Western Sahara: Why Africa’s last colony can’t break free
In global politics, playing by the rules doesn’t always help.
LAAYOUNE, WESTERN SAHARA — On a recent Saturday in May, as dusk shaded into night in this desert city, more than a thousand women, men, and children poured into the streets. They chanted slogans for independence; flashed the peace sign to show their support for the Polisario Front; and waved the illegal red, green, and black flag of a nation that may never exist.
For anyone who isn’t a geography buff, it’s likely that the Polisario Front, and perhaps even Western Sahara, are unfamiliar names. A former Spanish colony now annexed and ruled by neighboring Morocco, this territory has been waiting four decades for a shot at independence it was promised but never received. After a half-century of global decolonization that has produced about 80 new nations throughout the world, Western Sahara is now by far the largest piece of land remaining on the United Nations’ list of “non-self-governing territories,” places it considers to have an unfulfilled right to decide their own futures.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the push for independence in Western Sahara, a movement that for the last two decades has been largely peaceful. The Polisario Front—the formerly armed nationalist group that officially represents Western Saharans in their negotiations—signed a cease-fire with Morocco in 1991, and since that time protests have unfolded much like this recent one. Members of the indigenous Sahrawi ethnic group raised their fists in the air and honked car horns to show their displeasure with Moroccan rule; some brandished Polisario flags, which are banned by the government 800 miles away in Rabat. The evening ended with some rock-throwing and accusations of injury by both sides. No shots were fired.
In part because their campaign has been a civil one, it has unfolded almost totally outside the world’s sphere of attention. Elsewhere on the continent, civil war has split Sudan into two countries; self-immolation and riots have brought regime change across North Africa. Here, meanwhile, even though the UN, the United States, and most other powerful nations have never recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the area, the independence movement has been unable to make headway.
Today, the Sahrawis are becoming increasingly frustrated, and politics are making the prospects of independence more distant, if anything. The Moroccan government has shown no sign of loosening its grip. Officials worry about Islamic militants fomenting violence, given Polisario’s backing by rival Algeria; furthermore, Morocco relies on the territory’s fisheries and phosphate mines, and has begun exploring for oil. Its allies in the West, including the United States, prize Morocco as a stable ally in a volatile region, and aren’t moving to force its hand.
The stalemate here in Africa’s last remaining colony, and the willingness to let it simmer as the world focuses on deadlier conflicts in nearby Mali and Syria, raise the uncomfortable question of whether a peaceful breakup of nations is really possible—even when the process, officially speaking, enjoys the full support of the UN. Western Sahara is emerging as a case study on the limits of the international community’s power to help a people win self-determination when they choose not to be violent, but to follow the rules.
“It doesn’t make sense. Why are just the Sahrawis left behind? Why are we not being helped by the international community?” Lahbib Salhi, 63, a Sahrawi activist, said in a recent interview in Laayoune. “Most other countries got independence. Look at Namibia, Mozambique...look at Bosnia and Kosovo even South Sudan. But why are the Sahrawis left behind?”
Western Sahara is the last chapter of a story that began in the wake of World War II, when the world’s colonial empires started to break apart. In the decades after the war, France spun off about two dozen countries, including Morocco in 1956. The United Kingdom let go of roughly 40 territories. The sweep of decolonization, formalized in the UN’s 1960 “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” rapidly redrew the map of the world.
Spain and Portugal were slower to unwind their dominions, but by 1975, in the face of growing international pressure and fierce fighting by the newly formed Polisario, Spain was ready to relinquish what was then called Spanish Sahara.
The colony was a 103,000-square-mile tract of Western Africa with roughly 75,000 Sahrawi inhabitants, people who trace their roots to nomadic tribes. Their right to self-determination was upheld by the International Court of Justice that year. But any chance at a quick, smooth transition to independence was derailed when neighbors Morocco and Mauritania each claimed the area.
