Reflections on Western Sahara's struggle for self-determination

1 March 2017 - 5:00pm

Reflections on the Sahrawi struggle for self-determination on the 41st anniversary of the proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). By Hamza Hamouchene Senior International Programmes Officer (North Africa and West Asia).                                                                    

In these few lines, inspired by my thwarted attempt to go to the occupied territories of Western Sahara in November 2016 as well as my recent visit to the Saharawi Refugee Camps in Southern Algeria in December 2016, I would like to give a brief account of the Saharawi struggle for self-determination and also offer some reflections on my visit.

The plight of Western Sahara and the military occupation by the Moroccan monarchy cannot be dissociated from the history of Western colonialism and from the fact that Saharawis continue to pay the price of this legacy. Spain has been recognised at the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885 as the colonial power of present-day Western Sahara and by 1936, Generalissimo Franco instituted full colonial rule  and split the region into two territories, Rio de Oro and Saguia el Hamra. When high-quality phosphate was discovered in the late 1930s, the Spanish built the city of Laayoune near the Atlantic and linked the Bou Craa mine to the port with a conveyor belt around a hundred kilometres long.

A shot of the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf. In the picture, girls can be seen going home after leaving school.


By the 1960s, decolonisation efforts in Africa and around the Global South were gaining momentum and like other European powers, Spain realised that its time as a formal colonial power on the African continent was coming to an end. In 1966, the UN General Assembly requested Spain to organise, under UN supervision, a referendum on self-determination but Spain was in no hurry to implement it. Emboldened by their neighbours who liberated themselves from the shackles of colonialism, Saharawis begin to organise themselves in order to liberate their land in 1967. The brutal repression by Franco's Spain of their huge demonstrations and mobilisations paved the way for armed struggle and the formation of the Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro: the Polisario Front in 1973.

In neighbouring Morocco, the brutal dictator, King Hassan II was facing internal trouble: attempted bloody coups, popular discontent with his rule and protests for bread and justice. So Sticking to the modus operandi of any other dictator who faces popular unrest and a crisis of legitimacy, Hassan II needed to distract his subjects from their own misery by shifting their attention to the desert. He claimed therefore that Western Sahara historically belonged to Greater Morocco. And bolstered by reports of Franco dying, he launched on 6th November 1975 the "Green March" where around 350,000 Moroccans crossed the border into the territory, claiming it as part of Morocco. A week later, Spain, Mauritania and Morocco sign a deathbed document dividing the Spanish Sahara between Mauritania and Morocco.

Outraged by this, Polisario declares war with both Morocco and Mauritania and proclaims the independent state of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27th February 1976. By 1979, the Polisario succeeded in forcing the Mauritanians to declare Saharawi sovereignty over the southern territory but the heroic fighting against Moroccan troops (superior in numbers and weaponry) continued.

In a context of losing war against the daring Saharawi guerrilla operations, the Moroccan Monarchy - aided by France, Israel and the United States- devised a new strategy based on desert walls or berms (built of sand and stone and lined with millions of land mines) in order to secure the territories they gain on the eastern front. By the time the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991, six walls had been built and only the last one, the longest, still remains relevant and runs east-west along the border with Mauritania and north-south on the Algerian side. This "Wall of Shame" is 2700km long separating a narrow free zone from the rest of Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco.

The refugee camps lie on the eastern side of the wall, near the city of Tindouf in the Algerian Sahara. The land was granted by the Algerian government to the refugees who run away from Morocco's bloody repression in 1976. But it's not much of an offering as it is a wretched and arid desert land on a rocky limestone plateau where no lush oasis and no undulating dunes of sand are on sight. I had the opportunity to visit the camps in December 2016. The camps are home for around 170,000 people, divided between five departments named after towns in occupied Western Sahara: Laayoune, Awserd,  Boujdour, Dakhla, and Smara.

I was representing War on Want on an international solidarity delegation invited to attend the 8th Congress of the General Union of Saharawi Workers (UGTSARIO) and the 7th International Conference of Solidarity with the Saharawi workers. The congress reaffirmed UGTSARIO's resolve to continue mobilising the working forces in the free and occupied zones in order to achieve self-determination.


The Simon Bolivar School in the Saharawi Refugee Camps in Tindouf.


UGTSARIO organised field trips to different sites in the camps and the highlight for me was the Simon Bolivar College and Secondary school, which is set up with the help of Cubans and Venezuelans in 2011. Some of the pedagogical content (books and syllabus) as well as teachers are provided by Cuba while Venezuela funded the construction of the school and the provision of furniture. The idea is to facilitate educational exchange between Western Sahara and Latin America. This is the kind of South-South solidarity that needs to be fostered and deepened between countries in the Global South.

During my stay in the camps, I was lucky enough to meet very interesting people: from activists and trade-unionists to writers, journalists and politicians, men and women, old and young. We were also generously hosted in people's modest homes, which allowed me to  bear witness to the perseverance and resilience of the Saharawi people in leading their lives, continuing to cling to the hope that one day their just cause will triumph and that they will return to their confiscated homeland.


A women's cooperative making carpets in the refugee camps.


What I also have seen during my visit is the worrying dependence on international aid to survive as there are no productive and income-generating activities in the four-decades-long camps. So, it comes as no surprise that the Polisario has to be aligned with the Algerian regime and rely on the political support of Western powers that have yet no interest in resolving the conflict (France for example stands with the Moroccan monarchy against the Saharawi cause).

Abnu, an activist and journalist I met in the camps told me that "The tragedy and the deadlock of the last 20 years or so are the consequences of the primacy of international interests in a cause where people still fight to survive in difficult conditions. The international community  only recognises economic might and through this logic, I strongly think that France is the real coloniser and oppressor of Western Sahara and the corrupt Moroccan monarchy is only a colonial tool."


On top of the food aid received from different international organisations, many Saharawi refugees survive by breeding goats.


While Morocco, with the complicity of Western companies, continues plundering the rich natural resources of Western Sahara (phosphate, fish, agricultural produce, etc.), it is using its financial and diplomatic means, especially in Africa, to exercise pressure and isolate Polisario. The latest move in this insidious agenda was the readmission of the monarchy to the African Union after it left it in 1984 following a row over the status of Western Sahara.

Jalihena, from the Saharawi Campaign Against the Plunder (SCAP) that target multinational companies involved in stealing their resources, was categorical: "As long as the Moroccan monarchy continues to benefit - without impunity- from the plunder of Western Sahara natural resources, it will not be pressured to give up the territories it occupied and will make the Saharawi efforts to liberate the territories even harder"

In December 2016, The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that EU agreements and treaties with Morocco cannot apply to Western Sahara, crowning with success all the worthwhile efforts from Saharawi and international organisations to stop the complicity and corporate pillage.

These efforts must continue to help bring the occupation to an end and to reach a just resolution of the conflict.

A version of this article was carried by Open Democracy.

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