Western Sahara

Map of Western Sahara

The Government of Western Sahara operates not from its own capital city, L’ayoun, but from a small patch of desert over the border in Algeria. Here there is another L’ayoun, just as there is another Smara, Aoserd and Dakhla – the Saharawis, who have lived in refugee exile for the last three decades, named their own ‘temporary’ settlements after the major cities of their homeland. The real L’ayoun the refugees dream of is a city under guard. It remains a dusty, modest place with no notable architectural features, despite significant investment by the occupying Moroccans over the past 30 years. This was once the capital of Spanish Sahara. Spain took notional control of the territory in 1884 but did not manage to overcome the fierce resistance of its Saharawi inhabitants, nomadic by tradition, until 1936. In 1966, with decolonization in full swing, the UN General Assembly called for a referendum on self-determination. Spain reluctantly organized a census in preparation but in November 1975 King Hassan II of Morocco staged an invasion. Tens of thousands of Saharawis fled eastward into the desert from the invading troops, suffering napalm attacks from Moroccan planes. They eventually took refuge near the Algerian town of Tindouf. As General Franco lay on his deathbed, Spain signed a secret agreement handing the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Resistance to the carve-up was led by Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), which concentrated on attacking the weaker Mauritania, eventually forcing it to withdraw. Moroccan troops pushed south to control the whole of the country and the outnumbered Polisario had to revert to guerrilla warfare. By the late 1980s Morocco had built a 1,500-kilometre fortified wall, protected by guns and minefields, enclosing the whole of the Occupied Territory. A UN peace plan brought a ceasefire in 1991 and the arrival of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). From the start, however, Morocco pursued delaying tactics, knowing that a free and fair vote would result in independence. The appointment as a special UN representative of former US Secretary of State James Baker in 1997 breathed new life into the peace process and for a while the referendum looked more likely. But at every turn Morocco has obstructed a vote. The most recent Baker Plan in 2003 asked Polisario to accept the unthinkable: that the electoral roll for the referendum should include not only Saharawis but the 200,000 or so Moroccan settlers who have been enticed to the territory by subsidies and relocation deals. Desperate to move things on, and encouraged by its Algerian allies, Polisario agreed to the deal, only to find that Morocco rejected it outright. At least in the 1990s the Moroccans paid lipservice to international law and the principle of self-determination; now they overtly scorn it, buoyed by the knowledge that France will always back them to the hilt and the US is unlikely to alienate one of its few close Muslim allies. Baker duly resigned his post in frustration in June 2004. At this point, prospects for the Saharawis looked bleak. But in September South Africa announced that it was formally recognizing Western Sahara (officially the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic). Thabo Mbeki’s letter to the UN explaining the decision made it clear he believed Morocco was no longer to be trusted on this issue. An outraged Morocco promptly withdrew its ambassador from Pretoria. The hope is that South Africa’s move could produce a wave of new support for Western Sahara and pull the ground from under the Moroccan King’s feet. Now is the time to increase the pressure and support for the only colony in Africa which has not been accorded the right to self-determination.