That put Western Sahara into a small, unhappy group of territories where decolonization was botched in part because of attempted annexation by a neighboring state, says Jacob Mundy, a professor at Colgate University and the author of a 2010 book, “Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.”
The most notable of those, East Timor, suffered near genocidal violence when Indonesian forces took control from Portugal in 1975. After a bloody referendum in 1999, East Timor finally got its independence, but it remains impoverished and corrupt, largely because of this damaging process.
Western Sahara has seen violence, too. The Polisario, organized in 1973, at first waged a guerilla war against Spain. Then, in November 1975, the king of Morocco orchestrated what became known as “The Green March,” calling on 300,000 civilians to descend into Western Sahara to stake it as their own. Spain quickly relented and transferred authority to Morocco and Mauritania. Now the Polisario turned on these countries. As war escalated, Mauritania renounced its right to Western Sahara in 1979, leaving Morocco with sole control, but no recognized claim.
The fighting continued for another decade, and slowly reshaped the makeup of the territory. Sahrawi refugees fled for camps in Algeria, which backed the Polisario movement. Today more than 100,000 live in the camps, governed by the Polisario, which faces its own accusations of suppressing freedom of expression, torture, and embezzling aid. Waves of Moroccans, meanwhile, moved into Western Sahara, lured by strong economic incentives.
The Polisario Front laid down arms in 1991 in a UN-brokered deal that gave Western Saharans the right to vote on their own future, choosing independence or integration into Morocco. The referendum was supposed to be in 1992. But the effort broke down in arguments over the eligibility of tens of thousands of resettled Moroccans who now called the territory home. Subsequent political talks went nowhere, and more than 20 years later, the people of Western Sahara find themselves in suspended animation.
“There is an abiding disappointment in the UN as an institution, one that sometimes borders on cynicism,” said Jeffrey Smith, a professor of international law in Ottawa who served as counsel to the UN mission in East Timor during that country’s transition to independence.
Despite that disappointment, in a region known for militant revolution and guerilla warfare, the Sahrawis’ playbook has come to look more like a Western protest effort. They stage marches and organize human rights activist groups. Aminatou Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was abducted and tortured in a secret prison in the 1980s, went on a hunger strike for 32 days at a Spanish airport in 2009.
Then, in 2010, activists set up a protest camp, Gdeim Izik, in an empty stretch of desert a few miles outside Laayoune. At least 10,000 people pitched tents as a way to demonstrate against occupation and get attention for their demands to end discrimination and the lack of job opportunities. It was illegal (Morocco has strong laws against freedom of assembly without permits), but not violent—familiar to anyone who saw the Occupy camps that swept across the United States a year later. There were workshops, a charity group to collect funds, and a dialogue committee responsible for running negotiations with the Moroccan government.
“The idea came in response to the oppression that’s been going on for decades. We want to come up with something new, something different, and get out of the city limits,” said El Idrissi Mohamed Lamine, 27, who was one of the protesters.
After 28 days, authorities put an end to the civil disobedience and brutally dismantled the camp, burning tents to the ground, beating protesters, and arresting others. Protesters fought back; several people were killed, including security officers, and hundreds were injured.
To activists, Gdeim Izik was a success; it broke through the media blockage and was covered by organizations that usually ignore them. The Sahrawis like to see it as the inspiration for the Arab Spring—Noam Chomsky has argued that the widespread political and economic grievances that resulted in that wave of popular uprisings started in Gdeim Izik.
Either way , it has not made much of a difference in Western Sahara itself. That’s in part due to two circumstances: the presence of natural resources and the region’s occupation by a nation that is a strong Western ally. The 714-mile-long coastline gives Morocco access to some of the world’s richest fisheries, while phosphate reserves are becoming only more valuable as the global demand for fertilizer grows.
