New Internationalist

Article That Provides A Brief History Of The Colonisation And Occupation Of The Western Sahara By Spain And Then Morocco.

Issue 297

Simply - Western Sahara

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1. ORIGINS

Today we know the indigenous people of Western Sahara as Saharawis. But you can see in Saharawis' faces - most of them light-skinned, some of them dark - evidence of the waves of migration and conquest which have swept across North Africa, as Arabs collided and intermarried with Berbers and with black Africans from south of the Sahara.

It was from this region that the Almoravids emerged, a proselytizing Islamic movement which built up an empire encompassing not just Morocco and Mauritania but also most of Spain. But the Saharawis' most direct ancestors may have been people who migrated to the area from beyond Africa, in Yemen, around the thirteenth century.

By the eighteenth century this particular mix of peoples and cultures had blended into something distinct: a group of nomadic tribes called the Ahl Essahel who shared the same language, Hassania (one of the purest dialects of Arabic now spoken), and the same mild, tolerant form of Sunni Islam.

2. SPANISH SAHARA

Spain took colonial control in 1884, proclaiming the coastal area between Cape Blanc and Cape Boujdour a 'protectorate'. The control was notional: the Saharawis put up stiff resistance and refused to relinquish their nomadic lifestyle. The Spanish only subdued them and instituted full colonial rule in 1936.

Even then Spain showed little interest in developing the colony until the natural resources of the territory (mainly its phosphates) became evident. It then built a new capital, L'ayoun, from which the phosphates were exported. By now though the 'wind of change' was blowing through Africa and in 1966 the UN General Assembly called on Spain (under General Franco) to organize a referendum in which Saharawis could exercise their right to self-determination.

Locally the Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara was formed in 1967 and organized huge demonstrations before being savagely put down and banned on 17 June 1970. The repression only increased nationalist aspirations and the Polisario Front (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) was formed on 10 May 1973. This began as a vanguard group committed to armed struggle against colonialism but very quickly became a mass movement.

Spain reluctantly organized a census of the colony in preparation for a referendum. The census showed that there were 73,497 Saharawis living in Western Sahara - a figure which remains vital today.

3. THE GREEN MARCH

Polisario and Spain were by no means the only players. Morocco also claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara: the nationalist Istiqlal Party, which won the country's independence from France, asserted that 'Greater Morocco' had historically encompassed parts of Algeria, Mali and Mauritania as well as Western Sahara. As King Hassan II grew more beleaguered, suffering bread riots and assassination attempts, he saw the claim to Western Sahara as an external focus that might unify the nation and deflect attention from economic problems or political repression.

As a result of such claims, the International Court of Justice was asked to deliver an advisory opinion as to whether Western Sahara belonged to Morocco or Mauritania at the time of Spanish colonization. The International Court ruled in October 1975 that while a few tribes had some allegiance to the Moroccan sultan, there were no historic legal ties that debarred Western Sahara from decolonization and self-determination.

Deliberately misinterpreting the verdict, Morocco announced that 350,000 volunteers would cross into Western Sahara on a 'Green March': these crossed the border on 6 November and were within days replaced by Moroccan soldiers. On 14 November, as General Franco lay on his deathbed, Spain signed a secret agreement which handed over the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. A Polisario force which at this stage numbered no more than about 5,000 had no chance against a Moroccan Army which could call in total on 65,000 soldiers. The Moroccan occupation was already well established by the time the Spanish officially withdrew on 27 February 1976, though Polisario declared the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

4. REFUGEES & NAPALM

Meanwhile thousands of ordinary Saharawis had fled into the desert, setting up their own makeshift refugee camps. Many, like the 25,000 who gathered at Guelta Zemmour, were determined to stay on Western Saharan territory but were repeatedly bombed by Moroccan planes which the Red Cross confirmed were using napalm.

In the face of this onslaught, the refugees had to walk hundreds of kilometres across the desert to the Algerian town of Tindouf. Here the Algerian Government ceded social and political control over a swathe of its own territory to Polisario, which built and administered its own refugee camps.

The early years were hard, and since the men were at the front, the burden of establishing a new life in this desolate place fell upon the women. 'The depression felt when visiting these camps,' wrote one Western visitor at the time, 'is as great as the admiration it arouses. It is depressing because of the misery and the malnutrition, which hits the children in particular. There is a lack of essential medicines and medical equipment. Many families have arrived (and are still arriving) with little more than the clothes on their backs. The enormous variations in temperature between night and day and the sandstorms are gradually eroding whatever the refugees were able to bring.'

