Western Sahara: Africa’s oldest conflict reignites

November 19, 2020
Saharawi people blockade the illegally contructed road in Guerguerat in Western Sahara. Photo: Gagarat News/Facebook

One of Africa’s oldest and least known conflicts has restarted.

Brahim Ghali, President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and leader of the Western Saharan independence movement, the Polisario Front, issued a decree ending the ceasefire that has existed between pro-independence forces and Moroccan occupation forces since 1991 on November 13.

The decree followed a military attack by Moroccan forces on unarmed Saharawi civilian protesters, who for the previous two weeks had been blockading an illegal Moroccan-built road in Guerguerat, near the southern border with Mauritania.

Initial actions by the SADR’s armed forces allowed the civilian protesters to escape unharmed to their homes in the refugee camps on the Algerian border, where half the Saharawi population has lived since 1975. Following the announcement, there have been some successful Saharawi attacks on Moroccan occupation forces and thousands of young people in the refugee camps have volunteered for the SADR’s armed forces.

The 1991 ceasefire suspended a war that started in 1975 when Morocco invaded Western Sahara, an invasion condemned by United Nations General Assembly resolutions in 1979 and 1980 that explicitly recognise the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara as a foreign occupation.

Morocco designates Western Sahara as its “Southern Provinces” and has been supported by Western powers, particularly France, which have ensured that the UN’s practice has not been in line with its stated positions. Behind the resumption of the war is the refusal of the UN to carry out the referendum on self-determination stipulated in the 1991 ceasefire agreement, and its failure to police Moroccan ceasefire violations, or stop Morocco creating facts on the ground to entrench its occupation.

Africa’s last colony

The African Union recognises the issue in Western Sahara to be one of decolonisation. The country was occupied by Spain during the European “scramble for Africa” in the late 19th century.

In the early 1970s, the Polisario Front began an armed struggle for independence. In 1975 the Spanish withdrew, but before doing so made a secret agreement with Morocco, France and Mauritania to dismember the country to deny it independence. Motivating this secret agreement was Western Sahara’s phosphate resources and very rich fisheries, as well as Cold War hostility to the Polisario’s leftist program. The agreement was for Morocco to invade from the north and Mauritania from the south.

The Mauritanian regime at the time had a neo-colonial relationship with France and Mauritania’s armed forces were not only French-equipped but fortified by French “advisers” and air power. However, Saharawi resistance was determined, and Mauritanian morale was undermined by widespread sympathy for the ethnically related Saharawi.

By 1978, Polisario forces were in the suburbs of the Mauritanian capital, Noukchott, the Mauritanian armed forces mutinied against their French advisors and the pro-French regime was overthrown. The new government recognised Western Sahara’s independence.

However, Morocco’s war against the Saharawi people continued. France and other Western powers, including Israel, backed and armed Morocco, whose blitzkrieg tactics caused the mass exodus of civilians to the Algerian border.

The 1991 ceasefire froze the front lines, leaving Morocco in control of about 80% of the country, including the coast and most population centres. Morocco has built a wall and the world’s largest minefield between the territory it occupies and the liberated zone.

The ceasefire did not resolve the conflict — that was supposed to happen with the promised referendum. However, Morocco’s Western backers, in particular France, have managed to keep the referendum indefinitely postponed for the three decades since then.

Occupied territories

This has created an untenable situation for the Saharawi people. For the half of the population living under Moroccan occupation, life is dystopian. Morocco is an authoritarian monarchy that brutally represses dissent in its own population. It has kept the media out of Western Sahara allowing its atrocities there to go unnoticed.

In a situation familiar to Palestinians, Kurds and West Papuans, Morocco’s assimilation of its “Southern Provinces” is based on the erasure of the Saharawi people: large-scale state-sponsored migration from Morocco has made the Saharawi a minority in their own country. Economic development has focussed on resource extraction and Saharawi have been excluded from employment in favour of Moroccan settlers. There is no higher education in the territory and very little health infrastructure.

Repression is not just directed against those advocating for self-determination: any protests by Saharawi against their economic, political or cultural marginalisation are put down brutally.

In October 2010, a mass protest camp was set up at Gdeim Izak, outside the capital Al-Ayoun, to protest poverty, discrimination and state violence. A month later, Morocco dispersed the camp, killing 36 protesters.

While Noam Chomsky has described these events as the beginning of the “Arab Spring” wave of protests across North Africa and the Middle East, they were largely ignored in the West. Since then, small, flashmob-style protests, usually led by women, have become common despite the repression. Repression against protesters, as well as journalists and other dissidents, has steadily intensified since then: murder, rape, torture, imprisonment and disappearances are all routinely used by the occupiers.