Politically, Western Sahara is a unifying issue within Morocco; analysts worry that splitting it off could undermine the monarchy, and threaten a pillar of stability in a volatile region. Polisario’s socialist rhetoric and Algerian ties have not won them friends in the West, either. For the West, “the status quo is much more tolerable than the frightening futures that might result from prioritizing a solution over stability,” Mundy said.
Morocco’s own position on Western Sahara stresses this risk. It has proposed an autonomy plan that would give the Sahrawis limited self-government but not independence. Officials in Rabat insist this is for the best: An independent but weak new state, they say, would be vulnerable to extremists and jihadis.
“An independent state is not viable in Sahara. You have to be very clear for security reasons. Today what is happening in Mali is happening in the Sahara. It is threatening the security of the Sahara and everywhere,” said Youssef Armani, minister delegate of foreign affairs and cooperation of the Kingdom of Morocco, in a meeting with journalists in May. “There is no room for a failed state in the region.”
Independence-seekers respond that Morocco is inflating security threats and making false allegations about Al Qaeda infiltrating the refugee camps.
“It is propaganda,” said El Ghalia Djimi, vice president of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations, who says the independence movement doesn’t have terrorist connections.
“We are a small people with big land and big natural resources and occupied by a power that has historical relationships with Western countries,” she said. “So this is why they let this ongoing conflict not get resolved.”
How do successful national breakups happen? In the time Western Sahara has waited for its chance at independence, dozens of new countries have been born. Many were smooth spinoffs of islands by distant colonizers.
But others, especially with contiguous territories and at least one unwilling party, were painful and bloody. Yugoslavia dissolved into separate populations, propelled by ethnic cleansing. Kosovo is still under UN protection, its declaration of independence from Serbia still unrecognized by Serbia itself. Most recently, South Sudan’s 2011 independence came only after decades of brutal civil war and pressure from Christian groups in the United States who had worked for decades on the issue. In nearly all of these conflicts, including East Timor, independence was finally achieved once these self-determination struggles had won substantive support from the United States, the United Kingdom, or other Western allies.
America has tried to keep a neutral position on Western Sahara: It does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty and helps fund the UN mission there, but hasn’t aided the independence movement. It considers Morocco’s autonomy proposal to be “serious, realistic, and credible,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report by Alexis Arieff, an analyst in African affairs.
In April, for the first time, the United States drafted a proposal for the UN to monitor human rights in Western Sahara—an effort defeated after heavy lobbying from Morocco, which set off the protests here last month.
America’s premium on stability essentially boils down to support for Morocco—for now. President Obama, in a call to King Mohammed VI in May, discussed the “importance of continuing to deepen our bilateral cooperation, especially on regional security matters of mutual concern.”
In Western Sahara, activists still say they want to break up the “right” way. Even after a recent attack on Aminatou Haidar left her black Toyota Corolla smashed by rocks, the woman nicknamed “the Sahrawi Gandhi” says she is committed to peace as the path to independence.
But she added that there is growing frustration among younger Sahrawis, who have not seen progress in this protracted, seemingly forgotten struggle. Haidar acknowledged that they could be at risk of being radicalized on the issue, and of returning to a violent struggle.
She and other Sahrawis blame the international community for not pressing forward on what they see as a long-promised vote. Last week, the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization began its periodic discussions on the case of Western Sahara and other territories. On Tuesday in New York, Polisario Front Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz expressed frustration at the impasse and pressed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to give more attention to the dispute.
Despite his plea, it is hard to see the door opening anytime soon. Charles Dunbar, a Boston University lecturer who spent fom 1997 to 1999 living in Laayoune as a UN diplomat and trying to move the referendum forward, said that if a vote had been held back then, the Sahrawis would have won their independence. He blames the long deadlock on UN inaction.
“The true blame lies with the UN Security Council. It is the unwillingness of the council to take decisive action that has caused this mission to be seemingly, permanently stalemated,” Dunbar said.
About the prospects for the Sahrawis to gain their own country today, he considers himself a pessimist. “The world,” he said, “just has other priorities.”