Many African countries have been independent for 50 years or more. In fact, there is only one colony left on the African continent: Western Sahara. Looking at the Western Sahara conflict today, it seems like Gordian knot, a mission impossible, an arch-typical case of realpolitik. So will Western Sahara ever become an independent country, as promised by the UN and international law? And if so, will it at least have gained its independence when many of the other African countries are celebrating their 100th anniversary as independent countries, in other words in 50 years’ time?
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for a hundred years, but in 1975 Morocco struck a deal with Spain that meant that Moroccan (and initially Mauritanian) troops and hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians colonized Western Sahara instead.
Western Sahara’s indigenous population, the Saharawis, yet again had to go to war with a colonizer – a war that ended with Morocco colonizing the majority of Western Sahara, and with tens of thousands of Saharawis fleeing the bombardments and atrocities committed by the Moroccan army to Algeria, where they set up refugee camps that are still there today.
This is because powerful countries such as the USA and France (both permanent members of the UN Security Council), and the EU, are either blocking a solution, doing nothing or making matters worse by making trade agreements that include goods from occupied Western Sahara, thus legitimizing the occupation and giving Morocco an incentive to keep it up.
And if oil is found off the coast of Western Sahara – and American company Kosmos Energy is drilling for it with the blessing of the Moroccans – there will be even less incentive for Morocco to leave.
While this is happening, both the Saharawis living in the occupied territories and the refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria live in a kind of personal and national limbo.
Those in the occupied territories experience discrimination and daily human rights violations that are so bad, that Amnesty in their new anti-torture campaign has chosen to include Morocco / Western Sahara as one of the “five worst” countries in the world.
Those in the camps live in one of the most inhospitable areas in the world, the so-called “Devil’s Garden” – a part of the desert where temperatures rise above 50 degrees during the summer. There is a shortage of pretty much everything, including food, medicine, water and jobs.
But regardless of all these negative facts and issues, I am cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a free, independent and democratic Western Sahara. I believe it can and should be achieved within a relatively short period of time, perhaps even ten years, depending obviously on several important factors such as developments and democratisation in Morocco, the amount if pressure from the Saharawis on the UN and major players such as the US and the EU (especially France and Spain), and the role of the press.
In late-April of this year, I visited the refugee camps and was very impressed with how the Saharawis (with help from donors and solidarity partners) have managed to build a well-functioning society with an education system, hospitals, national and local government, civil society, unions, student organisations, a press service, shops, and many other things in a refugee camp in the middle of the desert.
But I was perhaps even more impressed with the fact that the Saharawis from all walks of life that I spoke to have managed to maintain some sense of purpose, direction and hope in a political situation that for many years has been deadlocked.
I believe that this sense of duty, persistence and purpose, together with an increased pressure on both Morocco and those who support them, from both the Saharawis and those who support their cause, will eventually lead to independence for Western Sahara. Also because the Western Sahara conflict is a make-or-break test of the present international system in general, and the UN in particular.
“It takes a strong will to demand our rights peacefully and good-mannered,” as President of the newly formed Saharawi human rights organization CONASADH, Said Filaly, told me while I was in the camps. “This patience is the signal of intent that the Saharawis have sent to the international community for decades. But the international community should act on this, both for our sakes, but also because if the power of rights is not there, one has to enforce everything with power – might becomes right.”
“The UN was formed to end past injustices committed by Stalin and Hitler, amongst others. It shouldn’t accept present ones. The Western Sahara conflict is a test of the credibility of the UN as well as of the willingness of the international community to stand up for human rights,” Said Filaly concluded
Peace in the region is also at stake, the Governor of the Smara camp, Adda Brahim, told me. “Our message to the outside world is that the security and development of the whole of North Africa depends to a large degree on the solution of the Western Sahara conflict.”
But if any solution to the Western Sahara conflict still seems impossible, just think of apartheid South Africa in the late sixties and seventies. Surely the end of that regime looked equally unlikely then, but 25-30 years later South Africa could hold its first truly democratic elections due to a large part to an increased pressure from both outside and within South Africa, not least from the South African masses and the anti-apartheid civil society.
There are signs that such a force is building amongst the Saharawis as well. The Gdeim Izik protest camp, where tens of thousands of Saharawis in the occupied territories protested against the occupation, has become an important mark for a wave of protest in the occupied territories that is gathering pace.
And the patient and persistent work of diplomacy, information work and lobbying by the Saharawis that I saw in the camps, combined with that of solidarity partners, is also seemingly paying off, as an increased focus and willingness to take a stand on Western Sahara from e.g. the UN Secretary General who visited the camps in April, Amnesty International and governments such as in the Scandinavian countries, and even a handful of Moroccan human rights activists and –organisations, suggests.
But also an increased wave of dissatisfaction with the Moroccan regime by the Moroccan people themselves could be an important factor, a scenario which could lead to a proper democratisation process in Morocco that could help the independence process of Western Sahara.
A democratic Morocco would probably be more inclined to allow independence to happen, if for no other reason, then because the occupation benefits the king and a small elite financially whereas the Moroccan people have to pay for the vast expenses of the colonisation.
But the Saharawis are well aware that at the end of the day, they will to a large extent have to win their independence themselves. As Saharawi Minister of Cooperation Brahim Mojtar points out, “independence will come as a combination of several elements, but the most important is the resistance of the Saharawi people, in both the camps and the occupied territories”.
By Peter Kenworthy, Africa Contact
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