5. A MARTYR & A MILESTONE

Elwali Mustafa Sayed - the Sahara's Guevara

Elwali Mustafa Sayed - the Sahara's Guevara

Polisario was faced with war on two fronts - against Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south. The relative weakness of the Mauritanian Army made it the more sensible target and Polisario mounted raids deep into Mauritanian territory. One such raid on the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott had a disastrous end in the deaths of 450 Polisario fighters including the movement's inspirational young leader, Elwali Mustafa Sayed. But for the most part such daring attacks were successful, wreaking havoc on Mauritania's parlous economy and resulting in the overthrow of its Government in a military coup in 1978. A year later the new Mauritanian Government signed a peace agreement with Polisario, relinquishing its claim to their land and agreeing to 'withdraw from the unjust war in Western Sahara'. It was a victory ­ but only a partial one, since the Moroccan Army immediately took over the south, including the major town of Dakhla, declaring it a new province of Morocco.

6. WAR & THE WALL

Still vastly outnumbered, Polisario had no chance of regaining and holding major towns by military force. Instead it concentrated on lightning strikes by highly mobile guerrilla units. These could be devastatingly effective, not least when they hit positions within southern Morocco itself. Another key target was the 99-kilometre conveyor belt which carries phosphates from the mine at Boucraa to the port at L'ayoun ­ the longest conveyor belt in the world, this was impossible to defend against guerrilla attack along its whole length, with the result that production was continually disrupted.

The Moroccan response was to defend the most important posts and towns, at first laying barbed wire and trenches but from 1980 onwards building a fortified wall or berm, protected by minefields and artillery. By 1982 the first of these walls was complete, stretching from the border right past Smara to meet the sea south of Boujdour. In the ensuing years further walls were built until by the late 1980s the Wall stretched a full 1,500 kilometres across the desert from the Moroccan border in the north to near the Mauritanian border in the south (see the map on Page 11). The Wall is a vast drain on the Moroccan economy but it now encloses fully two-thirds of Western Sahara.

7. ENTER THE UN

Militarily Morocco was digging in, with significant aid from both France and the US. But in international diplomacy it was losing ground: in 1985 the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was welcomed into the Organization of African Unity, prompting Morocco to leave, and by the end of 1986, 67 countries had recognized the independent Western Saharan state (whose flag is being raised on the right). Through the 1980s Morocco steadfastly refused to debate the issue of Western Sahara in any international forum. But by 1990 diplomatic pressure on Morocco had led to a UN peace plan aimed at holding a referendum in which Saharawis could decide their own future. There was to be a ceasefire, repatriation of refugees and the new UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) would both identify legitimate voters and act effectively as governor-in-trust of the territory. The electoral roll was to be based on the 1974 Spanish census.

8. CEASEFIRE & STALEMATE

The ceasefire took effect in 1991 but from the outset there were problems. In August Morocco presented a list of 120,000 people now living in Morocco who it claimed were legitimate Western Saharans not included in the Spanish census and started to move these people into the territory. The UN Special Representative for the Western Sahara, Johannes Manz, resigned in December, protesting not only at these Moroccan tactics but also at UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar's (above left) appeasement of them. Perez de Cuellar promptly issued his own new criteria for voter eligibility which effectively endorsed the Moroccan attempt to stack the election. His successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, also tended to interpret things in a way which favoured Morocco. The result was stalemate and a vastly expensive operation which utterly failed to make Morocco comply with the terms or the spirit of the peace plan (see Page 24). Faced with criticism in the US Congress, the UN began to talk about winding up MINURSO and Polisario began to prepare for a return to war.

9. NEW HOPE

At the beginning of 1997 things still looked bleak: UN withdrawal seemed inevitable and war threatened to destabilize the whole Maghreb/North African region. But new UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched a vigorous initiative which breathed life into the comatose referendum process. Former US Secretary of State James Baker was appointed as his Special Representative and a series of direct talks led to a new agreement. This has sent the hopes of Saharawi refugees sky high. But they have been here before, in 1991, and believe that only international vigilance will ensure that a free and fair referendum takes place.

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