Refugee camps

For those who fled to the Algerian border and their descendents, and the trickle of people who have fled over Morocco’s wall and across the minefields and survived, life is infinitely better.

With help from Cuban doctors and educators, the SADR has managed to create a remarkably cohesive, egalitarian, literate and democratic society in the camps. Women’s liberation has been prioritised. Crime is virtually non-existent.

However, life in the camps is extremely difficult. While there is little inequality, there is shared poverty. Not only is there no running water or electricity grid, there is no economy. Food and water are supplied by humanitarian organisations.

The UN only recognises the camps as temporary — despite them having existed since 1975 and their ongoing presence being largely the result of the UN’s failure to implement the referendum. This “temporary” status means that food is supplied as if it were a short-term emergency: calculated on a calories per capita basis with no attention given to all round nutrition. As a result, malnutrition is common, particularly among children.

Furthermore, the food is supplied on the basis of the number of people who fled to the camps. However, as these are, in reality, long-term communities, the population is increasing through people having children, so the amount of food supplied per capita is falling. This situation has been made worse as the UN’s de facto position is to simply forget about Western Sahara, and has been further accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The camps are not sustainable.

Impossible choice

On the rare occasions when Western media recognises that Western Sahara — and its conflict — exists, this often takes the form of repeating Moroccan propaganda tropes.

One of these is that the SADR and Polisario run a dictatorship in the camps, with no criticism tolerated. Another is that it is just the SADR and Polisario, not the Saharawi refugees in general, who are hostile to Morocco.

The irony is that criticism of the leadership is allowed, but by far the most common reason for criticism has been the leadership’s continued observance of the ceasefire in the face of the UN’s tacit support for Morocco’s stalling. This sentiment has been growing for decades, particularly among younger people born in the camps, reflecting their life of limbo and the torments suffered by their compatriots in the Moroccan-occupied zone. This is why in one of the most peaceful communities on Earth, there is graffiti saying “we want war”.

Initially, there were some reasons to be optimistic about the ceasefire. The UN organised for Saharawi in the occupied territories to visit family members in the camps. The referendum, if carried out, would achieve what they had been fighting for.

However, almost three decades later, these visits have stopped, and it is clear that the UN has no intention of implementing the referendum. Furthermore, Morocco has used the time to create facts on the ground while the West has helped them undermine Western Sahara’s diplomatic support.

For the past 20 years, Morocco has openly said it will never allow a referendum for independence, and the United States (posing as an honest broker during the early 2000s) has been equally clear that it won’t push the issue.

With the United Arab Emirates opening a consulate in Al-Ayoun and other Western-aligned Arab countries reportedly about to follow suit, there was a danger that the fake peace process making the absorption of Western Sahara into Morocco was becoming a fait accompli.

The blockade at Guerguerat was resistance against the creation of facts on the ground. The Moroccan road violated the ceasefire, as it went through territory designated as a buffer zone and into the zone the ceasefire had assigned to the Polisario. The buffer zone is supposedly policed by MINURSO, a largely missing-in-action UN peacekeeping force.

Furthermore, the act of creating the border crossing was an assertion of Moroccan sovereignty and a means of exporting Western Sahara’s natural resources. For Morocco, the road also provides an overland link with Sub-Saharan Africa. By blockading it, the women-led protests could pressure Morocco and draw attention to their cause.

Morocco’s military threats to the blockaders led to large pro-war mobilisations in the camps. With the possibility that the unarmed blockaders would be massacred, and MINURSO not willing to protect them, the SADR and Polisario leadership concluded it was time to draw a line.

The peace process promised in the 1991 agreement never happened. The SADR is being responsible to the Saharawi people in recognising this, and not allowing itself to be used by the UN to create the illusion of a peace process, while Morocco steadily proceeds with the erasure of the Saharawi nation.

However, while at this stage morale is very high in the camps and the armed forces, the risk involved in a return to all-out war is obviously huge: France, the US, Israel and others have continued supplying Morocco with the most up to date military technology. Meanwhile, the resumption of war has intensified the violent repression in the occupied territories.

Western Sahara is faced with an impossible choice. To do nothing would mean Morocco eradicates their nation, but war could be catastrophic.

None of this would be necessary if the 1991 agreement was implemented and a democratic act of self-determination allowed. Western support for Morocco is the main reason why the referendum has not taken place.

In the English-speaking world, Western Sahara and its long conflict are not well known. This needs to change, because solidarity could mean the difference between the Saharawi people gaining freedom or facing total genocide.

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