in East Timor, Kosovo, South Sudan and, later this summer, Scotland.

Right now, the people of Western Sahara feel betrayed, which could lead them to break the ceasefire. This is one of the reasons the film is called The Sahara’s Forgotten War: the international community has abandoned the Sahrawis. Countries across the world recognise Western Sahara’s right to exist in theory but in practice, they trade with Morocco or, as is the case with the United States, actively support them. The Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara is full of phosphates, fisheries and potentially oil and gas.

The Polisario’s frustration at the failure to bring about a referendum is close to boiling over. They told us repeatedly that they were “ready for war” but they lack the resources and international support to mount a full scale offensive on Morocco. They are more likely to carry out IRA-style bombings in big Moroccan cities like Rabat and Casablanca. In the world’s last major colony, the affects of Europe’s scramble for Africa and Morocco’s imperial delusions are plain to see.

Watch here and read Oscar’s full article here.

Oscar Rickett is a journalist who has written for, among others, Middle East Eye, Vice and The Guardian.