The Western Sahara has suffered from colonial occupation and today it is reminiscent of that faced by Palestinians.
Unless you are a Saharawi, it is easy to forget about the Western Sahara. Africa’s last colony, located on the northwest coast of the Continent, the Western Sahara has suffered from colonial occupation first by Spain and currently by neighboring Morocco. In fact, the current occupation suffered by the Western Sahara is reminiscent of that faced by the Palestinians, though the Saharawis receive far less global attention.
The Moroccan government could not accept the idea of an independent Western Sahara. They laid claim to the territory, suggesting that it had been part of Morocco in the past. Such a claim is reminiscent of that once made by Ethiopia over the territory of Eritrea, pre-1991, in east Africa. Eritrea was carved out of territory historically controlled by Ethiopia, but over the years of Italian domination the Eritrean people developed as a separate nation with their own culture. Ethiopia’s claim to Eritrea could not stand the test of time and reality; Eritreans were a different people who sought to exercise self-determination. Much the same can be said of the Saharawi people who do not see themselves as Moroccan and, if anything, have a closer historical and ethnic relationship with neighboring Mauritania.
Morocco moved a massive settlement project in the 1970s with what came to be known as “The Green March,” in which thousands of Moroccans moved into the Western Sahara effectively displacing Saharawis. Saharawi refugees, fleeing this invasion and the war that took place between Moroccan government forces and a guerrilla army led by the liberation movement in the Western Sahara (known as Polisario—Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro) found themselves in Algeria where many have been in refugee camps ever since. The war continued until the early 1990s when both sides agreed to a cease fire, though the cease fire was conditioned on a proposed referendum—which never happened—on the future of the Western Sahara. Despite United Nations involvement in an attempt to mediate the dispute, the Moroccan government has done everything in its power to frustrate a peaceful and just resolution to this colonial dilemma.
Morocco would not be able to remain as intransigent as it has proven to have been had it not been for the combination of active French support and Morocco’s alliance with the USA. Morocco, whose ties with France go back to the colonial era, has absolutely no incentive to resolve the crisis as long as the current balance of forces remains. Though Polisario—and the government that it formed in the 1970s, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic—has the support of the Algerian government and the Mauritanians, as well as the public support of the African Union, none of that has been sufficient to break the will of the Moroccans to remain the colonizers of the Western Sahara.
The political calculus in the Western Sahara has become very complicated over the decades. First, there has been a profound and troubling demographic shift in the country since 1975. Moroccan settlers currently outnumber Saharawis in the Western Sahara. Thus, any referendum will have to take into account an implanted population that considers the Western Sahara home. Will a referendum exclude the settlers in the Western Sahara? What about the thousands of Saharawis in refugee camps and overseas? The clear Moroccan objective is to change the ‘facts on the ground,’ so to speak, making a referendum practically impossible.
A second factor that will need to be addressed is economics. The Western Sahara is a major source of phosphates and the Moroccan government wishes control over this natural resource. It has been conducting deals with multinational corporations over phosphates and other natural resources (such as plentiful fish in the coastal waters) in flagrant disregard of the internationally recognized fact that the Western Sahara is not their land. It would be the equivalent of you offering to rent out space in your neighbor’s house just because you neighbor happens to be out of town. There is no legal foundation for the approach taken by the Moroccan government.
In the recent past there has been an uptick in interest in the Saharawi freedom struggle, some of which has been most curious. In Europe, and particularly in Spain, a solidarity movement with Polisario/SADR has arisen. The noted actor Javier Bardem has been outspoken in his support for the Saharawi cause and narrated a video—Sons of the Clouds—to call attention to the Moroccan occupation.
In the United States the Saharawi cause has largely been ignored by most of the Left and Progressive movements, yet has found very strange allies among US political conservatives with John Bolton, former US representative to the United Nations, among the most strident supporters. Bolton, a former aide to James Baker (US Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush), has been quite outspoken in supporting the Saharawi cause, this despite the fact that Polisario is a left-led political movement. It is not entirely clear what is at the root of this strange alignment but speculation abounds that it is based on how the Moroccans treated James Baker when the latter attempted to mediate the conflict. Baker had been the UN’s special envoy to mediate the dispute in the early 1990s. Baker constructed a proposal that would have involved a two-step resolution of the crisis. Though Polisario agreed, the Moroccans balked and walked away from the table. Baker subsequently stepped down from his mediation position in absolute fury with the Moroccans. It has been said that Baker and his team—which included Bolton—never forgave the Moroccans, though one must ask why the US government did not, at that time, lean on the Moroccans to accept the proposal.
Another theory as to this strange alignment is that Polisario is not an Islamist movement. It is a largely secular liberation movement in a predominantly Muslim country. It is speculated that, perhaps, this holds some appeal for US political conservatives. In either case, the fact that a section of the political Right supports a legitimate liberation movement is more than a little unusual.
The relative silence on the US political Left and among progressives with regard to the Western Sahara is a bit more surprising. Though the Western Sahara received some attention in Left and progressive circles in the 1970s, over time, attention and discussion largely evaporated. Even noted advocacy groups such as TransAfrica paid scant attention to the Western Sahara, at least on any consistent basis. Whether this is rooted in the fact that the USA is not directly involved or whether it is based upon the fact that the conflict is between two African peoples, there exists no critical mass of Saharawi supporters in the USA on the left side of politics.
The Obama administration continues to privilege its alliance with the Moroccan monarchy over any question of human rights, both within Morocco as well as vis a vis the Saharawi people. While the administration has made some ‘noises’ about its concerns regarding the Western Sahara, the reality is that there is very little pressure on the administration from any of its key constituencies to alter the long-standing policy of this and previous administrations. To put it in its most blunt terms: no one appears to give enough of a damn to turn this into an issue of concern.
There are many ironies and complexities associated with the Saharawi freedom struggle. Among these are:
This is an anti-occupation struggle much like that of the Palestinians, as noted earlier, though it is one involving an Arab/Berber/sub-Saharan African population against a monarchy ruling an Arab/Berber population. As a result the silence in the Arab World in connection with the Western Sahara is deafening.
This struggle goes straight to the heart of the African Union, which has just recently appointed a special advisor to help to mediate the crisis.
Despite the politics of Polisario, it receives little attention in Left and progressive circles.
After having been considered a backwater with little economic importance, the Western Sahara has now assumed a more prominent economic position making the Moroccans less likely to grant independence, even though the occupation is very costly.
The fact that a segment of the US political Right believes the Western Sahara to be of importance is noteworthy but at the moment not necessarily decisive. The actual game-changer would be the introduction of the Black Freedom Movement into the equation. While it would be unrealistic to expect a movement of the size and scope of the anti-apartheid movement (against South Africa) to emerge in the near future, it is not clear that a movement on such a scale would be necessary in order to shift the political balance in the USA. An increase in organized pressure from the left-of-center, based within Black America, could be enough to turn the Western Sahara into the cause celebre that it deserves to be.